Book Title: The Runaway Boy by Manoranjan Byapari, Translated by V. Ramaswamy
Published by: Eka/Westland Publications
Fiction: Literary Fiction, Translation
The first part of Byapari’s semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels begins in East Pakistan. It tells the story of little Jibon, who arrives at a refugee camp in West Bengal as an infant in the arms of his Dalit parents escaping from the Muslim-majority nation. Devoid of the customary sweetness of a few drops of honey at his birth, he grows up perpetually hungry for hot rice in the camp where the treatment meted out to dispossessed families like his is deplorable.
Jibon runs away when he is barely thirteen to Calcutta because he has heard that money flies in the air in the big city. His wildly innocent imagination makes him believe that he can go out into the world, find work and bring back food for his starving siblings and clothes for his mother whose only sari is in tatters. And once he leaves home, through the travels of this starving, bewildered but gritty boy, we witness a newly independent India as it grapples with communalism and grave disparities of all kinds.
We have seen boys like Jibon hanging from the open doors of train carriages, loafing about on station platforms, washing dishes at roadside dhabas, peering at you through your car windows at traffic signals. In this deeply affecting novel, you see a Chandal, Namasudra boy in all these places. You are exposed to his fears, his grit, his spirit for survival, all through Byapari’s inimitable gaze.
About the Author:
Manoranjan Byapari is a Bengali writer and socio-political activist who is known as the pioneer of Dalit literature in Bengali. He has been a former convict for Naxal links and worked as a Rickshaw puller and cook. The author has penned a dozen novels and over a hundred short stories, apart from non-fiction essays and won The Hindu Literary Prize in non-fiction for his memoir ‘Interrogating my Chandal Life’.
About the Translator:
- Ramaswamy is a non-fiction writer and translator based in Kolkata, India. He has also been an activist working for the rights of the labouring poor.
The Runaway Boy by Manoranjan Byapari is a testament to the unseen lives of the many in the country today who live completely exploited by the forces of caste, class, religion. The first of a semi autobiographical trilogy, it captures a socio political landscape through the story of Jibon and his family who are displaced and dispossessed when the Partition between India and then East Pakistan takes them to a new land with old prejudices.
The narrative scope of Byapari is a stunning capture that throws light on casteism and communal ties and fissures: from the mythological and socio-cultural context of how certain castes came to be considered lesser than others to how families are torn apart after religious conversions that are manufactured by events. It takes readers to the bowels of an unequal society that feeds off the poor and the oppressed and leaves you gutted. It is a story of hunger: what the smell of cooked rice can mean to the poorest and how it nourishes the stomach so much as the mind. Byapari’s words evoke the texture of rice and the stench that little Jibon and his family have to overlook because they are getting Government dole.
The Runaway Boy is a powerful work that tells it like it is: when Byapari shines a light on the preferential treatment meted out by officials to people displaced by the partition when they are being rehabilitated, it makes you sit up and take a long look at how various privileges are kept intact through the sheer exploitation of others. Jibon’s life begins on a tenous note: there is no honey to feed him at birth and later, everyone at the camp sits around waiting for his last breath like the many other cases when a cholera outbreak takes place. He survives and later, he tries to beat every single hurdle in his way with ‘Charaibeti, charaibeti’ (Keep moving, keep moving on!) ringing firmly at the core of his being as he runs away from home and goes through a series of life experiences that can leave a lesser being forlorn and broken.
The name of the central protagonist Jibon and what it means (Life) should not be lost on readers, nor should his struggles and journey into the everyday uncertainties that come in his way. Jibon’s struggles with poverty and hunger on one side and people and circumstances waiting to pounce on him at every step gives one cause to examine the flawed socio economic systems in place. Byapari’s writing is sharp and evocative and he is in form when he questions social inequalities as much as when he pulls at your fundamental emotional core, leaving you a bit shaken. The translation by V Ramaswamy adds to the tone and mood of the writing and there are passages where the original Bengali has been used followed by the translated text that adds flavor to the narrative flow.
This is one book that is many genres in one: it is semi autobiographical, it is set in a socio historical backdrop, it is also a coming of age story but more than anything, it is a book that keeps you emotionally invested while giving you much to think about. Make this an essential read this year.