The Runaway Boy starts with the character of Garib Das, a peasant in rural East Bengal from the lower-caste Namasudra community. Only six years have passed since the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan, but for Garib’s community, this momentous historical event becomes synonymous with the horror of Partition.

The author, Manoranjan Byapari, poignantly novelises this two-sidedness. When freedom from colonial rule coincides with blood-curdling post-Partition violence in several parts of the subcontinent, the narrative seems to ask the question: independence from what? And for whom?

“Garib” means poor, a meaning that the novel makes painfully literal, beginning with Garib’s endeavour to procure some rice for his ailing, pregnant wife. But this deceptively mundane mission foregrounds a grim picture of a feudal caste society: the oppressive Brahmin landlords with their dehumanising untouchability rituals, the oppressed peasants at the receiving end, and the twisted logic of interdependence used to justify this oppression.

Garib somehow manages to get some rice. It isn’t enough, and the “ocean of hunger” in his stomach incapacitates him. But he returns to the news of his son’s being born, and, for a moment, forgets his hunger. No sooner does he prepare to make rice for his wife than a village elder accosts him to feed the child honey, a ritual essential to ensure a good, sweet life. Garib fails.

Unending cycle

While the elder’s demand may seem whimsical, this beginning sets the tone for the rest of the novel: for Garib, ordeals do not end, satisfaction is an impossible dream, and contentment a farce. What follows, unfortunately, isn’t as trivial as feeding a drop of honey to a newborn: the spectre of post-Partition communal riots, a hastened exodus to West Bengal, and violent nonchalance from an apathetic state swinging the sword of the Dandakaranya resettlement which threatens to cut the refugees off from “their” Bengal.

As the narrative progresses (or rather, regresses), Byapari weaves in complex insights about hunger, refugees, the state, communists, caste apartheid, and communalism. Profound insights that are, expectedly, bleak. And yet, oppression is not the identity of the protagonists of the novel, or the community to which they belong.

Garib’s narrative reconstructs a spiral of violence that offers no escape. This cycle of debilitating oppression that stifles Garib continues to trap his son, Jibon. Jibon – life, in Bengali. And in the context of his life, we find a poignant comment on the irony of a name, of language.

As an infant, Jibon is afflicted by severe dysentery that drives him close to death, and it is quite a miracle that he pulls through. Byapari notes: “After surviving that night, Jibon lived. But the way he lived throughout his life – could that really be called living?” He hinges on this question as he takes us through Jibon’s search for a livelihood, for dignity, after Jibon abruptly leaves his family in the refugee camp.

And this suddenness remains no stranger to Jibon. He is forced to pick up menial work, gets mistreated and cheated by his employers, and is either driven out violently or leaves himself, to move to another destination holding the mystical promise of “money flying in the air.” Jibon’s journey becomes an endless spiral of dashed dreams and painful resilience.

One might wonder if such a narrative loop gets repetitive. And it indeed does – but that is the point. Every time Jibon escapes violence and humiliation in search of a new destination, the reader – along with Jibon – may pause and think: surely it ought to get better this time? Surely someone will be kind enough to not violate him, to pay him fairly? Surely somewhere he’ll realise his hope for buying medicines for his father and a new sari for his mother?

But, as in his father’s life, it simply doesn’t get better. Any cautious optimism is arrested, and Byapari offers us only the devastating pathos of hunger and humiliation. Untouchability, communal violence, sexual assault, and abject poverty, the world makes Jibon go through every imaginable experience of violence. This, then, is Byapari’s world – our world.

Political and personal

When Byapari narrates Garib’s story, he observes – observes Garib’s circumstances, society at large, and even Garib’s psyche itself. The author’s voice is once removed from the psyche of the protagonist. However, the register of the novel shifts when it occupies Jibon’s perspective. Even as he continues to write in the third person, Byapari seems to inhabit the mind of the character. The mood of the novel becomes more contemplative and personal, delving into Jibon’s psyche and tracing his emotional trajectory.

Jibon’s reflections on his own experiences are simple yet scathing: straightforward prose. Apprehended by a bloodthirsty mob in Kolkata, he is faced with the dilemma of choosing his community: “What would Jibon say? Did he know which community he belonged to? If he was Hindu, then why did the Hindu Hem Chakraborty call him untouchable? If he was Muslim, why did the Muslims consider him to be a kaffir? Jibon knew that now there were only two communities of people in society, one of which was getting killed and the other was doing the killing. Which of these communities should he choose?” Short, commonsensical, yet profound questions. And so, Byapari condenses his complex interrogations.

A large portion of the novel provides historical and social context to the protagonist’s story. At times, then, it runs the risk of reading like a sociological record. However, for the most part, this is precisely what The Runaway Boy does not become. Historical information, developments in the political landscape, and cultural narratives of the Namasudras become enmeshed with the narrative, either through an overheard conversation, a dialogue, a seer’s storytelling, or the author’s voice itself – different literary tropes and styles, that is.

Further, the text weaves its socio-political meditations into the narrative, showing us their bearing upon the protagonist’s story. Put another way, the political isn’t simply a backdrop for the personal, the story of Garib and Jibon. Instead, through the use of literary techniques, Byapari renders the political and the personal as two different registers, skilfully shifting between them.

Halting transition

The flow of this simple prose, however, is interrupted by occasionally clunky translation, rather inconsistent in style. The reader inexplicably encounters long chunks of Bengali transliteration followed by their English translation; and, as inexplicably, this strategy is forgotten in other portions. For instance, Byapari’s play on the name “Jibon” is often lost: “And so Jibon walked towards another experience. After all, life was just another name for learning about the world every day through a new journey.” Replacing “life” with the italicised “jibon” in the second sentence – which currently seems abruptly philosophical – could have clarified the metaphor connecting the two sentences.

For the most part, the translation seems to reflect the simplicity of the original. However, the occasional use of unwarranted jargon comes as a jolt. When speaking to another character at the railway station, Jibon asks him about his “umbilical connection” to Calcutta. One can imagine that the phrasing in the original – the Bengali equivalent for “umbilical” – is common parlance in the language. But, translated to English, “umbilical” seems jarringly out of place in such a conversation.

To add to the terseness, many of the sentences are unnecessarily wordy, and their syntax puzzlingly long-winded. Take this, for instance: “Jibon and Fatik were on a mission to eat jujube berries today. This mission wasn’t just a matter of eating, but also of play. It involved pride, and also had to do with popular religion and culture. The plans had already been made in the morning. Now, as the day advanced, the process of actualisation was commenced.” One struggles to piece together a Bengali sentence that requires a translation like “process of actualisation was commenced.”

Despite these peculiarities of the translation, The Runaway Boy remains a thoughtful and important work. Even though the novel is set in Bengal half a century ago, it explores the problems that continue to plague Indian society to this day, crystallising around the novel’s protagonists. Garib and Jibon cannot escape the prison of oppression that traps them. Almost everyone they encounter is an accomplice to this oppression.

In the world of The Runaway Boy, it is as if there is no space for redemption, no respite from oppression, no “good guys.” Byapari, then, doesn’t prop up a black-and-white world. Instead, we get a world smeared only with different shades of black.

The Runaway Boy: Chandal Jibon Trilogy Book One

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