In The Runaway Boy, the first novel in Manoranjan Byapari’s Chandal Jibon trilogy, which is self-admittedly based on the author’s own experiences, the protagonist, Jibon, is obsessed with rice. The obsession comes from the years of hunger Jibon, and so Byapari, has suffered: the same hunger fuels the rage that permeates his words and drives his narratives. “I write because I can’t kill,” Byapari once said in an interview. While stories about deprivation are not uncommon, Byapari—a notable voice in Dalit writing from the Namasudra (erstwhile Chandal) community—compels one to look beyond the façade of the promised constitutional equality and feel the discrimination that millions still suffer because of the accident of their birth.
The Nemesis (Book Two of Chandal Jibon Trilogy)
Once an odd-job hand, a rickshaw-puller and a cook as well as an ex-convict, Manoranjan Byapari is now a Trinamool Congress MLA from West Bengal’s Balagarh constituency. In a literary journey that began with a chance encounter with celebrated writer Mahasweta Devi (whom he had asked the meaning of the word jijibisha, meaning “survival”), he has written close to 30 books and is currently the chairperson of West Bengal Dalit Sahitya Academy. He shot to national fame when the English translation of his memoir (Interrogating My Chandal Life) got The Hindu Prize for non-fiction in 2018. The English translations of two of his novels (There’s Gunpowder in the Air, 2018, and Imaan, 2022) were nominated for literary honours, and in 2022, he received the Shakti Bhatt Book Prize.
While The Runaway Boy covered the life of Jibon from his birth (in what is today Bangladesh) amid the turmoil of Partition to his growing up in India during the early years of Independence, The Nemesis sees Jibon stumbling through the turbulent years of young adulthood in eastern India.
Marked for life
The book starts off with Jibon getting a job as a cook in the southern suburbs of Kolkata (referred to as “Calcutta” in the book), at a firm called Mahadev Decorators, a precursor to the catering services offered everywhere these days. Jibon conceals his caste on the advice of the head cook, Naresh Thakur, who himself lies about his caste. Jibon learns the art of cooking from Naresh and becomes competent enough to cook for large gatherings, earns the name “baby cook”, and is entrusted by Naresh to take charge of the kitchen in his stead even during busy wedding seasons.
But, as in the first book, good times never last for Jibon: during a wedding feast, one of the guests recognises Jibon’s fellow cook, Dukhe, as from the community that cleans drains. Upon interrogation by the hosts, both Jibon and Dukhe divulge their true caste names, following which they are beaten up, humiliated, and made to crawl on the ground as punishment. They also lose their jobs after the hosts falsely accuse the two of theft in a complaint to the proprietor of Mahadev Decorators.
The year 1967 sees the Naxalbari movement erupt first in North Bengal, from where it engulfs different parts of the country in the next few years. “The flames scorched the inertia, cowardice and regressiveness of people as the youth of the society flung away every kind of attachment to self-interest and shed their blood in self-sacrifice,” writes Byapari, as Kolkata’s walls echo with calls for liberation of the oppressed classes amidst spreading paranoia about the naxalites.
Caste and class
Meanwhile, the incident at the wedding brings about a change in Jibon’s behaviour: he wonders why he has gone hungry even when he has worked hard at all the jobs he has taken up. As in The Runaway Boy, here too Byapari shows how caste is intertwined with structures of capitalism when Jibon ruminates on the “mechanical civilisation” that has transformed man into a “heartless machine”. Finally, two incidents concerning his youngest brother, Jugal (whom Jibon is quite fond of), push him towards violence.
In the background, cadres of the ruling Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the naxalites fight to gain control of Kolkata’s streets. Jibon gets caught in the crossfire and joins the naxalites. Byapari sees through the veneer of idealism that marked the naxalite movement in the popular imagination when he describes Jibon’s choice as the “great departure” that would lead him on a path from which there was no turning back.
The communally charged violence in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) results in a large influx of refugees into West Bengal, especially Kolkata. To escape the violence at home and to save Jibon, his father decides to relocate his family to the Dandakaranya forest (in present-day Chhattisgarh), where the Indian government had been trying to resettle refugees since Independence. Living conditions are abysmal here and hence no different from what Jibon has experienced in similar refugee camps ever since his birth.
