Manoranjan Byapari’s tale of hunger and redemption in communist Bengal in a translation by V. Ramaswamy
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 hence 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. He entered the world of letters in 1981 with the encouragement of the acclaimed Bengali writer, Mahasveta Devi, publishing an autobiographical piece in her Bengali journal, Bortika. He 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, A Chandal Life in History, in 2012. He lives in Kolkata.
Rice! A mountain of cooked rice lay piled up on the cement floor. And standing by the door was Dhiren Roy, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Hot, steaming rice. As he inhaled the aroma, a strange transformation came over him. He began weeping convulsively. “Oh dear ones, look down from heaven, see how much rice I’m master of now! You died for want of a handful of rice, but see me now! I’m the king of rice today!”
As if to mock the king, at that very moment a long forefinger was raised in rebuke.
“He is guilty.”
Dhiren Roy responded with an enraged scream: “No!”
“Murderer!”, a voice burst out
“No!” Dhiren Roy’s anger could only bang its head at the air in useless protest.
“You killed your sons!”
“I freed them.”
Wiping his eyes, Dhiren Roy looked in all directions, there was no one there. Who was it then that pointed the long finger at him? Who had shouted the accusation? Whose voice was it that haunted all his sleeping and waking hours?
No one answered. There was no answer. Only the hot steam exhaled by the huge pile of rice filled the room. Ram and Balaram were his two children, who had only recently lost their milk teeth. As soon as he remembered their faces, many more unknown faces also floated into sight. Who were those chanting in a pitiless chorus – ‘Such little children … a father who can do that … he should be hanged!’
Death. The pure, well-rounded end. Was death more difficult than survival? No. At all times, there was nothing as intimate as death, nothing else that could end all suffering.
The first time this occurred to Dhiren Roy was after the factory shut down and he lost his job. It was as if someone had suddenly blown out the sparklers glowing everywhere on Diwali night. They were smothered by a darkness from which there was no release, whose poetic name was need. At the time, the incessant wails – ‘Oh Mother, some rice’ – made Dhiren Roy think: if you want to be free, then escape!
It was a very difficult time. Their plight was truly pathetic. The rent on the house was due and the landlord had threatened to kick them out. The shopkeeper had mobilized some toughs from the neighbourhood to take away their few kitchen utensils. The moneylender was threatening to “take the bastard to court!” Those who once claimed to be related to them now smirked at his plight, while his starving children wept. It was a very harsh and pitiless time.
And so, as happens inevitably in this ever-changing universe, the lower-middle-class clerk, Dhiren Roy, was transformed into a slum-dweller. But being unaccustomed to that life, he was pushed out once again and found himself on the pavement. Apparently this was the final solution according to the complex laws of mathematics – he who cannot rise higher is bound to sink lower.
But how low!
The grimaces of pedestrians and the truncheons of policemen. Mosquitoes, flies and sneaking thieves. Summer heat, monsoon rains, biting cold, and perpetual hunger. And much more besides, all of which made life utterly devoid of purpose.
There was an amazing kinship between suffering and sickness. They were like conjoined twins. A demonic germ had made its home in the lungs of the two boys. Which bored and devoured bone, marrow and every organ. That was how it survived, and bred.
After infallible tests with expensive instruments, the doctor in the government hospital concluded: “Chronic malnourishment is the basic source of the disease. So proper food is vital for a cure. Like meat, fish, eggs, milk and fresh vegetables.”
“Where will I get that?”
The doctor was annoyed at Dhiren Roy’s ignorance. “Aren’t there shops and markets in your locality?”
No, there’s nothing. There never was. There was only the endless sequence of days and nights washed by the tears of two accursed parents. And waiting. But for what!
Perhaps the twinkling stars in the night sky commiserated with them. But there was astonishment in the eyes of the mangy dogs. Revulsion in the eyes of pedestrians. And greed in the eyes of Chanda and Kaliya, the local extortionists – great profit if the morning laid out two souls on the streets!
