Editor’s note: In India, the use of English is a product of colonisation. It is a language that embodies colonial narratives about the country and its people.
Notably, it remained exclusive to Brahmin and Savarna writers until recently, and close examination of their writing reveals that they were often elitist and frequently prejudiced in their depiction of society. Where Dalit characters find mention, they appear as ‘subjects without history’, to use the term coined by Edward Said. Indian writing in English, therefore, rarely did serve the purpose that good literature is supposed to: to depict the lives of people through literary imagination.
With the emergence of Dalit literature, the lives and histories of the marginalised have gained representation. Since Dalit literature is written in several languages, translation into English is the only way its collective vision and ideals can be made available for the world to read. It has more to gain from translation than it has to lose.
This series will take a close look at 10 Dalit writers across Indian languages, and their works which have been translated into English. Read more here.
For many readers of the English language, encountering Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating My Chandal Life is nothing short of entering a world of magical realism. They gain a tumultuous yet meaningful tour of a world that is proximal but invisible to them, thus exposing their hypocrisy and/or chosen ignorance.
For me, reading Byapari’s autobiography is like revisiting some of my own pains and adventures, albeit in different times and settings. The intent here is not to draw comparisons, but I do wish to affirm that Byapari’s words have a potential seldom found in those of Indian authors who write in the English language.
Byapari writes in Bengali. In the English translation of his autobiography, it is not the power of the language that is most arresting — it is the merit and essence of his story, his experiences, the people who populate his narrative. It is his life as a Dalit that offers a meaningful sensibility and literary nourishment to the Indian literary world.
Note for instance, the manner in which he draws attention of the bhadralok (Savarnas) to the individuals who labour for them, but are rejected on the basis of the caste they were born into:
If you insist that you do not recognise me, let me explain myself in a little greater detail, so you will not feel that way anymore. When the darkness of unfamiliarity lifts, you will feel, why, yes, I do know this person. I have seen this man.
Byapari’s autobiography performs another stupendous feat: Observe how even the cruelest episode of Indian history — the Partition — has rarely been perceived through the prism of the Dalit community’s experiences. Interrogating My Chandal Life fills this vacuum of experiential reality in literature. Through Byapari’s words, we see how caste is the monster that haunts ‘untouchables’ during the crisis of Partition, whilst favouring Brahmins. In the chapter East Bengal, Partition and West Bengal, we hear Byapari’s voice patiently — and with searing emotion — portraying the dimensions of caste discrimination during Partition:
Of the uprooted people who had, like a tidal wave, rushed into this part of Bengal, there were clearly two kinds. One was the educated upper castes, those who are called the bhadraloks. And the other was poverty-stricken, illiterate, lower castes — the chhotoloks. The upper caste was unwilling to stay at the camps with the Muchi, the Nama, the Jele. Most of them, with the help of the caste Hindu officials or ministers in West Bengal, managed a space within or near Calcutta in the over one hundred and fifty colonies which sprang up on land that had been forcibly occupied by the refugees. Partly as a consequence of having some education, they could negotiate with the leaders, partly through the wily network of communal brotherhood and relatives they managed, with the active cooperation of the political leaders and bureaucrats to secure land and means of livelihood in this new land.
Byapari delves deep into the reality of discrimination and the hypocrisy of the bhadralok Brahmins, who considered themselves ‘progressive’ and Communists.
Thinking back on the very different endeavours of the Central Government and the Communist Party so many years later, I believe neither had really cared or felt any concern for the welfare of these refugees. It was opportunism, cunning and mercenary motives that had guided both.
Byapari’s story isn’t merely of the struggle to survive amid the caste-Communists from Bengal; it is also the story of a rebel who fought against hunger, humiliation and a castiest environment. His survival amid such conditions is in itself a protest against the oppressive system of caste — a fact his autobiography validates. It also transports us through aspects of a life most of us could neither imagine, nor wish to live.
As a child, Byapari worked at a tea shop, ferried goods at railway stations, became a khalasi for long distance trucks, then participated in the Naxalite movement, served time in prison, and drove rickshaws to survive. And he triumphed over it all. The insights he gleaned along this journey, the humility, the value for compassion, the need for practicing humanity — all of these inform his words. And their effect remains intact even when translated into languages Byapari himself does not know.
Some of the power of his writing also derives from Byapari being a storyteller of the tales that Brahmin India or the bhadralok would rather push into the darkness and forgotten recesses of history. Read how he sheds light on the Marichjhapi massacre (a bloody atrocity against Dalits, Namasudras, under the Communist regime) whilst courageously exposing the hypocrisy of the “Left-liberal” West Bengal government:
This uninhabited island was soon transformed into a bustling little town. Roads, schools, markets, bread factories and bidi factories sprang up here in no time. And all this happened with no help from anybody outside the island. The only plea the people had for the government was that they be allowed to remain on this island.
But this plea could hold meaning only for those who were humane. It left Jyoti Basu’s government unmoved, and they unleashed the police and their own political cadres on the refugees.
It is said that in the Marichjhapi massacre, thousands of Namasudras were murdered, raped, and starved to death. In Byapari’s own words:
The carnage continued from 31 January to 8 May, a long span of over three months while the conscience of awakened Bengal slept. The few refugees who remained alive returned as ordered to Dandakaranya, completely broken in body and spirit.
This bloody chapter from history was not immortalised by so-called progressive writers from the Left’s bastion, West Bengal. The reason is simple: For a Brahminical society, for the bhadralok, for Savarna writers, it is caste that decides the worth of a human life in literature as well. The higher the caste, the higher the worth; the lower the caste, the lower the worth. This tendency has also paralysed literary circles in India on the question of whose stories deserve a place in the national imagination.
What you read in Byapari’s stories, you couldn’t perhaps read elsewhere. Being a pioneer of Dalit literature in West Bengal, Manoranjan Byapari has ensured that the stories which were historically neglected and rejected by Brahminical literary pundits no longer need their mercy or even their attention. In his hands, the stories of the Dalit community have received liberation.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Updated Date: Sep 12, 2019 14:19:25 IST