Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > Memoirs of Chandal Jeevan: An Underdog’s Story

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 17, April 13, 2013

Memoirs of Chandal Jeevan: An Underdog’s Story

Sunday 14 April 2013, by A K Biswas


Itibritte Chandal Jeevan, Vol. I by Manoranjan Byapari; Priya Sipla Prakashan, Kolkata; Rs 250.


Uncommon Memoirs

He is no pedigree, nor has any pillar of support. He does not rest on the laurels of ancestral tradition of letters. Nonetheless he is a unique phenomenon with no parallel in Bengali literature, if not in Indian literature. His arrival at the centre of the glittering world of creative Bengali literature and adulation in train has left his readers and critics overwhelmed. He is a gatecrasher with backbreaking burden of experiences of life he lived in dark and stifling alleys, strewn with filth, carcasses, faeces, dirt and danger; traversing through garbage dumps and sewers of cities, towns and suburbs. An outcast, he is the invader of an arena and exponent of a theme that Bengali readers hitherto were either ignorant of or unaccustomed to. Surprisingly bold in contents, unsophisticated though in style and unrestrained in narrative, he has made a spectacular mark.

Manoranjan Byapari articulates pangs of his pain, hatred, cruelties, discrimination and degra-dation. His narrative is simple but compelling: he drives his readers through a dreary land of poverty, hunger, humiliation, unemployment, illiteracy, anarchy, crime, gangsterism, deception, political betrayal, turmoil, hypocrisy etc.—all rolled into a 459-page autobiography in Bengali, under the rubric Itibritte Chandal Jeevan. He focuses on the reverse side of the social spectrum with rare candour and frankness, tearing into shreds and throwing to the winds the glossy tapestry of deception and polished hypocrisy. In the face of indomitable adversities, he delivers a powerful message—a message of hope. He exemplifies elegantly that human endeavour and perse-verance has no parallel and that human spirit in an awakened soul can conquer the most formidable obstacle.

A refugee from East Pakistan, he is a rolling stone. Manoranjan’s burden of experiences is not only uncommon or multiple but also mind-boggling. He was a cowherd, dishwasher, teastall boy, cook, jailbird, labourer and munshi for road construction projects, loco workshop labour, godown darwan, sweeper-cum-scavenger, bookseller and rickshaw-puller. An illiterate, the writer was lodged in the Alipur Special Jail and Presidency Jail for two years.

In Dandakaranya, Manoranjan collected firewood from forests for a living. He worked as a crematorium guard and a forest chowkidar in Naxal-infested Chhattisgarh. He came in close touch with and won the confidence and affection of Shankar Guha Neogi, the legendary labour leader in the tribal belts of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Neogi’s murder by contract killers at his own home left an indelible imprint on the writer. He travelled ticketless thousands of miles in trains in search of employment in Darjeeling, Assam, Uttar Pradesh etc. A hungry ticketless traveller, he fervently longed to be arrested, hoping for food in custody.

A police constable committed unnatural offence on him in Lucknow, a calamity he had fought twice before. He came face to face with death at least thrice. While others might have got pulverised under the crushing weight of adversities, the writer stood against everything as a granite and defied all odds. He brings the entire spectrum of his traumatic experiences to bear on his memoirs. His song undoubtedly is the universal theme for the disadvantaged.

The central character of a Hindi novel by a Sahitya Academy award winner has been modelled on him. (p. 406) A collection of Bengali Dalit writings, including that of Manoranjan Byapari, is under publication by the Oxford University Press. (p. 446 ) Many prominent men and women, including academicians, have befriended him. This is Manoranjan Byapari and, in short, his story.


Life in Shiromanipur Refugee Camp

The writer introduces himself as a Chandal, renamed in 1911 as Namasudra, who are the lowliest in the hierarchical Bengali caste order. Hailing from village Turukkhali, Barisal district of former East Pakistan, he, barely a-year-old, reached West Bengal with his refugee parents in 1953. Like millions of Indians, he does not know his date of birth, a gift of illiteracy. His depiction of six years of his life in a refugee camp at Shiromanipur, district Bankura, West Bengal is harrowing. The transit camps, set up by the government for refugees fleeing from East Pakistan in the aftermath of partition, lacked the barest facilities. A 8’x6’ tent was packed with a family of five-to-seven members. Four camps at Shiromanipur sheltered 15,000-20,000 refugees. Two tubewells (hand-pumps) were installed to meet their overall daily requirements of water for wash, bath, drinking, cooking etc. All along the day, men and women queued up before the tubewells to collect water. Latrines, toilets or baths were considered unnecessary there. Thousands of inmates, male and female—old or young, son and daughter, brother and sister—without exception trooped to the open spaces around the camps for defecation and/or urination, giving goodbye to their sensitivity, sense of shame, respect or dignity.

A solitary doctor detailed there had no medicines for patients suffering from even serious diseases. His stock of medicines comprised two bottles of liquids, one red and other white, which were indiscriminately dispensed to every patient suffering from headache to jaundice, pneumonia to TB and so on. So death visited every tent and spared no family. No arrangement for funeral of dead bodies of the refugees was deemed important by the authorities. And if any refugee nonetheless survived the ravages of the diseases and apathy of administration, it was a sheer miracle!

