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Interrogating my Chandal life : an autobiography of a Dalit
 9789381345139, 9381345139

Table of contents :
East Bengal --
Dandakaranya Rehabilitation Project, food riots and Calcutta --
I run away from home --
My lone travels across east and north India --
On the road for five years --
Return to Kolkata --
My entry into the Naxal movement --
To Dandakaranya and back to a changed Kolkata --
Life on and around the railway station --
A bomb explodes in Bardhhaman --
Into jail and into the world of letters --
A rickshaw-puller's meeting with Mahasweta Devi --
A girl from the past --
Marichjhapi --
Dandakaranya --
Chhatisgarh, Mukti Morcha and Shankar Guha Neogi --
After Shankar Guha Neogi.

Citation preview

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Interrogating My Chandal Life

Interrogating My Chandal Life An Autobiography of a Dalit

MANORANJAN BYAPARI Translated by Sipra Mukherjee

se ec

Copyright © Sipra Mukherjee, 2018 Translated from the original Bangla book, Itibritte Chandal Jivan, by Manoranjan Byapari copyright © Manju Byapari 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. First published in 2018 by

se ec SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd B1/I-1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area Mathura Road, New Delhi 110 044, India www.sagepub.in

SAMYA 16 Southern Avenue Kolkata 700 026 www.stree-samyabooks.com

SAGE Publications Inc 2455 Teller Road Thousand Oaks, California 91320, USA SAGE Publications Ltd 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road London EC1Y 1SP, United Kingdom SAGE Publications Asia-Pacific Pte Ltd 18 Cross Street #10-10/11/12 China Square Central Singapore 048423 Published by Vivek Mehra for SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, typeset in 11/13 pt Baskerville Old Face by Zaza Eunice, Hosur, Tamil Nadu, India. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Byapari, Manoranjan, author. | Mukherjee, Sipra, translator. Title: Interrogating my Chandal life : an autobiography of a Dalit / Manoranjan Byapari ; translated by Sipra Mukherjee. Other titles: Itibritte Chandal Jivan. English Description: New Delhi, India : SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd ; Thousand    Oaks, California : SAGE Publications Inc., 2018. | Includes index. Identifiers: LCCN 2017053032| ISBN 9789381345139 (pbk.) | ISBN 9789381345306    (e-pub) | ISBN 9789381345313 (e-book) - ar - -ı, Manorañjana. | Authors, Bengali—Biography. Subjects: LCSH: By ap  Classification: LCC PK1731.15.Y37 Z46 2018 | DDC 891.4/487209—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017053032

ISBN: 978-93-81345-13-9 (PB) SAGE Samya Team: Aritra Paul, Amrita Dutta and Alekha Chandra Jena

To the two writers who have inspired me to walk my way: Mahasweta Devi and Sankha Ghosh —MB

∼ To my many students from whom I have learnt more than I have taught in our ‘Literatures from the Margins’ classes —SM

Thank you for choosing a SAGE product! If you have any comment, observation or feedback, I would like to personally hear from you. Please write to me at [email protected] Vivek Mehra, Managing Director and CEO, SAGE India.

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Contents

Prefaceix Acknowledgementsxiii A Note by the Translatorxv 1. East Bengal, Partition and West Bengal

1

2. Dandakaranya Rehabilitation Project, Food Riots and Calcutta

25

3. I Run Away from Home

40

4. My Lone Travels across East and North India

52

5. On the Road for Five Years

80

6. Return to Calcutta

104

7. My Entry into the Naxal Movement

127

8. To Dandakaranya and Back to a Changed Calcutta

133

9. Life on and around the Railway Station

151

10. A Bomb Explodes in Barddhaman

171

11. Into Jail and the World of Letters

190

12. A Rickshaw-wallah’s Meeting with Mahasweta Devi

215

13. A Girl from the Past

229

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14. Marichjhapi

235

15. To Dandakaranya, Dalli and Bastar

263

16. Chhattisgarh, Mukti Morcha and Shankar Guha Neogi

280

17. After Shankar Guha Neogi

308

Epilogue342 Notes350 Index353 About the Author and the Translator357

Preface

H

ere I am. I know I am not entirely unfamiliar to you. You’ve seen me a hundred times in a hundred ways. Yet if you insist that you do not recognize me, let me explain myself in a little greater detail, so you will not feel that way anymore. When the darkness of unfamiliarity lifts, you will feel, why, yes, I do know this person. I’ve seen this man. Human memory is rather weak. So I would not press you to remember the forgotten days. But take a look at that green field outside your window. You will see a bare-bodied goatherd running behind his cows and goats with a stick. You’ve seen this boy many times. And so the face seems familiar to you. That is me. That is my childhood. Now come outside your house for a while. Look at that tea stall that stands at the corner of the road where your lane meets the main road. That boy whom you see, uncombed hair, wearing a dirty, smelly, torn vest, with open sores on his hands and feet; he has been beaten a while ago by the owner of the stall for breaking a glass and has been crying—that there is my boyhood. And then my youth. Ferrying goods at the railway station, climbing up the bamboo scaffolding to the roofs of the second or third floor with a load of bricks on my head, driving the rickshaw, waking nights as a guard, the khalasi on a long-distance truck, the sweeper on the railway platform, the dom at the funeral pyres. That is how I have spent my youth. At one stage or the other of this varied life, you must have seen me somewhere, on the road

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or the bazar. Or, one can never say, you may also have seen me in those tumultuous days of the seventies’ decade, running through the lanes with a bomb or a pipe-gun in my hand. Or in handcuffs being forced into the police van with blows. Life appears to have spread skittish mustard seeds under my feet. I have never been able to stand still in any role for more than a few days, always skidding onto another spot. It is the story of that skidding, slipping, fallen-back life that I have sat down to write for you. Life has made me do so many things throughout my life, I wonder if I will be able to speak of it all even if I want to. This is a great difficulty with autobiographies—that there is no veil that I can draw around me. A novel allows that veil. And so much can be spoken outright easily. The other problem of authoring an autobiography is that one has to beat one’s own drum. Every individual is beautiful in his or her own eyes. Every individual is admirable in his or her own judgement. But to your ears, the sound of my cracked, splintered and pitted drum may sound a rhythm that irritates you because you belong to this time and society of which I am about to draw a picture. Who knows but my accusing finger may at some stage point towards you? Somebody somewhere had once said that life was a journey. Moving from birth towards death, a step at a time. And we stumble over the rocks and stones of life, hurting and wounding ourselves, lacerating ourselves and bleeding, as we search for that eternal nectar of life—that which enriches life. Makes it great, gives it meaning. Not all find this nectar. Some do. And the births, deaths, lives of those who do are rendered worth the while. If you do not think me vain, I will humbly submit that I have felt the touch of this nectar. So it will not be arrogant to claim that my life, even if it may not be considered supremely successful, may not be considered a failure. Though I admit I have no clear idea about what constitutes either success or failure. By birth I belong to a family that has been declared criminal, impure and untouchable. My life began with taking the goats out to graze, and then, to bring in the two

Preface

xi

mouthfuls of rice every day, in so many lowly, mean and horrible occupations. I did not get an opportunity to get to school but did get quite a few to go visit the prisons. So when people set me upon the dais, garland me and show respect, then this man, whom some tried to sweep off as dross, may perhaps reasonably feel that his life has not been a total waste. He has never crossed the threshold of school. He used to drive the rickshaw in front of Jadavpur University. When he learns that the Comparative Literature Department of that university in its volume number 46/2008– 2009, and pages numbering 125 to 137, in all those 12 pages has discussed his life and his literature—then he may justifiably feel himself blessed. When the powerful pens of many famous writers, critics, write about the literature that he has created in famous journals and newspapers—Jugantar, Bartaman, Anandabazar Patrika, Pratidin, Aajkal, The Hindu, EPW, Kathadesh, Natun Khobor, Dinkal—publishing his name and his life’s details—when popular television shows like Doordarshan’s ‘Khash Khobor’, Akash Bangla’s ‘Sadharon Ashadharon’, ‘Khojkhobor’, or ‘Tarar Nazar’ on Tara News talk about him, then his belief that life has been fulfilling may be understandable. Once on an invitation I journeyed to the University of Hyderabad. I boarded an autorickshaw from the station, bound for the University Guest House. The driver of the auto was educated and well-informed. Upon hearing that I was from Calcutta, he wanted to know if I had heard of this writer from my city who drives a rickshaw, has never been to school, but who writes books. Did I know him? ‘Yes, I did,’ I replied. And there is not an iota of falsehood in my claim that nobody knows him better than I do. I know him even better than Alkadidi who has written about him in her novel Kalikatha: Via Bypass (1998). Or the scholars who invite me to their many universities. I know all these Manoranjans. They are all within me.

Acknowledgements

T

he first person I must acknowledge my gratitude to is my mastermashai at the Presidency Jail who taught me the alphabet. He started me on a journey that has changed my life forever. Without his loving care and generous wisdom, I would have remained in the unlettered darkness, as millions like me have remained. I owe a great debt to my family that cannot be ever repaid. My wife, Anu, who is proud of her husband the writer—I have tried not to let her down in this respect—and my two children, Mahasweta and Manik. They have always stood by me despite the immense hardship our family has repeatedly faced. My gratitude to Sipra Mukherjee, my translator, who has offered her unstinting support and with whom my friendship has gone beyond that of the writer-translator. Over the course of the last few years, I have wondered anxiously what was taking her so long to translate. She, on her part, has ignored my impatience in her determination to do a good job. Since I have always held that I have found my best friends and my worst enemies in equal proportions among all caste groups, I have felt no hesitation in a Mukujje translating my work. I have always held that I have found my best friends and my worst enemies in equal proportions among all caste groups. I owe a debt of gratitude to all my friends at Samya, Shambhobi Ghosh, Aritra Paul and Mandira Sen, for their faith in my work and for the hard work they have put into this translation project. It will be no exaggeration to say that without

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their support this work would have remained unpublished for at least some more years. My gratitude, as always, to my numerous readers and my many friends, without whom my identity would still have been a jail-returned rickshaw-wallah.

A Note by the Translator

A

careful calculation brought home to me the stunned realization that, less than a kilometre from where we used to sit at Jadavpur University, a man had been led towards his ‘execution’ by an ‘army’ that wielded power to strike terror in the hearts of hardened militant Naxalites—a Jadavpur that we had no inkling of. At a tea stall there, the owner lit his coal stove, heated the pan, washed out the glasses, and handed out the tea with his right hand while with his left, he turned over the .303 bullets that had been put out to dry beside the stove. It was all routine work to him. It is not that the violence that ran rife in these areas in the 1970s is not known, but the violence has never been narrated from this perspective. Scattered and chilling bits of information that slipped through adult conversations: of police vans stealing up to a house in the dead of the night, tipped off about the wanted in hiding there, the sound of loud bangs on the main door signalling that the police had arrived to pick up our young tenant yet again, or the sight of a young man rushing down the street and vaulting over the boundary wall of the house at the far end of the road, or of finding bombs wrapped in a plastic wrapper hidden inside our water tank, or the incoherent report given years later by the film star Uttam Kumar of witnessing the killing of a popular leader when out on his morning walk—all these were incidents we had grown up with as children of the 1970s’ Calcutta. But these were stories of the movement as seen through the upper-caste, middleclass lens. The terror, the brutality, the violence, had not been any less in these experiences, but the lenses had been different and

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the lanes somewhat familiar. I needed to translate Manoranjan Byapari’s autobiography because it was the other half of the story that I had not known existed. Manoranjan Byapari’s account is that of the perpetually hungry boy who is drawn into the movement not because of its ideology, but because of his need to survive. This is not to say that he did not agree with the ideology. It would possibly be truer to say that the ideology was one he felt in his bones, in the pain of the empty craving stomach that drove him mad. The nitty-gritties of the ideological apparatus of the revolution have remained halfknown to him. As Byapari himself wonders at one point in the story, ‘If the boys who had beaten me had not belonged to the CPM, or if those who had roughed up my father had not been of the RSP party, would I have joined the Naxalites?’ Revolution was not an experience he arrived at through deliberate thought, but one which his situations appear to have thrust him into. And yet, he has been part of two major revolutions that have swept through India. The first being the Naxalite revolution and the second, the revolution that Shankar Guha Neogi led at Bastar. If he had been too young to fathom a political movement when he was ‘taken’ into the Naxalite movement, the second political movement was one where he literally snatched the microphone from a political leader to plunge himself into active politics. Irked by the pusillanimous whine in the leader’s voice, a slightly tipsy Manoranjan, in a near-comical episode, decides the honour of Communism was in need of rescue: If the name of the party is Communist, what was the whine doing in this man’s voice? Where was the fire, the anger, the roar that could lift sky-high the hopes of the toiling man? … amazing them with the defiance of their own dreams? This … was a Red Flag-bearing party. The members of the People’s War Group had carried this flag into Dandakaranya, setting on fire the forests and robbing the capitalist owners of their sleep. Standing there in the bazar, I was much pained at the

A Note by the Translator

xvii

lack-lustre whimpering ... My personal scores with this Party could wait. At the present moment, it was a question of ensuring the deserved respect for the Red Flag. The fire of the Red Flag needed to be enkindled in the minds of the people here.

One would not be entirely wrong in surmizing that protest ran in Byapari’s veins. The single most crucial significance of this book is perhaps the tale it tells of a city and a region whose history has been repeatedly documented. Binayak and Ilina Sen, talking of this book in The Week (15 July 2013) cites ‘one reviewer [who] called it … an attempt to recall a people’s history; a history that the gentry, the bhadralok, had written very differently’. This incomplete history, they write, ‘which had for long assumed the partial to be the whole, the sectional to be the national, is sought to be completed through Manoranjan’s pen’. Beginning with the chaotic Partition of the Indian subcontinent, when Byapari’s family crossed the border into India along with other refugees from East Pakistan, the story moves to the refugee camps, through the efforts to rehabilitate the refugees in Dandakaranya and the Andaman Islands, to the largely forgotten Food Riots of 1959, to the 1960s of broken promises by the governments, through the violent 1970s in the city of Calcutta which was caught up in the militant Naxalite movement, the Marichjhapi massacre of 1979, and to the sinister underbelly of politics in the late twentieth century. The book is a gripping narrative of Calcutta and its suburbs, as the city in independent India goes through the processes of handling rising immigration, increasing urbanization and development—a narrative that has been very differently penned by the middle-class educated Bengali. Despite the ‘Chandal’ in the original Bengali title (Itibritte Chandal Jivan), therefore, with its explicit reference to an untouchable Dalit caste, this is very much a narrative of the mainstream. Byapari is placed relentlessly in the margins of caste and class, but this is a margin which weaves in and out of the erstwhile familiar

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majoritarian discourse of history. It is possible that this is a feature that will characterize the more recent Dalit autobiographies as the concerns central to Dalit narratives no longer remain distant and removed from the concerns of mainstream history. Issues of poverty, hunger and violence have, in recent times, exploded the cautiously sewn boundaries of the more affluent world, both on the Indian subcontinent and outside. It appears likely that the literature of the postmodern world, where the earlier distinctions and comfortable distances between classes, castes, genders, sexualities and ethnicities are being rendered archaic every day, will not subscribe to the separation of narratives that had characterized earlier Dalit and upper-caste literatures. This change may be particularly real for Bengal where the exodus of people across the border after Partition and the 1971 Mukti Yuddha has transformed forever the demography that characterized the rural-urban divide of Bengal, drawing many of those belonging to the alleged ‘lower’ castes into the city in search of work and income. These movements over time and space could not but have touched the imagination of its inhabitants, embedding the scripts of feasible lives with more possibilities, and making the present more malleable than it used to be. While these increased possibilities may only have substituted a wider range of opportunities without enhancing the quality of the Dalit’s life, the city was still a space that housed and made possible connections, meetings, access. There is consequently implicit within this tale a rupture that most Bengali Dalits faced in the twentieth century: a rupture brought on by the cataclysmic changes set off by the twin events of urbanization and Partition. Byapari’s prose is urban and modern. Translating the language used by Byapari, therefore, did not pose the many problems that are often faced when translating Dalit literature, where the language embodies its marginalization palpably in the earthiness of its dialect which cannot be kept in translation, which tends to be in standard English. His prose is often driven more by actions than by emotions and in these sections, his narrative, as the reader will notice, ‘moves’:

A Note by the Translator

xix

I turned round to see the Made-in-China-holstered Tata Dutta striding up. There was only one way out now. Make a run for it. Within a few seconds Tata would have me within the range of his revolver. But even as I lifted my leg to run, I saw what had made Tata come rushing up behind us. A huge battalion of police, firing recklessly to the left and right, with huge black dogs pulling at their leashes, was directly in front of us on the road. Tata had reached us by then. He laid a hand on my shoulder. This was a different touch, a softer, human touch. ‘Not this way,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to go through the back.’ I raced back with Tata, Nanu and Swapan, retracing my steps into the heart of that fearful area from where I had been yearning to get out. Through the winding lanes, out onto the Rajapur canal, pushing through the jungle of dhol-kamli and hogla …

Charting out the territory of a place as if setting the scene for an action film, Byapari’s narrative is packed with events, sweeping the reader up with its speed and movement. Such action, violent and often desperate, is usually devoid of the cultural baggage that marks our general social movements, occasioning a language that is more universal and less burdened with the specificities of a culture. This makes the translation into another language a less complicated task. Having begun my experience of translation with a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, where every word and phrase is heavily marked with the diacritics of a traditional Bengali culture that was more alien than familiar to me, much of Byapari’s text was a relatively simpler task. In many ways, this statement may appear ironic or worse, arrogant, given my upper-caste roots. But I believe my own Bangal background with a grandfather who arrived here from East Bengal, my years of growing up in the suburbs, and my entering the city as a young woman who knew nobody, allowed me some immediacy of understanding the many nuanced ways in which hegemony works to marginalize and control. But there is also intense emotion in Byapari’s text, especially in the early pages when he writes of his hapless and vulnerable

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childhood, emotions of intense pain and anger. The agony is so close to the bone that Byapari at times takes refuge in the third person, naming his younger self Jeeban, as he narrates his own wandering life, when he is repeatedly abused, beaten, cheated and exploited. This allows Byapari the distance required to articulate the misery: Jeeban could not say a word. His tears dropped from his eyes soundlessly. The utmost useless thing in this wide world, they blurred his vision.

