RAIOT is pleased to publish this second extract from ‘Chandal Jibon’ (2009) by Manoranjan Byapari.
‘Chandal Jibon’ 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
Rupkumar was the youngest of three brothers. Harkumar was the eldest and after him came Ramkumar. Compared to his brothers, Rupkumar was a bit more brave, and also somewhat restless. When something got into his head, he couldn’t forget about it easily. He wouldn’t rest until he had accomplished it. In rustic language, such people were called ‘gowar gobindo’, meaning, headstrong. He had been married only about two years ago. He had bought home a beautiful wife, with a dangling nose-ring. Something got into Rupkumar’s head now. He was married, and now he would have children. What would happen then? Would his son grow up to cast a net and get into the water, mud and slush! Or would he plant paddy saplings and plough on others’ lands and fields! Rupkumar knew what such a life was like and how difficult it was. The lives of such folk were not worth a whit. Snakes on land, being bitten by leeches, the razor-sharp, saw-like teeth of crocodiles and river-sharks in the water – if he didn’t succumb to all that, he would die of starvation and hunger. He would die of cholera or kala-azar or smallpox, without treatment or medicines. As long as he was alive, no father could push his son towards such a life.
Perhaps some could, but not Rupkumar. He would raise his son to be a man among men. He would raise him to be like the sons of babus, who went to school with their hair combed immaculately and a fountain pen clipped to their pockets. It was said, ‘he who learns to read and write, from horse carriages does alight’. Rupkumar’s son would alight from horses carriages one day. He would send him to the Mashiyahati Christian School. The boarding facilities there were very expensive. Not everyone could afford it. That’s why their sons could not become babus. Here, within a radius of about four miles, there were a couple of schools, but untouchable and low-caste children were not admitted there. The sons of brahmin and kayastha families studied there. If by any chance a boy from a low-caste family went there to study, everyone created such a ruckus that he was compelled to leave within a couple of days. It was not like that in the Mashiyahati School, where everyone was allowed entry and had equal rights too.
The school was established by an Australian missionary. He narrated the message and teaching of Jesus to the children for an hour everyday, and hoped that when they grew up, each one of them would became a follower of Jesus. But despite that, the teaching and standard of education in the school were very good. Rupkumar’s wish was to admit his son to the boarding school in Mashiyahati and raise him to be an educated man. That would entail an expense of twelve to fifteen rupees every month. It was not just difficult but impossible to earn half a rupee a day by working on fields or catching fish. So he decided to get into business.
One day he went to his elder brother, Harkumar, and said to him, “Dada I’m going to Cuttack.”
Cuttack was a district outside Bengal, in another province, Orissa. How would a person like Harkumar know that! Hearing his brother utter the strange name, he forgot about the hookah he was puffing and asked incredulously, “Where did you say you’re going?”
“To Cuttack. That’s the name of a place.”
“Where’s that? How far away is it?”
“It’ll take about a month to go there and return.”
“Why do you want to go there? What work do you have there?”
“Satindra, Mahadev, Bijoy and some eight or ten more people are going to Cuttack. I’ll go with them.”
“You haven’t said why you’re going there. What is it that takes you so far away?”
Rupkumar was a well-built and strong youth of about twenty or twenty-two. His physique had not been lovingly nurtured by consuming milk, butter and ghee. It had been formed by the labour of struggling against sun, rain, cyclone, cold and various kinds of natural dangers. His strong body, like a seasoned bamboo pole, housed both strength and courage. He said, “Apparently buffaloes are very cheap in Cuttack. If I can bring a pair of buffalos and sell it here, the pair would fetch the price of a thirty-two foot net and a boat. That’s how Gopal Midda made his fortune. I’m going to take up the buffalo trade.”
“Will Gopal Midda be going with you?”
“He’s not needy anymore! Why should he go?”
“Then who knows the way? Who will take you along?”
“There’ll be someone who knows the way. Or else how would one have the confidence to go!”