All of a sudden one day, cash payments, called dole and dry ration, were suspended and the refugees were told to go to Dandakaranya. The Shiromanipur transit camps mainly sheltered the labouring castes, for example, the Namasudras, Pods, Kamars (blacksmiths), Kumhars (potters), Jolahas (weavers), Haris (sweepers), Muchis (cobblers), etc.—all of low social strata. (pp. 32-39) The writer laments that no touch of human feelings, compassion or appreciation in handling the issues of refugee rehabilitation was visible either in the government or among public leaders. Destiny made them pawns in the hands of ambitious, calculative and foresighted leaders. The experiences of horrors of the camp over-shadowed the writer’s entire life. Partition of India gave a convenient tool in the hands of the political masters and bureaucrats to segregate the refugees based on traditional social or caste identity and perpetuate the divide on lines ordained by the Hindu scriptures! The curse of Dandakaranya and the tragedies of Marichjhapi awaited one segment while the other was blissfully ignorant of those calamities.

Urban Rehabilitation of Refugees

Manoranjan Byapari tells us that the bhadralok, the euphemism for the Brahmans, Baidyas and Kyasthas, fleeing from East Pakistan, were averse to go to the transit camps and live on dole in the neighbourhood of the accursed chhotolok, a term used by the former to express their disdain for men of low castes. The bhadralok refugees got preferential and distinctive treatment in rehabilitation from the upper-caste Ministers, MLAs and MPs. In the suburbs and vicinity of the Calcutta metropolis alone, 149 unauthorised —locally or colloquially called jabor-dakhal (forcibly occupied)—colonies sprung up to accommodate the bhadralok refugees only. If anybody of the disadvantaged section ever intruded the forbidden haven, he succeeded in doing so by faking, fudging or suppressing his low-caste identity and pretending to belong to the upper caste or by paying bribes. (pp. 39-40) They were not pushed out of West Bengal to be left to their fate unlike their unfortunate counterparts of the despised castes.

The memoirs focus on the unauthorised resettlement colony of Bijaygarh in the suburbs of Calcutta. Such colonies received indulgence of the political masters, for example, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Chief Minister Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, Governor Kailash Nath Katju, Sarojini Naidu, Triguna Sen, Major General Satyabrata Singha, Samar Mukherjee, to note a few. The government did not even vainly oppose the encroachment and conversion of the land as colonies by the privileged refugees. (pp. 52-53)

Following partition, careful planning and meticulous execution went into the refugee resettlement so that pockets for unmixed bhadralok were created in and around Calcutta. The metropolitan region was sanitised and fortified against the entry of the low castes. In fact, thorough social and caste profiling of refugees turned these colonies into exclusive islands for the bhadralok! The same bhadralok, however, have earned mellifluous ovation as vocal advocates and protagonists of equality, harmony, solidarity, brotherhood and casteless society in the loftiest terms. Save and except the bhadralok, one might have noticed, the highland of culture, Calcutta, does not send a single people’s representatives either to the State Assembly or Parliament ever from the underdogs, a direct gift of caste profiling of the refugees. The bhadralok fraternity rarely enjoyed such safe and blissful haven in the idyllic East Bengal. The demographic majority of chhotolok along with the Muslims was so acutely disproportionate that they rarely imagined such exclusive family and social life.

The present reviewer in his official career had interacted over six years with the refugees from former East Pakistan settled in 56 colonies in East and West Champaran districts in Bihar. Though they aggregated at about 250,000-300,000 souls and were largely Namasudras, near, if not total, absence of any bhadralok amongst them was an enigma to him. There the Bengali refugees had all but forgotten their mother tongue and lost their cultural moorings in 30-40 years. A researcher recently discloses: “It was decided at the official level that mainly the refugees belonging to the so-called lower castes like Namasudras, Kshatriyas, Poundra Kshatriyas, who took shelter in the refugee camps and received doles from the Government, would be sent to Dandakaranya.” This was the National Development Council’s prime objective for setting up the Dandakaranya Development Authority (DDA).1 Apartheid became the bench-mark in refugee rehabilitation with blessings from India’s celebrated men and women. The Namasudra, Pod, Rajbanshi, Bagdi, Jalia, all untouchables, were banished for the benefit of the Bengali upper-caste Hindus. The highborn were not sent out of West Bengal to live in an environment, climate, language, culture etc. that would militate against their own traditional or cultural traits and upbringing. This was done officially. A perfect recipe for segregation of untouchables and perpetuation of the social divide in Hindu Rashtra, if ever it is established! This policy action would have pleased Adolf Hitler no end, had he survived only a decade-and-a-half more.


Dandakaranya, Marichjhapi and Massacre: Jyoti Basu dwarfed General Dyer and Narendra Modi

The CPM leader, Jyoti Basu, visited Bhilai to address an industrial workers meeting on January 25, 1975. He invited some Bengali refugee leaders from the Mana camp, Dandakaranya to Bhilai and assured them that if and when the Leftists were voted to power, their government would bring the refugees from Dandakaranya back to West Bengal and rehabilitate them there. Barely within two years, the Left Front won the Assembly elections and formed their government. A delegation of Bengali refugees from Danda-karanya went to Calcutta and met Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. In return, a team of Left Front leaders, including Minister Ram Chatterjee, two MLAs, Kiranmay Nanda and Rabi Shankar Pandey, soon visited Dandakaranya on November 28, 1977. Another visit of Ram Chatterjee and Ashok Ghosh, the Chairman, Left Front, on January 16, 1978 is fresh in the minds of the refugees. Ashok Ghosh then thundered: “When you return to West Bengal, five crores of Bengalis will welcome you with ten crores of hands.” (pp. 268-270) The trust reposed in the leaders by those poor refugees of Dandakaranya was betrayed. Unwelcome, none had risked a hazardous journey to Marichjhapi to face police brutalities.