In these sections, or elsewhere when, for example, the prose reverberates with the tenor of the familiar urban milieu of Calcutta, I have tried to follow Walter Benjamin’s advice and not replicate every note of the original text in my translation. Rather, by keeping to the intention of the text, I hope that the translated work like ‘the echo [will be] able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one’, remaining ‘transparent, not covering the original, not blocking its light’ (Benjamin 258–60). Familiarity with the nuances of the Bangal dialect of East Bengal has, in fact, been one of my advantages as a translator, since this dialect is used by many in this narrative. The other dialect that comes in towards the latter part of the autobiography is Chhattisgarhi. Byapari uses both these dialects on and off in his narrative, doubtless to capture the ambience. Besides these few sentences or paragraphs, the text of Itibritte Chandal Jivan is in standard Bangla. In a few places of my translation, I felt that retaining parts of the original text in the translated text would best convey the rustic nature or the zest of the vernacular. I have consequently interspersed my translation with vernacular phrases, thus hoping to convey at least a part of the original essence. In this, I have done much as Byapari himself has in his autobiography with the two dialects which dominate two large sections of his life. The first, the Bangal East Bengali dialect which would have been the language he used and heard till his boyhood when he arrived in Calcutta

A Note by the Translator

xxi

from the refugee camp, and the second, the Chhattisgarhi dialect which would have been used by the people around him during his life in Bastar. Byapari translates much of these dialects into standard Bangla, using intermittent phrases or sentences of the dialects to retain the local flavour. One example of this would be the section that tells of the boy Manoranjan being tied to a lamppost and beaten with a wooden stump as he is questioned about his political party for whom he had supposedly scribbled on a wall. Manoranjan is illiterate and innocent of the task. Byapari puts into the mouth of his young self the plaintive wail of ‘Mui lehi nai!’ in the Bangal dialect before going on to explain in Bangla that he can neither read nor write. Or the account of the old storyteller of Chhattisgarh, in whose account the mythical Rama merges with the figure of the man’s own hero, Shankar Guha Neogi—an account that Byapari narrates in a mix of Chhattisgarhi and standard Bangla. Taking the cue from Byapari, I have incorporated phrases and words from the vernacular into my translation, playing by the ear, to keep alive that vitality and intensity of the original when I felt the English faltered. Needless to say, these direct quotes have been suitably interspersed with apposite English words to enable the vernacular words to be self-explanatory. Typically Bengali idioms and turns of phrases have been retained, if with a ‘helpful’ word thrown in, as in ‘Life has spread skittish mustard seeds under my feet’. The name of the city Calcutta, where much of the narrative is located, presented a bit of a problem, especially with the recent change of its official name to Kolkata in 2001. Since the city has always been referred to as Kolkata in Bangla, and Calcutta in English for the duration of Byapari’s narrative which ends around 1999, we decided to keep it ‘Calcutta’ throughout the entire text. A few words need to be said about the edited length of the text and consequent changes to its structure. The original was about 25,000 to 30,000 words longer than this translated text and, in our endeavour to make it shorter, the author and I decided to end this memoir around the time when he returns to Calcutta from Dandakaranya, with an Epilogue that briefly summarized his entry

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into the world of letters. In order to do this, I had to shift events around and restructure somewhat (with Byapari’s permission) the last few pages. I appreciate the support from Samya throughout the translation and editorial processes. I acknowledge my gratitude to Manoranjanda who, not knowing this language, blindly entrusted me with his text. The burden of his faith has been a heavy one, commensurate with the considerable weight of the book. I hope the work has been worthy of this trust.

Reference Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Task of the Translator’. In Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913–26, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael Jennings, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

CHAPTER 1

East Bengal, Partition and West Bengal

I

was born into an impoverished Dalit family in a place called Turuk-khali near the village of Pirichpur which used to be a part of the Barisal district in the now vanished East Pakistan. It was on a hot summer Sunday in the month of Baisakh. A terrible Kal-Baisakhi arose that night, blowing away the thatched roofs of many neighbouring huts, felling heavy branches of huge trees and causing much destruction.1 There were tears and wails of fear as the deafening claps of thunder rang out and my mother held me close to her, in an attempt to protect me from the fury of nature. There was not a grain of rice to cook in our family at that time. I have heard from my mother that my father, who earned his income by working as a contractual labourer, could work like an ox. But at that time, he was out of work. As a result, the kitchen fire had not been lit for the past four or five days. Our neighbours, friends and relatives who were from our community were as poor as us, their daily earnings going only as far as that day. Yet, there being no dearth of tenderness in their hearts, they would set aside a handful of rice from their meals for my mother. The unfortunate mother kept herself and her son alive on these meagre meals. That particular morning, my father had set out again, desperate, in search of work and food. The most well-to-do family in the area was the Bhattacharyya family. There used to be a total of four heaps of grain from their farms that would need to be threshed

2

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after harvest. These heaps were so high that my mother would say that a woman’s ghunghat would drop off her head as she arched her neck backwards to see to the top of the pile. It was to this house that my father went in search of money because the Bhattacharyya babus would also lend out money to the poor villagers in times of need, a loan that would usually be paid back in labour at the time of ploughing. But the times were a little different now. The country had been partitioned about four to five years back and people were fleeing to India in hordes. Some of the Bhattacharyya family had already crossed the border into India and the ones who were left were also planning to move as soon as they had made some settlement regarding the large tracts of land and property they owned here. Loans given out now may therefore be difficult to recover later as was the usual practice. And so they agreed to the loan but asked my father to repay the debt immediately by chopping up a mango tree for firewood. This is like Munshi Premchand’s story, but in another context. Unlike the protagonist of that story, my father lived. He was able to complete his work and return home, hungry and exhausted, but with some rice tied at the corner of his gamchha. By the time he returned, though, evening had fallen and the sky was rapidly growing darker with thunder clouds and the approaching storm. I was the firstborn of my parents. There were two sisters and two brothers born after me. It was the convention in those days for the young wife to give birth to her first child in her maternal home. Girls would be rather young when they were wedded off in those days and many would die in childbirth. Thus the convention, perhaps, to avoid the accusation against the in-laws of not having cared enough for their daughter-in-law. But my unfortunate mother had no maternal home. My grandmother had been a child widow, married at twelve and a mother at sixteen. When, soon after that, her mother-in-law too died, there was nobody left to take care of this young widow. She then took my infant mother and returned to her mother’s place where her five other sisters had already arrived, widowed like her. The house was called in the neighbourhood

East Bengal, Partition and West Bengal

3

as the ‘Widows’ House’. These six widowed sisters had only two children between them, a daughter and a son. My grandmother would leave my mother in the care of her sisters and take up small jobs in the well-off houses of the locality, stitching kanthas, roasting muri or puffed rice, making chira or flattened rice, odd jobs that would earn her a pittance but enable them to survive. When her daughter was about eight or nine years old, my future grandfather was in a boat, sailing down the wide river that ran in front of our house. He noticed this little girl with streaming black hair at the river bank, filling water into her tiny pot. He stopped the boat and came ashore to ask about her, to speak to the girl’s parents and to decide matters. A few days later, having paid twenty-one rupees as bride price, he brought the little girl to his home as his son’s bride. This was the famous EightBrothers’ House at Turuk-khali—the house of the Byaparis’. Our name used to be Mondal, but thanks to my grandfather, we had lost it. The story goes that my grandfather had once taken it into his head to begin trading. With this plan, he filled a boat with betel nuts and coconuts and journeyed down the river to the town of Barisal. The day’s business did not go too badly and, on his way back, my grandfather bought a saree for ten rupees for his wife. The beauty of that saree took the village by storm and by and by, somebody asked, ‘How much did this cost you?’ My grandfather, known in the village for his utter lack of business acumen, grew immediately alert. He hesitated to tell the real price, fearing ridicule. Perhaps, being gullible, he had been cheated by the saree-seller! After much thought, he said, ‘Well, the shopkeeper did ask for eight, but after much haggling he settled for seven and a half. The bastard would not give it for a paisa less.’ ‘Really! Is that the truth?’ ‘Now, what’s the use of me lying to you! Would you believe me if I said I had paid ten rupees for this?!’ answered my grandfather brusquely.

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‘Please get one for me at that price,’ answered the man with a smile. ‘Why one! I can get ten for you if you want!’ said my grandfather. As was only to be expected, the next day as my grandfather made ready to set sail with his boat piled with betel nuts and coconuts, he found people running towards him. Some had seven rupees fifty paise clutched in their hands for one saree, some had fifteen rupees for two. As the saying goes, once the bullet is out of the gun and the word out of your lips, these cannot be retrieved. There was little my grandfather could do but buy all the promised sarees, subsidising each from his own pocket. But he never went back to trade at Barisal again. This brilliance of my grandfather did not remain a secret for very long. There were other traders who travelled to Barisal and the truth got out. Amidst much laughter and joking, my grandfather was awarded the title of Byapari, the Businessman. I am, therefore, not Manoranjan Mondal, but Manoranjan Byapari. There are quite a few Manoranjans, and also quite a few Byaparis. But you will not find another Manoranjan Byapari. I am only one. In me is the beginning and in me is the end. To get back to the story I had begun. That day, even as my father was returning home with rice tied in his gamchha, I was born. An aunt of my father’s, who had been the midwife at my father’s birth too, cut the umbilical cord with a bamboo sliver, washed, wrapped me in a clean rag, and lay me down beside my mother. The elders of our land say that if you give a child a drop of honey on his entry into the world, his life will be sweetened. So when my father arrived, she asked him to get a little bit of honey for me. This made my father break down in tears. How would he get honey when he could hardly manage rice? There had been no honey at his birth either. And he knew well the agony, the misery, the humiliation of a life bereft of sweetness. But on that stormy night, honey was an unaffordable luxury. So I got no taste of honey at my birth. My life has not been sweet. I have lived my life as the ill-fated Dalit son of an ill-fated Dalit father, condemned to a life of bitterness.

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My father always proclaimed his caste identity with pride. We are ‘Namashuddurs of the Kashyap gotra’, he would say. Though people of the upper castes called us ‘untouchable’ and spoke of us contemptuously as Chandals or Chanrals, neither my father nor anybody of our community, would acknowledge themselves as Chandals. They claimed that we were highborns and that the blood of the Brahmin flowed in our veins. This, however, is not a claim confined to the Namashudras. Almost every community inhabiting the lowly ranks of the varna hierarchy, make similar claims. For each and every one of these communities, there is some folklore present that allows them to escape the polluted inferiority that the varna system imposes upon them. Such a legend exists within the Namashudra community too. One of the sons of Brahma the Creator was Marich. Marich had a son named Kashyap, and Kashyap had a son named Namas. Namas Muni was married to Brahma’s Manasputra (born of his mind) Ruchi’s daughter, Sulochana. Twin sons, named Uruban and Kirtiban were born to Namas and Sulochana. A few years after the birth of his sons, Namas Muni went off into the forests to meditate. His meditation consumed him so entirely that he lost his count of months and years. Fourteen years passed in this way. According to the Shastras, all human beings are born Shudra. It is through the upanayan ceremony, the ritual through which a young man is invested with the sacred thread that initiates him into Brahminhood, given a second birth and becomes a dwija, the twice-born Brahmin. But just as you could not become a doctor simply by being born into a doctor’s family, similarly just being born into a Brahmin family did not, in ancient days, make one a Brahmin. One had to earn knowledge of the Brahma through years of discipline and study to finally emerge as the Brahmin. The first step in this long journey to Brahminhood was the upanayan ceremony which had to be initiated before the child completed fourteen years. Because of the carelessness of Namas Muni, his sons were beyond this age and thus they remained Shudras. Yet being the offspring of a Muni, they were worthy of respect and hence, the tribe of the Namashudras.

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How then had this community, despite its glorious past, fallen on such misfortune? Sans food for their stomachs, sans cloth for their bodies, sans sandals for their feet, sans oil for their dry hair and sans hay for their thatched roofs? How had they arrived at this state of abject humiliation? The Namashudra community has an answer to that too. In the intervening years between the end of the Pala dynasty and the beginning of the Sena dynasty’s rule in Bengal, the reins of a substantial part of Bengal had been held for some time by King Adisura of the Sura dynasty. The high-caste historians have left King Adisura’s reign largely undocumented. The Pala dynasty had been Buddhists and a great wave of Buddhism had swept across Bengal during their reign. But after the fall of the Palas, King Adisura desired to revive the Vedic dharma with a huge yajna. But this would need able Brahmin priests and respectable Brahmin priests were scarce in Bengal. There being no elaborate worship required in the practice of Buddhism, the sacred mantras had been largely forgotten by the few remaining. So Raja Adisura sent a messenger to the King of Kanauj, requesting him to send five Brahmins, learned in the Vedic rites, to Bengal. The ruler of Kanauj, King Virsingha, however, refused. The atheists (Buddhists) had overrun Bengal, he believed, and there was no religiosity remaining there. Any Brahmin sent to Bengal would succumb to the grave temptations there and be doomed. King Virsingha, a deeply God-fearing man, hesitated to commit such an irresponsible and sacrilegious deed knowingly. Finding no alternative open to him the King Adisura determined to wage war against Kanauj and secure his five Brahmins. The principle of any war being victory, the seven hundred warriors of Adisura donned a dazzling white sacred thread across their chests and approached Kanauj, riding on cows. The God-fearing Virsingha was in a fix. He dared not ask his soldiers to fight this army for fear of killing either a Brahmin or a cow, the murder of both being forbidden by the Vedas. Rather than incur the doom of an eternity in hell, Virsingha chose to surrender and accede the five Brahmins. The five Brahmins brought with them

