The hegemonic order of our society has played a pivotal role in shaping the literary landscapes. For centuries, we have learnt to turn a blind eye to the screams of those who are subject to hunger and destitution. We ignore them as much in literature as in our daily life as we subscribe to the hegemonic order.
While number of authors giving the voiceless a voice is small, number of authors belonging to the voiceless groups is even smaller. Manoranjan Byapari is one of the brightest among the few who, hailing from the Namasudra caste, write about the people of their own communities. Members in his community suffer so much at the hands of the higher-caste people that the parched muscles of their throat can only produce intense and raw emotions, as opposed to well thought-out expressions.
Byapari’s novel The Runaway Boy is a poignant tale of dirty caste politics, grinding penury and deprivation of basic needs. It is the first part of his Chandal Jibon trilogy that depicts the struggles of the Chandals, regarded as “untouchable”, as well as the atrocities they face at every stage of their lives. As soon as one thinks things cannot get any worse, the author proves the opposite.
The story of a Dalit boy
This novel tells the story of a boy named Jibon. The story, however, begins in a village of Barisal with Jibon’s skeletal father Garib Das, who, starving for three days, is seen taking a long walk towards the house of a well-off Brahmin. By then the 1947 partition had divided Bengal into two, with its eastern wing becoming East Pakistan. Back in those days, Barishal, a southern district, had an abundance of arable lands encircled all around by rivers and other water bodies.
Byapari sets the tone of his novel at the very beginning, with Garib’s encounter with Shibnath Bhattacharya, the Brahmin who considers him to be as worthy as a crow or a dog. A hungry, ailing Garib begs for a few kilos of rice in exchange for whatever menial work Shibnath might have for him. He can’t afford to get back home empty-handed as, he fears, his bedridden pregnant wife might die along with the unborn child if she remains unfed one more day.
Garib Das returns home with some rice in the evening to see his wife has given birth to a boy who turns out to be the protagonist of this tale, and whose name (Jibon), interestingly, means life in Bengali. Jibon’s life, aptly pointed out by Garib’s aunt, begins with a curse as his father is unable to pour a drop of “honey” into his mouth upon his birth. As if demonstrating the veracity of the aunt’s words, the never-ending cycle of hunger and deprivation that Garib was subjected to continues to plague Jibon’s life. The insecurity felt by Jibon’s family does not change when they flee communal bloodshed and seek refuge in India. So what changes for them in the new country?
The centuries-old prejudices against the Dalits prevail in the new country as well and the low-caste people like Garib and his kin are treated as terribly as in their former country. The higher-caste refugees, on the other hand, are treated differently. They can build homes in Kolkata whereas the Namasudras are transferred to the remotest forest or to the railway fringes where they can only build shanties and are often unable to manage a single meal a day.
Jibon is one of those homeless children who see and hear more during their childhood than most people ever experience, who receive hurts and wounds on a daily basis to survive in a hostile, careless environment, and still manage to find reasons to keep living.
At a very young age, Jibon witnesses the bitter truths about his life and realises that their plights will not end. When he witnesses how starvation leads to his youngest sister’s death, Jibon realises he will meet the same fate if he stays with his family. As he turns thirteen, he flees his life of suffering and starts his journey towards Kolkata in search of a better future.
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In Kolkata, life, not very unsurprisingly, proves to be even harsher than it was before. Jibon realises his identity is the main curse he bears with him. Every time his caste is revealed, Jibon sees a different mask of humanity, the mask that only radiates abhorrence and hatred towards his caste.
The last part of this novel gives account of Jibon’s days as a runaway boy, trying to find menial work in different parts of India, from Darjeeling to Lucknow, where he faces humiliation, exploitation, and above everything, discrimination. Eventually he learns that he’ll have to hide his identity to get jobs for his survival.
During his time away from home, Jibon faces sexual abuse and molestation. For Jibon, however, nothing compares with the ferociousness of hunger.
The most vivid, distressing, and tragic scene in this novel is perhaps when Jibon snatches a loaf of bread from a dog’s mouth. At the age of sixteen, Jibon’s greatest lesson is simply to survive at any cost.
Rage that burns within
This novel’s tone of angst is worked out by the negative emotions Jibon feels constantly throughout the novel. The dehumanising factor of caste creates in him a rebellious attitude towards the hegemonic order. Jibon's anger is manifested most excruciatingly when he calls himself a mere Chandal and shouts at others, saying his name is Jibon Chandal instead of Shri Jibon Das.
Jibon’s anger, which is also evident in his father, is raw; so it requires an appropriate language, somewhat unrefined, to convey his scalding sensation. Byapari makes no bones about the fact that Jibon represents the writer’s own life experiences. Maybe that’s why the language comes spontaneously to Byapari, in a way that it perfectly contains the emotions that burn constantly within his protagonist.
In a talk given at a literary festival, while answering a question about why he writes, Byapari said, “I write because I can't kill.” This bold expression also explains why anger is the emotion that overpowers the character of Jibon.
This book will have a lot of different effects on different readers. But it will surely make most of its readers ask questions about their complicity in perpetuating caste-based injustice in society; after reading this book, they will not remain unscathed.
The Runaway Boy has been translated from the Bengali by V. Ramaswamy. Ramaswamy’s translation is, for the most part, solidly crafted and reliable. Interestingly, several expressions from the original Bengali have been retained, followed by their English translations, a choice which takes it closer to the original. Ramaswamy’s translation sometimes deviates stylistically from the rawness of Byapari’s original text; however, this translation is a well-crafted one and readers would very seldom feel that it is a translated work.
This semi-autobiographical novel is also a bildungsroman that illustrates a chandal boy’s life journey through extreme poverty. All in all, it offers a view of the world as seen from the point of view of a Chandal boy. The Runaway Boy, thus, is a vivid, hard-hitting excursion into the untold lives of those who are pushed to the margins of literature.
This novel has broadened the horizons not only of Bengali literature but also of South Asian fiction as well as World Literature. A must read for anyone looking for a title to tackle the lockdown blues!
Afsana Rahman is Staff Writer, Dhaka Tribune.
The Runaway Boy
Published by Eka (December 2020)