Searing autobiography

EducationWorld January 2019 | Books

Interrogating my chandal life: An Autobiography of a Dalit, Manoranjan Byapari, Sage -Samya; Rs.550; Pages 356

One of the great enduring injustices of Hinduism (which the ruling dispensation hoping to ride and remain in power does its best to obfuscate) is its varna or caste system. Under the rigid tenets of the Hindu caste system which its proponents laud as division of labour, people born into the lowest caste — formerly untouchables, later Harijans, designated the ‘depressed class’ by Dr. Ambedkar and today self-classified as Dalits (the oppressed) — were divinely ordained to perform the lowest of low-end jobs such as cleaning drains, toilets, removing animal carcasses etc, and never rise above their status.

This searing autobiography translated from the original in Bengali provides telling insights into how Dalits survive in a repressive, discriminatory society in which, although abolished by law and the Constitution, the caste system is far from dead. This narrative adds to the stories of grit and determination, of courage and endurance that characterise Dalit autobiographies — Bama’s Karukku translated from Tamil and Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi translated from Marathi.

Manoranjan Byapari (alias Jeeban or ‘life’ in the early parts of the narrative), unschooled and untaught, learnt the alphabet in prison from another elderly inmate, etching his letters with a twig on the soft earth of the courtyard outside his prison cell. Gifted a box of chalks by a compassionate sepoy, he learned to write on a cement floor, forming words, transforming into “a traveller from darkness to light”. At a prison blood donation camp, he earned Rs.20 as a donor and was allowed to invest in pen and paper, and learned to read, borrowing books from Naxalite prisoners.

When he was released for lack of evidence, he returned to his old haunts in the Jadavpur (a south Kolkata suburb) area and his old trade of plying a cycle-rickshaw and doing numerous, back-breaking menial chores to eke out a living.

Quite by accident, Byapari was ‘discovered’ by the Bengali socio-political activist, Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith award-winning writer Mahasweta Devi, whom he ferried in his rickshaw one evening. She was surprised when he asked her the meaning of an uncommon Bengali word in a book he was reading. She encouraged him to write his own story and that was the beginning of an incredible journey that culminated in an invitation to the prestigious Jaipur Literary Festival last year. Byapari has penned several novels, essays and over 100 short stories published in obscure magazines. Currently, Byapari remains a fearless activist for human rights even as he struggles to stave off poverty by doing odd jobs including that of a cook in a residential school for poor children, leading an “un-writerly existence”.

Unlike other Dalit autobiographies, Byapari’s focus is not merely his personal fight against demeaning injustices and discrimination. He finds himself constantly caught up in the interstices of history where his caste and class perspective provides new insights into events like the partition of Bengal, the refugee crisis in post-independence India, 34 years of uninterrupted CPM (Communist Party-Marxist) rule over West Bengal, the Naxal violence of the 1970s, demographic changes in Bengal after the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation, the Marichjhapi massacre, labour unrest in the Bastar tribal region and politics of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. These subaltern histories are only cursorily mentioned by mainstream historians or completely obliterated by deliberate amnesia.

Embedded in these widely variant historical events are issues of political power and derailed ideological motives, of State and administrative interventions that unleashed violence, victimisation, trauma and exploitation. Strangely enough, Byapari found himself sucked into these phases of revolutionary politics not by ideological choice but through sheer circumstance. In his life, he never had the luxury of choosing what he wanted to do as the compulsions of poverty directed his life even as his survival strategies transformed him into a social rebel who candidly admits that as “‘these images of a deprived childhood and youth rise before my eyes, I cannot find it in me to be gentle and speak of love and forgiveness”.

Byapari’s narration is vividly graphic, the “prose… often driven more by action than by emotions”, employing a language that is starkly realistic, snatched from the street, slums and the underbelly of society. To her great credit, the translator adequately captures the nuances of anger and rebellion which loom large in Dalit consciousness. Byapari is conscious his entry into the world of letters is a transgression of sorts and that he is “straining at the limits” set for the Dalit community by ‘others’. His objective is to “fight and win” and he unabashedly admits that his “books are born out of my anger”.

To read this book, shortlisted for The Hindu Non-fiction Literary Prize, to be announced in mid-January, is to come face to face with real-life challenges the country’s 300 million Dalits have to confront on a daily basis.

Jayati Gupta

Ambivalent history

Intertwined lives: P.N. Haksar & Indira Gandhi, Jairam Ramesh; Simon & Schuster; Rs.799, Pages 560

In his new book, Congress party politician Jairam Ramesh transports us to a time of remarkable consequence for contemporary India. While the author inserts a caveat that the book must be read as a biography of a committed and profoundly sagacious bureaucrat, the accompanying commentary on the times that produced this man can hardly be ignored. This is a man who spoke of secularism as a civic, worldly matter and distanced the idea from its present connotation as an anti-religious doctrine. Here is a man who doggedly harped on the role of science in a modern state and fashioned some of India’s best institutions committed to discovering the new.