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five sevaks, all of whom settled in Bengal. The descendants of these five Shudra sevaks came to be known as the Kayastha caste. However that may be, King Adisura’s planned yajna occurred with much fanfare, pleasing him so greatly that he desired to reward the seven hundred warriors who had brought him victory. The leader of the warriors came forward and said, ‘We want nothing more, Your Majesty. But it is our humble request that Your Majesty will not take back what you have so kindly bestowed upon us. Let this sacred thread be ours for the keeping.’ Adisura gave orders for these seven hundred to be known and respected as Brahmins, commanding the same regard and rights that the Brahmins did. But this offended the Namashudras. They had lost their chance of securing the sacred thread because of a small mistake and here was a lower-caste group claiming a status higher than theirs. They refused to honour these seven hundred as Brahmins. Hence began the conflict between the Brahmin and the Namashudra. Adisura’s reign was followed by that of Ballal Sena of the Sena dynasty. The Namashudras fell foul with him over the matter of a son that he had by his mistress. To establish his son as the royal heir, the King arranged for a feast for which invitations were sent out across the length and breadth of the kingdom. Representatives arrived from every community but that of the Namashudras who stayed away. The child was born of the royal loins, perhaps, but nevertheless the child of a mistress, they sniffed. Their defiance angered the king. The Brahmins, already angry with the proud Namashudras, stoked his anger: ‘What arrogance, my Lord! Surely they deserve to be punished!’ Pleased with their obeisance, Ballal Sena began the Kulin Brahmin system—with a group of his most favoured Brahmins being given a higher status than that of the other Brahmins. The Namashudras he punished by casting them out of society, and ranking them with the Chandals. In the Indian system of caste, the Brahmin is placed in the highest rank and the Shudra in the lowest. The Shudra, called the Dasa, is to be dependent on the mercy of the upper caste all his

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life. Belonging to the lowest strata and deserving only contempt, the Shudra can lay no claim to knowledge, wealth or dignity. Any Shudra who transgresses these laws may be killed as Shambuk was killed by Rama, for daring to read the Vedas. Our great Hinduism directs the high-born Hindu to cut off the tongue of any Shudra who reads the Vedas, to pour hot molten lead into the ears of any Shudra who heard the Vedas being recited, to put to death any Shudra who touched a Brahmin. The Brahmin who, in a rage, wrongly kills a Shudra, is directed to recite the Gayatri mantra for three days and to bathe in the River Ganga as penance. The most revered minds of Hinduism have, over time, laid down many such strictures to enable the suppression of a certain community of people. Unwilling to give the Shudra the respect due to a human, their scriptures have proclaimed a Shudra life as equal in worth to that of a crow or a dog. It is then but expected that no Hindu would find it desirable that a daughter of their community be attracted to a man from the lowly Shudra caste. This would be a humiliation to them. The path to a mixed race was therefore made thorny and female chastity was guarded with much severity. Yet some slipped through the chinks in the high walls. Some women of the higher castes did look with desire at the sculpted muscular body of the labourer, was attracted by the simplicity of his mind, and tempted him to fulfil her desires, on occasions leading to the Shudra impregnating her with child. It should not be difficult to imagine the intensity of the woman’s impassioned plea which would entice a Shudra into such a relationship for the Shastras ordain the merciless killing of the Shudra who has carnal knowledge of a Brahmin daughter. The child born of such union would not find a place in caste Hindu society. He would be declared an untouchable Chandal. The Shastras also ordain that the habitations of Chandals should be distant from the village. Burning of corpses and breeding of dogs or pigs would be his occupation. Not for any need, however dire, would he enter the city gates. Not allowed to build any permanent housing, he would be required to move from place

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to place. He would not be allowed to acquire education or keep any name that hinted at dignity. He would need to remain ever on the alert so his polluting shadow would not fall on any Brahmin’s body. For this offence he could be condemned to death. The Namashudra community was, at a single instance of the king’s fury, pushed to this life of darkness and hellish existence. This is all history. After the Sena dynasty came Muslim rule in Bengal. That continued for about seven hundred years. After that came the English whose reign continued for about two hundred years. In all these nine hundred years, the country made advances in the domains of science, culture, knowledge, and many other areas. The one domain that has remained unchanged is the mindset of the Hindu varna system. They have not been able to free themselves from the mentality that allows them to humiliate or oppress a person for no fault of his. Nor do they want to free themselves. A thousand years after becoming Chandals from Namashudras, how was the life of this community? Rabindranath Tagore in his essay ‘The Claims of Dharma’ written in 1911 says: I went to the villages and saw that the Namashudra fields were not cultivated by others. No one reaped their crops, no one built their houses. In other words, the cooperation that one human being can expect of another in order to survive in this world has been denied to them. Our society has judged them as unworthy of receiving that humanity and for no fault of theirs we have made their lives difficult and unbearable, and are condemning them to this punishing existence every moment of their lives from birth to death.2

Despite such non-cooperation, oppression, exploitation, and suppression, the Namashudras have not been made extinct like some primitive animal. They have survived by drawing on their own resources, demonstrating their endurance and strength.

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The first Census of this land was carried out during the British rule in 1872. Upper-caste colonial officials, habitually contemptuous of the Namashudras and used to calling them Chandals, listed them as such. The Namashudras rebelled against this, leading to a strike across the four districts they inhabited: Jessore, Khulna, Faridpur and Barisal. That was the time when a sudden shaft of light had illuminated the Namashudra community. This had come with Harichand Thakur, birth 1812 and death 1878, who had founded the Matua religion. The entire Namashudra community had come together under this new faith. His worthy son, Guruchand Thakur, birth 1848, cooperated with the Christian missionary Mead Sahib to establish a number of schools in Orakandi and its neighbouring areas. Education brings awareness and with the light of education had come the light of consciousness to the Namashudra community. This was also the time when in Maharashtra Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s chariot of social reform was speeding ahead. The impact of his movement had touched these areas too. Inspired by these new ideals, groups of youth organized themselves to seek social reform and dignity. This was a time of momentous awakening. Millions of Namashudras had arisen from their stupor of centuries under the leadership of Guruchand and, strengthened by the Matua faith which denounced the superiority of the Vedas and the Brahmins, began believing in their human worth and dignity: we are not lesser to others, and none is greater to us. Faced with the unified strength of this large community, the British government in 1911 changed the name of the community from Chandals to Namashudra in the Census records. Officials were warned that any who persisted in using the Chandal name would lose his job, thus compelling the varna Hindu officials to obey. Since then, the Chandals have been known as Namashudras. Personally though, I believe that this struggle of about four decades from 1872 to 1911 has been useless and futile. A century has passed after 1911. What has the community gained by divesting itself of its Chandal name, by ensuring entry into the varna fold with the Namashudra name? The respect and humanity sought from the varna elite has remained elusive.

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There are not a few doctors, engineers, artists, politicians, poets, writers from among the Namashudra community today. While it is true that in the professional sphere the doctor gets his due respect from his patient, the poet from his reader and the teacher from his student, the discrimination continues. At professional gatherings of people who are peers in education and vocation, the Namashudra finds that nine out of the ten gathered there are from the upper castes. He is treated with disdain, the butt of ridicule and jokes uttered in low tones or behind his back. The few established Namashudra individuals I have met share very bitter and agonizing experiences. That is why I feel the long-drawn-out battle for a change of name was pointless. It is not a change of name but a change of heart and mind that was required. The Namashudra community has remained neglected and humiliated because that has not happened. We have no reason to believe that even an inch of dignity has been gained. I do believe, in fact, that rather than seek to be included within the four-varna system of the Hindus and offer servility to the varna Hindus, the Namashudras should have preferred to remain as the fifth varna. He or she was nobody’s slave then. The Shastras call the Shudras dasa, servant. And servility, be it religious, social or economic, is not an aid to human development. My parents, both simple rural people, have only a vague idea of my birth year which I place at 1950–51, a few years after that traumatic event that shook the Indian subcontinent: the Partition of India. Communal riots had engulfed the land as the words of love preached by Nanak, Kabir, Buddha and Chaitanya were burnt to ashes in the flames of fury provoked by insidious manipulations of cunning politicians. Calcutta, followed by Noakhali, followed by Bihar, each riot creating the nurturing womb of the next. A partition that caused millions to flee in panic, leaving their motherlands, headed for an unknown future and an unfamiliar terrain, towards a chapter that was to prove unbearable in its pain and humiliation, an agonizing history that is yet to be written in its entirety. In our village near Turak-khali in the district of Barisal, the fratricidal

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riots had not taken place. There was, however, no certainty that they would not take place in the near future. The seeds of violence lie dormant within society waiting to explode. My grandfather and his two brothers were born of the Barisal soil. As the colonizing British had discovered in the many revolutionaries and nationalists born here, Barisal was a land famous for breeding daredevils. My grandfather’s youngest brother, in accordance with the Barisal tradition of daredevilry, decided to journey to the Cuttack fair in Odisha to buy buffaloes. The railway tracks were then yet to be laid across Barisal, a land crisscrossed by streams and rivers, and travel to Cuttack would have to be made largely on foot, through forests and ways infested with thuggees and thieves. Apart from these dangers was also present the fear of killer diseases like cholera, malaria and plague. Yet if one could defy these fears and make it back from the fair with two or four buffaloes, then the sale of those buffaloes here would fetch him more profit than he could have earned through six months labour. But fate was against him. And within a fortnight of his setting out, he contracted cholera. In those days, cholera was usually fatal. It infected whole communities with great rapidity, laying desolate entire villages and towns. A village of three hundred families was once killed at one stroke, with not a single soul left alive in any house to light the evening lamp to the family deity. The companions of my great uncle, panicky with their memories of the Bharatkathi disease, were unnerved at his cholera and fearing certain death, abandoned him and fled with their lives. Death would in all possibility have been his end if a Muslim had not been on his way to the Fajr namaz, the first of the five daily prayers, offered before break of dawn. He saw the dying man, and alongside he saw dying the sympathy and conscience of humanity. He abandoned his namaz and returned home with my great uncle whom he nursed back to health. By the time my grandfather’s brother returned home to his own village, his two brothers had completed the funeral rites of their youngest sibling. The village community rapidly divided into two groups: one group condemning the lack

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of humanity of those who had left the cholera-infected man to die and the other justifying their action on pragmatic grounds. The village sabha was called and those who had abandoned the sick man were pronounced guilty and fined a hefty sum. Days passed and all was well until one day the Muslim from the distant land arrived to enquire into the well-being of the man he had snatched from the jaws of death. The news that the young brother had survived on the rice-and-water of a Muslim spread like wildfire through the village. This was like the story of Lalan Fakir. The hostile group who had borne the brunt of the punishment for abandoning their companion called for a sabha. ‘We have accepted your decree on our action. But now we demand a judgment on the deceit practised by this man.’ The laws of the village were both severe and hidebound in those days. My great uncle had lost his caste by accepting food from a Muslim—he had put his hand into the fire knowingly or unknowingly, and he would burn for it. Thus it came to pass that the youngest son of my grandfather’s family became a khere. One who converted from Hinduism to Islam was called a khere, just as one who converted from Buddhism to Islam was called a nere. Isolated and alienated by his community, my grandfather’s brother was then a solitary helpless individual. Yet as time passed, many more would be compelled to join this alienated community of people oppressed for a diversity of reasons by religion. Few and vulnerable in number at the beginning, rejected by both the Hindu and the Islamic community, this group has, in modern times, grown large. Recent political developments have also encouraged the Muslims to build bridges towards them. The anger and resentment of centuries of oppression have brought them to a point where they are like angry hyenas, ready to avenge themselves through violence. An example of such a bloody revenge may be found in the Muladi riots. About four hundred men, women and children of all ages fleeing from the violence of the riots had taken shelter in a school. Having blocked all exits and escape routes, they were hacked to death in a night-long orgy of violence. It was

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rumoured that the killer wore dancers’ bells on their ankles as they danced and slashed. Who could say with certainty that such violence would not occur in the villages of Turak-khali, Pirichpur, Jalokathi or Nazirpur? Riot. Two syllables that encapsulate a vicious poison that can, within moments, turn a sane human being into a rabid dog. There were no Muslims in the Turak-khali area. Neither had there once been many Muslims in the other areas of Bengal. The Muslims of Bengal who, as the Census count revealed, numbered more than the Hindus in Bengal, were not of Arabian, Iraqi or Irani descent. Most of their ancestors had been Hindus who had been cast off by intolerant Hindu society for some trivial incident or the other. That poison tree was now beginning to bear its fruit, and the oppressed were now leading a bloody wave of revenge. What inhuman laws were decreed by Hinduism! The person who till yesterday had been my neighbour was rendered untouchable with his conversion to another faith. If he stands in my courtyard, he defiles it. If he touches my body, he defiles it. The contempt and indignity that can be heaped by caste Hindus upon people from other faiths and on the lower castes will arouse anger and feelings of revenge in any human heart. The Namashudras have not been able to articulate this but the Muslims did. They were up in arms now, refusing to co-exist peacefully with a people and a faith that denied them their basic humanity. Fear of their violence was driving thousands from East Pakistan towards an unknown geographical entity called ‘India’. Those who were educated, socially established, economically stable, upper caste fled first. Those remaining were also planning escape. On what assurance could the economically and socially weaker people stay behind? My father had had no desire to leave his land. I have heard my mother say that he used to have good relations with the Muslims and had been assured of his safety by them. But his brothers had already left and my father was hesitant to stay on with a broken family and a broken heart. Thus my family crossed the border. I

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do not know how old I was then, though I do remember a group of canvassers passing by our house with the slogan, ‘Who do we vote for?’ ‘Who else but Chitta Sutar!’

Who Chitta Sutar was, I have no idea, but my brother was named after him, Chittaranjan. Five of us arrived in the Great Land of India: my father, my mother, me, my brother Chitta and my aged grandmother who was too fond of her only daughter to let her go. We spent quite a few days on the Sealdah Station platform after arriving in this Bengal. From there we were taken to the Shiromanipur Camp in the Bankura District. A few thousand families were already there before us. A huge field upon which had been strung up lines of reddish brown canvas tents. Families of five, six or seven were stuffed into tents of about six by eight feet. A straight path ran down the centre of the camp from the north to the south. We called the eastern area Aam Bagan, after the mango trees in that area, and the western side Sal Bagan after the Sal trees. Our family was in the Aam Bagan area. The Bankura district of West Bengal is a hot, dry, droughtprone region. We arrived here at the height of summer to face a severe crisis of water. Two tube-wells had been set up by the benevolent government to cater to these few thousand families. There was no other source of water in the vicinity. As a consequence, a long queue of women was a permanent sight at the wells. A wait of one to two hours brought home two buckets of water for the purposes of drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning. I don’t remember the exact amount but we would be given some rice and lentils every fortnight from the government storehouse. And some cash per head. For our family of five, this cash was a total of twenty rupees and thirteen annas. Thirteen annas meant seventy-eight paise. This was called dole. People used the anna system then, one anna being equal to six paise. But four annas was counted as twenty-five paise because of the decimal system of currency that

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was coming in. One ‘ser’ of vine spinach cost an anna. To avoid paying an additional paise for four ‘sers’ of spinach, our neighbour Becharam bought two seers from one seller and two seers from another. My father, though, was quite bereft of such brilliance. My mother would thread one of the coins my father received as dole to wear around my waist. This was the time when the coins used to have a hole in the middle. This is for the happy times, she would say. For the times of celebration, so that I would not have to stare haplessly while others feasted. The day after he would receive the dole, Baba would take half-a day’s leave from the Camp Office and go off to Bishnupur Chowk market to shop. That was the day we would have a full meal of fish curry and good rice. To our palates, fed for fourteen days on rotten, bug-ridden, dirty rice, the food that day would taste like manna from heaven. The government godowns from where we would collect our usual dole of rice possibly possessed very old stock. Some said these were from the stores of rice that had been kept for the soldiers during the Second World War. Over the past years, the rice had rotted and become inedible. When one cooked that rice, there would be a foul smell. For lack of kerosene, the cooking would be completed before the sunset and when this rice would be cooked in all the tents, the entire place would be filled with the bad smell. Everybody suffered from stomach disorders for the first few days as a consequence of eating this rice. There was no lavatory within the camp. People would need to go out to the overgrown grounds and fields nearby to relieve themselves. Those who were healthy, especially the women, would try to complete this daily task before the sun came up. But those who were suffering could hardly wait for opportune times or places. It was behind the tents that they would usually somehow crouch down. As a result of this, the back of the tents would usually be spread over with this dirty sea of human faeces. If one were not careful, one would get one’s feet dirtied and this was something that happened to us children quite often.

