‘Chandal Jibon’ (2009) is the story of Jibon, a boy born into the hitherto ‘untouchable’ Chandal (or Namasudra) community in East Bengal, whose parents flee from East Pakistan and arrive as refugees in India. The story of the boy’s journey to adulthood – is also the story of the experience of the subaltern Bengali refugee community and of caste oppression, humiliation and violence, providing a trenchant bottom-up view of post-1947 Bengal and of Calcutta in the turbulent Naxalite era. It is an epic tale of the indomitable human will to survive.Manoranjan Byapari was born in 1950, in Barisal (in erstwhile East Pakistan), and came to West Bengal, India, in the aftermath of partition. As a child in a Dalit refugee family, his childhood was spent tending to cows and goats and working in roadside tea shops and restaurants, and hence he could not attend school. Thereafter he worked as a casual labourer, sweeper, night-watchman, lorry-helper and rickshaw-puller. He was jailed in connection with political activity, where he learnt to read and write. A chance encounter with the acclaimed writer, Mahasweta Devi, in 1981 – when she sat as a passenger on his cycle-rickshaw – led him to start writing. She published his autobiographical piece in her Bengali journal, Bortika. He has written twelve novels and over a hundred short stories, besides essays and poems. He was awarded the Suprova Majumdar Memorial Prize by the Bangla Academy for his autobiography, A Chandal Life in History, in 2012. He lives in Kolkata. Translated from Bengali by V. Ramaswamy
A Bedford lorry speeds along the road. It had begun its journey at the crack of dawn when the sky was still grey and it had not stopped since then. Now the blistering sun of the month of Baisakh was directly overhead. It was as if it was not heat but some merciless rage that was pouring down from that sun, which would be quenched only after it had burned the whole universe into ashes – only then would it be content. Beneath the inflated rubber tyres of the lorry was a bumpy, cratered road of rubble and stones. The run-down vehicle bounced up and down violently as it sped along the road.
The owner of the lorry was a Punjabi, a former military contractor. During the Second World War, he had a contract to supply food and meat to the army. He had roamed various parts of rural Bengal to buy mutton on the cheap and delivered it to army barracks in this same lorry. Now, just like those goats, a band of people and their household belongings, mattresses and mats were stuffed onto the lorry. Sitting atop the pile of belongings, like inexperienced travellers on camel-back, the people swayed, trembled and wept. Terrified that they might be thrown off the moving vehicle, each one was petitioning their respective deities. None of them knew when this journey would end or where, or how far they would be taken before they got down. They had heard that they were going to a “camp”. But what that meant and where it was – they did not know.
The dry road of the Rahr region of Bengal, red like scorched earth. The lorry raced along the road like a crazed horse. The dust on the road was fine because many lorries had plied along the road before this, just as the driver of this lorry had many times. A cyclone-like cloud of red dust enveloped the lorry, as if keeping pace with the roaring, speeding vehicle. The hot dust flying in the furious sun’s heat covered the eyes and faces of the people. Their bodies too became red. They did not like that at all. It was as if despite their unwillingness, someone had forcibly pushed them into an untimely Holi play, like how people throw colour on unwilling folk simply to provoke them and watch the fun. There was dense forest on both sides of the road and in the scorching heat of the noon sun, the tall trees stood silently on their single legs. The fire of the stinging Baisakh sun snapped at the leaves on their branches, seeming to endanger the very life of the trees.
After a long time, after journeying a great distance, and after the yearning for human contact in the people’s distraught eyes had turned to naught, finally, they came upon an adivasi village by the side of the road, of about twenty or twenty-five houses with thick, earthen walls which had been built with much toil by laboring folk, and covered by thatch laid on bamboo rafters. The people who lived here belonged to the Santhal tribe. Hearing the sound of the lorry, the Santhal men, women and children emerged from their houses and looked incredulously at the people atop the vehicle. Who were these muddy, exhausted, dejected people? Why were all these people being taken along this road every now and then? Where were they from?
They were the dispossessed: refugees. This was their identity now. An identity that was soaked in disaffection, neglect and humiliation. Just a few days ago, they too had homesteads: shelters, howsoever modest, to survive through winter, summer and the rains. Now they had nothing. As the price of “India’s Independence”, something incomprehensible to the common people, part of Bengal was cut away and discarded – and in that cut-off part, all their rights as citizens had been buried alive. Their identity, their homes and their human dignity too. They were now parasites, unwanted, a problem. They were refugees begging India for shelter. That was where they were being taken now, to shelter that was called a ‘camp’.
