On September 15, 2022, Manoranjan Byapari received the 2022 Shakti Bhatt Prize for The Runaway Boy. The Shakti Bhatt Prize, an independent award run by writers, recognises and celebrates literature from South Asia.
Translated into English by V Ramaswamy, Manoranjan Byapari’s The Runaway Boy tells the story of little Jibon, who arrives at a refugee camp in West Bengal as an infant in the arms of his Dalit parents escaping from the Muslim-majority nation. Deprived of the customary sweetness of a few drops of honey at birth, he grows up perpetually hungry for hot rice in the camp where the treatment meted out to dispossessed families like his is deplorable.
Jibon runs away when he’s barely thirteen to Calcutta because he’s heard that money flies in the air in the big city. His wildly innocent imagination makes him believe that he can go out into the world, find work and bring back food for his starving siblings and clothes for his mother whose only sari is in tatters. And once he leaves home, through the travels of this starving, bewildered but gritty boy, we witness a newly independent India as it grapples with communalism and grave disparities of all kinds.
The following is an excerpt from the book.
Ghar-jamais of the Indian Government
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 birds return to their nests, all journeys come to an end’. No, they don’t end, not all journeys come to an end. Some journeys are interminable. Neither can the bird whose breast is pierced by an arrow, whose wings are torn in a storm, 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 wasn’t the people who were on the road now.
The Bedford lorry came to a halt. The driver got down and, addressing Garib, Subol and Radhakanta, thundered out an order in Hindi: ‘Sab log utro! 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 sal, 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 a 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 an Adivasi 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 had been afluent 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 the 1855 revolt by the heroic Santhal warriors Sido Murmu and Kanhu Murmu 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 rebels.
Whatever may have been the reason for locating a military outpost here, those who were here last were probably soldiers of the Sikh regiment. It was they who had given the region the name Shiromanipur, in order to keep the memory of their faith alive. 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 belongings from the truck and huddled under the shade of a mango tree. The ofice and residential quarters of the government oficials 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 sheds, one could surmise that they were temporary structures, erected in a hurry for immediate use.
In one shed, a bespectacled man with a thick register was sitting at a dirty wooden table. He was dark-skinned and dressed in a white shirt. He had a round face and big eyes, and had tufts of hair on his earlobes, in his nostrils and on his arms. Another man stood nearby, fanning 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 up! Everyone stand in a 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? Father’s 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 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 one 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. The fiery sun burning overhead all day long had finally penetrated Garib Das’s head. And the fire beneath his feet was now setting his stomach on fire too. Early that morning, just before they had boarded the lorry, volunteers of the Sevashram Sangha had distributed some chira and jaggery, which he hadn’t 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 warehouse and collect rice and dal.’ Rice and dal was obtained, some salt was obtained too. This was called ‘dole’. And each family was provided a tent. The dark-skinned babu showed them where their tents were to be erected. He 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 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 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. But it was rice after all. Another name for which was Lokkhir Dana, ‘Ma Lakshmi’s grain’. Lakshmi was the Goddess who led one to one’s goal, and so her grain ought not to be frowned upon. Garib had heard from his father that the one who frowned upon Lakshmi’s grain invited her ire; he would starve to death. When Garib was a little boy, their situation had been better, and food was cooked twice a day in his house. They had some paddy land then, from which they fulfilled their year-long requirement of rice. Garib’s Ma used to cook the rice. When the rice would begin 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 it 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’d sprinkle it in a circle around the plate, as an offering to God, in gratitude for being blessed with food. After that, taking some of the hot rice in the tips of his fingers, he’d knock his forehead with his knuckles in obeisance, muttering the names of Ma Lakshmi and Ma Annapurna—the provider of food— before putting that into his mouth. ‘Ma, you have granted us food today; grant us the same tomorrow as well, Ma.’ Even if a single grain of rice fell off the plate, he would carefully pick it up. Garib Das was like his father. He too had the same devotion to food. And yet, why were Lakshmi and Annapurna unkind to him? He did not know what sin he had committed, to make them turn their faces away from him.