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Over and above this misery of indigestion and bad rice, was the tremendous heat. This was a district of hot dry weather. When the loo wind would blow, we would feel as if our skins were being scorched. Indeed in summer, we would feel that there were flames all around us. The sun’s rays would hit the ground and then, as tiny tongues of flame, would rise from the ground. One could not step onto the earth with bare feet then. The ground was like a frying pan. All these people were accustomed to the cooler climes of riverine lands in the far east of Bengal. Stranded upon this hot land through a cruel twist of their fates, they were like fish thrashing about on dry land. The relentless heat was aggravated greatly by the waxed surface of the tents and within the tents the temperatures were about four times greater. This state of affairs hiked up the death rate in the camp for quite some months. It was like an epidemic of death, an endless procession of death on every side of us. People returned after cremating one dead body only to prepare for the cremation of another. There was a stagnant pond if one went about a mile down the road that went through the camp towards the east. It was here that the cremations were done. Throughout the day and night, the pyres would burn here and the sky would be clouded over by the smoke. It was mostly the elderly and the children who died. The adults would be cremated and the children buried. At this time when people were dying like flocks of chickens stricken by bird flu, what was the benevolent government doing? Were no medical facilities available at the camp? Oh no, not even the ghosts of those dead could accuse the ministers and bureaucrats of such negligence. There was a doctor with the looks of the film star Uttam Kumar. He had waves in his hair, wore a pair of expensive glasses and a hat like the Englishmen. He also had a stethoscope to hang around his neck like a necklace and a bicycle with a tinkling bell to ride on. The only things he did not have were the life-giving medicines which could cure disease. But why fault the poor doctor! He had repeatedly sent—what’s it called?—­ requisitions for the necessary medicines. If the supplies did not

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arrive, how could you blame him? As far as medicines went, he had two kinds of liquid—one white and the other red. Beginning with cold, fever, headache, stomach ache, dysentery to typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera and jaundice, every disease would be prescribed the white liquid diluted in water, to be taken thrice daily. And for cuts, bruises, burns, was the red medicine, to be taken twice daily. If the patients had recovered with the white or the red medicine, what would have perished was the science of medicine, built up with labour and care over thousands of years by thousands of concerned individuals. All these medical ‘degreed’ doctors, their institutions, the expensive, indigenous or imported, medicines—all these machinery, laboratories would be rendered fraudulent and irrelevant. So the patients died. They died with this assurance that they were not dying without treatment. Their deaths were despite medical help from an MBBS doctor. Children who were seven or eight years of age were mostly the ones who succumbed. Hardly a night went by when from some tent or the other did not come the bewildered cry of a bereaved mother, ‘O my precious, my jewel, don’t go away!’ The cries would rend the night, making the atmosphere heavy with sorrow. Upon hearing these cries, Ma would grope in the dark for us and hold us close. She would murmur her prayers to her god. Possibly all mothers of rural Bengal believe that Yama will not be able to snatch her child if she holds him tightly to her bosom. But my pious mother’s faith was shaken one day. The summons of death arrived for me. My tiny stomach swelled up like a drum, and along with it came a high fever and a splitting headache. After a day began diarrhoea, severe stomach cramps, and after two days fresh blood with the faeces. After about five or seven days of this, I fell like a sapling that had been cut at its roots. My body was too weary and I could no longer get up from my bed. I pissed and shitted in bed, some twelve or fifteen times a day. Then the slightest push would cause my rectum to pop out of my anus. Till my mother or grandmother pushed it back inside, it would remain hanging out.

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I do not remember this now, but after ten or fifteen days of suffering like this, I had ‘died’. The people of my community do not cremate children. Besides, there were so many adults dying then, that it was becoming difficult to find firewood in the neighbouring jungles. So preparations began to be made to bury me. The government had arranged for spades and shovels in the camp office. Even if a hundred died, there would not be a dearth of shovels to organize burials. Some of the neighbours had collected the picks and shovels and brought them over. But I had ‘died’ after dusk and it was already dark. So they waited for the morning to come, planning to start out in the early hours and return before the sun rose in the sky. How by what supernatural, magical, unbelievable means I do not know, but I have heard Ma say that after ‘dying’ at evening and remaining ‘dead’ through the night, I had awoken to my second life with the dawn. I don’t know when this camp at Shiromanipur had been set up, but my estimate is that we came to this camp in 1953–54. The human body, they say, will adjust to anything. After two years, the residents of Shiromanipur camp could digest the rotten, buginfested grains of rice. They had grown accustomed to the weather here. They were no longer vulnerable as before. After about two years of striding through the camp, Death took mercy on us. Now my father decided that he wanted to gift me with eyes. That is, he wanted to educate me. Without education, even a seeing man is blind. A blind father wants his son to be given sight. The pains of blindness are known to him. For a single letter to be read, the educated babu would extract at least an hour’s free labour. The poor people of the lower orders had not had much opportunity of attaining literacy in East Bengal. It is not as if they could be literate if they wanted to. But here that was possible. There was a government school in the camp and all the children studied there. About a week before my day of school began the preparations. Baba went off to look for a palm tree and bamboo groves. The contribution of these two to child education is enormous. My father gathered a handful of the best palm leaves and

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two slivers of bamboo, one short and the other, about eighteen inches long. The short one would be made into a pen and the long one was the whip. My father had observed the classes and seen that if a student could not say his lessons, he would be asked by the Master to get a stick to serve as the whip from the jungle. In this quest for the whip, if the child got bitten by a snake or scorpion, that would be too heavy a punishment for a trivial cause, hence my father’s precaution. When that climactic moment of my punishment at my teacher’s hands arrived I was to hand him the whip I had brought with me. On the fated day, I was bathed and dressed in new clothes. With hair carefully oiled and combed, the palm leaves tied with a string and clutched under one arm, the bottle of ash-ink under my other arm, pen and whip in pocket, my father led me by the hand to school. The school was not too far from our tent. We could hear the school bell ring from our tent. But my father’s hopes were dashed on reaching school. It had closed down. As the day moved on, one after the other bad news began to arrive. We learnt the refugees would no longer be receiving dole, food or money. Everyone was to fend for himself from now. The government had no responsibility regarding the refugees any more. It was not possible for the government of a newly independent, economically weak country to continue feeding so many unproductive people for so many years at a stretch. This was detrimental not just to the nation, but also to that individual. He was getting accustomed to getting his food even as he remained idle. This was not desirable. It was possible for none but this government to deny the hardworking nature of the Namas, the Pods, the Jeles, the Malos. None of these people had left their lands willingly to sit idle as refugees at the camps. It was out of fear for their lives and their honour that they had fled their lands. Of the uprooted people who had, like a tidal wave, rushed into this part of Bengal, there were clearly two kinds. One was the educated upper castes, those who are called the bhadraloks.3 And the other was the poverty-stricken, illiterate, lower castes—the chhotoloks.4 The upper caste was unwilling

East Bengal, Partition and West Bengal

21

to stay at the camps with the Muchi, the Nama, the Jele. Most of them, with the help of the caste Hindu officials or ministers in West Bengal, managed a space within or near Calcutta in the over one hundred and fifty colonies which sprang up on land that had been forcibly occupied by the refugees. Partly as a consequence of having some education, they could negotiate with the leaders, partly through the wily network of communal brotherhood and relatives they managed, with the active cooperation of the political leaders and bureaucrats to secure land and means of livelihood in this new land. They were taken care of and the truth is that many among them had not been as well cared for in East Bengal. The other millions who had come over, honest workers of the land, could not find space in any of these forcibly occupied colonies because the primary condition to being given land here was education and the bhadralok identity—an identity that was unaffordable to all but the upper castes. A few of the prosperous lower-caste families managed to hide their real names and claim space. Other pretenders who were discovered were thrown out. In none of the 149 colonies in an around the city therefore you will not find a single Nama or Muchi family of that time. Brahmin, Kayasthas and Baidyas are more worldly wise and far-sighted. Many took possession of more than one apartment in these colonies. This often led to fisticuffs in the colonies. The police reported it as the usual brawl of the zamindars’ hired strongmen. After a few months when things had cooled down, the man decided which of the localities he preferred, retained that apartment and sold off the others. They commanded good prices and there was no castesnobbishness if one could pay the cash. Some of the better-off lower-caste people entered the colonies this way. And some of the upper-caste people made lakhs this way. But the millions of destitutes at the camps, desperate to ensure the daily meal, had neither powerful connections nor money. They were those who were of no use to the country. In reality these were people who were like the unwanted unacceptable refuse that needed to be dumped somewhere.

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We stayed there for six years. Some stayed even longer in that hellish place. God knows what the government had planned. Perhaps they had hoped the people would get fed up with the terrible life at the camps and move out on their own. When the refugees did not do that, the government decided to send these people to the distant Andaman Islands which had housed the infamous prisons of the British government. They could go figure how they would survive there. To the Bengali mind, the Andaman Islands were hardly habitable. The Communist Party in Bengal was then on shaky ground. With a handful of leaders who authored essays in periodicals and newspapers making up the party, they were miles away from the common man. Finding this a good opportunity to fish in troubled waters they began building up their party among the refugees. Stoking their fears and boosting their dreams with their words, they discouraged the refugees from travelling to the Andamans. ‘We are with you’, they said. ‘We will hold agitations to press your demands.’ Assured, the refugees refused the Central Government’s proposal to settle in the Andaman islands, and the scheme was closed down. Thinking back on the very different endeavours of the Central Government and the Communist Party so many years later, I believe neither had really cared or felt any concern for the welfare of these refugees. It was opportunism, cunning and mercenary motives that had guided both. It would possibly have been better if the refugees had not listened to the false promises and gone off to the far islands. From what I hear, those who did go are now better off than the refugees in Bengal. This Andaman chapter was possibly over by the time we arrived at the Shiromanipur camp, because there was no talk or discussion about this after we came here. The refugee camps then were like stagnant ponds, still and lifeless. There was no vitality of life. No light lit up the darkened eyes, no smile or banter moved past the inert lips. The people were like tethered cattle, weary and listless, uncertain of the future and counting the days as each day passed into night.

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After a few more years of this captive idleness, the ministers and political leaders announced a second scheme: the Dandakaranya Rehabilitation Scheme. The Dandakaranya Authority had been established on 15 September 1958. Areas of the largely barren lands of Bastar, the least developed of the seven divisions of the state that is today called Chhattisgarh, and Malkangiri, a similarly undeveloped area of the state of Odisha, were brought together under the Dandakaranya Project. It was here that the scheme proposed to rehabilitate the refugees. This was such an area that it is doubtful if ‘civilized’ man had ever set foot here. The few tribes who were inhabitants of this place were ‘primitive’, half-naked tribes. Their language, culture, faiths and food habits were far removed from that of Bengal. It is doubtful if concepts of civilization, modernity or science had at all reached this area. Indeed, it appeared that this part of the world had just come out of the Stone Age and stepped into the Iron Age. The soil here had a large proportion of rock in it. The plough could hardly graze the land here. The tribal inhabitants did little farming. They were mainly hunters and gatherers and their food consisted of fruit, vegetables, herbs and small animals like rats, frogs, birds or snakes. Many among those who survived into adulthood succumbed to unknown diseases or to attacks by wild animals. Because of these many reasons, the place was very sparsely populated. If the refugees could be brought to this area, two birds could be killed off with one stone. On the one hand, an easy solution to the refugee problem would be found, and on the other: this till date unprofitable area could be made productive. The land of Dandakaranya had forested areas where trees like teak and sal, useful as timber, and bamboo groves, useful in the paper industry, grew naturally. The mohua tree, from which could be extracted liquor and oil, grew in abundance here. The land was also rich in minerals like iron, lead, copper, bauxite and dolomite. Lack of suitable labour had prevented the riches of this area from being mined profitably. The tribals were neither skilled in such jobs,

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nor willing to subject themselves to the ordered routine-bound life of the labourer. The refuges, however, could prove useful here. Since the soil here was not such that it would support farming throughout the year, they would be forced to take on other work in order to survive. Such shrewd thinking created the foundations for this Dandakaranya scheme. In accordance with such mathematically calculated strategies, a notice was put up at the Camp Office one day. The contents of the notice were also announced by a drum-beater through the camp. It said that the government was beginning the scheme as soon as possible. Those who enlisted first would be given the first chance to go.

CHAPTER 2

Dandakaranya Rehabilitation Project, Food Riots and Calcutta

D

andakaranya! Rehabilitation! Those at the camp who had a bit of literacy and knew of the Ramayana-Mahabharata epics turned cold with fear. Valmiki had described Dandakaranya in his epic. It was a dense forest filled with wild animals and savage monsters. The god Rama himself had had a tough time there and we were mere mortals. Rehabilitation! This would be more like a re-deportation! The fears of these simple people were once again put to use by the leaders of the Communist Party. One leader rushed from Calcutta to this distant camp in Shiromanipur, Bankura. Holding the microphone to his lips, he goaded the anger of the people: ‘Do not agree to go to Dandakaranya. Why should you go? You are from Bengal! And it is in Bengal that you will stay! I will go to Delhi. I will fight for you. I will tell them that they cannot send Bengalis outside Bengal. We are with you. Do not lose heart.’ The officer who was to come to enlist names arrived on the appointed day with a thick notebook. He waited in the office but few turned up to register their names. The next days the trucks that arrived to transport the passengers went back, nearly empty. About half of those who had enlisted had decided not to go after all. In this way, for about a year, repeated notices were hung at the Office only to be met with silence. Finally one day the trucks that

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arrived did not leave empty. The inhabitants at the camp saw that the chairs and tables of the office were being loaded onto it. The officers were all returning to the Bishnupur Office. If anybody wanted to enlist his name for Dandakaranya, he was to report at that office within seven days. It cannot therefore be rightly said that the inhuman Govern­ ment of India suddenly shrugged off the responsibility of the refugees. Repeated notices had been sent and warnings had been given to not listen to false promises. ‘So now what? What happens to us now?’ To which the Communists replied, ‘Now we will launch a movement—a historical movement that will compel the government to meet our demands. They cannot send people of Bengal to Dandakaranya. They have to rehabilitate Bengalis within Bengal itself!’ On the road that led out of the Shiromanipur camp to Bishnupur were located three more camps, Basudevpur 1, 2 and 3 camps. About fifteen to twenty thousand people from these four camps now began to make preparations to launch a movement under the leadership of the Communist leader. The first phase of the movement began with a hunger strike. Around one hundred people set themselves down under a tree beside the highway to fast unto death. This was an easy form of protest for the refugees then. The last dole of rice and lentils that the government had given us had been over three months ago. The people of these camps all belonged to the impoverished Namo, Pod, Malo castes, whose lives were familiar with the ravages of want and hunger. The accumulation of their lives amounted to a quantity of sighs and despair. Fleeing from their lands, they had managed to grasp nothing but emptiness in their hands. They were therefore fully dependent on the government dole. Once that was stopped, hunger reigned in their families. No preparation therefore was required. All they had to do was put up a tent and sit under it. What can human beings eat? I saw during those days that there really are no limits to this answer. Driven out of their minds by hunger, people ate wild yam, the seed of young palm fruits,

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boiled leaves, mohua fruit, the whitish fruit at the base of the water hyacinths, and such other normally inedible ‘food’. I saw then how hunger eats away at love and care. A mother, driven insane by her son’s constant crying for food, threw him away into a well. The well was dry and the child survived. When the English ruled over this land, a national leader had used the fast as a weapon against oppression. In those days, a hunger strike unto death was an event that forced the rulers to negotiate. The British were people by the sea. Kindness and concern came naturally to them. They valued human lives and knew how painful the pangs of hunger were. And so they rushed to whoever began a fast. The reputation of cruelty that dogs the history of these Englishmen will be seen to be a molehill beside a mountain if compared to the cruelty of the Indian rulers, an ant beside an elephant, a drop of dew beside an ocean. Even after twenty-eight days of this continued hunger strike, nobody came from the government to enquire. The media was not as strong as they are now. So the news of the hunger strike did not reach the mainstream. It remained hidden within the dense forests of the Bankura district. The fast is useful as a weapon only when there is a sympathetic and humane authority against whom you are fighting. It is useless when that authority loses its humanity and is a deaf-mute machine. The strike was given up finally and the fast broken with the usual lime and salt water by the strikers themselves. As far as I remember, one man died during this fast. Our leader advised us that stronger measures would be needed to force the government’s hand. It was decided therefore to move in a large procession to the Bishnupur Court area, bringing to a halt all the state and commercial institutions, and blocking all roads to the court, the markets, the offices, the shops. This was what an aggressive movement was like. We would remain there till the authorities listened to us. My mother, a soft-hearted and timid woman, was against my father joining this militant protest. Baba did not listen to her. He