His brother’s words made Harkumar’s heart thump in fear. It was not the present era of the aeroplane, train, bus and motorcar. It was a time when people reposed faith solely on the Almighty. In those days, thugs and thieves lay in wait on the highways. Who killed men as if they were killing flies and mosquitoes. Besides, there were tigers, bears, snakes and scorpions and there were deadly diseases and ailments. Wasn’t it just three or four years ago that Meghnath Biswas had gone to Gaya to perform the funerary rites on behalf of his father and ancestors, and never returned? No one knew where he’d gone, or what happened to him.
Harkumar said, “Listen boy, there’s no point being greedy. It’s said that greed is sinful, and sin means death. If you work devotedly on the little land we have, you can feed and clothe yourself. Father used to say that even gold from business is only a tiny part of what farming yields. If God wills, you can earn as much from an acre as you’ll earn in a year from business. There’s nothing like farming. If you plant a single grain, the land gives back a hundred-fold. There’s no shortage of fish either in the canals and lakes. Don’t be impulsive. Stay at home and be content with the hard-earned fruit of toil. Forget about all those fanciful plans.”
Rupkumar replied, raising his voice a little, “The way we live – can you call that living like men? I want to test my fate once. I’m going. However much you forbid me, I’m not going to obey. I’m going.”
“It’s time for your wife to have children now. If something happens to you – have you thought about what would happen to her?”
“What can happen to me? So many people everywhere travel all over country. If nothing happens to them, then what could happen to me! It’s not as if I’m going alone, there’ll be plenty of people with me. It’s just a matter of a month. All of you are here, take care of Jamuna. I’ll be back very soon. Please don’t forbid me.” Disregarding his elder brother’s counsels, Rupkumar set off for Cuttack, in Orissa. Perhaps sitting somewhere, unseen, the god of his destiny smiled wryly …
They headed westwards. They went some way by boat and then walked a great distance. They planned to go through Mednipur district, in western Bengal, and enter Orissa from there. Everyday, the band of nine men walked all day, without pause. At the end of each day, when darkness fell, they looked for a tree and stopped there to rest. They had taken along rice, dal, oil, salt and so on. They camped on the bank of a river or a canal or pond, gathered twigs and cooked some rice. They poured water into the rice left over after the night’s meal. The next morning, after eating that slightly fermented panta rice with salt and chillies, they set off again. In this way, walking on and on, day after day, they reached the border of Orissa.
In India at that time, various kinds of death-traps were laid on roads and highways. Multitudes of life-threatening germs moved around in the water and in the air, as if simply to kill people. One such water-borne disease was called cholera. Its germs of spread the fastest, and were the most infectious and fatal. Once the disease broke out in a corner of a village, like a conflagration, it would devastate the entire village. People used to die like a swarm of locusts. Entire villages would become desolate. That was why terrified folk had given it the name, ‘great epidemic’.
It was said that cholera had once struck a village called Bharatkati, in Barisal district of East Bengal. The entire village – of three hundred and twenty families – was wiped out within a month, it was reduced to a cemetery. There wasn’t anyone left even to light the lamp in any household shrine in the evening. Jackals and vultures used to tear at the flesh of the bodies lying scattered everywhere. Many stories about this village had spread, about ghosts and evil spirits, which made people tremble with fear when they heard it.
It was Rupkumar’s misfortune that even before the terror of Bharatkati had faded from public memory, he fell victim to that deadly killer disease. As he sat beneath a tree, far away from his own land, he began vomiting. Accompanied by loose motions, like lime dissolved in water. None of the people Rupkumar had accompanied were his relatives or kin, they were only acquaintances, people from the same village. Besides, out of a combination of simple-mindedness, insensitivity, selfishness and shortsightedness, the people were prey to a terrible fear. The fear of death. I’ve come leaving behind my wife and children at home. If I look after and tend to someone struck by cholera – what if I too get the disease? What will become of my family if I die! Who will look after them? Who will feed and raise them?