Seeing the fields, forests and wild-looking, semi-naked folk all around them, the people sitting atop the lorry were extremely unnerved. They were already frightened, now they became terrified. Who were these people! Their bodily appearance, color and garb were not at all like that of Bengalis. Where have they brought us! Their confounded eyes searched for familiar people, familiar soil and the beloved waters that they were forever habituated to. The river on which boatmen unfurled their sails and burst out singing Bhatiyali songs to their heart’s content. The water from which countless silver-coloured fish were to be had. Where, where was that empire of water? Water – another name for which was life itself. Where was that life? No, for as far as the eye could see, there was no sign of any water. The fields, trees, plants, people and houses all seemed to be burning under the cruel assault of heat-missiles which exploded over the whole landscape. It was as if a fatal curse was raining down from the ball of fire burning overhead – devoid of mercy or compassion, pitiless, unrelenting. There was no cover over the lorry. No one had even thought of putting up a cover. After all, goats and cows did not require a cover, why should refugees? The people sitting atop the lorry, those whom time and society had consigned to refugee-hood, were burning in the heat of the sun. The hot wind blowing was like the poisonous breath of mythic snakes and serpents, scorching any exposed part of their bodies.
Before this, no one from any of these families had ever undertaken such a difficult journey by road. They had only ventured out on boats. They had the experience of spending days and months living on boats and if they so much as stepped down to their courtyards from their houses, their feet got wet. These people gasped like fish out of water in this dry, parched and pitiless land. The truck sped along, passing by one place after another and snaking along bends as it steadily approached the end of its journey. But in the people’s eyes and faces, and in their hearts and minds, there was a formless, unknown fear. Their dust-covered, muddy, emaciated bodies trembled in the stupor of that fear. Where are we going? To which country? How far away is it? Is ugly fate going to cast us into some desert? What awaits us there? Will it herald a new life? An auspicious beginning? A reconstruction? Or will we only be very far away from our own country, our own land, consigned to a helpless life with an ocean of thirst within?
Ever since morning the people’s dry eyes had been looking in all directions, searching frantically for some water to drink. Water – that was to be found in ponds and rivers, small and wide. But where were the ponds and lakes? Everyone was dying of thirst, but there was no water anywhere. Instead, what they saw on each horizon, which they mistook for water, was only a deceitful mirage.
The soil here was very illusive, deceitful, and insidious. Its sorcery laid a cruel death-trap all over. Under harsh sunlight, when the atom-sized light particles hit the horizon – then, as if in a frenzy, the soil began casting a deadly mysterious spell. Hatched under the hot sun, the dancing light on the sand particles – which were hidden in earth’s body – created an illusionary wave of water. When a thirst-crazed soul spotted such waves, appearing to flood an illusory shore, he kept running in that direction like a lunatic in the hope of reaching water. But he never reached. As he kept advancing, ever more thirsty, the dancing water of the mirage too kept retreating. Finally, as the poor soul ran and ran in acute thirst, he lost his very life.
They were simple rural folk of East Bengal, who lived with rivers and canals surrounding them. They did not know about the tricks played by the earth. And so, with an ocean of thirst in their parched throats, they gazed at the dancing waves of the mirage. There’s a river as wide as the Padma and Meghna! Only a little more to wait. After that their thirst would be quenched. After immersing and bathing in and drinking the water, their minds and bodies would be cooled!
Tulsi, the wife of Subol Sutar, from Kalakandi village, had been placed in one corner over the piled-up luggage, mattresses and bundles. She was seven months pregnant. She had been experiencing some pain from morning. After setting off from the village, crossing the border and arriving at Bongaon and then going from there to Ranaghat and then some other places – somewhere along the way – relatives, kin and neighbours had all got lost. But none of them could be blamed. People were extremely self-centred now. In times of danger, everyone is concerned only about their own lives and those of their immediate families and children. They only want to rush to a safe place before anything else. Who cares for anyone else in such a time!
Now, the few persons remaining known to Subol and Tulsi, people from their village and some relatives, were travelling on this lorry. If they were separated from them – who knows who they would be with. What would happen if they could not get along with them, by way of language, thinking, behavior and customs! At the halt in Ranaghat, five or seven families had also been waiting beside Subol and his pile of belongings. They were all people from Chittagong. The whole day, Subol could not understand a word of their language! How could he stay with them? How would he call out to them in times of danger or distress? How would he express his feelings of joy or anguish? That’s why he had boarded this lorry.