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joined the procession with his weak and half-starved body, raising slogans to claim his rights, ‘Give us our due, or leave the Chair’. But the police did not allow the procession to enter the city. They were ready at the margins of the city with batons and tear gas. They had received prior information of this protest, of the thousands of hungry, poor, desperate refugees who would be entering the city. They may not remain peaceful and things may turn violent with them looting the shops and stalls. So the government had taken the precaution of imposing Section 144 within the city boundaries that day. The combat force had also been brought in and it was they who blocked the way of the protesters now. The refuges were ignorant of these sections and subsections. They tried to force their way in and the police first beat them down with their batons and then opened the tear gas on them. About a hundred and fifty were injured in that clash, including my father. He returned very late at night with a torn gamchha tied around his head. There was no medicine anywhere, so my mother pounded some of the leaves of the marigold plant and applied it to his wound. As my father groaned and cursed his fate deep into the night, I swore with my childish intelligence to take revenge on the police who had beaten my father. Where would he go? With his khaki uniform and booted feet, I would seek him out and punish him. On that day, the authorities had followed the policy of striking the first blow so hard that the rebellious spirit of the refugees would be crushed forever. And they were largely successful. So though other processions and meetings followed to Bishnupur, the police did not need to beat or gas the crowds again. In all probability, the gatherings were nothing compared to that first day. The police were now following another manner of suppression. They would pick up a group of protesters from the site of the meeting in their vans, take them to a distance of twenty or twenty-five miles and let them free there. The men would need to walk back the entire distance to return home, exhausted and hungry. The cunning officials realized that imprisoning these hungry refugees would only strengthen their rebellious spirit. Fed on the prison meals, they would be able to stake their claims with greater vigour. The easier

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way to break them was by tiring them out. How long could protests last on empty stomachs? It is not in arms and ammunition that the might of an army lie. It lies in its food rations. The English had swept the markets empty of rice at the time of the Second World War, hoarding it for their soldiers and causing famine to rage across Bengal. Hungry people cannot fight. Hungry people do not win. Rebellions too were like wars. A war against the mighty government with its powerful state machinery. But how would the hungry fight? How would the solder remain focussed on his fight when he saw his children writhing in hunger? He would rather run to gather what wild leaves and fruit he could. So those who had braved the might of the police and joined the protests now began frantically rummaging the forests in search of anything to eat. After this, as expected, the population at the camp dwindled to half its number. Surrendering hopes of getting anything from the government, many moved to the cities, its margins, the railway sidings, the pavements. Some enlisted themselves for the Dandakaranya project. Those who remained at the camps tried to find work pulling rickshaws, tying bidis, or working as labourers. All these years, the refuges had been forbidden to leave the camp without official permission. Now there was no office and no official. My father too tried selling firewood in the Bishnupur town. For a load of about fifty to sixty kilos, he would earn two to three rupees, an amount that more or less kept the home fire burning in our family. Seeing my father, some others took to selling firewood leading to a scarcity of wood in the jungles. But necessity obeys no laws, and people began to hack down young trees, an action that was criminal in the eyes of Indian law, warranting both arrest and a fine. But the forest officials knew the impoverished state of these people and so, if caught, the refugees would have their axes taken away and generally be slapped around a bit, before being chased off. My father, a diffident man, stopped going to the forests as a consequence and began looking for a labourer’s work in Bishnupur. But the town was far too small to accommodate the employment of so many and very soon, our hearth was cold again. I cannot describe the agony of hunger that filled those days.

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About eight or ten miles away from the town was another camp and about four miles past it was a Muslim village. The inhabitants of this village, living in tiny huts, were so poor that they would come to beg food from us when we would be given the dole. To the north of this village past the crematorium was a Santhal village but their situation too was as bad. They would eat everything including frogs and snakes. Most of them would take an advance and go to some distant place to work on contract. Our camp itself had only jungles near it. There were no habitations nearby. We had no acquaintances or relatives here to whom we could go to ask for a loan to tide us over these lean times. A huge emptiness haunted us then. There was no food, no medicine, no work, nowhere to go and, very soon, no water to drink. The tubewell set up by the Camp had broken down and, when a few of the refugees went to the Block Development Officer to request that it be repaired, they were told that repairs were unnecessary since nobody lived there. Our tents were torn and the sun peeped through the tears as we waited in fear for the monsoons to come. The entire camp had, as it were, ceased to exist. Not only was the camp erased in the government records but even the sound of the frail coughing of the aged or the cries of the infants or the sound of the women who had lined up at the water taps and were arguing amongst themselves—all signs of life—had ceased to be. The lives remaining in the camp had fallen silent, too weary and feeble to talk or cry. Nobody laughed. Nobody spoke. I was then around ten years of age but malnourished and continuously suffering, I was far smaller compared to children of my age. It is because of this reason that my parents had sent me to school later than the others. By the time my body was ready to take the beatings of the master, it was too late. Now, however, I was growing and, with it, was growing my hunger. I could not bear the pangs of that hunger. My eyes would dim, my guts would feel as if they were being torn apart and my legs would tremble. Driven by this maddening hunger, I set out one day for a distant village where reasonably prosperous families lived and took on the work

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of a goatherd. They agreed to give me two meals a day and, if I lasted a year, then a vest, shorts, and a gamchha during the Pujas. At the age when children live in a happy and carefree world, I was pushed by fate into a hard and harsh reality. Every day I woke at dawn, tied two buckets to a stick that I hung across my shoulders and travelled one and a half miles to fetch water, wet the vegetable farm, have a bowl of muri and go out to the fields with the goats, I would return for lunch then go out again with the goats to let them graze till sundown. People say the morning shows the day. Indeed, the circumstances of my birth and my childhood did send grim messages of my later life. It was a miserable childhood. Nobody ever bought me colourful kites or marbles. At the time of the Durga Puja when other children ran around in new clothes, I stood at a distance and watched with my hands behind my back, covering the tear on my pants. At Holi when everybody shouted in joy at the coloured water, I ran to hide in the depths of a faded, distressed depression, too scared of getting my clothes dirtied. I did not have money enough to buy soap. How was I to wash my clothes? I am that sorrowful boy whom no grandmother has held close to her as she narrated stories of kings and queens. My childhood dreams were never filled with the red and blue fairies. My dreams thus were not coloured at all. They were dark and fearsome, the face of a reality red in its tooth and claw, the flaming blue of her terrifying eyes haunting my life persistently. I think I could retain that first job of my life for about three months. The reasons were many. But it is true that among the main causes of my inability to continue the job was not only the behaviour of my masters but also my own desire to see my mother again. When I returned to the camp I found that I now had a tiny, dark sister. The occasion of a birth was, however, not a time for celebration, but of worry. I had also had a brother earlier after Chittaranjan. So now including my sister our family was now seven. Baba was understandably concerned about providing for this large family. He decided to move out of this camp and

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go towards Ghola Doltala, where there was a refugee camp and some of my uncles lived there. The Partition had scattered families at different places. And, as punishment for not agreeing to go to Dandakaranya, dole had been stopped at that camp too. These people’s names had been scratched off and so they now belonged to no nation. The power of the pen! Thrusting into non-existence thousands of living human beings with one stroke of the pen. Though the economic situation of my uncles was not any better than ours, this camp was nearer the city of Calcutta. Work was therefore easier to find and many had found ways to eke out a meagre living from the city. Some worked as labourers, others sold eggs, still others made mats out of the hogla grass and others chopped vegetables at eateries. When we arrived at this camp, my uncles made us a rough makeshift bamboo house with a thatched hay roof beside the canal. They also made us a weaving machine on which we would be able to make mats. In those years, thousands of acres of swampy lands covered the distance from the Garia railway station to Bantala. There were fish farms here and in these farms there grew an abundance of the hogla grass which could be used to weave mats. It was these hogla grass that helped us somewhat through these terrifying days. At first we would just go out and collect the grass since the farm owners were happy to get rid of these weeds. But when they realized there was business potential in these weeds, they began to ask for money. So two bundles of grass was a rupee and the thread was eight annas. With this raw material if two people worked through the day they could make two mats which would then sell in the market for three and a half rupees. Keeping aside the investment required for the next day’s labour, the family had to be fed on the remaining money. This was the beginning of the ill-famed 1960s decade when rural Bengal was creeping towards a deadly food shortage and rumours of an imminent famine could be heard. The cost of a pali (two and a half seers) of the rice with the thickest grain had gone up to a rupee and twelve annas at the Ghola Doltala bazar. At least one pali of rice was required for our family. But since besides this,

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33

we would also need salt, chillies and fuel, rice was unaffordable for us. At this time, sacks full of khud (broken rice grains) would be available at the market at six annas a seer. Half of this was dust, husk and stones and the khud would really need to be hunted for among these. But this was cheaper than the rice and we would buy two seers of this for twelve annas. Ma would take this to the side of the pond and sieve it for a long time to separate the khud from the rest. After that she would cook this into a sort of gruel which we would have with salt and chillies. There would be no need to chew this. It could be swallowed. Cheaper than this was broken maize, or Mylla’s flour. All these were actually food for the poultry. But we were the ‘fortunate’ human beings who were able to keep body and soul together with this food. My guess is that we came to the Doltala Camp in 1960. Within two years of this was the Indo-China War and two years after that the splintering of the Communist Party. A year earlier had occur red the food riots when the police had beaten to death people hungry for food, effectively also demonstrating the death of conscience and human sensibilities of the government in power. This decade witnessed a traumatic picture of deprivation all across Bengal. The flames of hunger played havoc across rural and urban Bengal and, apart from the rich and the middle class areas, everywhere could be seen the skeletal frames of human beings desperate for food. A certain intelligent Chief Minister of West Bengal had then advised the people to have plantains instead of rice because that had more protein. We would possibly have tried to follow the erudite minister’s advice if it had not been for the fact that plantains were not available for free. And we did not have enough money to satisfy our hunger with plantains. Nor did we have land to plant trees in. We had a hut beside a canal in which you could not straighten up to your full height. One entered it crawling, and one exited it crawling. In fact, those who lived here had got so used to keeping their spines bent over that they had forgotten to stand up straight. These huts beside the railway line canals were such that no light of education or civilization entered

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them and the human beings were gradually transformed into subhuman beings. In a few years man, proclaiming the glories of science, would be setting feet on the moon and in the same world, some would be moving into an increasingly animal-like existence in their rat holes. In those days, the open mouths of the hungry became so insistent that, despite the government finding it possible to remain as Mouni Baba, it became difficult for many benevolent people to do so. Many organizations of social service opened up langars to feed the destitute. A khichri of rice and lentils would be served once during the day and for that one meal, huge lines would form from the break of dawn. If you joined the line at early morning you would get your meal by the time the sun was overhead. After about a fortnight or more, these langars also closed down. But to return to 1964. My father worked as a daily labourer at Jadavpur then. At that time, many areas of Jadavpur were being claimed by the refugees forcibly and colonies were being built. These claimants were all members of the upper castes and so, as had always been the usual practice, the Namo, the Muslim, the Kaora, the Bagdi were the construction workers. This is one of the naked truths that the people at the top were all of the varna Hindu community. As a result of this identity, they had been unable to be as cruel, as unjust, as ruthless with people of their own jati as they had been with the lower castes. A brief chronology of the jabardakhal colonies—colonies where the refugees took forcible occupation of the land that came up in West Bengal: the first was Bijoygarh. At the time of the Second World War, the British government had purchased this large tract of land from Indian zamindars for American soldiers. As a result of this, there was no landowner of this area after the American soldiers returned home and this land, quite expensive as real estate, was lying empty. Since the military had stayed in this place, water and electricity lines were already set up here. The place was well-located with two bus stops nearby, banks, post office, a university—what more could one want? This land was

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seized under the leadership of a certain Santosh Dutta and was adjudged to be the second largest colony in Asia, second only to one in Israel. Nobody protested when this jabardakhal occurred. The then Chief Minister Dr. Bidhan Chandra Ray, Governor Katju, Prime Minister Nehru, Major General Satyabrata Singha, Triguna Sen, Samar Mukherjee, Sarojini Naidu, and other prominent figures assured them and encouraged them.1 There was no such sympathy for the people of the lower castes. When I set these examples of benevolence beside the horrendous massacre carried out at Marichjhapi, I am filled with uncontrollable anger.2 My calculations do not add up. A group of people from the same land and fleeing for the same reason at the same time, and yet how cruelly different the treatment of one from the other. One group is allowed to lay claim to expensive real estate in the heart of the city and the other group is callously pushed out to one of the remotest islands, Marichjhapi, in the jungles of Sundarbans, valueless in terms of real estate. They are mercilessly slaughtered, women and children raped, homes and people plundered and set fire to. About thirty thousand families had travelled to this island to set up their homes and of these, two thousand are still missing. Nobody knows know how many fell prey to tigers, to the crocodiles, or how many were drowned in the river. My father too had been present there, on the island surrounded on all sides by the single-minded killers. His ribs had been broken. But that story will come later. The question that arises naturally in these circumstances is this: why did the ruling people have such different reactions to two groups of people? I believe what lies behind this is the centuries old hatred born of the varna system. If these people on the island had been Brahmins, Kayasthas, Baidyas and not the Namos, the Pods, the Jeles, the rulers would never have been able to do this. Whatever be the cause, about twenty refugee colonies for the upper castes were allowed to develop in the Jadavpur area. The Muslim master-masons from Murshidabad and the lower castes of Bengal played a major role in bringing these colonies up.

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My father would rise from his bed every day at three o’clock, take a basket, a spade and his gamchha, and walk seven or eight miles to the Ghutiari Sharif railway station. This would take him about two hours. The fast electric trains were not yet running on this Canning railway line. It was the steam-driven trains that moved at a slow speed that ran on these single lines then. My father boarded this train at five o’clock in the morning and at about sixthirty reached Jadavpur station. From there he would walk about two and a half miles to the Bagha Jatin crossing. Hundreds of labourers crowded at this spot in the hope of finding work. To the passers-by and the shopkeepers of this area, this was a major nuisance. Many years later, when I too would wait at this crossing in search of work, I remember how irritated the sweetmeat shopowner would be. Situated on the right at the head of the road which turns into the Bagha Jatin station, this man would empty a mug of water on us if we stood in front of his shop, ‘Move. Move. Don’t stand in front of my shop.’ Baba would locate a corner in the crowd and settle down like a beggar with his instruments in front of him, hoping some one would give him work. But the number of takers far exceeded the need, so not everyone got work every day. If he did not get work, Baba would spread out his gamchha on the platform and spend the day there, filling his stomach with repeated drinks of water. When night fell, he would return home in the same way, empty-handed and dejected. He would not board the trains during the day. The reason was simple: he was a ticketless passenger. When he did get work, Baba would request an advance of eight annas from the boss at lunch time, and have a plate of bread and potato curry. With the remainder of his wages that he received after work, he would buy rations for the family and return home at night. Ma would cook. We would eat. After arriving at Ghola Doltala, my mother had given birth to another daughter. This family of eight was dependent on Baba who was the sole earning member. But the frequent bouts of hunger had affected Baba’s health. What was at first a negligible ache in his stomach developed into a severe pain, making him bedridden, thrashing

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about on the bed with agony like a slaughtered goat. We had no money to take him to a doctor and, lacking any treatment, the pain grew. When the earning member of the family falls, how can the family survive? We began to starve, growing thinner and thinner. My sister Manju died. People speak of poverty, destitution, starvation, penury. But none of these nice poetic-sounding words describe what we went through then. Possibly no language can. The unbearable misery of those days cannot be expressed through any words in any language. I remember there used to be a soap, dark blackish in colour, available for one anna in the market in those days. But we could not afford it. We would pluck grass and rub it into our hair to clean out the dust and dirt. Our short hair managed on this but Ma’s long hair could hardly be cleaned out this way. I had heard that it was my mother’s luxurious thick dark hair that had first caught the attention of my grandfather who then wanted to make her his son’s wife. Lacking care her hair matted over and could not be combed out at all, so that she had to cut it off from the roots finally. Her once fair complexion was now burnt a deep copper with the sun and hard work. The last clothes we had been given were at the Shiromanipur Camp. By now, all our clothes were torn and most of the time we brothers and sisters went around naked. When I had to wear clothes in front of people, I would cover the torn behind of my pants with my hand. The worst sufferer was my mother whose saree had become so badly tattered that she could hardly cover herself with it. Finally she was driven to wrapping a torn piece of mosquito net around her body, and remaining inside the hut, unable to venture out in the daytime. The scriptures say birth as a human being is a blessing and a rare gift that is given to a soul after it has passed through forty million lives. And indeed this has been a rare life for me. I have seen my father writhing in agony as he inched towards death, a day at a time, without any medical treatment. I have seen my mother living the life of a rat in its dark hole, unable to step outside into the sunshine when the cold and dank interior chilled her. I have seen my

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sister die of starvation, and watched helplessly my three other siblings exhausted by malnutrition and fasting. My aged grandmother went around the market collecting rotten or worm-eaten potatoes and egg plants and papayas. Trying to squeeze what little nourishment she could from these rejected foodstuff. My father was an honest man. He had never hurt anyone. And he was extremely hard working. There were stories of my father’s strength that my uncles used to relate. About how he could, in one smooth movement, hoist up a sack of rice and walk miles with it on his head. And he was extremely god-fearing. His needs were small. Two square meals a day of rice and if, by chance, vegetables were available with the rice, it would be cause enough for him to celebrate. But none of this brought him any happiness or peace. Not his honesty, not his hard work, not his deep faith in God. Not for a single day did I see him have a full meal. Never have I seen him wearing a shirt on his body or shoes on his feet. His ribs could be counted through the skin on his chest. Why should an honest man be condemned to such a cruel fate? My young mind could not arrive at any answer. I would run away, I decided. I would try to seek out my future in this world. Perhaps it would be the half-fed, half-starved life of my father, my uncles, my grandfather. Perhaps it would be a better life. At that age, I had no idea of the harsh brutality of the world outside my family. I could not have guessed that, spurned by that world, I would return one day to what I had left behind, disillusioned and empty-handed. It would not let me remain disciplined, respectful, and courteous but would stir up my anger against all that was noble and good in this world. Ghola and Doltala were two separate villages separated by this rather dirty canal which flowed between them from the west to the east. About a few thousand refugee homes had sprung up along the banks of this canal. At a small distance down this canal was the Ramdhari Bridge over which went the road from the north to the east. Bus number 80 going to Canning via Garia passed through this road. Beyond the bridge, past the road, down the

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narrow winding path through the fields brought one to the railway line. About six or seven miles further on along the tracks, and one got to Ghutiari Sharif station which my father would reach at break of dawn every day, weary, with his load of a basket and a shovel. It was this same road that I took that day as I set out to find my destiny. My heart was crying for the family I was leaving behind. My parents, my siblings, my old grandmother—all of whom had nobody to care for them. I had no idea what would happen to them but I knew that if I stayed on here, I would die with them.