The Superintendent of Police, 24-Parganas, Amiya Kumar Samanta, oversaw and conducted the ‘Operation Marichjhapi’. He denies any police action other than teargas shelling on the refugees. An obstinate man in khaki, he also dismisses all talk of death of any refugee in police action except a solitary local tribal labourer. With stunning insinuations, the District Police chief brushes aside the findings of an internationally acclaimed Canadian scholar, Russ Mallick. He contends that Muslim gangsters were drafted in aid of the police and CPM cadres in the ‘Operation Marichjhapi’, having regard for historical knowledge of animosity subsisting between them and the Namasudras since the colonial era in East Bengal. The police infused and used communal blood against the Namasudras.2 The writer’s father’s ribs were broken by the police and this accelerated his death. The massacre disillusioned the refugees, who were the backbone of the communist movement and a solid pillar of strength. Byapari unambiguously condemns Jyoti Basu as a be-iman, betrayer of trust. (p. 267) The Telegraph, Calcutta editorially commented: “Even his predecessor (Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s predecessor Jyoti Basu) in West Bengal did not hesitate to kill thousands in Marichjhapi.”3 As the Land Reforms Commissioner, Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, a highly rated IAS officer, was the architect of Operation Barga, which ensured for the Left a lease of 35 years unbroken rule in the State. He laments: “Under the CPI-M rule of the last 34 years in this State 34 events of mass murder were organised either directly by the police resorting to wanton firing on the crowds consisting of Opposition party members or by the armed ‘harmads’ of the CPI-M to seek political revenge or to establish political control over the areas lost [...........] he (Jyoti Basu) organised genocide by the police and CPI-M cadres starting with the Marichjhapi case. It was the first rehearsal.”4

Bloodbath under the long communist rule, claiming hundreds of lives, began with the Namasudra massacre in Marichjhapi. A hard-boiled bureaucrat does not term a few deaths as genocide. It implies a policy of deliberately killing a nationality or ethnic group. The State Police was thoroughly indoctrinated and the media unmoved or passive. Any voice discordant with the communist barbarism was/is castigated as bourgeois and agent of imperialism. Jyoti Basu launched a vicious campaign that the refugees, in connivance and cooperation with Bangladesh, had conspired to create an inde-pendent sovereign nation inside the Sundarbans. He also insinuated that their aim was to destabilise and dislodge a government of the proletariat! He was oblivious that Bangladesh, a fledgling nation born through unprecedented bloodbath, could ill afford to indulge in such misadventure against a neighbour as gigantic as India. (p. 272) Byapari says some 30,000 refugee families had gone to Marichjhapi. Over 2000 families of them perished. (p. 53)

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre in April 1919 stands out as the darkest chapter of the Indian freedom struggle. Brigadier-General Reginal Dyer ordered firing on a gathering of 15,000-20,000 unarmed men, women and children. The official report claimed that 379 persons were killed and 1100 wounded. But the Indian National Congress estimated the casualties at 1500 of whom 1100 died. The entrance of the meeting venue was closed, leaving no escape route for the innocent people. Sixty years later, Jyoti Basu outstripped General Dayer in barbarism. Prohibitory orders under 144 Cr. P.C. were clamped in Marichjhapi. Armed police in 40-42 motor boats had surrounded the island, sealing the entry and exit. (pp. 270-271) Inter-national aid agencies, with drinking water, medicine, milk-power and food-stuff etc., were denied access to even relieve the marooned people. Boats carrying refugees to and fro the island were sunk by the police in the Bay of Bengal to the delight of the hungry crocodiles and sharks. Dead bodies of men and women killed or died of starvation were left without funeral on the shores to be washed away during the high tide of the sea, erasing all traces of human tragedy.

In Marichjhapi, though more than 4000 people were massacred within a span of 20 days in 1979 to save the tigers, no environmentalists anywhere in the world, including the World Wildlife Fund, protested against the tragedy. “Ross Mallick, who carried out remarkable research on the Marichjhapi massacre” held that “in the case of Marichjhapi it was the poorest people who paid with their lives, while the benefits went to the animals, tourists and tourist operators”.5 An unrepentant General Dyer later had boasted that the objective of his action “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience”. A remorseless Jyoti Basu was punishing the Namasudras for defiance of his diktat!!! The police records of deaths, injuries sustained, and rapes are unavai-lable. No serious efforts to document this chapter has been made to arrive at an accurate number of deaths; and Marichjhapi has remained beyond the frame of historiographical discourse. Byapari, however, thinks that at least 2000 men and women were killed by police action. He further says that at least 200 women were raped. (pp. 267-272) When the refugees were forcibly sent back to Dandakaranya in special trains, they were packed in its compartments as sardines. The trains had no arrangement for food, drinking water or medicines and they were treated worse than animals. In course of their journey during sweltering summer, many children died. The dead bodies of the children were thrown out of the windows of running trains. (p. 272)