Subol does not blame anyone for anything. All blame lay on his fate. Or else why would he have to leave behind a mansion-like tin-roofed house, two-and-a-half bighas of paddy land, a twelve-foot boat, a twenty-foot fishing net and a dozen coconut and areca palms, leave his country under cover of night and escape like a thief? Although their hamlet was peaceful, the fierce flames that burned and turned the sky red on the northern side of Kalakandi village, accompanied by the cries of Allahu Akbar! that rent the air, had shaken the foundations of his courage. He realized his peaceful village would not be peaceful any longer. The wrath of the fire would claim the entire area before the night ended. And so, holding Tulsi by the hand, he had slipped out along the muddy path through the paddy-field. Once he reached the road, he realized he was not alone. There were many others like him fleeing, leaving behind their age-old homes.
The thought of fleeing had arisen in Subol’s village three or four months back. The inner conviction – that this was their homeland – which had remained unbroken for the last six or seven years, was suddenly rocked. Those who were clever and possessed the faculty of foresight had secretly sold off their land and homesteads and before anyone could get the slightest trace of it, they had moved across the border – to India. Those like Subol, who were not as farsighted, who were more emotionally attached to their homeland, had stayed back.
For some strange reason Subol had harboured a strong conviction that after some time, the chaos would come to an end. Discord and disagreement would leave their land. Everything would be alright once again. The Muslims had wanted a country of their own, which they had achieved. So why would they engage in violence and bloodshed? Moinuddin Sheikh had voiced such a belief – “Why are you afraid? There has been discord between Hindus and Muslims so many times and in so many places. Did anyone ever have to leave the country? Why would you leave behind your own home and go away to another country? Be without fear. Aren’t we here? Let me see who says anything to you!”
Moinuddin Sheikh was an influential person in the region. Everyone knew him and respected him. He was fond of Subol Sutar. How could he disregard him? And so there had been no prior preparation for escape. But now Moinuddin Sheikh himself was unable to assure him of safety. One evening, his head downcast, he had said embarrassedly to Subol – “I had given you hope, but now I see that my words have no worth at all. No one heeds me. Yesterday, some leaders had come from the district headquarters, they were inciting the hot-headed sons of the miyas. They said: ‘Miyas have a right to everything in this country. Drive away the bastards and take over their land and homesteads. The law and the police are on your side.’ That’s why everyone is dancing like crazed souls. One can’t say what will happen now, or when. If there were two or five people with me, I could have held them back, but now there’ll be hundreds upon hundreds of them. And it’s not just people from this region. There are outsiders too. I heard there are miyas from twenty or twenty-five nearby villages together with miyas who fled violence in India and came here. How many can I deter? So don’t stay back trusting in me. You have to think about saving yourself, howsoever you can.”
There was no time in hand. The terrifying flames enveloping the Roy family’s house and the ear-splitting screams of the women of that household burnt all his courage to ashes. Mr Roy had already sold off some of his land and property and sent away half his family to India. Even though the loss and destruction was not so much, whatever was destroyed was not so meagre either. Mr Roy’s daughter-in-law could not be found. The attackers had carried her away. No one knew whether she was alive or dead.
Although Tulsi had not been nurtured with milk and butter like Mr Roy’s daughter-in-law, she was quite beautiful. She had just turned nineteen. She wasn’t fair-complexioned but she wasn’t that dark-complexioned either. Her eyes, face and features – were most attractive. Subol was not wealthy, but for the sake of Tulsi, it did not take him long to exit from the southern side of the village once he saw the rising flames from the northern side. One did not hear so much about riots and bloodshed nowadays, but there had been no let-up in reports of robberies and rape.
In anguish, Subol had handed over the keys of his house to Moinuddin Sheikh. “I don’t know where I’m going, I’m setting off now. What else can I do? How can anyone reverse destiny? The rest is in the hands of fate. I leave everything in your custody.” In a choked voice, Moinuddin Sheikh had said – “It won’t be like this always. All this commotion and trouble will surely stop one day. I’ll look after your house. You’ll get it back when you return. Don’t worry”.
Could a man be free of worry simply because of those words – “Don’t worry!” Leaving behind home and homeland, setting off for an unfamiliar and unknown place … But right now Subol was more worried about Tulsi. Who knows when the sharp pain she was experiencing would become acute. In which shelter-less, friend-less land would the delivery room of the newborn be? Would Subol Sutar’s child be delivered in a safe environment?
Tulsi’s thirsty pleas in the scorching heat made Subol look helplessly in all directions. Where was water to be found? He had never realized before, and in this way, how precious and valuable water was. That for miles, such dry, parched soil could exist in this world – had never even entered their imagination. There was water in some corner of the Santhal hamlet, in some well, but they did not even know what a well was. So even though they saw it they could not recognize it. After all one could not remain alive without water. The awareness that since there was life around them there had to be water somewhere was buried under their anxiety. Subol consoled Tulsi – “We’ve almost reached, just be patient for some more time, you’ll get water very soon.”
