Chandal Jibon (2009) is the story of Jibon, a boy born into the hitherto ‘untouchable’ Chandal (or Namasudra) community in East Bengal, whose parents flee from East Pakistan and arrive as refugees in India. The story of the boy’s journey to adulthood – is also the story of the experience of the subaltern Bengali refugee community and of caste oppression, humiliation and violence, providing a trenchant bottom-up view of post-1947 Bengal and of Calcutta in the turbulent Naxalite era. It is a tale of the indomitable human will to survive.
In this excerpt from Manoranjan Byapari’s novel, Chandal Jibon, the author writes about the abysmal and inhuman living conditions and treatment of low-caste refugees from East Pakistan in the early 1950s in the Shiromanipur camp in West Bengal. V. Ramaswamy translates.
Poets live in a world of imagination. They create an imaginary universe of their own with the help of beautiful words. Thus, with great ease they can write, ‘all the birds return to their nests, all journeys come to an end’. They don’t end, not all journeys come to an end. Some journeys are interminable. And the bird whose breast is pierced by an arrow, whose wings are torn in a storm, cannot fly. It cannot return to its nest.
All these uprooted folk had set out on a road that had no end. Their journey would only lead them to a dead-end of unbearable humiliation and unspeakable agony. Who was responsible for that? Arrogant social leaders who lacked any farsightedness; political leaders with evil designs who were greedy for power – whoever it may be, it was not the people who were on the road now.
The Bedford lorry arrived at a place and came to a halt. The driver got down, and addressing Garib, Subol and Radhakanta, thundered out an order in Hindi – “Everyone get off! We’ve arrived at the camp!”
Temporary shelters had been created for the uprooted folk on a huge expanse of land. Red-coloured tents were crammed into the whole area, with an arrangement to house about seven thousand families. The camp was called Shiromanipur. This was in Bankura, a district of West Bengal. On one side was a dense forest of saal, which had been planted painstakingly by the forest department. Scattered here and there on the other side lay mango orchards, all in a state of neglect. On the third side lay two nearly dilapidated buildings of the former aerodrome, with a large runway for planes to take off and land. And opposite that was an immense field. Across the field, far away, was a Santhal village, where a few thousand utterly poor people belonging to a primitive tribe lived. The Shiromanipur camp was situated within these four boundaries. Scattered all over the camp were large structures, made of bricks, stones and concrete. All these collapsed structures bore testimony to the fact that people had lived here earlier, who were not the indigenous people, they had not been destitute. They were affluent enough to live in pukka houses. Who were they? One guessed that they belonged to the Indian army.
Bishnupur, the principal town of Bankura district, was not more than eight or ten miles away. It had once been the capital of the powerful Malla kings. The old palace was still there. The famous cannon at the entrance of the palace had been witness to the valour and glory of the Malla kings. There had once been a fierce battle between the Malla king and the English army. Who knows, perhaps this secret outpost had been built by them in the middle of the forest, not far from Bishnupur, because it was necessary for the battle. Alternatively, it was also possible that the call to revolt by the heroic Santhal warriors, Sidhu Kanhu, had agitated the indigenous folk here. They had attacked the representatives of the Raj with bows and arrows, axes and spears, with the objective of ousting the English rulers. Perhaps the English army had gathered here to defeat the rebellious braves.
Whatever may have been the reason for locating a military outpost here, those who were here last were probably soldiers of the Sikh regiment, during the Second World War. It was they who had given the region the name, Shiromanipur, in order to retain their religious memory. Those soldiers were no longer there. Only collapsed structures lay in the place given a name by them.
It was about four in the afternoon now. The sun was as hot as it had been earlier. All the refugees unloaded their respective belongings from the truck and huddled under the shade of a mango tree. The office and residential quarters of the government officials were right in front of where the truck had stopped. There were sheds with tin-sheet walls and roofs, which housed clinics, warehouses and dining halls. Looking at the appearance of the sheds, one could surmise that all these were temporary structures, erected in a hurry for immediate use.