Marichjhapi, a Communist Brainchild

In 1951 Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Roy mooted the scheme for rehabilitation of refugees in the Andamans. The Communist Party and Forward Bloc jumped to fish in the troubled waters and the most vulnerable sections of the refugees were targeted. They opposed the scheme tooth and nail arguing that they would not allow deportation of the refugees to kalapani, by which the ordinary Bengali understands a place of banishment, meant for condemned prisoners. By virulent propaganda, a fear psychosis against the Andamans was injected in the minds of the victims of partition. In the face opposition, ultimately the government dropped the idea. In this background, on August 11, 1959, the United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), comprising the Communist Party, Forward Bloc, etc., submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister for rehabilitation of refugees in Marichjhapi, a 160 square mile (20 miles long and eight miles wide) unmanned island in the Bay of Bengal. They had argued that some 3000 fishing families could be settled over 12,000 acres there. Dr B.C. Roy had actually admitted that there were 5000 acres of fallow land in Marichjhapi but the government did not accept the Opposition proposal. As a destination for settlement of Bengali refugees, therefore, Marichjhapi was the brainchild of the Communist Party and Forward Bloc. (p. 268)

If Gujarat has Narendrabhai Modi, who butchered Muslims in communal violence, West Bengal boasted of his counterpart in Jyoti Basu who launched genocide against the uprooted Namasudra and other low-caste refugees in Marichjhapi. The Gujarat Chief Minister is no a friend of the Muslims or minorities, a fact known the world over. A pretender as the benefactor of the proletariat, Jyoti Basu is a wolf in the bhadralok’s clothing. The communist edifice in the State was sculpted entirely on refugee support and loyalty. The Left odyssey to power was built over their unswerving commitment. Sadly, they were unaware of the fascist proclivity deeply inlaid in its leaders, all drawn from the bhadralok stock. Even Indians in general are not aware of the genocide of the very people whose support helped the party to wield power in the State for close to 35 years! An analysis shows that 48 per cent of the Namasudras voted for the Trinamul Congress in the Assembly election 2011, as against 38 per cent in the preceding election, registering a rise of 10 per cent. In comparison, 16 per cent of the Namasudrs votes went against the ruling CPM, marking a critical drop of votes from 57 per cent in 2006 to 41 per cent in 2011.6 No other community deserted the CPM en bloc as the Namasudras did, reflecting their highest degree of disenchantment for the party of the proletariat. The vacuous Left ideological blabbering no longer enamours those whose innocent or unsuspecting brothers and sisters suffered bloodbath and gory purge at their hands. The Gujarat stalwart, Narendrabhai Modi, has, however, the powerful national media against him, but the Bengali Communist had unfortunately the entire intelligentsia infatuated on his side.


Could Genocide of Brahman, Baidya and Kayastha be Ever Imagined?

With the history of rehabilitation through forcible and unauthorised encroachment of land in Bijaygarh in the suburbs of Calcutta in view, Chandal Jeevan raises the most critical, nay logical, question: “Would the Government do to Brahman, Baidya and Kayastha refugees what they did to Namasudras at Marichjhapi?” (p. 53) In other words, would the government treat the same bhadralok as savagely, if they were not Namasudra, Pod, Jalia (fishermen)? This question will haunt and ring in the hearts of millions of the underprivileged for long. The posterity of the victims could never forgive or forget the perpetrators of the genocide. The upper-caste rulers of the State have never been as unorthodox and free of caste bias as they profess and propagate. Despite colourful gloss, vociferous pretension and deception, caste bias is explicit in the actions and performances of the Left leaders. This dark chapter has either been sidetracked or camouflaged or left beyond margins to be erased with the passage of time from public memory.


Dalit Writings and Publications

Byapari, in common with many Dalit writers and intellectuals, believes that Dalit literature can or should be written by the Dalits themselves for truthful or faithful portrayal and presentation of their life and times. Some of the writings on Dalits by non-Dalits, though lauded for literary qualities, do not make the grade. (pp. 443-446) Actually those who are not born underdogs fail to appreciate and delve into the complex labyrinth of their privations, hazards and tragedies and struggles for survival. Bengali literature has Dalit writings—novels, short stories, poems, plays, critiques and autobiographies, though not known and much less reviewed anywhere beyond their own magazines, with limited circulation, readership and high mortality. Their works are summarily dismissed by the elite readers and critics as the output of the chhotolok. Spelling mistakes, poor quality paper, printing, binding and get-up could be other reasons to dismiss their writings. Their narratives, more importantly, are marked by seething anger, frustration and discontent. Their aggressive and sharp attacks against the caste system, caste-based manipulation, discrimination or depri-vation and injustice offend the elite class. The Dalits hold the socio-cultural-administrative and political establishments not just partially but fully responsible for their plight in their writings. In fact, repeated instance(s) of glaring discri-mination, painful humiliation and abuses hurled at them, irrespective of their station, have compelled each of the educated Dalit writers take up the pen and portray their life. This is strongly detested by readers beyond the Dalit society. The elite and intelligentsia consider themselves to be the targets of Dalit attacks. Dalit works are not published by mainstream publishers nor are they reviewed, much less received without reservation. So the writers or their works do not get noticed. Rarely is a Dalit writer also not the publisher of his own works. Manoranjan learnt it by paying literally through his nose!