Ram and Balaram used to come alive with the light of day to wracking coughs, their blood gushing out and wetting the pavement. They looked at their parents, distraught. ‘Mother. I’m hungry.’ Karuna used to wipe her tears mutely. She prayed, “Oh almighty hunger, please don’t torment us again, just eat us now.” Every now and then she used to break down before her husband. “See what you can do, please try!”
At such times, Dhiren Roy used to look at his wife helplessly, as if to say: All efforts are futile. There’s no one who’ll give us a handful of rice.
After he lost his job, for quite some time Dhiren Roy worked as a porter in the station. Finally, he conceded defeat in the face of competition from the experienced porters. Karuna too was unsuccessful in finding work. Prior experience was apparently required even for the job of maidservant or cook. Whatever work they had learnt in the course of their lives was unavailable in the vast city.
Then came that night. The night when everything ended. As he sat in front of the room full of steaming rice, Dhiren Roy could still clearly see the final scene of the drama.
It was raining that night, although not heavily. The streets were wet and deserted. Water had seeped in through the sackcloth that acted as a roof and soaked Ram and Balaram too. But they did not stir. They knew that would be no good.
It was late at night. The last drunkard had headed home long ago. Even the dogs were hiding in some safe shelter. Then, piercing the darkness on the western side, four men advanced. In the silence of the chilly night, a voice, like a snake’s hiss: “Where, man!”
One of them answered: “She’s lying in the corner.”
“Hope she hasn’t scooted!”
“Fuck off, bastard, I saw her there a little while ago!”
“That’s right, man!”
Their ravenous eyes easily found the terrified female body. One man lifted up her chin and looked at her, as if looking at a leg of chicken before sinking his teeth into it. A vulgar sound escaped his lips: “Oh, what a treat!”
Karuna felt nauseous. The revulsion she felt inside her was unbearable. She pushed the hand away in a single movement. The next moment a loud slap landed on her face. “Don’t fuck with me or I’ll cut you up!”
“Why are you people doing this to us?” In response to Dhiren Roy’s plea, one man laughed. “You fucker, you want to enjoy the sexy babe all by yourself!”
Karuna began to weep profusely, as if she were complaining to God. “My two children are dying. Have mercy.” One of the men shouted at her, drowning out her voice. “It’s a cold night, please have mercy on us. Make us happy and we’ll give you lots of money. You can get medicine for your sons.”
Dhiren Roy realized he ought to do something. But what could he do? The emaciated, starving man was up against four armed hoodlums. How would he fend them off? Nevertheless he got up. Almost at once, he was felled by a mighty punch. As he lay prone on the pavement, humiliated, he heard the final heart-rending cry, a cry signalling the end: “Help! Is anyone there, help me!”
No one came. No one comes to save anyone in such circumstances. Karuna screamed, “Oh God!” But her cry from the pavement did not reach very far. Perhaps God was asleep. The distressed woman’s feeble plea did not disturb His blissful slumber. And so the four scoundrels lifted her up and ran away, playing catch with the petrified bundle until they reached the gaping jaws of a house in the distance. From there, her cries and moans kept disturbing the tranquility of night.
His body was devoid of strength, yet Dhiren Roy stood up. He fell weeping at the door of Chanda and Kaliya. “They’ve taken away the mother of my boys! Please bring her back!”
Chanda looked at Kaliya. Kaliya looked at Chanda. They promptly conceded they were unable to help. “If it was someone else, we would have dealt with it. But they’re party boys. You should go to Jai Hind babu.”
Jai Hind babu was very annoyed at being woken up just as he had fallen asleep. He retorted angrily, “What can I do if she’s been taken away? They are all Biplob babu’s men. Go to the police station.”
The babu in the police station heard him out. He pondered over the matter. He lit a cigarette. “Hmm, who took her away? What’s his name?”
“I don’t know.”
“When did they take her away?”
“About an hour ago.”