So they stayed at a safe distance, and although they were inexperienced, callous and anxious, they did make some efforts for two or three days. But Rupkumar’s condition did not improve. There was no sign of the sickness leaving him. It kept getting worse. Little by little, like a severed gourd plant, he wilted away.
What shouldn’t have happened did finally transpire. A member of the group took another aside, and said in a trembling voice – “The signs are not at all good. I don’t think he’ll survive the night. Who knows what fate wills! When someone dies in an inappropriate place or time, people find fault in their planetary configuration. Death from such faulty fate-lines turns one into a ghost. Whose ominous face did I see at the inauspicious moment when I set out from home! If Rupkumar dies and becomes a ghost, not a single one of us will stay alive. He’ll will break everyone’s neck and bury us in the slime.”
The other timid fellow-traveller said, “Shall I tell you something …”
“What I say is, when he’s not going to survive, when there’s no sign at all of his surviving, what’s the use of any more attachment. Let’s flee. Let’s save our own lives.”
“When we are back in the village, and Harkumar asks where Rupkumar is – what shall we tell him?”
“We’ll tell him that he got cholera on the way, and died. After all, it’s a long journey, how could we carry his dead body? We’ll say we couldn’t bring him back. So we performed all the requisite ceremonies, and after that we immersed him in the river.”
The other men in the team discussed the plan put forward by the two. All of them agreed with the idea. In times of calamity, one loses one’s mental faculty. The distraught, frightened and superstition-ridden folk could not fathom then what a grave error they were about to commit. What a dangerous seed they were planting – for history, for all time, for their heirs, for their society, country and people. They left the dying Rupkumar under a tree in the desolate darkness of night and fled. But Rupkumar was not destined to die them. The determiner of destinies wanted him to play a role in a terrible and painful drama. By keeping him alive, he wanted to create a future villain. A cruel, pitiless path was thus laid towards the emergence of another Kalapahad-like destroyer of idols.
The night Rupkumar’s companions left him behind turned to dawn. At dawn, a Muslim mendicant was walking to the mosque along the ridge separating the paddy fields, for the early morning Fajr prayer. Hearing the distressed cries of the dying man from the darkness at the base of a tree – a man who seemed to be embarked on the road to death – he was startled and came to a halt. Going near to see, he realized that it was not just a man who was dying, but the conscience, sense and humanity of human society itself. The servant of God bent down on his knees before the dying youth. He forgot where he was headed for. He did not go for namaz. This was the first prayer that he had missed in forty years. But he had faith in Allah. Allah would surely forgive him. Because he was most merciful.
He lifted Rupkumar up bodily and carried him to his own house. He brought a hakim. He arranged for medicines. The treatment continued for a month. In the struggle between Yama and the man, finally the man emerged victor. Humanity won. With treatment and proper care, slowly, Rupkumar recovered. One day, Rupkumar said to the kindly Muslim man, “I’ve been away from home for long. Everyone at home must be anxious. Please permit me to go now.”
The Muslim man had begun to love Rupkumar like his own son. But after all, he wasn’t his own son. By what authority could he hold him back? His eyes welling with tears, he said, “If you visit these parts some day, you must come to my house. Look upon it as your own house and come by.”
Rupkumar too invited the mendicant to visit him. “If you ever go to Barisal, you must come to our house. You brought me back to life. When my mother and brothers see you – they’ll simply worship you. You’re not a man, for me you are God incarnate. But for you I would not be alive today.”
The mendicant said, “I’m nobody, nothing at all. You live because of Allah. He is your protector. If you must sing praises, sing His praises. I only did what Allah made me do. I’m nobody, there’s only Him, He’s everyone’s Master.”