In one shed, a man with a thick register was sitting in front of a dirty wooden table. He was dark-skinned and dressed in a white shirt. He had a round face and big eyes, and was bespectacled, with tufts of hair on his ears, nostrils and arms. Another man fanned him uninterruptedly with a large palm leaf fan. He was also a refugee, who had arrived a few days ago. He had volunteered to be a servant-at-large so that he could earn two or five rupees a month.
After a while the dark-skinned babu who was being fanned shouted out, “Line! Everyone stand in line and come forward!” He addressed them not as apni or even tumi, but tui – the way educated, high-caste people addressed the average illiterate, low-caste, impoverished person. Not with respect, or fellow-feeling, but contempt.
What’s your name?
What’s your address? From which district, police station and village have you come?
What’s your occupation?
How many family-members? Tell me each one’s name and age.
Thirty families had just arrived by truck. More were likely to arrive. If they did not arrive today, they’d come tomorrow. Or else the day after. Those who dwelt in the political universe knew that many trucks like this would arrive now. A few hundred camps had been set up all over the Indian state of West Bengal. This camp had been set up after those were full. There were three more camps like this in nearby Basudebpur. The one in Shiromanipur was the fourth camp in the region.
Garib Das was eighth in the queue for registration of names. Behind him were the others in his group. After completing the registration, he went and sat below a tree. How could he leave until everyone’s details had been recorded! But the dark-skinned babu took so long to enter the names and personal details of the few people that it seemed he wanted to spend the rest of the day doing that. On the other side, the fiery sun burning overhead all day long had finally penetrated Garib Das’ head. And the fire beneath his feet was now setting his stomach on fire too. Early in the morning, just before they boarded the lorry, volunteers of the Sevashram Sangha had distributed some chira and jaggery, which he had not been able to eat more than a couple of handfuls of, for want of water. Since then he had gone without food all day. Now, hungry and thirsty, he felt extremely weak.
Evening had descended. But the final light of the day still remained. After recording everyone’s names, the dark-skinned babu rose and gave Garib Das a piece of paper that was supposedly a ration card. “Go, show this at the godown and collect rice and dal…” Rice and dal was obtained, some salt was obtained. This was called ‘dole’. And each family was provided a tent. They showed where the tent was to be erected. The dark-skinned babu explained in his own fashion, “From now on, you lot have become ghar-jamais of the Indian government! Eat and have fun!”
Garib, Subol, Radhakanta and Gagan erected their tents next to one another. They helped each other to pitch the tents. They managed to create a shelter to lay their heads under.
It had been four or five days since Garib had left his village and country. In all these days, he had not laid eyes on any rice. He had survived on chira and jaggery. Now, after receiving the rice and dal, it was as if his heart was dancing in joy. The rice was reddish and thick-grained, mixed with grit and dust. That may be, but whatever it was and however it might be, it was rice after all. Another name for which was ‘Goddess Lakshmi’s grain’. Lakshmi’s grain ought not to be frowned upon. Garib had heard from his father that the one who frowned upon Lakshmi’s grain invited Lakshmi’s ire: he would starve to death. He had learnt to revere Lakshmi’s grain – food – as a child, from his father. When Garib was a little boy, their situation was better and food was cooked twice a day in his house. They had some paddy land then, from which they got their yearlong requirement of rice. Garib’s mother used to cook the rice. When the rice began to boil noisily, it was as if life itself blossomed with its aroma. Har Kumar used to lay the floor-seat on the verandah of the large room, and sit down on that to eat. He wasn’t just eating, it was like puja, an act of worship. He never uttered a word then. First, taking some drops from a glass of water, he sprinkled it in a circle around the plate. After that, taking some of the hot rice in the tips of his fingers, he knocked his forehead with his knuckles, muttering the names, Mother Lakshmi, Mother Annapurna – the provider of food – before putting that to his mouth. ‘Mother you have granted us food today, grant us the same tomorrow as well, Mother.’ Even if a single grain of rice fell off the plate, he carefully picked it up. Garib Das was like his father. He too had the same devotion and reverence for food. And yet, why did he have to experience such disappointment regarding rice all his life? Why was Lakshmi, Annapurna, not kind to him? He did not know what sin he had committed, to make her turn her face away from him.