CHAPTER 3

I Run Away from Home

T

here is a story in the Mahabharata of Duryodhan and Duhshashana, the Kaurava princes, imprisoning their maternal uncle Shakuni and his brothers. Like the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, Shakuni also had ninety-nine brothers and Duryodhan feared that they may someday turn out to be too great a threat to him. Duryodhan’s plan therefore was to keep only one of the hundred brothers alive, thus effectively ending their combined power. With this plan, he confined Shakuni and his brothers in one room and gave orders for food enough for only one to survive to be allowed in every day. His hope was that this would result in fights for the food between the brothers who would eventually kill each other. The one remaining brother would be released. The imprisoned Shakuni and his brothers understood Duryodhan’s motives and, realizing their helplessness, they agreed to a scheme which, though self-destructive, would bring them the satisfaction of revenge. Shakuni, they agreed, was the most intelligent of all the brothers. Hence the others starved themselves to death, placing on Shakuni the onus of extracting revenge. What Shakuni’s advice did to Dhritarashtra’s clan is well known. Had I grown obsessed with this story? I do not know. But I was determined to live. I had stepped out of my home after dusk. So by the time I reached the Ghutiari Sharif station, it was dark. Electricity had

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not reached here as yet and the station was lit up by the flickering flame of small kerosene lamps at the top of the lamp posts. Exhausted after my long walk, I lay down on an empty bench and promptly fell asleep. I was awakened by the beam of a torch on my face and a stranger’s voice asking me, “You, boy. Where are you going?” Startled by the light as much as by the question, I sat up, speechless. How was I to know where I was going. All I knew was that I needed to flee from this yawning maw of hunger. I needed to see if the crops of the world had indeed been devoured or whether any remained for me and my tribe. Seeing me speechless, the man repeated his question. Then, perhaps observing my clothes and my emaciated body by the light of the torch, asked, ‘Are you refugees?’All his questions were answered with the nod of my head. Refugee. Is there a word more impoverished or humiliating than this in the Bangla dictionary? To the people of West Bengal, the words’ refugee’ and ‘Bangal’ are synonymous. And the word ‘Bangal’, a name for people from East Bengal, was also, for all practical purposes, a word of abuse too. Like the adjectives ‘reactionary’, bourgeois, ‘loan shark’, ‘jotedar’, ‘street mongrel’. What a cursed life we had. We call ourselves Hindu and worship idols. For this reason, the Muslims look upon us as kafirs. Because we belong to the lower caste-Namashudra community, the upper Hindu castes treat us with contempt and spit on us. Now that we have come to this land, we are abused for being born where we were—for being Bangals. There is this Bangal—a novel and strange beast, Jumps up a tree sans a tail—flown in from the east.

These lines were penned by a Ghoti poet. In the eyes of the Ghoti of West Bengal, the Bangal is always an outsider. The people who have come from another land are now in the process of appropriating their culture, their literature, their jobs and their trade. The hostility was so intense that violence could be sparked off any day.

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But it was not as I had thought. This man was a Bangal, not a Ghoti, but not a refugee. He had crossed the border much earlier, had bought a plot of land and a pond here and settled down. An educated man, he knew which magic words would make the refugee child swoon at his feet: ‘Will you come with me? Stay at my home? I will give you rice to eat.’ Rice! It seemed so far back in a distant past that I had tasted rice. White, fragrant, exquisite, beautiful rice. The word ‘rice’ felled this boy, starving since ages. I followed him. On the way, he told me why he would give me the rice. I would need to look after the few cows he owned, give them their food, clean out the shed and other small chores like these. The man was a Brahmin by caste and a doctor by profession. He had come to this land as a result of Partition but had not come in as a refugee. He had not stayed at refugee camps or taken over land forcibly but had built his own house on land purchased with his own money. He appeared mighty proud of this. So now I came to learn of yet another division among humanity, besides the many I already knew, between the Bangals who had crossed over to this side: those who stayed as refugees in colonies and those who did not. In the short life I had led till then I had not come across any bamun-kayets.1 As a result, I had little idea of the varna system or its discrimination. While a Brahmin priest would be called in by our community to utter the sacred mantras for a wedding or a funeral, that sole Brahmin among the many Namashudras would remain prudent and not flaunt his caste supremacy. It was my entry to this house that showed me for the first time the ugly side of our Hindu faith and our position within its social system. I was a Namashudra, that caste group which had earlier been called Chandal. These people knew this and treated me as a dirty detestable animal. The plate from which I ate was an old and twisted one on which the lady of the house would let fall the rice and vegetables from a considerable height so as to evade my polluting touch. I would take that food and sit in a corner of the courtyard like a beggar. This plate could not enter the house henceforth and so, after washing it, I

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would keep it in the cowshed. That was also the place where I slept, on a few sacks of ghute, the fuel made out of dried cowdung. The stench of the cows’ urine and the bites of the mosquitoes would not let me sleep much during the night. It was during the day when I took the cows out to graze that I would get my sleep, under a tree. It was this sleep that earned me a savage beating one day when the cows moved too near the railway tracks and, frightened by the whistle of an oncoming train, ran helter-­skelter. One caught its hoof in a hole on the ground and fractured it. The area of Ghutiari Sharif is a Muslim-dominated settlement and houses the mazhar of the pir, Gazi Baba. Many small trade and business enterprises had come up around this popular mazhar and there were groups of Bihari Muslims settled here. Unlike the Bengali Muslims, the Bihari Muslims were not the timid ­‘vegetarian-type’. A group of uprooted people who had fled across the border had been settled here too, beside the railway lines. Members of a certain political party visited them on and off, keeping their fresh wounds alive with intermittent provocation. There was therefore an atmosphere of suppressed tension between the two communities and any spark would ignite the fires of anger and resentment. The doctor, being an intelligent man, was of the opinion that he should keep good relations with the influential members of the Muslim community. To this end, he invited over to his house a few of the leader-like Muslims of the area to treat them to that special homemade delicacy payas, which Hindus prepare on special occasions. If in the near future, a riot did break out, this payas he believed would tide him through those difficult days. But the doctor’s wife was ignorant of such clever strategies. Furious at the idea of having to entertain people from the very community that had compelled them to leave their homeland, she grumbled and raged at the idea of those cow-­eating Muslims coming and standing in her courtyard, sitting on her veranda, feeding on her payas. But the doctor paid no heed to her grumblings and invited his guests on to the veranda, a place even I, his co-religionist, was never allowed to enter. I have heard said that

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something like this would often happen in the times of Mughal rule. The lower-caste individual who would be denied the respect of a human being from upper-caste Hindus would be treated with courtesy once he had converted to Islam; after all, the person then belonged to the sovereign’s faith. Be that as it may, the real trouble in this event began after the payas-eating was done. Once they had left, the doctor’s wife dropped her enforced reserve and screamed herself hoarse at her husband’s lack of prudence. She shouted to me to wash the utensils they had eaten upon, to sprinkle dung-water all around the courtyard they had stepped upon, granting me a position more acceptable than that of the Muslims. One among the invited Muslims would always carry with him a small radio set which he had mistakenly left behind in the doctor’s house. Since it was switched off, it had sat quietly in a corner without anybody noticing its presence. A little way from the house however, the Muslim had realized his mistake and returned to retrieve his possession. But the loud tirade from the doctor’s wife reached his ears, preventing him from stepping into the house again. Nobody saw him but me. I had gone to fetch water from the pond and saw the man standing motionless in the hazy moonlight, stunned with humiliation. His eyes were aflame with anger, the kind of anger that burns and destroys communities. I knew then that the payas that they had had today would not sit easy in their stomachs. It would disgorge itself one day in anger and hatred. For love gives birth to love just as hatred gives birth to hatred, and it was hatred with which they were returning today. There was no escape. For centuries, this ill-fated land had humiliated and tormented one community of people in the name of caste and another community of people in the name of religion. A day would come when in tears and sighs they would be paid back in their own coin. That day of recompense arrived much later. As far as I can remember this was in 1963, sometime after I had left the doctor’s house. The sacred lock of hair belonging to the Hazrat Sahib went missing from a masjid in Kashmir. Nobody knows whether it really

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was stolen or whether someone with mischief on his mind had removed the lock of hair. But the news led to violent riots throughout the land. The doctor’s house was among the many that were looted and burnt down. Many innocents died and many hands were marked with blood. My hands were bloodied too. I can still smell that blood today. There was one place whose name I was familiar with in this city, Jadavpur. My father would come here to look for work. I landed up there one day with the hope that if my father could find work here, I would too. The first night I spent on the railway platform No. 1, where the Ganashakti newspaper was plastered on the wall, amidst the cigarette butts and dirt.2 I had high fever that night. Painful, burning sores and welts had erupted all over my body as a result of the doctor’s reckless beating. The next morning the fever was gone, though the pain remained, and I was enormously hungry. So I went in search of work which I found in a Hindustani tea-shop. The monthly salary would be ten rupees. The bitter experience at the doctor’s house was still fresh in my mind and I changed my surname so people would not know me as a Namashudra. That identity could make it difficult for me to get a job or, if I did get a job, would get me disdainful and contemptuous treatment. The shopowner was from Uttar Pradesh, a province where they were usually very keen on the caste identity. Luck was on my side for the owner did not display any overt curiosity about my caste. I remained here for about four to five months. The monthly salary would be given on request without any hankypanky at the end of every month. But if I broke a glass they would deduct the cost of that glass from the salary. This was to teach the boys to be more careful but try as I might, I ended up breaking one or two glasses often. One day I dropped about four quarts of milk. I did not get any salary that month. One morning, on the road in front of the shop, there was this long line of people with bamboos and tiles moving towards the east. Where on earth are they going? They were going towards the area upon which has now come up the Eastern Metropolitan

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Bypass. There, on the huge tracts of land lying empty but owned by the zamindars, they were going to build a colony. This would be another forcible seizure of land and the politician leading this project was a Congress minister named Ahin Ray Chowdhury. With him was another person called Shonaiya, who was later to gain notoriety as One-Handed Shona. These marching lines continued for about eight to ten days. I went to see the new colony one afternoon. As far as eye could see, there were small huts which had been built. Some of hogla leaves, some of bamboo, the lines of huts stretched endlessly. Seemingly countless, there were possibly about twenty to twenty-five thousand families there. I too wished I could take up a plot of land and make a house there. We too did not have proper place to live in. But my desires were too big for my small body and besides, were would I get the money needed to buy the bamboo or hogla. The story goes that a man woke up late one day and so missed his train. He spent the morning dejected since this would cause him huge losses. Yet when a few hours later, news arrived of the accident that that train had met with, the man was thrilled that he had missed the train. A few days later, we were woken by cries for help from a thousand voices. The eastern sky was lit up with huge, leaping, red flames. Then came the sound of bullets being fired, repeatedly. This continued throughout the night. In the morning, along the same path traversed by those lines of people yesterday, they returned on pushcarts and makeshift stretchers. Blood dripped onto the dusty road from their bodies, evidence of the night-long hell that the police and the zamindars’ hired goons had unleashed upon them. My young mind had then been much upset at the sight of so many bloodied people and the world had not appeared a place fit for civilized humanity. It had appeared to be the domain of a tribe of murderers. But this claustrophobic arena is my country. This arena where the murderer exults is my country. Many years ago, when my father had been beaten by the police, I had identified the police as my enemy. To that enemy

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was now added another, the zamindar. The police, the criminals and the zamindars I identified as the enemies of the people. My experience at the hands of the upper-caste doctor’s family had not been forgotten either. My mind was filled with anger, resentment and hatred. And wafting down on these three muddied streams as they flowed towards their turbulent meeting was my little mind, poisoned and stacked with bitter and angry experiences. After my job at that tea shop at the Triangular Park at Jadavpur, I found work at a tea shop near Park Circus. My earlier job had paid me ten rupees. This job would pay me one and a half times more, twenty-five rupees. This owner was an old man and every evening some other men of his age would gather together at his shop to chat together. It was from one of their discussions that I heard about the theft in Kashmir of the sacred lock of Hazrat Mohammad’s hair. They were of the opinion that the theft was a concocted story and that in reality this was a scheme by the mischievous to rouse the sentiments of the religious. In fact the riots did begin within a few days. A large section of the Muslims believed that the theft had been engineered by the Hindus. With the tension between the two communities already running high, this spark was enough to set the two communities at each other’s throats. Though the area of Park Circus houses many Muslims, the riots had not yet reached this area. The atmosphere was tense, though, and the streets grew deserted as soon as darkness fell. No mother allowed her child to be outside the four walls at this time. But I was an unfortunate child. Nobody would ask for me or grieve for me if I fell into any danger. Besides, I was a servant and I did not have the option of saying ‘no’ to work. The master class has no mercy for the working class. Such mercy is viewed as weakness and such weak masters are usually ridiculed. After all, if the butcher grows merciful towards his cattle, he will be seen as a failure in his business. I had gone through a few more jobs after the Jadavpur one before I ended up at the Park Circus job. One of my earlier jobs had been at Pal Bazar where I would be required to fetch the

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owner’s dinner from his home every night at seven thirty. His house was not more than four or five miles from the shop, beyond the Kalikapur field. But the area was still largely a jungle, uninhabited, and would get dark and empty at that time of the night. After I had crossed the Garfa school and the darkness came plunging down at me, my fear would find release in loud singing. The song had only one line: ‘Sree Krishna Chaitanya Prabhu Nityananda, Hare Krishna Hare Rama Sree Radhe Gobinda’. The main name was that of Rama. The other names were mere fillers. I knew, as everybody knew, that ghosts were scared of Rama’s name. On one such night as I travelled this path with a rapidly beating heart, about eight or nine hungry jackals came out of the dense jungle near the Kalikapur canal and surrounded me. This was the way they attacked a kid and I had no route of escape. I had no weapon with me either. All that I held in my hands were the lunch box and an electric torch in whose light I could see their eyes glinting. There was nobody who could hear me if I cried for help, the few houses present in the vicinity being too far away and shuttered. The jackals were moving towards me, making the circle around me increasingly smaller as I, like a desperate Abhimanyu, kept turning round and round trying to sense from which direction the first attack would come. Besides the once-white sando-vest and the cheap shorts, I was wearing around my waist, tightly tied as a belt, my gamchha—that cheap cotton towel that is the constant companion of a village boy to whom it is much more than a towel to wipe his sweat with. It is his belt, his cushion which he places on his head when he hoists heavy loads onto it, his bedsheet which he stretches out on the ground to sleep on, his blanket when he feels cold at night. At this moment, it occurred to me that this may also be a weapon. I picked up a stone lying nearby and tied it to the end of the gamchha. Holding the other end of the cloth, I began whirling around me at great speed this makeshift weapon. The jackals were intelligent creatures. They saw that it would be difficult to get near me and fled. I learnt that a piece of stone could save my life miraculously and also learnt that the individual who can pick up