Organised campaigns and overt insinuations by the elite class against the Dalit has been one of the major tragedies of Bengal. The victims need to defend their honour, dignity and esteem though the Dalits rarely get the opportunity against the superior elite offensive. They are, indeed, on identical footing with the attackers and violators of human rights of Dalits as anywhere outside their cultural highland. In 1989, for instance, Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, the editor of The Statesman, Calcutta, belched venom against the Namasudras. “With Calcutta in the throes of celebrating 300 years of existence, some thought may be spared for a people who are generally blamed for the city’s decline. East Pakistan refugees were said to account for 13 per cent of West Bengal’s population in 1974 [......] But if these migrants have compounded the city’s congestion, leading to the collapse of every civic amenities, it may be because

95 per cent of them are Namasudra destitutes.

(italicised by this writer) Their predecessors—earlier weaves of well-to-do bhadralok from beyond the Padma—made no small contribution to Calcutta’s development. If a balance-sheet were to be compiled [..............] it may well emerge that the gains overweigh the damages. In any case, the immediate task is to ensure that the six million or so people who fled to West Bengal between 1947 and 1958 (old migrants) and again between 1964 and 1971 (new migrants)—those who came in between have always been disregarded which is one of the many unexplained cruelties of the situation—are not still pilloried as chronic layabouts, content to eke out miserable existence on the dole while providing manpower for West Bengal’s politico-criminal underworld.........”7

The unprovoked offensive did not invite any repost whatsoever from the guardians of public morality though many of them sing soulfully for equality, human dignity and brotherhood. Collection, collation and publication of data on crime by caste was discontinued with the departure of the British. So attacking Namasudras as the source of “manpower for West Bengal’s politico-criminal underworld” is not only unfortunate but betrays the sick mind of the attacker. Crime merits dissertation in historical perspective on a broader canvas, which, for paucity of space, is better avoided. But suffice it to state that the discourse on this aspect of social-administrative record is camouflaged more by misinformation than by candid frankness. Data culled from the colonial archives in Bengal may present a microscopic view of crime by caste. (See Table-1)


Showing Proportion of the Selected Castes in Jail to the Free Population of those Castes according to 1872 Census in Bengal8

Serial Proportion of caste men in jail in 1872


1. Of the Bagdi 1 in 1364 was in jail during 1872

2. Of the Kayastha 1 in 1404 was in jail during 1872

3. Of the Rajput and Chhetri 1 in 1425 was in jail during 1872

4. Of the Hari 1 in 1465 was in jail during 1872

5. Of the Kahar 1 in 1504 was in jail during 1872

6. Of the Aguri 1 in 1585 was in jail during 1872

7. Of the Brahman 1 in 1808 was in jail in 1872

8. Of the Goala 1 in 2085 was in jail in 1872

9. Of the Gandhabanik 1 in 2301 was in jail in 1872

10. Of the Sadgop 1 in 2301 was in jail in 1872

11. Of the Santal 1 in 2302 was in jail in 1872

12. Of the Pan 1 in 2406 was in jail in 1872

13. Of the Chamar and Mochi 1 in 2738 was in jail in 1872

14. Of the Chandal 1 in 3007 was in jail in 1872

Datta-Ray, without an iota of substance, wanted us to believe that Chandals, later renamed as Namasudras, in half-a-century outstripped the Kayasthas and Brahmans in crimes. The conclusion is based on prejudice, not on fact and other relevant materials.

Dalit magazines, though cash-trapped, are published in scores and many disappear sooner than imagined. They have a lot to tell and propagate. The mainstream journals and periodicals, exclusive as they are, brush the Dalit issues aside as plague. Dalit perspectives, incon-venient issues, aspirations and aspects of life are perceived to militate against elite interests. Abuses, reflective of their social attitudes and ossified mindset against the underdogs, continue to dominate elite literature. Sadly, the world of elite literature and publications are unaware of Dalit critiques that take very strong and unequivocal positions in many respects with cogent logic and justification. However, readers beyond the Dalit society strongly detest them even though they marshal unchallengeable substance in their themes.

The present reviewer in the 1990s wrote, under a pen name, a 380-page Bengali monograph captioned Anweshan, It was a dissertation of archival records, focusing the social, anthro-pological and cultural life of colonial Bengal. His approach and treatment was unconventional and the work was serialised in a Bengali Dalit monthly Adal Badal Patrika, which is in existence uninterruptedly till date since 1983. This monthly does not receive advertisements, from the Central or State Government, though it fulfils all the necessary conditions. Prominent writer, Jnanpeeth Awardee and tribal rights crusader Mahasweta Devi is associated with the magazine ab initio. She had read Anweshan serialised in the monthly. When taken up for publication as a book, Mahasweta Devi wrote its preface. Further, she addressed a personal letter to the publishers of College Street, Calcutta with her recommendation favouring Anweshan; but no publisher took interest in it. Ultimately Bimal K. Biswas, the editor of the Adal Badal, himself published Anewshan.