He said to his wife, Bimala, “Hey, do you hear me? I’ll take care of the unpacking in a little while. But organize the cooking first. I’m dying of hunger. I’m going to look for some firewood and dry leaves from the jungle there. You can make a cooking-place with some stones.”
Bimala was fair-skinned and petite. Despite the myriad deprivations and starvations, she was still pretty. Her eyes were like twin pools, full of natural simplicity. When she spoke, her voice brimmed with the diffidence of ages. Her mother had taught her – “Girls shouldn’t speak loudly, shouldn’t walk fast, and shouldn’t raise their eyes to look at anyone. For that matter, even while speaking to your husband, speak in an impersonal voice. Not directly. Because that’s impudent. That’s modesty, meaning, shame. It’s a woman’s ornament.”
Responding to Garib, Bimala therefore addressed her son – who had just begun to walk – “Tell your father not to go too far into the unfamiliar and unknown forest. And he should return quickly. Once he’s back, I’ll leave you with him and go to fetch water. I can’t cook without water.”
A few hand-pumps had been installed in the camp to meet the water requirements of the people there. Other than that, there was no trace of water anywhere. Bathing, washing, cooking and drinking, were all from the same source. Consequently, all day, for that matter, until late at night, there was a long queue at the hand-pump. Garib returned to his tent with the firewood he had foraged. But by the time Bimala had fetched water after standing in queue, washed all the utensils and began to cook, it was night. Garib squatted at the entrance of the tent, biding time in eager hope, a void as vast as the sky in his belly. When would food be ready! When would the belly get hot rice! In time, the fire was lit and the rice began to boil – but after that it kept cooking. The rice did not get cooked at all. It was as if it wasn’t rice but bits of stone! After an hour and a half, it was still the same. Suddenly the smell of rice boiling in water hit Garib’s nose. It had not come in this direction so far because the wind had been in the other direction. As soon as he smelt it, Garib stood up, startled. What’s this? Where’s that unforgettable entrancing aroma of rice? The aroma that made the very air delightful, and brought the dying back to life! The aroma for which the hungry man forsakes a fragrant garden of flowers! But this smells sour and rotten, gives you a headache! It stinks! It makes one sick to smell it, makes one want to vomit! As the smell emanated from every tent, a veritable storm assailed people’s noses, making all those who had arrived today wonder: How can I eat this? Will I stay alive if I eat this?
Such thoughts did not remain for very long in Garib’s mind. He consoled himself – it’s nothing. Whatever it may smell like, after all its rice. Rice means life, rice means God’s prasad. One must not find fault with it. The stomach had to be filled first with this. Good and bad can come later.
After the cooking was done, Bimala served the rice on the enamel plate and placed it in front of Garib Das, and then poured some dal over that. Just like the rice that hadn’t dissolved, the grains of dal too stared out. As the cooking had taken a long time, the firewood had run out, and so the dal could not be inspected to see if it was done. Was it the dal’s fault that it hadn’t dissolved, or was it because of the water!
Like his father, Garib poured a few drops of water from the enamel glass into the cup of his palm, and sprinkled it in a circle around his plate … After they had crossed the India border, a Marwari social service organization had distributed a plate and glass to each person in the group. Actually, they were greedy to earn merit. They arrived wherever there were people in distress – in the hope of earning merit. Whether it was drought, or floods, or epidemics, they landed up in the affected region with relief materials. Their constant prayer to God: O Lord, don’t do anything whereby there’s no more need to provide relief to people. Just carry on doing your work, and give us so much money that all these people feel blessed with just a tiny bit from that!
After the invocation and symbolic offering to the deity, as Garib brought the first handful of rice mixed with dal to his mouth, the smell that shot out and assailed his nose made Garib realize that, let alone eating to one’s heart’s content, even stuffing it into the mouth somehow, merely to assuage the stomach’s craving, was a loathsome task. After swallowing three or four handfuls – driven by hunger – when he was about to take the next handful to his mouth, he felt as if his stomach was revolting. Yet he put the handful to his mouth – and at once it seemed a violent resistance sprang from his belly. He puked uncontrollably, right on the plate of rice.
