The Oxford India Anthology of Bengali Literature has Rabindranath Tagore as the first entry, while Manoranjan Byapari features as the penultimate entry in the compendium. No two worlds, or childhoods could have been more different. The former was the scion of the landed aristocracy; the latter belonged to a family of Namashudra, the lowliest of the low. Tagore was tutored privately and gave his state, as well as Bangladesh, the Bengali primer Shahaj Paath; Byapari learnt the alphabet from a fellow inmate in the Alipore jail from a very functional perspective – that of avoiding rigorous labour, for the lettered among the undertrials got the easier job of record keeping. Well, the record of his life has now been written, translated and celebrated across the country, and the Valley of Words is delighted to announce the Hindi translation of his book Bhaga Hua Ladka by Amrita Bera as the finest offering it its genre for the current year.
Before we discuss the book, we need to understand the ‘boyhood’ of the author, whose life is reflected in that of Jibon, the name he gives to the protagonist. Byapari’s family came to West Bengal after Partition and lived in a refugee camp. When his father refused to go to Dandakaranya, where the refugees were being forcibly herded, the family stopped receiving all government subsidy. His childhood was spent in grazing goats and cows and, when he was older, he tried supplementing the family income – sometimes as a helper in tea shops, at other times as sweeper, car cleaner, coolie, cobbler and beggar. ‘His was a life pockmarked with chilling stories of escaping multiple attempts on his life, fleeing the police, violence, destitution, imprisonment, political activism and multiple encounters with caste and class oppression’.
The name of the protagonist comes from‘jijibisha’ (a word of Sanskrit origin, which in Bangla means ‘the desire to live’. This name, and the literary output thereafter, is the result of a chance encounter with Mahasweta Devi, the well-known writer, social activist and editor of Bortika. It was in this journal that Manoranjan’s first piece, titled ‘Riksha Chalai’ (‘I Pull a Rickshaw’) appeared in print under the pseudonym of Madan Datta. Since then, there was no looking back for Manoranjan, whose short stories, novels and poems gave him fame and social recognition even though his financial position was always precarious: a commentary on the asymmetry among the publishers and writers on the one hand, and between writers of English and those who write in Bhashas. In his own words: ‘While being a writer in Bengal has been socially edifying, financially I continue to be in the doldrums’.
Like Manoranjan’s saga, the first part of Byapari’s semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels begins in East Pakistan. It tells the story of little Jibon, who arrives at a refugee camp in West Bengal as an infant in the arms of his Dalit parents, escaping the Muslim-majority nation. Devoid of the customary sweetness of a few drops of honey at his birth, he grows up perpetually hungry for hot rice in the camp where the treatment meted to dispossessed families is deplorable. Jibon runs away from this camp when he’s barely thirteen to Calcutta because he’s heard that ‘money flies in the air’ in the big city. His flights of fancy make him believe that he can make an honest living by hard work; enough to bring food for his starving siblings and clothes for his mother whose only sari is in tatters. And once he leaves home, he is the witness to an era: that of a newly independent India grappling with communalism and grave disparities of all kinds. Contrary to the perception of a casteless society built assiduously through the writings of the Bhadralok of Bengal, Byapari shows the lived reality of the Dalit experience. He agrees that ‘unlike other states, Dalits in Bengal aren’t an untouchable community’. ‘But the class divide works against them. The political and economic power structure is also biased towards upper castes and none of the political parties have Dalit leaders at the very top. Dalits have to struggle constantly’.
Not merely a Dalit Writer
Being a Dalit is central to his writing, but is that all? ‘I am Dalit by birth. Only a Dalit, oppressed by social forces can experience true Dalan (oppression) in life. There should be that Dalan as a Dalit in Dalit writing. Dalit literature should be based on dalit life. Some of my writings deal with dalit life; but they have been judged neutrally, without any preconceived estimation.’ However, as his mentor Mahasweta Devi in her Preface to a collection of scholarly articles, titled Nana Chokhye Manoranjan Byapari, says ‘Manoranjan is not merely a ‘Dalit’ writer. He is an icon of another generation—alive, dissenting, and a symbol of hope and aspiration of ordinary people’. In the words of Shashi Tharoor, ‘In evocative and imagery-rich writing, Manoranjan Byapari introduces us to the devastating realities of mid-twentieth-century India: hunger, caste violence, and communal hatred. Jibon’s experiences in his tortured world remind us of the distance we have come, and how far we have yet to go.’ Currently an elected legislator from the Trinamool Congress, Manoranjan Byapari has walked, talked and slept on many streets, pavements, stations, subways, passages and roads. Here is the subaltern speaking – not with a sense of fatalism or despair, but as a matter of fact – the here and now of experiences of life in post partition Bengal. Through translators like Arunava Sinha and Meenakshi Mookerjee in English, and Amrita Bera in Hindi – Byapari speaks to all those who are willing to lend an ear.