Chandal Jeevan through the Mill

Hunger and desperation pushed the writer to the labour market early in the day. While still in the Shiromanipur camp, he worked as the cattle grazer of a farmer. The curtain on his childhood thus dropped at a time when other children go to school, chase and shape their dreams. He spent his entire day with the cattle for two square meals only. In the morning, he procured on his shoulders two buckets of water from a distance of a mile-and-a-half for spraying in the kitchen garden. The buckets were suspended on two ends of a bamboo stick like a scale. He did this for three months. This did not, however, bring any lessons of social dynamics till he met his next employer. His camp in Shiromanipur did not have any Brahman and Kayastha refugees. So he did not know till then the curse of caste hatred.

A Brahman doctor had engaged him as a cowherd. Though the new employer was a migrant from East Pakistan, he was not a refugee. He had resources to build his own house. He knew Manoranjan was a Chandal, a Namasudra. He was not allowed entry on his master’s verandah. Food was served in a broken plate by the master’s wife, keeping a good distance from the servant to beat the fear of pollution by proximity. His utensils were kept in the cowshed where Manoranjan slept on heaps of dry cow-dung cakes. At night, he vainly and sleeplessly fought the invading army of mosquitoes, besides overpowering smells of cow urine and raw dung. While grazing the master’s cattle, one day he was caught napping and badly assaulted by the doctor. The Brahman was choleric and fastidious. Once the doctor had invited some local respectable Muslims for entertaining them with home-made delicacies, having an eye on his professional interests. After they left, Manoranjan had to clean the verandah and forecourt, polluted by the mlechchh, a term upper-caste Hindus use to refer to Muslims (and the beef-eating British). The guests came to know soon, how after their departure, the house was depolluted by water mixed with raw cow-dung cakes. In an opportune moment, the doctor’s house was set on fire. Manoranjan got his first lesson in the dynamics of caste and communal hatred. This place is in the vicinity of Calcutta. (pp. 59-61) With this experience at the back of his mind, he changed his name to work as a teastall boy so that the proprietor, a native of Uttar Pradesh, did not know his caste identity. His malik was unconcerned about his caste. How does West Bengal differ from UP or Bihar, though derided?

The memoirs cite instance after instance of caste-based hatred ingrained in the high-caste Bengalis. Byapari worked as a cook for a Brahman caterer. Once the caterer fell ill and deputed Manoranjan and Dukhe for cooking for annaprasan (the first food given to a child after birth) in a Brahman family. Their culinary skills impressed all. But once their identity of caste—one a Namasudra and the other a Kaora, equally low—came to light, the consequences were predictable. The cooks, entering the kitchen, had defiled its sacredness, a calamity hardly conceivable in the Brahman house. Both were made to perform sit-ups, holding their ears and rubbed noses on the hard surface of the ground, a form of punishment that marks unqualified penance in Bengal. Humiliated, they fled the place without even collecting their wages. (pp. 141-143) All over India, bhadralok preach from various platforms that caste is irrelevant in West Bengal. They better rely on the victims of discrimination and hatred for the situation obtaining at the ground level.

The author once got a job as a casual sweeper at Rs 200 a month in a government school. On confirmation after three months of satisfactory service, he would draw a sum of Rs 770 with entitlement for casual and medical leave, provident fund, bonus, gratuity, pension, etc. He threw himself headlong in sweeping, cleaning and scavenging the long accumulated filth, dirt, garbage, urine and human excreta in the 300-year old school building. The celebration of the tercentenary anniversary of the foundation of the school synchronised with Manoranjan’s three-month probation (sweeper on probation?). The school planned to bring out a magazine to mark the occasion. The souvenir carried a short story of the sweeper entitled ‘Acharya’ which was hailed as the best. The headmaster felt hurt and offended as his own story got eclipsed. He summoned Manoranjan and summarily dismissed him. He did not believe an illiterate sweeper could write that story. He was thrown on to the jaws of hunger. (pp. 287-292 ) A laurel universally brings recognition and elevation in the career of the achiever. Alas! An unsuspecting Byapari lost his bread. In the Mecca of letters, pen in the hand of a Chandal is a dangerous weapon.

He fell back again on the rickshaw, his last resort as an anchor for living whenever others doors are shut on him. His stand was at the Jadavpur railway station. There he along with fellow rickshaw-pullers formed a union. One day he was threatened with dire consequences by the CPM cadres who wanted him to close down the union, as it was not affiliated to the All-Bengal Rickshaw Union under the CITU. The author’s account is an authentic reflection of the state of trade unionism in West Bengal. Already a rickshaw-pullers union headed by a local gangster under the tutelage of a local Congress leader was in existence. He and the local CPM leader were very close. The rickshaw union members were under three obligations:

[[<> (1) to pay monthly membership subscription Rs 2 to the union office;

(2) to attend political rallies and form processions for boosting up attendance; and

(3) to pick up selective voters from their homes; drive them to the polling booths and drop them back to their residences after they had voted on the day of polling. No fare was chargeable from such privileged passengers.