In the opposite corner from where Tulsi was perched was Radhakanta’s seventy-six year old father, half-sitting, half-lying. Just the other day, the old man, the indelible strength of his mind and body driving him, had gone around the entire neighbourhood, tapping the earth with his walking stick. He was enquiring about how everyone was, who was content and who was in distress, who was unwell, how the harvest had been in each one’s field, and so on. The old man had never been ill to speak of. But he was stricken by mental illness now, arising from forsaking his homeland. Broken, crushed, supine and incapable of even standing on his two legs. The newfound taste of “Independence” had sucked away all his mental fortitude, just like how a leech sucked up the blood of the body. As he lay on the lorry, tears streamed continuously from his eyes and he silently cursed the unseen. “What ugly fate that we had to leave behind the homestead and soil of our forefathers and flee! It would have been better if I had died before this happened!”
The withered, ancient skeleton of the man crushed by his mental wound was collapsing under the wild bouncing of the speeding lorry. He felt as if his old body was being ground to powder by the crazy jolting. As he lay, he moaned – “Oh Radhakanta, how much longer! I can’t bear it any more! I think I am dying!”
The driver of the lorry was frantic. He had no time at all. He had to drop the passengers and return with the empty lorry as quickly as possible for a second trip. Some time had been lost on the way because of a problem with the vehicle’s gearbox, which had to be repaired. He was driving the lorry at breakneck speed in order to make up for the time lost. Time was very valuable. Even if all the time lost was not made up, at least some of it could be, especially when the steering wheel was in his hands. That’s why the people stuffed into the vehicle were being thrown around like shelled peas on hot sand.
Along with Tulsi, the baby in her womb was also bouncing up and down in the severe jolting. The sharp pain she had been experiencing had now become calamitous. She had borne the pain so long by clenching her teeth, but now it had crossed all limits. All the prior signs of impending delivery were writ large on her face and eyes. Garib Das’ aunt, Gagan’s-mother as she was known, was highly experienced in such matters. With her assistance, hundreds of women in labour had delivered babies without impediment. Like his son, Garib Das too had been born at the hands of this woman, a veritable earth-mother. Forgetting about the anxieties plaguing her own head, Gagan’s-mother now became agitated seeing Tulsi’s condition. She started screaming out – “Subol, what are you waiting for! Hurry up and tell the driver to stop. Tulsi’s going to deliver now.”
Hearing Gagan’s-mother’s shrill screams, the fear-crazed Subol cried out to the driver as loudly as he could – “Sir, sahib, please stop! Stop the vehicle!”
A government employee sat beside the driver. He was in charge of taking the refugees to a pre-determined place. As soon as he heard Subol’s cries, fearing some mishap, he said to the driver – “Stop the car!” The driver slammed the brake of the lorry. With a tremendous jolt the vehicle came to a standstill in the middle of the road. Opening the door and thrusting his head out, he asked in Hindi – “What’s happening? Why the shouting?” Just then came Tulsi’s ear-splitting scream – “Oh mother, I’m dying!” The government employee stepped out to see what the matter was. Looking in the direction of Tulsi and realizing what the situation was, he shouted in annoyance – “Why did you come in this condition! Does anyone do that! Come on, bring her down! Bloody problems … Hurry up and bring her down!” Subol, Gagan’s mother, Garib Das’ wife, Bimala, and two or three more women held Tulsi and brought her down from the truck. They took her to the concealment of bushes at a slight distance. There, in a short while, Tulsi delivered her baby. It was a girl.
Quite some time was spent in all this. Everyone then climbed back into the lorry with Tulsi and her newborn daughter. The driver of the vehicle, incensed now because of the time lost, drove even faster. Only then did the people see that while everyone had been preoccupied with Tulsi, Radhakanta’s old father had died quietly at some point. Fearfully, so as to avoid the driver’s ire, no one dared to ask him to stop the vehicle. He was already enraged about having lost so much time.
On one side lay the dead body of Radhakanta’s father, who had died of infirmity, and with a new-born child on the other side, the lorry sped ahead raising a cloud of red dust.
Translated by V. Ramaswamy. V. Ramaswamy lives in Kolkata. He has translated two collections of short fiction by the Bengali anti-establishment writer, Subimal Misra, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America and Wild Animals Prohibited and a third, Anti-Novel, is forthcoming from HarperCollins India. The translator gratefully acknowledges the Literature Across Frontiers – Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative Writing & Translation at Aberystwyth University for enabling the translation.
Featured image from British Library titled Chandal or Namasudra (Ghasi sub-caste), Eastern Bengal. Photographer Unknown