It wasn’t just Garib Das. Subol, Radhakanta and Gagan were all in the same condition. Everyone was shocked – ‘What’s this they’ve given us, which only looks like rice? Do human-folk eat this? Can they?’ Carrying their plates of rice, they rushed to the dark-skinned babu. “What kind of rice have you given us? Won’t complain about the dust and stones, but the foul smell … How can we eat this rice?”
Although the dark-skinned babu was annoyed, he did not express that. He laughed, and speaking softly, explained to them. “Tell me what can I do. We can only give you the rice and dal that the government sends us, isn’t it? I didn’t grow this in my field, did I! I’ve given you the rice that we received. If the next consignment consists of basmati rice, I’ll give you that. Just put up with the difficulty for a few days and eat it. It’s said, isn’t it – that health is above everything else, whatever it takes! Eat it, and after a few days you’ll get used to it. At first, for a couple of days, you’ll vomit a bit, your bowels will empty a couple of times. But don’t worry, nothing more than that. Then you’ll see you’re fine.” Pausing to laugh, he continued, “After all you aren’t scions of any zamindars, you’re peasant-folk. If you ate to your fill one day, the next day you couldn’t. If you die eating the rice – I’m not saying you’ll die, that’s just an expression – if you die, then at least you wouldn’t have died of starvation, you’d have died eating rice. Tell me, aren’t you truly fortunate!” He laughed again.
The dark-skinned babu knew – because people had eaten this rice earlier too, and the same had happened to them. After eating it, several people suffered loose motions. In a few days, some people recovered. Those whose powers of resistance were weak, would die. More refugees would arrive, and eventually the number of those who were not dead would only increase.
That night, seeing Garib sit at his plate and suffer as he tried to eat what was inedible, Bimala felt terrible. She said – “Son, tell your father to take the Lord’s name, hold his nose and swallow it down.” And Garib had said to himself inwardly as he stared at his plate, “Oh dear life, how you wept all these years for rice. And today you won’t eat even after getting it! Eat, oh life, eat and fill your belly. If you die eating this rice, so be it. So many die for not being able to eat, why don’t you eat and die!”
So Garib held his nose and swallowed that black meal down with water. He did not puke now. However, as the night advanced, he had an unbearable stomach-ache, and a rumbling sound emanated from his stomach. Even before it was morning, he had to rush out to defecate. Later in the morning, he found out how the others near him were. Someone or the other from the thirty newly-arrived families was rushing, with a pot in hand, towards the field. They realized, after wasting five or seven pots, that water too was precious here. Then they began tearing and using saal leaves instead of water.
While people were engaged in a fierce, deadly battle against the rice provided to them, and it hadn’t yet been determined who would emerge victor and who would lose – they were inattentive to the attack of yet another enemy. The angry sun of the month of Baisakh shone with great fury upon the wax-impregnated tents, which became terribly hot. In the afternoon, the inside of the tent became as hot as a blacksmith’s furnace. People wanted to rush out of the tent, and go somewhere outside, to recover, in some cool shade. But where could they go! The saal forest was quite far away, and the little bit of shade under the mango trees had already been appropriated by those whose tents were pitched in the mango orchard. Lacking any other option, most of the people were compelled to stay inside the hot tent. All these people, who had been nurtured all their lives by the relatively pleasant climate of the marshlands, were unable to withstand this fierce two-pronged attack. The death rate of those who were a bit weak, like infants and the aged, and especially the infants –rose like anything. Almost every night, from some tent or the other, one heard the ear-splitting wails of mothers who had lost their children – ‘O my precious gem, golden one, O God, where have you gone leaving your mother behind!’
In the midst of such a terrifying time, Garib’s son – who had been named Jibon, meaning ‘life’ – fell very sick. When Garib became sick, it took eight or ten days for him to recover. Bimala recovered in less time, in just five days. But there was no sign of Jibon recovering. His condition worsened by the day. It had begun with watery motions, after a few days it turned into amoebic dysentery. After that, he began passing blood. He had a high fever. As soon as he squatted to defecate, his bowel emerged and jutted out. The bowel, red like the flowers on the cashew-nut tree, used to hang out until it was pushed back inside by hand.