“So what were you doing so long? It’s okay, you can go now, let’s see what can be done. If she doesn’t return by morning, come again to the police station and inform us. Oh, don’t worry, it’s nothing. Nothing will happen to her. Are those men tigers or bears, that they’ll eat her up!”
As on every other day, the sun had risen the next morning too. The morning seemed to be basking in the sunlight. On the pavement, there was no imprint of what had happened the night before. Everything was fine! But two helpless creatures had been twisted and torn in the unrelenting vortex that had descended upon their lives. No one said a word to anyone. They were unable to do so. It was as if they lacked the words to say anything. Only tears flowed in silence. Tears that knew no shame.
Later – much later – Karuna had said, “They’ll come again.”
Dhiren Roy had looked at his wife. Her clothes were in tatters. There were bruises on her body. The marks of the outrage were all over her. He had wondered – How much more can we suffer! What’s next!
Karuna had said in a ghostly voice, “We’ll go away before they return.”
“Where to?”, Dhiren Roy had asked blankly, as if his life had lost all purpose.
The day ended and once again the shroud of night descended on the city. Once again the night black as pitch. And four unmoving persons, waiting to be pounced upon by a phalanx that would penetrate the darkness like a needlepoint. Which was the underside of life.
After a while, Karuna said: “Let’s leave the children and go. If someone sees them and feels pity …” Interrupting that midway, Dhiren Roy said: “Even when they were as sweet as flowers in bloom, no one had pity. Now they’re on their last legs.”
Time passed by. There was no more hunger, thirst, sickness or sorrow. It was as if tonight was the night of some festival. A joyful night.
Once again the long finger, pointing. It kept growing bigger until it became like a bayonet aimed at Dhiren Roy and struck him in the chest. “Your Honour, here is the vile murderer. He cold-bloodedly murdered his two infant children.”
The white wig seated on the chair stirred. “What was the motive?”
“The man is a lazy fellow. And so his family was in dire poverty. The children used to cry for want of food. That made the accused, Dhiren Roy, turn violent, and he wanted to ease his burden.
The finger had become even bigger now and sought to pierce his flesh. “Unable to bear this terrible sight, the wife of the accused – I mean Mrs Karuna Roy – threw herself under the wheels of a train and killed herself. Of course, this was not the only reason. The woman had been selling her body for a long time. The accused used to force her to earn money through illicit means.”
The finger was now shaking accusingly. “The accused is an extremely cunning man. He knows that it’s not easy to fool the judicial system and that’s why he fabricated the story about the suicide. I am glad the story could not influence the Honourable Court. I now appeal to the Court to sentence him to the severest punishment.”
White-wig stirred again. “Do you have anything to say?”
Dhiren Roy shook his head. “No!”
“Do you admit that the charge against you is true?”
“I have nothing to say.”
The pages of a heavy tome fluttered open. White-wig ran his eyes over it and then said ponderously, “The accused, Dhiren Roy, has been proved guilty under section three-hundred-and-two point thirty-four of the Indian Penal Code, and is hereby sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour.”
Dhiren Roy laughed. Was this called punishment! What kind of punishment was guarding a mountain of rice in prison! His whole body shuddered violently as he laughed hysterically, but his eyes rained tears. As he flung fistfuls of the hot rice into the air, he screamed: “You died for want of a handful of rice from your father. See how much rice I have today. I am the king of rice.”
This is a translation of the original Bengali short story, “Bhaater Raja” (2000), by Manoranjan Byapari. Translated by V. Ramaswamy. This was completed during the translator’s Literature Across Frontiers – Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative Writing & Translation (2016), at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales. The translator gratefully acknowledges the valuable suggestions of Prof Ned Thomas, Prof Elin Haf Jones and Ms Vinutha Mallya. Ramaswamy lives in Kolkata. He has translated two collections of short fiction by the Bengali anti-establishment writer, Subimal Misra, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America and Wild Animals Prohibited. He is currently translating a novel by Manoranjan Byapari about the “untouchable” Namasudra community of East Bengal.
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