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these rich lessons as he went through life was the one who could be fearless, daring, courageous, audacious. The old man who was my new boss at Park Circus had one luxury. There was this small shop beside the railway tracks where an old man sold a particular bidi, flat-headed and made of a mix of Gujarati and Nepali tobacco, which the man mixed and tied himself with a red thread. This was a bidi unparalleled in the entirety of India. One puff on that and it cooled your heart, mind and body. Every night at nine-thirty, a half hour before the shop closed down, it was my job to go and fetch one bidi. But earlier the atmosphere had been different. Today, with riots and murders all around, the night was dangerous and scary. Yet as the paid servant, I had not the freedom to say no, for twenty-five rupees is a lot of money. It could buy twelve and a half kilos of rice. I stepped onto the dark desolate road, unaware that I was moving towards a bloody chapter of my life. The Park Circus railway station had not yet been built then and the area was filled with many trees and bushes. The journey to the shop was uneventful. I bought the bundle of bidis, carefully plucked out one from the centre of the bundle, lit it with the glowing tip of the rope that hung, burning slowly, from a side of the shop and set off puffing on the bidi. As I turned a corner, with no warning at all, as if born out of the surrounding darkness, three youths blocked my way. Small in age and stature, the knife that one held in his hands was not small at all. This was what was called a Kanpuri. His voice too was like an adult, ‘Abbe you, what’s your jaat?’ The boy spoke in Bangla but this was not the Bangla familiar to me. It was a distorted, Hindi-mixed Bangla. There were riots all around in Calcutta then. Rajabazar and Khidirpur were burning. Men were being killed. In these terrifying times, I knew that by jaat the boys were asking me my religion, was I a Hindu or a Muslim. If I were of their community, they would embrace me; otherwise they would slit my throat with that knife. I tried to make out what they were, Hindus or Muslims. But they

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wore none of the markers—no tiki on the head, no beard, no lungi, no tilak on the forehead. They were getting impatient. ‘Tell us. What are you? Quick.’ But I could hardly answer even if I had known what to say. My throat was dry and no sound escaped my lips. It is usually said that the mute make no enemies. In this situation, however, my silence was only infuriating them. They were losing patience. ‘Come on, what is it?’ I had to say something I realized, or they would not let me go. Nobody had taught me then that offence is the best defence. But I learnt that lesson from that situation born of a troubled and mistrustful time. I looked around. Not a soul in sight. The inhabitants of the few houses on the street had cut themselves off from this dark world, buried their heads in the sand like the ostrich during a desert storm, and were sleeping. There was a broken bit of a brick lying on the ground before me. Without stopping to think and with the speed of lightning, I picked it up and, gathering all my body’s strength in my two arms, thrust the brick into the forehead of the boy with the knife. I aimed for the centre of the forehead, a spot which, if struck with force, usually kills. The knife fell out of his hand as he dropped to the ground with a groan. I pounced upon the Kanpuri and, with it in my hands, turned round at the remaining two. ‘Come, who is it now!’ But they did not come. They ran away, into the darkness, leaving their moaning friend on the ground. I had been a sickly child when I was small. Lacking nourishment and health, I was far smaller than most boys my age. As a result of this, I would always lose the fights and get beaten up. This was that me—the small, defeated, beaten me—was today the victor. At my feet lay my victim, my armed enemy, whose warm blood was on my hands. I too could kill and, if I had learnt to kill, I would learn to live too. I did not return with the bidis to the tea shop that night. Who knows but one of the boys who ran away could have been from the

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locality or perhaps knew that I was. They might have notified the others of their mohalla already. They would slaughter me like a goat. I ran away. I don’t know where I ran that night or how far. In a dazed and half-conscious state, I ran and ran, and kept running till I could run no more. I was certain they were chasing me, that they would come for me, and if I stopped they would be upon me. Terrified and exhausted, I hid in a park and then, before the sun rose, I got out and ran again as far as I could, running for a place where there would be no humanity, no killer and none killed.

CHAPTER 4

My Lone Travels across East and North India

A

fter many twists and turns of fate, around 1965, I stood on Howrah Bridge watching the flow of water and the flow of people. I was a ‘murderer’ on the run and below me was the holy Ganga. A dip in its waters would wash away all my sins. Realizing the usefulness of this concept, a certain business community had set up their trade in the Burrabazar area. They would go take a dip in the holy water every morning and then cheat the people throughout the day. The cheating was to secure the needs of this life; the dip was to secure those of the next. This was the year when India and Pakistan fought a war between themselves. The internal affairs of both the countries were in shambles and the war was possibly a way to distract the attention of the citizens from the more pressing real concerns. A Pakistani plane bombed Barrackpore and it was rumoured that the Pakistanis would bomb Howrah Bridge too. So the security around the area had been beefed up and there were several armed policemen in the area. I stared down at the river and at the many boats that were sailing on it, remembering how my father and my uncles would sail down the river to catch fish. If the times had been peaceful, I too would possibly have gone fishing with them and who knows, on one such journey, I would perhaps meet my mermaid. The beauty of that wondrous-eyed, luscious-haired maiden would fulfil my life. Such quite adolescent thoughts filled my head when suddenly

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I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned round to see a rifle-wielding policeman at my elbow. I was caught. All that remained of my life would now be in the distant Andaman jail or would end with my hanging. I would never again see my mother, father, brothers or sisters ever again. In fear and grief, I began to weep. The policeman appeared dismayed at my tears and asked, ‘Hey, why are you crying?’ His words surprised me. Just as a rose knows not its own fragrance, so do the policemen not know the impact they can have. The man asked again, ‘Why are you standing here? Are you lost? Don’t cry. I will reach you home.’ My common sense was flooding back by now. The policeman’s words did not suggest that he was out to arrest me. He really was concerned about me and I should, therefore, be telling him the truth. And if the consequence of that I would be imprisoned, so be it. Now I have heard said that all writers are philosophers of varying degrees. Since the pen is in my hands now, let me do the philosophizing on my terms. What constitutes truth? That which man desires and aspires for is the truth. It is for this reason that the poet has said that what you create will be the truth. But, yes, one has to remain alert that people do not reject it as falsehood. All the great creations of this world are founded on imagination. Much of that which is fabricated is recognized as being truer than truth. Who has the courage to claim that Ramakrishna was a man like ourselves; not an avatar or any such? This alone is true that truth is not a monolithic eternal presence. It shifts and changes its shape in accordance with time, space and people involved, expanding or shrinking to fit itself into varying contexts. Siraj-ud-daula may therefore be a patriot and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose a traitor and a terrorist. Based on these philosophical suppositions, I constructed a ‘timely’ truth. ‘Babu, we live in the Jadavpur colony. I lost my mother when a child and my father married again. But this mother is cruel to

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me. She beats me every day and does not give me enough to eat. I have run away from home, Babu. I will work anywhere, in a tea shop or anywhere. But I will not go back home, Babu.’ My tale softened the policeman. Though the laws of our country deem vagrancy a crime, he did not push me into the lockup, deciding instead to set before me a plate full of hot rice. ‘Will you work at our mess?’ he asked. ‘Then come with me. You can stay there and also get a salary at the end of the month.’ I had heard many people speak of how the wolf nested in the tiger’s lair. The significance of the statement hit me now that I, a possible convict, found myself safely ensconced within the Police Lines, working at the Sibpur Police Mess. I have heard that there is divinity in man though my experiences have never substantiated it. My own opinion is that if man remained human, did not sink downwards to become a monster, being human was quite enough and divinity is unnecessary. Animals do not indulge in ruthless exploitation, abuse or rape. I have, however, witnessed this low monstrous aspect of humanity so often since childhood that it has filled my mind and heart with the poison of contempt and scorn. I know it is a sin to disregard humanity and I have searched throughout my life for one person who could honour my trust. The Parade Ground, a large field where the Independence Day parade was held and where, on that day, stood the tricoloured Indian flag, was within the gates of the Police Lines. A little further on, within the Police Barracks, was this sepoy of about thirtyfive who, like many others of the police, suffered from the same flaws as did the common populace whom they occasionally beat up for those flaws. The only difference was that the police received the indirect patronage of the powerful which the common thief or criminal did not. One of the flaws of this sepoy was his inclination for the weed. One night, when returning across the field after his usual nightly smoke of marijuana, he spotted this young bitch sleeping in the darkened field. Overcome by his sexual urge, he attempted to rape the bitch whereupon the bitch, desperate

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to ward off the man’s unwelcome advances, bit him hard on the offending penis. Terrified of contracting rabies and possibly also driven out of his mind by the pain, the man rushed to the police hospital. People got to know of the incident causing much derisive laughter and, disgusted by the policeman’s importunate behaviour, his officers sent him back home for a month. There were more than one mess at the Police Lines, one for the Biharis, on for the Nepalis and two for the Bengalis. The kitchen where I worked was headed by Amulya Thakur who wore the holy thread of the Brahmin around his neck. On that hung a key and as far as I saw that was the one use it had for him. He had been working here for more than two decades and his word was therefore law—a fact that he made that known to me on the very first day. ‘My power here is huge,’ he told me. ‘So do exactly as I say or no man’s son will be able to keep you at this job.’ Over a hundred men had their meals here twice a day. In the morning there would be cooked rice, dal, vegetables and a fish curry. On Sundays, instead of the fish, there would be mutton or chicken curry. At night the menu consisted of chapati, lentils and vegetables. Washing the utensils of these people, chopping up the vegetables, fetching water from the tube-well, preparing the dough and toasting the chapatis were my work. This fetched me the sum of forty rupees a month. But something else was needed here to work successfully under Amulya Thakur and that something was made known to me one Friday. Fridays were special days at the Police Lines because on this day the police would be given their ration of alcohol, usually, rum. The police man’s job is a hard job. You may be ordered to beat down or shoot at people for whom your heart held no hatred or anger. Possibly as a concession to this difficulty of the job they were required to carry out for the ruling powers, they were granted this special treat. Amulya Thakur had his share too and one night, returning much drunk with rum, he came up close to me, pushed his dirty lungi to one side, took out his filthy, nauseating male organ and, placing it on the palm of my

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hand without the least hesitation, said, ‘Here, massage it a bit.’ My mind rebelled at the deed but, shutting off my senses, I obliged, yearning to be let off from this act. But Amulya Thakur had no qualms of imposing himself on a helpless boy and wanted to carry this further. ‘That’s enough,’ he said. ‘Now turn over and lie down.’ Much later, when in jail, I learnt that this form of anal sex gave much pleasure to many. But this was against my desires and my cultural conditioning. My body and mind revolted and the word rushed out from my throat, ‘No.’ He was angry at my answer and threw a crumpled two-rupee note at me. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Now stop your show of chastity. Take your pants off.’ But I was not willing to be made a dog of. Worse than the dog in fact, since the dog had rebelled and bitten the man. What followed was as expected. He began finding fault with all my work from the next day. If I washed the vegetables, there were grains of sand in it; if I ground the spices, the paste was not fine enough; if I toasted the chapatis, they were half-burnt. And if I argued, I was slapped. I knew the reason for this dissatisfaction. But it was beyond me to address that dissatisfaction. So finally one day I gave up this address of secure food and shelter and went back to the roads. The streets, the people, the Howrah Bridge, they were all there as earlier. Only I was older and more experienced. This time my address was that space where all vagrant and homeless people gather. The pickpocket, the prostitute, the drunkard, the beggar, the migrant labourer, the madman, and so many others of myriad identities gather here at this common fair, the railway station. I began living here. Not strong enough to carry heavy loads, I ferried smaller cargo, though few. It earned me a few rupees which got me some bread and a curry of potatoes or chickpeas. Days passed. Then one day I met here this young boy, about four to five years older than me, a vagabond and wanderer. I took an immediate liking to this dark, thin and tall boy who could

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suppress both his sorrow and his hunger and keep laughing. In the course of his conversation, he let me know that he was planning to go to Assam. There was enough work there and the fees were about three to four times higher. I needed money, a lot of money. I had to take my father to the doctor, buy sarees for my mother to enable her to come out to the light, I had to save my siblings from starvation and death. Yet I did not even have money to buy poison for myself. I ran after the boy desperately. ‘I want to go with you to Assam.’ The Sealdah Railway Station. Apparently the name had originated from a jackal (siyal) falling into some marsh here. In much the same way that this young boy, call him Jeeban, slipped and fell into dark and harsh times. Every station has a certain disembodied persona about it. A hidden subterranean stream connecting all humanity despite their diverse clothes and diverse languages. It was as if a single thread connected all these people together as they rushed out of the train compartments when the train pulled into the station every morning. Every step that they took, raising their feet to an invisible beat, could be heard beating out the rhythm of duty-bound, responsible, conscientious lives. When they returned to the trains in the evenings, tired and eager to be back home, a shared anxiety lined their faces. What if the train did not leave on time, what if it stalled midway, what if—what if… A hundred problems dogged rail travel in those days, the tracks got waterlogged, the overhead wires snapped, electricity failed, some political or civil demonstrators barred the lines. And then the trains would not run, causing these thousand faces to darken. Strangers to each other, all these human beings would worry and sigh and feel a glad rush of relief at the same things. But the boy Jeeban was too young to remain philosophizing and he strolled about the deserted station that afternoon, looking at the lives near the platforms, women stirring blackened pots on fires of dried leaves and twigs, a few scraggy naked children roaming around, some of the coolies fast asleep on their gamchhas. He finally came to rest on a bench after drinking greedily from the tap to quench both his hunger and

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thirst. Beside him came and sat this boy, dark and thin, with a head full of unruly hair and wearing inappropriately long pants. Definitely a newcomer. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked. ‘What’s my name got to do with you?’ retorted Jeeban. ‘How do I call you otherwise?’ he answered. ‘Why should you want to call me?’ ‘When people live together, there may be so many reasons for which one needs to call another. I am thinking of staying here for a few days now.’ There was a ring of simplicity and honesty in the boy’s tone and Jeeban did not sense any danger from him. ‘My name is Jeeban,’ he said. ‘Guess mine? Raja! Ha!’ Well, why not, thought Jeeban. If a butcher can be called Dayamoy, meaning Merciful, then why can a tramp not be called Raja? From what he knew, changes in fate also turned kings into beggars at times. Such as Siraj. Or Harishchandra. But what brought this Raja here? With a smile, Raja presented his reason. ‘I’m going to Assam. A friend is supposed to join me here. So till he can run away from his home, I will wait for him. It is a long distance and so a companion for the journey is always welcome.’ Jeeban had heard of Assam at the Jadavpur station where this man who sold amulets used to come. He used to lay this boy on the ground and then raise him into the air without touching him. He could also turn a one rupee note into a ten rupee note on his open palm. All these he had learnt in Assam, a mysterious land surrounded by rivers, mountains and forests where the Goddess Kamakhya had her temple. Men could not go there easily and if any did, he could not return because the women there transformed men into sheep. But this boy Raja said he had been there and back many times. Was he speaking the truth? ‘Have you been to the Kamakhya temple?’ ‘Many times?’ ‘Truth?’