Rupkumar paid his respects to the pious Muslim, bowing down to touch his feet and then touching his own head to be blessed with the dust of his feet. Then he departed for home. The day he reached home – according to the Hindu scriptures, by dint of the mantric powers of a brahmin, his soul, holding a cow’s tail, should have crossed the river Baitarani and reached Vaikunth. Seeing that same Rupkumar bodily present there – at first people were suspicious. This was surely a ghost. Apparently, plenty of incidents like this had occurred in Bharatkati. Eventually, after asking him all kinds of questions, people realized it was not a ghost but the real Rupkumar. And then, naturally, that remote region flared up. Rupkumar’s brother, Ramkumar, was notorious for his fierce temper. Flailing a cleaver used to slaughter goats, he rushed towards where Satindra, Mahadev and Bijoy lived. “As soon as I find those bastards, I’ll cut their heads off with a single blow. My brother died! Such a terrible lie! My mother was in fits with grief for her youngest son. I’ve had to see his wife wearing widows’ clothes. I’ll avenge that today! Won’t spare any of those bastards!”
The villagers stopped him and pacified him with sane counsel – “Stop, Ram, don’t lose your head. Don’t we have a forum for resolving issues in the village? This will be accounted for!” On everyone’s urging, he calmed down then, but his anger did not subside. Finally, Harkumar, Ramkumar and some of their relatives jointly made a complaint to the village council. Whose head was Manibhushan Bhattacharya. “Master, we seek justice in this matter. Or else there will be violence and bloodshed.”
Manibhushan Bhattacharya was a man of stern disposition. He used to attend the village council with a brass-encrusted stick. Whoever does not heed me will heed this stick! And everyone did heed his ruling. Was there any option but to heed him? When all the officials as well as the policeman were in his hands, who would have the guts to defy him? If he said water flowed upwards, everyone would nod their heads and say, when the master says so, it surely flows upwards. How can he be wrong?
Manibhushan heard the views of both sides on the matter relating to Rupkumar – and then he said to Satindra, Mahadav, Bijoy and the others: “You returned leaving Rupkumar behind. Cholera is an epidemic, and you say that you got scared seeing his condition. I accept that, the disease is indeed one to be afraid of. Why – I would have been scared too, if I was there. Getting scared and running away, and leaving him behind – I don’t see any fault in that. But your fault is that you didn’t tell the truth. If you had told Harkumar that you don’t know whether he was alive or dead – then he wouldn’t have had to arrange the funeral ceremony. He had to spend so much money unnecessarily. So it is a grave fault. I can’t see any other option besides asking you to pay a fine.”
After a lot of discussion, he announced the punishment for the eight persons at fault. “Each of you must pay a fine of a hundred rupees. Mother Kali’s temple will be restored with the money. The sin you have committed will be atoned for thereby.”
A hundred rupees was a lot of money in those days. For a monthly salary of ten rupees at that time, an entire household was retained to work under the ‘twelve months’ system. In order to pay the fine, the homesteads of several of the eight families in question had to be sold off. But the restored temple was indeed something to behold! On the days of special pujas, Manibhushan worshipped Mother Kali in the temple to the recitation of Sanskrit mantras in his sonorous voice. Hearing that, Satindra, Mahadev and company quaked in rage: “Oh Mother, you can drink the blood of so many, but you could not devour Rupkumar! And now instead of one life, so many lives are being lost. Do as you please, but do give us one chance now, O Mother. If you really exist, then do let me encounter Ramkumar once. If I can bring him and sacrifice him before you, then I won’t have any more grief.”
Several years passed by. Gradually the furore that had erupted in this marshland region subsided. The situation slowly returned to normal. Then it was suddenly revealed that the house where Rupkumar found shelter, the house where he ate and drank and was restored to life before returning home – belonged to a man who was not of the Hindu faith, but a beef eating nede. And that was because the pious Muslim was unable to get over his attachment to Rupkumar. One day, he set out with the address provided by Rupkumar. He reached Pother Shesh, the village where Rupkumar lived. And thus was everything revealed.
Mahadev, Bijoy, Satindra and the other five persons who had been fined, got together and appeared before Manibhushan Bhattacharya. “Master, you are the head of our village. No one seeking your intervention gets anything but justice from you. With bowed heads we accepted the punishment given by you for whatever we did – willingly or unwillingly, and whether or not we are at fault. We have no objection to that. But we shall object now if Rupkumar is not held accountable for the sin he has committed.
