There is a world-within-a-world behind the closed iron gates of any prison. The jailer goes out on his daily rounds with much pomp, accompanied by the deputy jailer and guards. The jamadar shows up for duty with milk dripping from his moustache—the milk he carefully removes from the prisoners’ rations. Long-time prisoners smuggle food grains out and cigarettes in. First-time prisoners, after a rigorous all-over search, sit huddled together at the newcomers’ lockup—the Amdani. In spite of its century-old corrupt practices, the jail is a strangely tranquil, balanced ecosystem. Any commotion in the outside world fails to create a stir in this world. However, during the Naxalbari uprising, the calm turned into a storm all over West Bengal. Young revolutionaries filled up the jails, and they were no ordinary prisoners. There’s Gunpowder in the Air delves into those turbulent times and tells a story somewhat removed from the eye of the storm—which is the outside world. Manoranjan Byapari’s piercing novel Batashe Baruder Gondho, translated by Arunava Sinha, asks what happens when revolutionaries go to jail.
The Naxalbari uprising of 1967 was a tipping point in the history of Bengal. It was the greatest red revolution which shook the very foundation of our society. The peasants, in a revolutionary act, refused to put up with the exploitation meted out to them by landowners and their goons. The educated young men and women of the cities, inspired by Marxist ideals, also refused to accept the many different forms of stark class differences and injustices that they saw around them. Hence, they flocked to the remote villages to awaken, educate and gather the working classes to raise their voices against “class enemies”—from landowners to industrialists, from local government heads to national level policymakers.
Eventually, the Naxalbari movement seeped into literature, arts and culture, having an overarching effect on the very essence of being Bengali. Truly, the Naxalbari uprising is to West Bengal what the Liberation War is to Bangladesh. Be it literature, cinema or art, the Naxals, with their wide smiles, iron will and heart wrenching deaths, hold a very special place indeed. While some authors, such as Mahasweta Devi in her iconic Hajar Churashir Maa, have brought the emotional aspect to the forefront, others have delved into the complex web of politics. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Shei Shomoy has glimpses of those turbulent times, Samaresh Majumder’s characters Animesh and Madhabilata grapple with the new political ideology in Kalbela, while in Gorbhodharini, four young souls set out for the village for their very own post-Naxalbari small scale revolution. Bangladesh was not free from the influence of the Naxalbari uprising entirely; in fact, Oder Janiye Dao by Shahriar Kabir speaks of a group of young revolutionaries (who might remind us of the formidable four from Gorbhodharini) who set out on a “khatam” mission in post-independence Bangladesh.
Manoranjan Byapari is fundamentally different from all of the above authors in two ways. One, he is a self-educated man who identifies himself as pro-Naxal, and has been to jail on that account. Secondly, he is one of the pioneers of Dalit literature in Bangla. He taught himself to read and write at the age of 24 from an older prisoner, whom he called “mastermoshai” (teacher). Later in his life as a rickshaw-puller, he had a chance meeting with author Mahasweta Devi who recognized his literary talent and helped him publish his first story in a literary magazine.
Jailer Bireshwar Mukherjee is adamant not to have any incident to blot his twenty-five years in service. His main source of fear is five dangerous prisoners, the Naxals of Cell No. 12, who may attempt a daring jailbreak soon. To thwart their plans, jailer Mukherjee plans to appoint a spy—a petty thief named Bhagoban. But what happens when a simple act of kindness from the five Naxal boys—Porimal, Goutam, Bijon, Nemai and Bablu—softens the heart of the spy?
In no way is Manoranjan Byapari removed from the situation, unlike many others who have attempted to document the Naxals. As a member of the Namashudra community, he has lived a life of suffering and has hand-on experience of the brutalities of jail. However, There’s Gunpowder in the Air is not a completely factual account. It is well-grounded fiction without any romanticizing or sugarcoating, yet there is dark comedy to be relished by the readers.
While the flames of revolution are lapping up all of West Bengal, the prisoners are scared out of their wits due to the appearance of the mysterious Bandiswala—a ghost who seeks revenge upon his “casewala”. One cannot but chuckle at the author’s remark on jail-language, “Casewala, courtwala, khanswala. There’s a comparatively high proportion of Bihari Muslims here … So the main language in the jail is Hindi.”
The translator, Arunava Sinha, captures Byapari’s humorous language in a similarly light, refreshing English prose. The feel of the original, especially in its saddest and most humorous moments, is preserved by keeping entire sentences in Bangla intact in the translated version. “Tachara shobai to aar pulish e dey na,” says Bhagoban the thief while explaining mob sentiments after getting caught in the act, for example. The author paints the picture of each character with love, and tells the reader about their origins with utmost care. The prison guard is distraught by the loss of his son, the petty thief lost his father to mob violence, the farmer’s son left home with hopes and dreams to change the world. The young Naxal boys are treated in a humane manner by the resident prison doctor, better known as the “Pagla Daktar”.
One can clearly see the author’s strong stance on the Naxals. He paints the five Naxal prisoners as almost flawless, heroic characters who have nothing to lose in their battle against the state. The readers may find other characters such as the prison guard Bhojon Biswas, Pagla Daktar and the thief Bhagoban to be more admirable, because they have significant human flaws. One might also notice the author’s tendency to not sustain any mysteries in his story. Manoranjan Byapari’s world, as if, is never devoid of an explanation. There are no real ghosts, no spirits to haunt an already haunted nation where hundreds of young men are being met with untold suffering. At the end of the story, everyone’s motive is as clear as the day.
In Arunava Sinha’s translation, the simple, no-frills Bangla prose of Manoranjan Byapari comes to life in uncomplicated English. The author is in every way a realist: the supernatural makes an appearance but he does not seem interested to play with its possibilities. There’s Gunpowder in the Air is simply a story that clearly expresses an ideology yet goes beyond it with its focus on human compassion and kindness. This is a much-needed novel for the future generations where a bare bone, real picture of the revolution can be seen.
Qazi Mustabeen Noor is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.