A few weeks ago I met Manoranjan Byapari and his translator V Ramaswamy for coffee and conversation at a cafe in South Kolkata. It was an old building once – a club, more precisely – which was renovated recently into a coffee spot for the fashionable crowds of the city. It was Byapari’s first time at the cafe but the place looked familiar. He asked Ramaswamy – they are not far apart in age – if this place used to serve dosa and “South Indian” food many years ago. Ramaswamy nodded in affirmative. I added that the Calcutta South Indian Club still existed, though it had moved to the upper floor and the canteen had shut down.

The two writers recalled how excellent the 50-paise masala dosa used to taste. For as long as I have been alive, 50 paise has been a useless denomination of the Indian National Rupee. Eventually, it disappeared completely. These men had clearly been around for a long time – they had drunk coffee that cost a few paise and today, they would pay somewhere around Rs 200 for an ordinary cup of an Americano.

Byapari, who represents Balagarh in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, is a busy man. He gave me an hour of his time but the three of us ended up chatting for nearly two-and-a-half hours. Byapari is a generous storyteller. He remembers his childhood as though it happened yesterday and his unique identity as a politician-writer allows him to be more observant of the present.

I had just finished reading The Nemesis, the second book in Chandal Jibon trilogy, in which the 20-year-old Jibon sets out in pursuit of a livelihood. The book is set in the 1960s and ’70s – during the height of the Naxal movement in West Bengal and surrounding states and just beyond the border, Bangladesh was fighting for its liberation. These were the years of violence and displacement, the borders became porous, and Kolkata swelled up with people who escaped to the city in search of dignity and shelter.

An eye for an eye

Jibon is only 20, but he does not have the easy-going attitude that one associates with young men his age. He’s already beaten down by life and he knows his days will only get significantly more difficult. There are hints of romance with Kusum, a girl he knew as a child, but that is doomed too. The Nemesis travels from Kolkata to Dandakaranya and the towns of Basirhat and Taki on the Bangladesh border.

The forest and refugee camps might have given the likes of Jibon nothing, but the city has snatched away whatever little they have. Defeated by poverty and caste violence, the city of Kolkata – which is so benevolent to the babus and the bhadralok – has relegated people like Jibon to the status of servants. They drive rickshaws, do the dishes, and mop the floor, and get beaten up when the upper-caste gentlemen need to vent their anger.

Byapari was a 20-year-old man a long time ago but his anger – something he shares with Jibon – has survived the years. Bengalis might not practice untouchability or overt displays of caste discrimination, Byapari told me, but it is a community that remains deeply uncomfortable when people from the lower castes acquire financial or social mobility. Byapari mentioned the suicide of a Dalit academic at West Bengal’s Vidyasagar University in this context.

Times have changed, India has made strides in technology and infrastructure, and yet, its social structure is tightly hinged on abiding by and perpetuating the millennia-old caste system. In The Nemesis, where readers witness the Kolkata of five decades ago, caste violence plays out in its most obvious ways – poverty, illiteracy, lack of access to social welfare schemes, and being easy targets of wrongful political and police action.

Jibon has had enough. There’s only so much a hot-blooded young man like him can take before he realises that being treated inhumanely is not just unwarranted but will continue unless he decides to take matters into his own hands. In a delightful chapter titled “The Avengers”, Jibon turns into something of a superhero as he comes to the rescue of a child labourer, a rickshaw-driver, and those like him who are considered a nuisance for existing in the same urban spaces as the wealthy babus.

As Jibon battles hunger and poverty, in the background, we see the top brass of the ruling Congress, the CPI(M) and the Naxalites fighting for complete control of West Bengal’s streets and its political ideology. The fire reaches Jibon too, and he joins forces with the Naxalites. With the hope of righting age-old wrongs and creating an egalitarian society, he sets out on a path of no return – the path of police custody, courts, prison, hospital, autopsy room of morgue and finally, the crematorium. He has little to lose and a lot of anger.

As seen on the front cover, Jibon has just picked up the proverbial axe and the flames are burning high. He is a man possessed. But how far will he go and more importantly, for how long will a caste-sick society let him run amok? I will await the answers in the third and final book in the trilogy.

If Byapari is angry, then equally angry is translator V Ramaswamy. He’s a brahmin but he understands a Dalit person’s plight. He retains some of the Bengali lines in his translation. This adds to the fullness of the text and places it firmly in the cultural and geographical context of Bengal. Byapari’s forceful writing and Ramaswamy’s empathetic translation expose the myth that the bhadralok have so carefully cultivated – that of a casteless Bengal.

The Nemesis, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by V Ramaswamy, Westland/Eka.