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When Jibon wrote the first letter of the alphabet in the Bengali language by dragging the bamboo-stem pen dipped in charcoal ink over palm leaf, his father Garib Das knew his son’s future would be bright. The six-year-old boy had performed the impossible, which none of his forefathers had dared to do.
The central character in Manoranjan Byapari’s The Runaway Boy is in many ways a mirror image of the Bengali author. A word — also in the Bengali language — had changed the life of Byapari, a rickshaw puller in Kolkata before he became a writer.
Like Byapari, who sought the meaning of jijibisha (will to live) from Mahasweta Devi, who encouraged him to write, in The Runaway Boy, Jibon is always looking for a change that would make his miserable life better.
Jibon’s parents Garib Das and Bimala were struggling to survive when the Partition sent a human exodus from East Pakistan across a newly-created border. The family arrives from East Bengal at the Shiromanipur camp near Barisal in Bankura district of West Bengal. That is just one of the several journeys that Jibon would undertake in his early life. On his first day of school, the authorities decide to shut it down. Next to close is the camp. Soon the aid from the Indian government for the refugees stops too, beginning another flight for the family.
The Runaway Boy, the first part of Byapari’s Chandal Jibon trilogy, is set in the backdrop of poverty, refugee crisis and communal riots. It is also filled with events that question society’s lopsided scales of justice and equality. The ugly face of caste oppression runs through the novel, extending an unsurprising contemporariness to its mid-20th century setting.
The book begins with a bare-bodied and barefoot Garib Das trudging along the bed of a river to borrow rice to prepare a meal for his pregnant wife. He is met by the landlord Shibnath Bhattacharya, who chastises him for breaking the rules by coming empty-handed to “collect the dust of a Brahmin’s feet”. Garib Das is forced to do a day’s work of axing a tree and making a pile of fuelwood in exchange for a fistful of rice.
The Runway Boy’s linear narrative is dotted with questions. “How could there be honey in the house when there wasn’t even any rice?” The question is the response from Garib Das to his aunt’s demand for the elixir that the father has to offer to his newborn son. Another: “Love breeds love and hatred breeds hatred. Whose poison fruit was caste hatred?”
The questions that Garib Das and later his son Jibon raise as they always find themselves on the receiving end of caste politics set the tone for the novel that uncovers the deep fissures within society. Byapari’s scathing sketch of caste hierarchy and privilege flows from the boundless suffering and struggle encountered by his central characters every step of the way. Like Jibon, Byapari was born in Barisal district of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), three years after the Partition and lived in a refugee camp in West Bengal when his parents migrated to India.
One of the loudest voices in Dalit writing in India today, Byapari uses his own childhood trauma accumulated along the plains of two nations and his sharp prose to tell a story of displacement and despair. He doesn’t hold back his seething anger at centuries of oppression and humiliation in the name of caste. Byapari’s translator has succeeded in finding the right tone and words for a whole generation’s suffering.
The Runaway Boy
Manoranjan Byapari; translated from Bengali by V Ramaswamy
Pp 361, Rs 599
Faizal Khan is a freelancer