The Dandakaranya episode lays bare underlying objectives of the government: using a group of people “who were recourseless on account of circumstances” to exploit the vast, untapped wealth of forest resources. The writer’s voice bristles with contempt while describing the camp and the bureaucrats handling the refugees—he calls one of the officers sevak or servant, ironically their designated role.
The only respite from the bleakness is offered by the reunion with his childhood sweetheart, Kusum. When her family suddenly leaves the camp one night without prior notice, a heartbroken Jibon returns to Kolkata.
- The Nemesis sees the protagonist Jibon stumbling through the turbulent years of young adulthood in eastern India.
- Jibon’s caste colours his life experiences.
- Byapari shows how CPI(M) comrades in 1970s’ Kolkata ended up disillusioned.
- The Nemesis does not measure up to the first instalment of his Chandal Jibon trilogy.
Will to survive
By then, the “liberation” movement is almost over with most of the naxalites either arrested, killed in encounters, or gone underground. A weakened CPI(M) is left fighting the dominant Congress and the police force it controls. Despite being advised to pick a side in order to survive on the streets, Jibon decides against it. His initial attempts to find a job are met with disappointment, so he becomes a rickshaw-puller, soon emerging as a mastaan (Bengali slang for hoodlum) and the secretary of the rickshaw-pullers’ union. But even his new vocation does not grant him any peace, and soon his will to survive is challenged again.
Jibon’s caste colours his life experiences and this is what Byapari illustrates time and again—be it through Jibon’s humiliation at the wedding or through the incident in which Jugal is lynched by a gang (in the name of “social service”) for allegedly stealing a duck. The “unwritten” rules of Indian society ensure that the powerful oppress the powerless without hindrance.
“Byapari minces no words in describing the Bengali bhadralok sitting firmly at the top of the “red” party.”
And, in case anyone from the marginalised sections tries to rise above the socially imposed boundaries, the privileged few take it upon themselves to violently push them down. Byapari shows how this holds true even of the communist leaders, who are supposed to speak for the downtrodden.
He minces no words in describing the Bengali bhadralok sitting firmly at the top of the “red” party: the same bhadralok who lectures about class revolution in public, is bound in his private life by the age-old brahminical customs that treat Dalits and Muslims with disdain. This hypocrisy is rankling, especially since the party presents itself as the saviour of the oppressed classes.
Through the character of Babua, a CPI(M) party worker, Byapari shows how the comrades end up disillusioned. Babua goes from pasting posters and attending rallies to dealing in knives and country bombs: for him, it is like being “trapped in a spider’s web.”
As his innermost thoughts rise to the surface, Babua articulates (in the “language of books”, Jibon quips) what he craves the most: to love and be loved—something that holds true for Jibon too. Byapari seems to implicitly acknowledge the moral superiority of non-violence when Jibon, known for his bursts of anger, refuses to retaliate at one point, counting this as a major victory against himself.
Though divided into three parts, The Nemesis is actually a book of two halves, with the second part mostly used for social commentary. For the rest, the plot tends to drag in places, with characters taking to the stage and vanishing, and nothing really happening in between. The Nemesis is episodic, unlike The Runaway Boy, where the narrative keeps moving forward in sync with the protagonist’s journey.
In an essay about reviewing translated works, writer-translator Daniel Hahn talks about how reviews should attempt to understand the literary interventions of translators. V. Ramaswamy’s translation stands out for its retention of some of the original Bengali dialogues (as in the first book, though more frugally this time) for emphasis, particularly in moments of anguish. For native speakers of the language such as this writer, these bits are gut-wrenching.
Manoranjan Byapari’s The Nemesis does not measure up to the first instalment of his Chandal Jibon trilogy, if one were to offer a strict literary assessment. But it stands on its own as an important book nonetheless, since it documents a bloody chapter of Bengal’s history through an alternative, long-ignored vantage point that is always unflinchingly honest.