This continued for about three weeks. The virulence of the disease kept increasing by the day. Finally, the little infant, who should have been running and jumping around all day on his tiny feet in his family courtyard – lay wilted on the bed, like a lifeless, severed stem of pui-spinach. He didn’t move, didn’t cry or speak. He simply lay with his mouth agape. Saliva oozed from his mouth. Flies sat on his face, licking the saliva.
There’s no hope, thought Garib.
There was no count of the number of unsung children in the camp whom Yama had laid on the funeral pyre. It was like an endless procession of death. A thousand or twelve hundred families had arrived by now. It was doubtful whether there was a single household where Yama had taken pity on the family members. Whether it was someone’s mother or father, or son or daughter – someone or the other had surely perished. There was a pond about a mile and a half to the north of the camp. The water was only knee-deep there. The dead bodies were taken to its bank for cremation. But because there were so many deaths, wood became scarce. There was no dry wood to be found in the forest. So there were no more pyres. All the dead bodies were buried. With so much weeping all around, all the tears in people’s eyes seemed to have run dry. Hearing all the wailing, people’s hearts had turned to stone, devoid of feeling. The ear-splitting screams of distress did not seem to disturb the night’s tranquility so much. People sobbed in secret, and waited for their own turn to arrive. They had not known that the lives that they had sought to protect so crazily could depart amidst such neglect and apathy.
So many people were dying in the camps – but what were the doctors doing? There was nothing they could do. Only medicines could do something. But where were the medicines! There were only three kinds of medicines in the doctor’s clinic. There was a white syrup in a large bottle, looking a bit like lime dissolved in water. In another bottle was a red liquid, the colour of alta. And in a third jar were white tablets. If someone had a cut or a swelling or a burn, the doctor applied the red medicine, using cotton wool, and gave a few tablets. He said, “Take two tablets a day for three days. If you haven’t recovered by then, come again.” If someone had fever, stomach-ache, dysentery or any other kind of ailment, the doctor poured out some of the lime-water into the bottle they brought with them, gave them two tablets, and told them the same thing: “If you haven’t recovered in three days, come again.”
No one was cured with these medicines. Garib Das’ son, Jibon, did not recover either. He became more and more sick. One day, Garib fell into great anxiety seeing his son’s condition. The way a stream of fresh blood gushed out of his body – it didn’t seem he would survive the might. With her son on her bosom, the sleepless mother, Bimala, sat like a stone image. The light of Jibon’s life faded away little by little. An unceasing stream of tears flowed from a corner of the mother’s eyes as she gazed at her son. Tears – colourless, flavourless and unreasonable too. She didn’t realize they had no value at this time. They achieved nothing at all.
Feeling utterly helpless and incapable, Garib Das squatted at the entrance of their tent. Before his eyes, his son was slowly sliding towards death, and yet he was unable to do anything. In order to suppress his inner anguish, every now and then he got up and paced up and down. Neither he nor his wife were in good health. But that did not matter to them. They only had one prayer now: “Oh God I beseech you for my son’s life.”
Garib Das had no close relatives in this camp. Some of his brothers had crossed the border a long time ago and gone to another camp. When Garib left his country, the few distant relatives who were with him had all scattered in different directions. Some of them found shelter in Camps 1, 2 or 3 in Basudevpur, some in Garbeta and some in Piyardoba. And some had in their destiny the camps in Ghutiari Sharif, Ghola or Doltala, in the southern part of the district of Twenty-four Parganas.
Uprooted refugee folk found shelter in dozens of camps like these spread across West Bengal. But even if there were no kinfolk of one’s own, the grief, suffering, mental anguish and above all, anxiety about the uncertain future, had bound one person to another in bonds of kinship. Now they all belonged to one another.
In Garib Das’ tent, Yama and man were locked in struggle. The night arrived with her face veiled by a black burqa, her eyes smeared with the nightmare of death. Because death, and those who worshipped death, had come to take the life of such a tiny infant, they needed concealment. They had concealment alright – that of the dense saal forest. No one had the slightest inkling about what transpired, day after day, in this faraway region, cut off by forest from the rest of the world. Day was darker than night here. Thousands of people here were sick. Only one doctor had been assigned to them. By way of medicines, he had a red one and a white one – two kinds of liquid. In such conditions, people had to die. That’s why Subol, Radhakanta and Gagan, from the adjacent tents, stayed up at night, their hearts full of anxiety. Garib Das’ son was dying. He would not see the sunrise next morning. How could a neighbour fall asleep in such a fearful time?