These unions are a good source of money. In Calcutta, its suburbs and mufassil towns, the bhadralok are usually the office-bearers of their unions but not the rickshaw-wallas themselves. Hence they have no affinity or sympathy for the rickshaw-pullers. Their union members never get loans at nominal interest in emergencies for example, accidents, sickness, bereavement, marriage etc. In fact, the members had no idea what happens to the money collected from their membership fees. The leaders of the working class in West Bengal are not labourers themselves. Leaders are imposed from above and they are privileged men or women, who never soiled their hands by menial labour. In 1992, an estimated 32,000 rickshaws plied in Calcutta. This seems an gross underestimation. In the cities and towns during the Left rule no rickshaw-walla without joining the CPM union, was allowed space in any stand.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist Plenum, held at Salkia, Howrah, adopted a resolution authorising party cadres to actively participate in Durga puja,Kali puja etc. This has resulted in burgeoning incidence of pujas of every description, which too yield good money for the cadres and leaders. Further, the Plenum resolved to bring labourers of unorganised sectors, for example, rickshaw-pullers, domestic helps, construction workers, railway porters, employees of shops and establishments, sex workers etc. under the umbrella of trade unions. (pp. 292-293) Pujas are organised with political blessings and roads, parks, gardens and crowded spaces are nonchalantly encroached. Disturbance to public peace and order, nuisance, chaos, hooliganism and crime are concomitant features of pujas in West Bengal.

Dislodged from the Jadavpur rickshaw stand for fear of life, Byapari got a job as a night guard at Narendrapur in the suburbs of Calcutta at a salary of Rs 300 along with a small rent-free room for residence inside a factory as perks. He left the job after a year-and-a-half because he was required to manipulate a record of deliveries of bags of sand, stone-chips, etc. His conscience protested against the irregularities and corrupt practices.

Chapter VII

Metamorphosis of a Rickshaw-puller in Alipur Jail 

On charges of rioting, arson, bomb throwing and attempts to murder, Manoranjan was arrested and incarcerated first in the Alipur Special Jail and then shifted to the Presidency Jail for two years. Here he metamorphosed into a new soul. His odyssey to the light began from the dark corners of jail under the inspiration and guidance of a highly educated co-prisoner, who was a fraud himself. Pointing to a green banyan plant on the roof of the National Library, Calcutta, once the co-prisoner told Manoranjan: “See how on the hard surface of concrete building, a plant has grown. This means life-giving nutrients and congenial environment have contributed a seed to germinate, its sapling to grow, a plant to survive and flourish.” (p. 220) Manoranjan realised that no overpowering circumstances or hardship is indomitable enough to crush the human spirit to conquer even the most severe adversity. An awakened prisoner, he grabbed the opportunity he lost in his childhood for learning. It was not an easy job. There was no reading-writing materials, no congenial environment, nor facility or eagerness in anybody for the dissemination of knowledge. His venture invited crass jibes, vitriolic sarcasm and overflowing ridicule from fellow prisoners and the jail staff alike. All these he stoically endured and/or ignored. Surprisingly, a jail sipahi Bhuban, otherwise known as unmerciful with inmates, extended his sympathy. Handing over a box of chalk pencil secretly, one day he told Byapari: “This is my has humble contribution in your journey to the world of enlightenment.” The prisoner would write alphabets with a twig on solid concrete floors and learn them under the caring eyes of his benevolent co-prisoner. (pp. 236-237) A thoroughly dedicated, inspired Manoranjan spent hours in practising alphabets, learning words and sentences and finally mastered the skill of reading. He donated blood in the Blood Donation Camp organised inside the jail. Many co-prisoners would do so for buying bidis, cigarettes, lungi, foodstuffs etc. with the money they got from donating blood. Byapari’s request for a pen and papers surprised the jail officials, who flatly rejected it. Bhuban siphahi was there by the side of the adult learner. Bhuban argued his case forcefully before the deputy jailer. Manoranjan got 20 reams of paper and a pen at Rs 20 which was the price of the blood. (pp. 238-239) He was gifted with a burning hunger for books and insatiable abilities for reading anything that came his way. Two years in jail transformed him and gifted a new lease of life. He wanted to be a writer.


On a hot summer day, he drove in his rickshaw an elderly woman from Jyotish Roy College, Bijaygarh. After driving some distance, Manoranjan asked his passenger unhesitatingly: “Didi, will you tell me the meaning of the word, ‘jijibisha’?” It means: the “will to live”. The difficult word coming from a rickshaw-puller surprised her. After some initial exchanges, she disclosed that she was Mahasweta Devi, the famous writer, novelist, tribal rights activist and Jnanpeeth Awardee. This was the turning-point in Manoranjan’s life. She invited the rickshaw-puller to her home. Thus started a bonding that persists till date. He was invited to write his story in ‘Bartika’, a magazine Mahasweta Devi edits. (pp. 252-256) A writer was born out of a rickshaw-puller.