“What did Rupkumar do?”
“He ate in a miya’s house. No one can say whether he didn’t eat beef too. Tell us, how can such a man continue to be Hindu?”
After hearing everything in detail, Manibhusan Bhattacharya became very thoughtful. This was a complex dilemma, which he could not resolve by himself. He was compelled to call Mr Roy, Mr Dutta and all the other notable people of the community. A quarrel between brothers, a wife’s bad character, a cow eating someone’s grain – the problem that had erupted now was vastly different from such hassles. All those could be resolved in a trice, but not this one. The matter in question was about pollution, and the Hindu religion, the Sanatan Dharma. So the leaders of society had to be of one view. There were several rounds of discussion, advice, reasoning, argument and counter-argument.
Mr Roy contended: “Consider the case of poison. Some consume it willingly, knowingly. And some do so unknowingly. But the fact is that when it finally reaches the stomach, it will have its effect. Or consider the case of fire. Whether someone touches it willingly or unknowingly, he will be scorched. The issue here is that when Rupkumar has eaten polluted food, whether he did that willingly or unknowingly, the fact remains that he ate polluted food. When that food reaches his stomach, it will have its effect. In that case, there is no way Rupkumar can be considered Hindu now.”
Mr Dutta added: “Once someone has consumed a Muslim’s food and water, he cannot remain within the Hindu faith. He loses both his caste and religion.”
One person had been eager to say something for long. As soon as Mr Dutta concluded, he said, “Looking at the incident that occurred, it’s clear that Rupkumar has lost his caste. But his wife – what’s her name, Jamuna – she has a child too. What will happen to them? What are the rules in this regard in the scriptures?”
The question was directed at the brahmin, Manibhushan Bhattacharya – for who had the right to speak before a brahmin did on the subject of the shastras. But the questioner was looking at Mr Dutta. Hence he took on some of the responsibility of answering. “I think the wife will not lose her caste. What do you say, Mr Bhattacharya?”
Mr Bhattacharya responded – “A woman is a part of the supreme power, the mother of the universe. She has no caste. Just like water has no shape and only assumes the shape of the utensil it is kept in, women too are like that. There are several proofs of this in the shastras. If the wife disavows Rupkumar and does not associate with him any more, then it’s possible to set right her fault in having associated with him so long, unknowingly. The blessings of five brahmins can wipe away all the sins.”
Afterwards, there was a heated discussion among the leaders of the community about why the men who had been fined had gone to Manibhushan Bhattacharya’s house, and what had been discussed there. As soon as Harkumar found out about that, he realized a grave danger was imminent. He raced to Manibhushan Bhattacharya, as if his very life were at stake. He broke down and wept at his feet, “For God’s sake, please save my brother. Have mercy. Perhaps he was unconscious as a result of his disease. He knew nothing about the man who took him away and gave him food and water. He did not commit the sin of eating a miya’s food willingly. Please pardon him for not knowing anything.”
But his tears had no impact. Manibhushan did not change his mind. Reprimanding him, he said, “Is this a matter in which one can be pardoned! In the Hindu shastras, the cow is a holy mother. Three hundred and thirty million gods and goddesses reside in her body. You’ll never fathom how sinful those who butcher this holy mother like goats and eat her meat are. The crime committed by Rupkumar by eating and drinking from the hands of that mlechha nede – if I pardon that today, seeing that ten others will walk the same path, they will start eating together with the miyas. All religion, and Hindu society itself, will go to the dogs then. As the head of the community, I cannot do that.”
So Rupkumar became outcaste. His brothers’ and mother’s tears, appeals and entreaties could not hold him back. Earlier, there were no Muslims in the village of Pother Shesh. They lived on the other side of a fairly wide river, and in terms of numbers, were twice the number of people who lived in Pother Shesh. Now one Muslim household had arrived in this village as well. The community leaders, who were the upholders and protectors of the Sanatan Dharma, had created, blessed and smoothened the road to their entry. They had the same parents, the same house, the same courtyard and kitchen; they had drunk water fetched from the same riverbank, and been fed by the harvest of the same field. And yet Rupkumar became untouchable, from whom water could not be consumed, a nede. That was what he became to his own kin – who themselves were considered by the faith of which they were so proud and arrogant, the Hindu religion, Sanatan Dharma, to be untouchable, those from whom water could not be consumed, chandal, Namasudra. Who were denied entry into temples, and kept far away from school, for whom uttering a mantra was a crime.