Ramesh’s biography is better characterised as a political biography. There is no disputing that. From the very title, Intertwined Lives, it is easy to see that the book is preoccupied with using Haksar as an alibi for the times when Indira Gandhi was a towering figure in Indian politics. To be sure, an alibi for the times, not Indira Gandhi herself.

Ramesh dispenses with the early life of Haksar with pithy comments and reserves, for anyone interested, the information that Haksar did write a memoir on his early life. Meat is added to the bare bones of Haksar’s life from his time in England as a young student and the wide network of friends and ideological influences he imbibed.

Haksar, in Ramesh’s telling, remained loyal to his friends and ideological leanings. The man who returned from London was a few shades pinker than some of his more illustrious ‘red’ friends of the time. Haksar briefly spent time with the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in Nagpur, but was soon to be subsumed within the nascent bureaucracy of post-independent India under Nehru.

Haksar was incorporated into the Indian Foreign Service, not without some reservations, but was soon to rise in rank and become, in the author’s words, Indira Gandhi’s “ideological compass and moral beacon”. In his deputation to the UK, he had shown genuine concern for India’s interests while also taking responsibility of Feroze and Indira Gandhi’s sons, having befriended the former two in his student days in London. There is an admixture of the personal and the professional, which looks suspect in our present times but the author does well never to leave any space for implying that Haksar benefitted from his personal proximity to the Gandhis. Instead, and this is more characteristic of the times, Haksar was part of a social milieu that enabled his somewhat meteoric rise in the government system.

From here on Ramesh maps the trajectory of his subject’s life as a confidante but also the mind that presaged Indira Gandhi’s ‘socialistic turn’. Haksar was pivotal to all the major events in Indira’s political career after the death of her father, and her eventual accession as the undisputed leader of the Congress party in 1969. The transition was not smooth. Indira had to contend with a very powerful bloc of Congress leaders, the Syndicate, as well as more “left-wing adventurist” Young Turks while maintaining a precarious balancing act. At the risk of some simplification, what made the Gandhi-Haksar combine so powerful was while the latter had an academic approach to questions of national development, the former’s approach was political. These approaches can be best seen in the stray thoughts notes that shaped Indira’s early ideological approach to governance (and of which nationalisation of banks and checks on private corporate monopolies were integral). Haksar consulted different points of view, distilled opinions and dithered on the timing of converting them into policy but Indira deftly implemented them when she saw fit.

However, those were different days and we are talking about a different Indira Gandhi. Even after nationalising banks overnight, she had to still go back to party forums where she had to defend her position. And Haksar, alongside I.G. Patel, composed the documents of legitimacy for her. But Haksar’s intellectual candour, buoyed by his ability to articulate criticism freely, was also his undoing. In Ramesh’s retelling, the seeds of Haksar’s decline were sowed in those early days in London where he tried to correct the errant ways and ambitions of Sanjay Gandhi.
After helping to augment her political power, with machinations in which he willingly participated, Haksar was to realise that such forces could take a life of their own. And that life in politics, as elsewhere, was contingent on the moorings and motivations of many other individuals who may or may not fall in your orbit.

Sanjay Gandhi was one such individual and his political ambitions, fuelled by a sympathetic mother in power became too knotty for Haksar’s craft. It is here that Ramesh’s protagonist experienced a fall from lofty heights. Even though he served on the then powerful Planning Commission, Haksar’s family suffered greatly in the onslaught of the suspension of civil rights in India, known as the Emergency. Ramesh remains coy about these hardships, indicating a book penned by Urmila Haksar, which makes for “sordid reading”.

The problem with Ramesh remains that he cannot satisfactorily conclude how best to talk about Haksar. He repeatedly reminds us that Haksar had strong Leftist moorings, evinced easily from a huge set of evidence at the book’s disposal, but admires that the latter was never an ideologue. Ramesh finds Haksar’s complete faith in the commanding heights of the economy to be ‘antediluvian’ and separates the good in Haksar’s work from the bad.

The bad unsurprisingly, is Haksar’s reluctance to let private players have a free rein in the manufacture of certain items. While the book repeatedly reminds us that this was a different time and its pulls and pressures were intrinsically of that time, on the question of Congress socialism (far more Keynesian) Ramesh is ambivalent.

The other problem is that the idea of ‘intertwining’ allows Ramesh an easy metaphor that neither can be held responsible for their actions. Haksar, and this can be seen within the narrative of the book, played his part in centralising power in the Congress Party and promotion of a seemingly enclosed clique in Delhi’s bureaucratic circles. He did not do so with the intention as such, but his lament in later years of what happened is letting him off too generously. The influential and powerful, as Haksar was indeed, must be probed for all their follies.

Shatam Ray (The Book Review, December 2018)

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