It stands to reason that Manoranjan Byapari, who was launched into his unusual literary career by no less than Mahasweta Devi, should express not just irreverence but a no-holds-barred anger against the feudal lord turned poet Rabindranath Tagore for his humanistic ideology and his ethical values that do not take into account the grim, stark realities in the lives of people living in the margins. Tagore advocates honesty as his creed, says Byapari, but how can those who do not know where their next meal is coming from get by with such idealism? In fact, they can hardly survive without lying, cheating, thieving, taking recourse to violence or even killing. It is very well to romanticize the values of gentleness, love and forgiveness, or to indulge in an innocuous appreciation of nature, but can one do that with the fire of hunger raging in one’s belly, and the uncertainty of one’s quotidian existence driving one up against a wall? The author, however, concedes that the ‘bearded old man’ who cautioned us not to lose faith in humanity is also utterly intolerant about those who commit evil or perpetuate injustice.
In the first few chapters, the book begins to pall by churning out endlessly grim descriptions of heart-wrenching and mind-numbing poverty, until one reads of the diverse and convoluted strategies people in similar situations have to adopt to live a very basic, subsistence level existence. Some hair-raising descriptions are those of competing with dogs in order to forage dustbins during his itinerant childhood, or cupping up the starch from cooked rice that flows down drainpipes, which were commonplace for the likes of him while scrounging for food. Ironically, the narrative acquires colour and flavour in the way it chronicles the gory, often dangerously life-threatening criminal methods one has to resort to just to be minimally fed and clothed. Shockingly, the jail is talked about as a place that can ‘cure’ one’s hunger. It serves inadequate food and makes the inmates scavenge for scraps of waste that are barely edible, but it also serves regular hot meals that one does not have to earn. When Madan, which is the actual nickname or the assumed pseudonym of the author-protagonist, is on the run with another boy, he explains how committing petty crimes and being compelled to spend a few days in a prison lock-up is a nice pay-off for getting caught while travelling ticketless. If one does not have the daring needed to steal food and run away without paying for it, offering to work in a tea shop is an alternative way out of endless starvation.
Byapari distances himself from the gruelling tale of poverty and want in Chapter 4 by referring to the protagonist as ‘this young boy, call him Jiban’. For some time, he solicits the reader’s attention towards a third person narrator, possibly to objectify and generalize his predicament as a poor Chandal boy anywhere in Bengal or even India, but perhaps also to render the painful memories of his childhood somewhat less so to himself than they actually are. In Chapter 5, however, he reverts to writing in the first person singular, and the Jiban of those intervening chapters remains a postured way of saying ‘A boy by any other name in my circumstances would feel as wronged as me.’
And indeed, he does meet a lot of people who were possibly born and bred in similar or more abject conditions—truants, orphans or abandoned children. Madan is an innocent child when compared to the cynical and worldly-wise Raja. He opts for the more respectable methods of survival, but in the brutal world in which they live, decently earning one’s livelihood is hardly an option, because one gets drawn into deception and sexual abuse. Time and again, he and his friends are left high and dry, not paid their salaries by people who employ them, deprived of an entire month’s savings which is stolen by the master’s son, promised a job but molested instead or thrown out of a job unpaid when the employer realizes that he and his friend are Dalits who disguised their caste identity and had the audacity to cook for people.
Confronting the big, bad world on its own terms is something that Madan’s life exemplifies, and it enriches the saga of endless penury. Is there any job—respectable or otherwise—that he does not try his hand at? Server and cleaner at a restaurant, cook, hangman, jail employee, bomb maker, chowkidar, rickshaw driver, and finally, of course, the vocation of a writer that does not earn him two square meals a day. Four important chapters document his initiation into the Naxalite movement without understanding its implications, his learning to read and write while sitting in jail and his meeting with Mahasweta Devi, both of which change the trajectory of his life, and his interactions with his role model, the activist Shankar Guha Neogi.
The translator has done a fine job. Her English is competent and culturally sensitive, but she tends to go wrong in the use of articles and uses ‘the’ where it is not required, or confuses ‘a’ and ‘the’ in the same sentence. More vigilant editing by as reputed a publisher as Sage could have taken care of these flaws. She transcribes Bengali proverbs into English quite smoothly. ‘If they can’t get rice, let them eat plantains’ has shades of Marie Antoinette—the questioning of the statement that follows clarifies that it is said likewise, in utter apathy to what the poor cannot afford to eat. ‘A fish of the deep seas’ is accompanied by an explanatory phrase ‘a wily veteran of the dark waters.’ ‘Digging a canal to let in a crocodile’ is a literally translated Bengali proverb that makes perfect sense for inviting trouble. ‘In ‘digging for frogs, they would unearth a snake’, although the exact word used in the Bengali version for frogs is worms, the translation is perfectly acceptable. As Shipra Mukherjee says in her translator’s note, she has followed Walter Benjamin’s precept not to replicate every word of the text in the translation. ‘Firing a cannon to kill a mosquito’ retains the accuracy as well as the cultural flavour and vitality of the original. But the most graphically translated idiomatic expression is ‘my bum bared by poverty,’ which comes as a bit of a culture shock within the parameters of linguistic respectability that her writing otherwise observes.
It is a heavy read, and the gruesome and unpleasant descriptions sensitize the reader to believe that the narrative of an illiterate, destitute, refugee boy turned writer is not a fairy tale. It is a tale told by a Dalit boy without a chance in life, full of the sound and fury of his struggles and his Naxalite activism, signifying his evolution to become a widely talked about contemporary writer.
Nivedita Sen teaches English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, Delhi.