After that Rupkumar Das’s name was changed to Rupchand Miya. And his wife Jamuna became Jamila Bibi. Of course, she was advised not to become nede. Roy babu – in whose courtyard, after harvest, as many as two huge piles of paddy were threshed, and the threshers were so tall that when womenfolk tried to look at the top, the ghomtas on their heads slipped off – the same Roy babu had told Jamuna, “I’ll give you a hut on the fringe. Live there with your child. I’ll send you food as well.” Jamuna did not agree to the attractive proposal. She became Muslim together with her husband.
People never learnt to live together with other people and love one another, as easily as they learnt how to hate and abuse. They had somersaulted together on the same earth, breathed the same air into their lungs, standing beneath the same sky. Laughed and cried during the same sorrows and joys, shared equally the same contentment and been devastated by the same diseases, sorrows and natural disasters. But once a finger was pointed at Rupkumar, the same neighbours and kinsfolk made him an alien. They began heaping on the helpless man the hate and humiliation they had for so long received from the high-castes.
Neither Harkumar nor Ramkumar wished to do so, but on the orders of the village elders, a side of the courtyard fronting Rupkumar’s unit was partitioned, and saplings of acacia were planted along the divide. Since the thorns of the acacia were poisonous, no one from the other side would be able to enter this side. Finding a salubrious environment, the plants slowly grew. Gradually the roots spread deep into the soil. Thus the shrub grew, yielding no flower or fruit but only millions of thorns. Thorns that poisonously pricked people’s bodies and minds, making them bloody, wounded and full of pain.
However, although Rupkumar became Muslim, for as long as he was alive, the flesh of a cow never entered his house. The conch shell was blown at dusk, with the ritual ululation too. Jamuna continued to apply sindur on her forehead and wear the shell-bangle on her wrist. As children, her sons used to stand afar and observe the Narayan puja being conducted in their uncles’ courtyard. They accepted the puja prasad offered to them on banana leaves. But as soon as Rupkumar passed away, all that came to an end. His sons consciously disavowed every kind of Hindu custom or sanskar, and each one became a staunch Muslim. The first expression of their resolve was to demolish the raised column with the holy tulsi plant, where the lamp was lit at dusk. Then they smashed all the images of gods and goddesses, the ritual pots and suchlike, and dumped everything into the river. After that they slaughtered a female calf. The meat was cooked, and they ate it for all to see. On the occasion of Eid, five large boatloads of people, invited from across the river, came to participate in the ceremony organized by them. Ready for use in their boats were cleavers, cane shields and spears made from laths of areca. If any kaffir tried to hinder the religious ceremony, a fitting reply would be given. Rupkumar’s family had hitherto been completely alone and isolated. The Hindus had driven them away, but now the Muslims drew them close. After the Eid ceremony, there was no longer any distance between then. The moulvi sahib announced, “From today they are Muslim. Muslims are brothers unto one another. It is a Muslim’s duty to protect another Muslim.”
Thereafter, religious functions, gatherings and discussions were regularly organized in Rupkumar’s courtyard. The Holy Koran was recited. During the religious discussions and speeches, speakers poured fierce hatred and scorn upon caste prejudice. They poured out all the agony, fire and flames of the humiliation and insults suffered for many ages. But what had once been caste prejudice – the same thing raised its head in a new incarnation now, donning the garb of communalism. The stability of a thousand years, based on common roots, kept getting destroyed. Because of a wrong act on the part of both sides, the soil that until yesterday had been cool, peaceful and devoid of agitation, became increasingly inflamed.