The autobiographer has focus on the dark contours of the socio-cultural glitterati of Calcutta. One day he read in a leading Calcutta newspaper that Nata Mallick, the solitary hangman of the State, was hospitalised with heart ailment that needed prolonged treatment and rest. What surprised him was the undue prominence given to Nata Mallick who was not a celebrity though. He saw through the game—a conspiracy was weaved by a group involving medical and legal practitioners and jail officers, having vested interest. A prince of the glitterati along with his father was awaiting execution in Presidency Jail for murdering his wife. The Jail Manual mandates that the execution of a condemned prisoner has to be carried out within two years of the conviction. This provision was targeted to be compromised by declaring the hangman unfit to perform his job. An alarmed Manoranjan submitted a written application to the jail authorities for appointing him as a hangman to perform the job within the stipulated time-frame in the absence of Nata Mallick. [pp.282-286] He felt the convicted father-and-son duo, who were a curse for the society, could not be allowed to subvert the law and evade punishment by dubious means.

The author presents a graphic picture of the murky world of publishing. Despite nineteen years of writing, he had no book to his credit. He is the cook of a hostel under an organisation which has a publication unit. He approached the head of the organisation, who, after a good deal of leg-pulling and persuasion, asked Manoranjan to advance a sum of Rs 5000 for publishing a collection of his stories. He unsuspectingly threw and trapped himself, though voluntarily, to the wolves. Unbridled harassment and undue delay awaited the publication of the 184-page collection of 22 stories. The quality of paper, printing and binding were deplorable. The manager, who brazenly squeezed the last drop of his blood, gave him 498 copies of the book against a total payment of Rs 16,000. He was exorbitantly overcharged for the cost of paper, composition, proof-reading, binding etc. He found out later to his consternation that some 1100 copies of the book could be printed at the cost he paid for 498 copies! (pp. 410-417) Many people who publish their works at their own cost as no publishers are willing, will find Manoranjan’s experience a guide for their (mis)adventure, if any and at all.

Spelling mistakes of the memoirs should have been corrected by the proof-reader. Pandit Rahul Sankrityayan used to be casual about his spellings in his MSS which, he hoped, the publishers would take care. Further Chandal Jeevan’s long narrative without chapters might appear to many tedious or boring. The tale should have been divided into chapters and appropriate headings given in each to indicate the themes the author has dealt therein. It is hoped in the subsequent edition, these deficiencies would be removed.

Manoranjan has a large number of novels, short stories, poems and articles published in various magazines. He is an established writer who has earned huge appreciation for his sharp focus on the underbelly of the society and the presentation of its dirty picture. This illiterate man, who has risen to great heights, may be envied by many but nobody would envy the accursed life he has lived and the hard way he survived. That is the unique experience which commands attention from his readers and critics alike. Manoranjan’s memoirs, I have little doubt, is a landmark not only in Bengali literature but in the entire Indian literature. He will inspire many in similar circumstances with his message that the human spirit and ingenuity can overcome the heaviest of odds and conquer the most formidable heights. Besides, he has brought on record all that has remained over centuries beyond the margins and may prompt others to take up the pen to carry the trend forward. His memoirs have the potential to anger and annoy or provoke influential sections who are

the cultural czars of Bengal as they will feel rubbed rudely by the exposition.


1. Anusua Basu Roy Chaudhury and Ishita Dey, Citizens, Non-Citizens, and in the Camps Lives, 2009, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group.

2. In March 1980, A.K. Majumdar, Commissioner, Presidency Division, spent about five-weeks at Rajgir for recuperating his ill health. I was the District Magistrate, Nalanda and paid him courtesy call twice. Once I had asked him about the Marichjhapi massacre. He made a cryptic comment. “It’s handled by the police and party cadres. District Administration is nowhere involved.” Marichjhapi falls under the Presidency Division.

3. The Telegraph, Calcutta, editorial captioned “Too Little too late”, June 20, 2009.

4. D. Bandyopadhyay, “West Bengal: The Genocidal State under CPI-M Rule”, Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 14, March 26, 2011.

5. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, “Ecosystem and Development, A Scientific Way To Grasp The Complexities Of The Universe”, The Statesman, Calcutta, Special Article, February 17, 2012.

6. Economic and Political Weekly, June 18, 2011, vol xlvi, no. 25, p. 145.

Comparatively Brahman votes dropped from the CPM kitty by 17 per cent (from 54 per cent to 37 per cent) and Kayastha votes by 18 per cent (from 54 per cent to 36 per cent). The TMC in essence gained seven per cent Brahman votes and six per cent Kayastha votes. The Brahman votes rose from 44 per cent to 51 per cent whereas Kayastha votes from 44 per cent to 51 per cent went in favour of the TMC. These two castes are small and increase or decrease of their vote share does not underline much significance in comparison to the populous castes. The Rajbanshi community, marginally larger than the Namasudras, did not dessert the CPM as much as the latter. Their votes for the CPM declined by two per cent from 55 per cent in 2006 to 53 per cent in 2011. Muslim votes for the CPM too dropped by four per cent, from 46 per cent to 42 per cent. Electors from other SC communities expressed displeasure against CPM as well. Their votes decreased from 54 per cent to 43 per cent, a fall of 11 per cent. With increasing awareness of electoral politics, no ruling party can afford to ignore the Namasudra voters in particular and others SCs in general, a lesson the Assembly Election 2011 has demonstrated doubtlessly.

7. Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, “Deceit in the East”, The Statesman, Calcutta, August 6, 1989.

8. Report on the Administration of Bengal, 1872-73, pp. 132-133.

The reviewer is a former Vice-Chancellor, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Univrsity, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be reached for comments and observations, if any, at the e-mail ID: atulb64@

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted