Rahul Vishnoi reviews Manoranjan Byapari’s The Nemesis, translated into English by V. Ramaswamy (Published by Eka Westland, 2023)
At more than roughly 77%, India has the lion’s share of the world’s rural population. And yet, we have few books in the same vein; even fewer writers the likes of Manoranjan Byapari. (He was a rickshaw puller and a convict).
Byapari’s Chandal Jibon Trilogy is said to be loosely inspired by his life. The penultimate volume in the three-book series, ‘The Nemesis’ tracks Jibon, who now at the young age of twenty, finds himself in the tumultuous chaos of Bengal in the 70s where the Naxal movement is taking roots and violence, both state-sponsored and anti-state, is spilling into streets as well as insidiously sneaking into the homes of unsuspecting inhabitants of Kolkata.
There’s something visceral about a book that keeps its stakes low and grounded low as a daily meal. Food is driving the narrative here. It does the same for lakhs of people in this country. Working as daily wage labourers, Jibon, his father and his brothers earn much less than they deserve. Jibon’s household, even on good days, eats once a day and that day is considered a lucky one.
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Manoranjan Byapari and His Writing
The protagonist’s father and grandfather writes Byapari, were fishermen, drummers and palanquin-bearers. But the turn of the time had rendered all these jobs obsolete. Byapari sums up the misery of those whose jobs have been vanquished:
‘Although time eventually took over and bade farewell to everything, no one had been able to make hunger disappear, or bid it farewell.’
The second recurring leitmotif in the Manoranjan Byapari’s work is caste. He brings it casually, in dialogues and hits the reader with a hammer of words in the chest. Jibon is brought to a cook as a helper, who advises him to not use his real name.
‘Truth doesn’t feed you. You haven’t been possessed by any Yudhisthira that you can’t lie! There’s nothing wrong with the name you use, but just make sure you mention a high-caste title. After all, it’s cooking. If you mention “chandal” and so on, people won’t eat what you touch.’
When Jibon is caught lying about his caste in a Brahmin household, he’s beaten and made to rub his face in mud and crawl.
Manoranjan Byapari is caustic in his criticism of the ‘Bhadralok’ of Bengal- the educated and refined class. They don’t want to be seen as equals of the poor. Even their kids are venomous at a young age. I however found a jarring casual disdain to Muslims in Byapari’s writing.
He causally links eating non-vegetarian food with Muslims which an author of his popularity and significance must eschew. ‘The fondness of babus is like a Muslim who raises chickens. He feeds you grain one moment, and slits your throat the next.’
Manoranjan Byapari’s writing simmers with the injustice meted out to the poor day in and day out. The story is peppered with incidents where a person of privilege is underpaying a manual labourer, often leading to the abrupt appearance of a saviour who goes on to jolt the perpetrator into a forced justice. These parts, although thoroughly entertaining, occasionally feel like a part of a masala potboiler.
Recommended Reads: There’s Gunpowder in the Air by Manoranjan Byapari
Sample his writing here-
‘Vivekananda Babu had never imagined that something like this could happen. People wearing expensive clothes threatened others, while poor folk heard the threat in silence—that was the norm.’
Byapari’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, despite flaunting a violent streak, is immensely likeable. The author has crafted Jibon Chandal with a sense of literary cunning that belongs in the highest echelons of storytellers.
He is thin, hungry and forever angry: describes his worrying mother Bimala. His anger more than his hunger nags at her. She fears lest he bears the brunt of the unrest of the times, fears for his life more than she worries about his satiety.
In a moving statement, where Jibon unsuccessfully tries to explain to his mother why he doesn’t want to go out and do physical labour, he laments—
‘I worked until my hands and feet began to rot in the water, and yet I did not get paid. After carrying loads the whole month, I was shown the thumb when I went to collect my salary. After burning in the fire and getting boiled in the heat all day, I had to rub my face in the earth and crawl. I can’t accept such work anymore.’
Manoranjan Byapari’s sarcasm is sharper than a madman’s machete. Referring to the incidents of rape and murders of the household helps, he writes that if the sword is to be blamed then the neck can’t escape. It has to be blamed too. Why did it stick out? Why didn’t the neck make itself so strong that the sword broke? Why didn’t it move itself out of the way of the sword?
With fire and coal for words, Manoranjan Byapari holds the injustice and humiliation of the weaker sections of the country to the front. The novel, meticulously translated by V. Ramaswamy from Bengali, is chilling and makes you squirm for having led a privileged existence.
It’s only apt to end with the author’s lines—
‘This was a life that continued merely because death had not arrived as if one was alive only because death had disregarded them and turned its face away. A life in which death had to come, not honourably but furtively, like a thief, its face concealed, on tiptoe, silently. Where was the need for such a life?’
Have you read this powerful mosaic of caste and violence? What do you think of it? Drop a comment below and let us know!