Coming out silently from his tent, Subol Sutar slowly went and stood before Garib Das. He whispered, as if he was talking about a secret matter – “How’s the boy now?”
How else would he be! Suppressing his tears, Garib said, “He’s still there. But it’s time. He won’t be around very long.”
“Don’t say that! You’re his father. Call out to God. He is the only Master. If God wills, your son will recover, he’ll live for a hundred years!”
Subol Sutar consoled Garib Das, and then he headed towards Radhakanta’s tent. He called him softly, “Hey, Radha-da, have you fallen asleep?”
“What’s up? I’m awake. Is it time to go?”
“No, he’s still alive. It looks like he’ll be gone by daybreak. Come, let’s go to the office and get a spade and pick. We should get those and keep it ready. Or else we may not get it when it’s needed. What if someone takes it before us – we’ll have to wait then.”
When all these people gave up their country and came away, they were unable to carry with then a lot of valuable household items. Nothing besides their own lives and the lives of their family members and relatives’ seemed important then. Consequently, no one thought to take along a pick or spade, which were needed everyday now. However, the thoughtful government had arranged for that. If they didn’t do that, what would happen to the dead bodies when there was no more wood to be found in the forest? People would throw them here and there. That would be improper.
But now, with a few hours left for daybreak, Radhakanta felt hesitant to wake up the sleeping watchman and get the pick and spade. He said, “We won’t have to wait. Do you think they have only one or two picks and spades in the godown? Let it happen first, we’ll go there after that.”
There were plenty of spades in the godown, but there also plenty of people needing those. Everyone rushed to get them when needed, but not to return them. Subol said, “I tell you, let’s go and have it ready before day breaks.”
“We’ll go later, sit down for a while. We’ll go when we hear Bimala weeping.”
Subol squatted in front of Radhakanta’s tent and lit a beedi. He puffed on the beedi but his ears were alert. Slowly the night advanced towards dawn. But Bimala did not start weeping.
Radhakanta said, “Such a tiny boy, yet he’s battling so bravely with death. His condition has been very bad for the last four or five days. Even Garib Das did not think he would survive the night.”
Subol said, “We can’t keep sitting. Let me go and lie down a bit. I’ll get up when the weeping and wailing begins.”
No one thought Jibon would live. His parents’ anticipation of the final moment, the neighbours’ mental preparation for the final journey – despite all that, and without a drop of any medicine, who knows how, tiny Jibon survived the night. Which was a matter of great astonishment for everyone. How was it possible! Perhaps it was such boys that people swore at, calling them ‘Yama’s disgust’. Whom nothing could kill! Who lay dying – and then survived!
After surviving that night, Jibon lived. But the way he lived throughout his life – could that really be called living!
Cover image (of the author): Sayandeb Bandyopadhyay, Truth and Fiction.
Manoranjan Byapari was born in 1950, in Barisal (in erstwhile East Pakistan), and came to West Bengal, India, in the aftermath of partition. As a child in a Dalit refugee family, his childhood was spent tending to cows and goats and working in roadside tea shops and restaurants, and so he could not attend school. Thereafter he worked as a casual labourer, sweeper, night-watchman, lorry-helper and rickshaw-puller. He was jailed in connection with political activity, where he learnt to read and write. A chance encounter with the acclaimed writer, Mahasweta Devi, in 1981 – when she sat as a passenger on his cycle-rickshaw – led him to start writing. She published his autobiographical piece in her Bengali journal, Bortika. Byapari has written twelve novels and over a hundred short stories, besides essays and poems. He was awarded the Suprova Majumdar Memorial Prize by the Bangla Academy for his autobiography in 2012.
V. Ramaswamy has translated two collections of short fiction by the iconic Bengali anti-establishment writer, Subimal Misra,The Golden Gandhi Statue from America and Wild Animals Prohibited and a third, Anti-Novel, is forthcoming. The translator gratefully acknowledges the Literature Across Frontiers – Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative Writing & Translation at Aberystwyth University for enabling the translation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.