Garib Das stood firm upon his Bhishma-like vow. He would educate Jibon, come what may. After all this wasn’t Barisal, that land of marshes and woods, where children had to cross canals, rivers and lakes, and walk two or three miles to go to school. And back in the country, it wasn’t like the children of the untouchable Nama folk were allowed inside the school even if they went there.

The school authorities would immediately flare up with grimaces and snarls. “What on earth have you come here for? What will you gain by going to school? After all you’re only going to catch fish and push the plough. Where’s the need for schooling for that?” If the student did not flee at that rebuke, if he stubbornly hung on like a leech, the master would frighten him: “If you’re unable to learn, I’ll have the skin off your back. I’ll break as many as four canes on your back.”

If even that didn’t frighten the student, the master would then say, “Go and sit quietly in that corner. Don’t touch anyone, don’t talk to anybody, don’t touch the water-pot.” Here, at least it wasn’t like that. The schoolmaster and students were all low-caste. But the thrashing was there. That had to be there. A stone could never become an idol without the wounds inflicted by hammer and chisel.

But Bimala! Many children in the camp suffered the terror of the skin off their backs, and made their parents suffer that too. There was nothing one could do about that. Garib reflected that the schools in the old country were like a dangerous forest, where children of Brahmins and Kayasthas roamed like a pack of hunting dogs. If one or two children of the Nama folk went there, their plight was like that of a meek hare. Everyone pounced upon them, abused them and beat them. If someone complained, the master found fault with him and beat him instead.

Most children fled for their lives from that hostile educational system. They never advanced beyond Class 2 or Class 3. If a Nama parent was hell-bent on educating his child, he would send the child to Bagerhat College, which had been established by Guruchand Thakur, the great idol of the Namasudra community. There was no caste oppression there, no discrimination.

There was no caste oppression in this camp either. Those who indulged in that – the Brahmins, Kayasthas and Baidyas – did not want to live together with low-caste folk, on account of caste arrogance and economic well-being. They stayed far away from them. Only all the low-caste, destitute people were compelled to come here – those whose stale panta rice ran out even before salt could be fetched, those who were utterly bereft.

Even though all the officers and government employees who had come here were high-caste, they were all from West Bengal. They were less casteist in their mentality, relatively speaking, than the upper-castes in East Bengal. They did not give much importance to caste divisions and prejudice, as much as they did to whether someone was educated and wealthy or not, that is to say, whether they were bhadralok or chhotolok.

For them, “poor” and “illiterate” were synonymous with chhotolok; those who lacked means and education were chhotolok. That was why the dark-skinned babu, Bhuban Barui, addressed them with the disrespectful tui. It did not behove the dignity of a bhadralok to address a chhotolok deferentially, as apni.

For precisely the same reason, the dark-skinned babu accorded respect to Khagen Mandal, a Namasudra. He always asked him to sit on a chair when he came. Khagen Mandal was a relative of the undisputed leader of East Pakistan, Jogen Mandal. He was educated and well-off. If he wanted, he could have, instead of coming to the camp, purchased a house and stayed there. But if he did that, a few hundred families – who had fled their country, accompanying him – would become hapless orphans.

He had chosen this harsh life on their account. Everyone in the camp heeded and respected Khagen babu. It was from him that Garib Das had heard that there was no wealth greater than education. Garib Das had high hopes. He would make his son a scholar like Khagen babu. He too would read the newspaper like Khagen Mandal. People would crowd at his door to hear all the news about the country and the world.

Khagen babu had one day narrated the story of how their community – that had come to be regarded as “Chandal” – had in time been accepted as Namasudras in society and in government records. Whether their plight was on account of Ballal Sen’s fiat, or for whatever other reason – the lives of East Bengal’s suffering Namasudra folk had been witnessed first-hand by the humanist poet Rabindranath Thakur.

In 1911, in his essay titled “The Right to Religion”, he had written: “I went to the villages and saw that other castes do not work on the fields of the Namasudra folk, they do not harvest their paddy. They do not build their houses. In other words, in order to survive in the world, people expect others’ assistance. Yet our society regards them as unworthy of even that. For no fault of theirs, we make their lives difficult and unbearable, and punish them every day, from the day they are born till the moment they die.”

Every morning, there was a crowd of people in front of Khagen babu’s tent. They were there that day too. Garib had reached a bit later. He did not know what they were discussing. He sat down on the mat, beside Jagadish Biswas. Khagen babu was reading out from a book. Hearing him mention the name of Rabindranath Thakur suddenly, Garib’s ears pricked up.

Garib knew about many thakurs, or gods, but all those thakurs lived in heaven. He knew only of two thakurs who were men of this earth. They were Harichand Thakur and his son, Guruchand Thakur. Hearing the name of another thakur now, he whispered to Jagadish Biswas, “Who’s Rabin Thakur? Where’s his ashram?” Jagadish Biswas gestured with his hands to Garib to keep quiet, and said, “Just hear him now. We’ll ask Khagen babu about it later. He must surely be some big sage or gosain.”

The notable point here was that Rabindranath Thakur referred to the Namasudra folk as “Namasudras”, and not by any other name. Meaning that, when he wrote that essay, the Namasudra community had already gained formal recognition – as Namasudras – in government records. But it goes without saying that this did not happen so easily.

The first ever census in this country was conducted during British rule. Sex, age, caste and so on were all meticulously recorded. All the public servants upon whom the responsibility of the census devolved, were – for the usual reasons – high-caste. Disregarding the actual responses of the people of the Namasudra caste, they persisted in writing “Chandal” instead of Namasudra in the place assigned for caste identity. They were simply adhering to the fiat prevalent from Ballal Sen’s time. The Namasudra community exploded in protest.

At that time, in Orakandi, in the Faridpur district of East Bengal, Guruchand Thakur, the gifted son of Harichand Thakur, the founder of the Matua faith, had become widely recognised as the leader of the Namasudra community. Under his leadership, a strike was observed throughout East Bengal, which had a tremendous impact in Barisal, Faridpur, Khulna and Jessore districts. It was in these regions that the population of Namasudras was the highest.

A ray of light had entered the life of the Namasudra community then. With the help of the Australian missionary Meade sahib and the initiative of Guruchand Thakur, a high school was established in Orakandi. And a band of zealous youths strived and moved ahead rapidly, in their quest for social transformation. They were led by the Louhopurush, Guruchand Thakur.

It was a time signalling a great awakening. Through the organisation of the Matua faith, the Namasudras began to express themselves in the form of a united force. Later, there was a fierce movement to change the community’s name. They had thought that with the victory achieved through that movement, the indignity of bearing the yoke of the name “Chandal” would also come to an end. Little did they know that even if the name were to be changed, there would be no change in the mentality of people from higher castes. Like a secret, subterranean stream, it would remain in the inner recesses of their minds.

Finally, as a result of the movement, the community was formally recognised under the name Namasudra in 1911. Whether out of hatred or habit, some public servants still recorded them as “Chandal”. Which was why the colonial government declared that whoever recorded the caste identity of Namasudras as “Chandal” or anything else – instead of Namasudra – would lose his job.

The fear of losing one’s job was indeed a great one, and so they did not have the courage to write anything else.

Excerpted with permission from The Runaway Boy: Chandal Jibon Trilogy Book One, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by V Ramaswamy, Eka/Westland.