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‘What will I gain by lying to you?’ ‘But people say nobody can go there for the women turn men into sheep.’ ‘Lies. Here I am, sitting in front of you. Do I look like a sheep?’ ‘Maybe they did not see you.’ ‘Did not see me? How is that possible? I have spoken to many of them. I have even held the hand of one.’ Raja paused for a moment, the thought of that hand he had held in the recent past distracting his thoughts. Then he said, ‘But the girls there are made by God with I-don’t-know-what! One touch from any of them, and your body tingles! If you speak of magic, yes, those girls do possess magic. Turned into sheep? If any Bengali could get a girl like that, he will willingly become the shoes on her feet!’ But the discussion about girls did not progress much further. After all, how long can one keep up a monologue? Jeeban was not very well-versed about girls as yet. He liked them well, but could barely dare cast sidelong glances at them. Looking one in the eye made him quite giddy. ‘Want a bidi?’ asked Raja after some time. ‘I don’t have bidis,’ Jeeban replied. This surprised Raja. Boys on the station were usually adept at bidis and marijuana. How was he surviving? ‘So what’s your vice?’ he asked. ‘My vice is rice,’ Jeeban answered. ‘That is my only vice. Nothing else.’ Raja sighed. ‘That was my vice too, once upon a time. I could not do without at least a handful of rice. But not anymore. I have got over that. And no sense in grieving over it because nobody is going to hand you a plateful of rice because you’re going hungry.’ He turned to Jeeban, ‘So how long can you stay hungry?’ ‘Not at all,’ answered Jeeban. ‘If I don’t eat, my hands and feet tremble, my eyes cloud over, my words come out of my ears.’ ‘It’s no matter putting up with no eating,’ says Raja. Leaning back on the bench, with one leg crossed over the other, he said

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importantly, ‘Say, how many days can the camel go without water? A month. Do you have any idea how hot the desert is? Can you imagine how one can stay without water for so long there?’ Jeeban shakes his head mutely—no. ‘And how many days can a snake stay without food?’ ‘No idea.’ ‘A full three months. Once winter sets in, it eats its fill and disappears into its hole and does not appear for three months. So tell me, if these animals can do this, why cannot man?’ ‘I have this uncle,’ continues Raja, ‘whom I have never seen who has neither rice nor roti throughout the day. A mug of tea and two biscuits in the morning and a mug of tea and two biscuits in the evening. But if, say, after some party or something, there is food left over, then he gets called over. And my, one then gets to see what eating is all about! It is from him that I have learnt the technique of staying without eating.’ ‘What technique?’ ‘Don’t let the thought of hunger enter your mind. Try it, you will find it makes such a difference. Tell yourself, I have just had a heavy meal. Hold the thought in your head and you’ll find you are doing fine.’ One does not really have to be a pundit to be able to talk or think like one. This boy Raja was already on the higher levels of spirituality. The sanyasis would call this the road of renunciation. Travellers on this road can renounce all worldly desire for wealth, luxury, pleasure. They believe that desire is the root of all human sorrows. If one can uproot desire then one can be liberated from the bondages of hunger, thirst, joy, sorrow, love, yearning. Then there remains no difference between man and woman, between the honest and the dishonest, between payes and panta,1 a man can then lie under a tree wearing nothing but a loincloth and feel himself richer the owner of a million dollars. Great souls have endeavoured tirelessly to bring man to this realization and liberation for thousands of years. With the combined efforts of the Koran, the Bible, the Vedas, mandirs, masjids, churches, a

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certain amount of success has been achieved in this regard. Once the remaining unconverted people are converted, the heavens will descend on the dust of this earth. After a long pause, Jeeban asked, ‘Can I ask you for something? Will you take me with you to Assam?’ ‘Will you come with me?’ ‘If you take me.’ ‘What do you mean “take me”? You are not an infant that I can pick up in my arms and take off. If you decide to come, you will come walking on your own feet. And if you will come with me, I will not wait for my other friend. We will take off immediately.’ In a somewhat dejected voice, Jeeban said, ‘I don’t have any money on me.’ ‘Neither do I,’ said Raja. ‘We will be travelling by train, without tickets. What do you need money for?’ ‘That is okay, but what about the food we will need on the road…’ Raja lost his temper at the mention of food. ‘Now this is exactly why you folks never get to do anything worthwhile. You will remain here day after lying around with no work and no food. But the moment you are asked to move, you begin clamouring for food. Okay, I give you my word. I will treat you to a plateful of hot rice.’ ‘How? You sad you don’t have money. You need money to buy rice.’ ‘I don’t. You fool—we’ll be taking such a long journey without tickets, don’t you think we’ll meet the ticket checker at least once? We’ll look for him if we don’t. Off to the lock-up and hot rice for a few days.’ But my childhood fears would not be quelled. The police had not put Baba into the lock-up. They had taken him far away and then let him go in a jungle about twenty to twenty-five miles from home. What if they forced us to travel twenty stations off

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our destination? How would we walk back without food? But Raja waved off his fears. Twenty stations off? Let them! No matter how far they made us travel they would not be able to take us beyond Assam, he said. There are no rail tracks that far. It’s another country beyond Assam. So we set off. It was late evening by the time the two young boys set off on their half-insane journey. Not a paisa in their hands, not a known face in the land they were heading to. The Farakka Barrage had not yet been built then and the trains stopped on this side of the Ganga. From there one took a launch across the river to the Khejuria Ghat, and from there one took a train to New Jalpaiguri. It was from Jalpaiguri that the Guwahati Mail left. If things went smoothly, this entire journey would take fifty to sixty hours. There were no gate keepers at the Sealdah Station gates. The two of them clambered over the gates and set out on foot for Howrah. By the time they reached there, the sun had set. Raja knew the platform from where the train had left and there was little time left. But the gates at the Howrah station were well-manned with about two to three men at every gate. Nor could you slip in among the crowds because at every gate there was this turn-about kind of a gate that you had to wheel around to get in one by one. Walking all around the station, the two of them finally located one unmanned gate which was locked. Raja dropped on his hands and knees and then, dragging himself forward on his chest like a soldier at the battleground, he dragged himself under the gate and into the platform. ‘Come, Jeeban, hurry!’ he called. The rail guard was at that moment swinging his blue light and signalling to the driver to start. They ran forward and jumped onto a compartment. The compartment was almost empty with plenty of vacant seats but the ticketless two sat down on the floor at the door opposite the entrance—none of the platforms of the later stations would be on this side—they swung their legs comfortably down onto the doorstep as they leaned on the door and stared at

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the passing scenery. Within minutes the lights of the town passed by and the train plunged into a dark night. Jeeban found his mind and heart filling with a strange pain as the tall lights of Howrah Bridge receded into the distance. This city had never cared for them, never brought them any happiness. It was in a corner of this city that his Baba would set down his basket and spade and squat on the ground as he waited for work, his mother and his hungry brothers and sisters would wait eagerly for their father to bring home some food. During the monsoons, the wet hay would drip down on these feeble bodies drenching them completely. Yet, despite these unhappy memories, Jeeban could not erase the memory of his mother’s face from his mind. Begging her forgiveness silently, he wept. There is a strange intoxication in the rhythm of a night train. The intermittent whistling of the engine, the sound of the wheels grating on the tracks, the darkness whooshing by, all come together in a musical harmony that lulls one to sleep. The train would stop now and then at some station, the silent compartment would come to life with the noise of people’s voices and hawkers crying their wares, and then the silence of sleep would envelop the passengers once again. Jeeban had never ventured out this far on his own and a thrill of excitement went through him as the train went speeding through the darkness. It was about eight in the morning when the train reached Farakka. This station was not barricaded on all sides by gates like that of Howrah and Raja and Jeeban had no difficulty in joining the crowd of people milling towards the ferry ghat that was about a mile and a half from here. Arriving at the ferries, Jeeban saw the launches afloat on the water and, for no apparent reason, blowing their horns. A few larger cargo steamships floated beside them as did a few smaller fishing boats. Dark bare-bodied fishermen were busily unloading baskets full of fish. Around the ghat were a number of restaurants, all fenced with matting and roofed with tin, doing brisk business as the crowds entered. One of the launches was about to leave and the passengers filed along a wooden plank

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placed across the water and into the launch where, at the door, a few lungi-clad men checked the ticket and allowed the passenger to enter. There was no way they could get past those men without tickets and Jeeban said in a tearful voice, ‘What shall we do? How will we reach the other side?’ Raja did not pay much attention to Jeeban’s tears, saying instead in firm voice, ‘We will reach the other side and we will board a steamer. There will be many more after this, one every half hour. An opportunity will come by sooner or later.’ The steamer blew its whistle again. The final one. The ticket checkers threw their bidis into the water and made ready to hoist up the plank. Just then a woman with a multitude of children of different sizes behind her rushed onto the plank. She seemed to be a familiar figure because jokes and comments could be heard from the nearby shops, all of which she countered with a volley of insults. The ticket checker remaining at the gate must have been a newcomer for he asked for her ticker, only to be greeted with a yell of ‘Ticket! What about your mother and sisters at home? Do you ask to see their tickets!? Come with me and I will show you tickets!’ whereupon he shrank back, flustered. Raja was already running on to the steamer, pulling Jeeban by the hand. With folded hands he said to the beaten checker, ‘Forgive her, Babu! My mother is not in her senses!’ Before the checker could recover from the double whammy of the folded hands and the ‘babu’ greeting that quite felled him, Raja and Jeeban had disappeared inside the crowds. Once inside, Raja sighed with relief, ‘Well, that’s done then.’ But Jeeban could not share his relief, ‘What if they come for us now?’ ‘Let them!’ said Raja, ‘They will push us on either of the two banks. They cannot very well push us into the water!’ After about thirty minutes of moving through the water, the steamer banked at Khejuria Ghat. The railway station was clearly a makeshift one. Tracks had been laid out on the sand to bring them as close as possible to the railway lines. When the level of water in

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the river rose, the tracks would be removed. The tea shops around appeared to be makeshift too. A train stood waiting on the tracks, its engine quiet as it rested like the bullocks who dragged around the carts. ‘Let’s go eat,’ sad Raja. ‘We have some time before the rain starts.’ A bazar consisting of a long line of sellers with their wares ran along the side of the train. Most of the sellers were peasants with their local produce, mostly ripe mangoes. Raja went and stood in front of a mango seller. ‘Will they be sweet?’ he asked. The seller replied with a slice of the fruit in his hands. ‘Taste it yourself,’ he said. Raja ate and half and then handed it to Jeeban, ‘What do you think?’ In this way, they walked through the line of sellers, tasting the fruit of different baskets. While this did not fill the stomach, it quietened it somewhat and, at about ten o’clock, the train started out for Jalpaiguri, moving slowly on the racks laid on the sand. The train was almost empty when the journey started with only about eight to ten passengers in every compartment, but as the train passed through the stations, it began to fill up. Raja and Jeeban sat down at their favourite places, gazing at the scenes that flitted by: sun-washed fields, crop-laden lands, cows grazing, villagers sitting in groups. Jeeban had seen all these earlier, many times, but he had never seen them with the eyes that looked on them now. After travelling through the entire day, the train reached the station of New Jalpaiguri. There were no more trains to Assam that day. They would have to wait till tomorrow. Jeeban was almost foaming inside his mouth with hunger by then. His hands and feet trembled and hunger tore at his intestines. Raja was hungry too. But his hunger transformed itself, not into grief as Jeeban’s did, but into anger. ‘Can you imagine this?’ he raged. ‘Travelling about a thousand miles from Calcutta, and we haven’t set eyes on a single ticket checker till now! Two creatures spending a full day on trains

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without tickets and nobody around to catch them at it. Stupid inefficient idiots. Drawing full salaries and sleeping through their jobs. What do we do now?’ Jeeban could hardly understand Raja’s anger. His brain had clouded over with hunger and he could not think straight. ‘We’d get food if a checker was around,’ said Raja, and then, sympathetically, ‘Are you very hungry?’ ‘Eh? What?!’ ‘Yes, you are. Your ears are ringing and you can’t hear anything I say. Come with me.’ Dusk had settled in by now. In the distance the hill city of Darjeeling could be seen nestled among the mountains, its lights gleaming like a crowd of stars that had caught in the branches of a very large dark tree as they fell to the earth. It was a little chilly here at this time of the year and the streets were deserted. Not too many had got down with us from the train. The twenty-odd people who had were all at their respective destinations by now. Despite the electric lights along the streets, the atmosphere was one of muted gloom, and fear clutched at Jeeban. Used to the sounds, lights, cars and crowds of Calcutta, he grasped Raja’s right hand in his left for comfort. In a strange land, Jeeban found comfort from the touch of another human who had befriended him a mere twenty-four hours ago. After walking for about twenty minutes they came to a three-point crossing where stood a huge banyan tree. One the road to the right stood a number of shops, the first of which was a sweets shop and the second a restaurant. The owner of the first was a Bengali, of the second a Nepali. ‘Let’s go to the shops,’ said Raja. ‘We have no money. Why go to the shops?’ said Jeeban. Raja looked around. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘there are two ways. One, we eat our fill and then run like mad. Can you run?’ ‘They’ll beat us up badly if we get caught.’ ‘Yes, not badly. But you may get two or three blows.’ ‘I can’t take beatings. It hurts too much,’ said Jeeban. ‘Well, there’s another way,’ said Raja. ‘We go to them and ask them for work. If they give us work, they will also give us food.’

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‘This is better,’ said Jeeban. Raja stood in front of the sweets shop and spoke to the owner in a smart voice, ‘Look, we have come to your town for a few days. Would like to stay on for some time. Could you tell us if we could find some work here? I like to smoke a little. If you could give me two bidis, good. If not, that will do too.’ The Bengali owner called over his neighbour, the Nepali owner. After a good laugh, they said, ‘Yes, definitely. So many jobs have been left undone for want of a good pair of hands. We’ve been waiting for someone who can work since long. Stay on here as long as you want.’ Raja joined the Nepali’s shop and Jeeban the Bengali’s. From an unseen cellar now emerged huge kadais and haandis, and equally huge ladles, all unwashed. Heaping the vessels into small mountains before the two boys, they said, ‘You’re tired today. So we will not give you too much work now. Just do these few and then you can have your dinner and get to sleep.’ The owners were no fools. They realized these were migratory birds and may be off tomorrow. What little work could be got from them should be got right away. The two hungry boys set to work with thoughts of the rice awaiting them. But it was a battle of about two hours. Before leaving for the Nepali owner’s shop, Raja told Jeeban, ‘Don’t forget. The train’s at seven tomorrow. Otherwise these people will work us to death.’ Raja left the next morning early. But Jeeban could not join him. The exhaustion of the day made him fall into a deep sleep. In fact, he could not have got out even if he had awoken because his room was locked from the outside. Raja, however, had been asked to sleep in the verandah adjoining the shop. Jeeban had been given a room upstairs. He woke to the sound of shouts from the Nepali owner, ‘Bloody crook! Has stolen out like a thief!’ There may be a world of a difference between ‘Has stolen like a thief’ and ‘Has stolen out like a thief’ but that difference need not be recognized in certain spaces and times. A weak, poor and friendless boy did not deserve the consideration of recognising that difference. Jeeban was dragged out by the hair, slapped hard,

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and told to ‘get out!’ Friendless and alone, Jeeban’s tears came not out of pain, but of his desperate feeling of complete helplessness. Moving away from the shop, he went and sat under the banyan tree. He glanced around but did not find anybody to whom he could go and say, ‘Please help me. I don’t know what to do now.’ He remained sitting for a long time, and when he finally got up, his step was stronger. ‘I will be able to survive,’ his expression said. ‘I will be able to survive alone.’ The road was as straight as a bowstring and it led him back to the station from where Raja and he had walked out yesterday. He sat down on an empty bench to wait for the twelve o’clock train, the next train to Assam. When the train arrived, Jeeban sat down at his familiar seat on the floor with his kegs hanging down. But when the train reached Siliguri, the scene inside the train changed to one of utter chaos. People stamped upon and elbowed each other as crowds milled into the compartment, pushing and jostling in their rush to get in and get to the seats. When things had finally quietened down, there emerged the individual Raja and Jeeban had been waiting for the past few days, the black-coated ticket checker. ‘Ticket?’ he asked. Jeeban signified a no by shaking his head and his hands. Whereupon the checker swooped down like a hawk, caught Jeeban by the scruff of his neck, pulled him all the way down the railway platform and to the station gates. There, with a contemptuous push, Jeeban was thrown out. Not that it was a terrible crime to board a train without a ticket. But it was unforgivable to be one who could board a rain without a ticket and be unable to pay either the fine or a bribe. One look at Jeeban’s bare feet, his shorts, sando vest, and the gamchha around his neck had convinced the checker that Jeeban would be able to do neither. Such a person could be pushed out without ceremony. Jeeban sat wondering what he should do. He could spot a good number of people in khaki police uniform and in the blackcoated uniform of the ticket checker. How was he to evade these many eyes and board the train? Jeeban had no idea and Raja, who

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did, was not there. Yet if he stayed on here, how would he live? He would die of starvation, something he could as easily have done back in Calcutta. He stood up to shake off his feelings of weakness. He would have to reach Assam simply because he had no other alternative. He would need to earn enough money so he could buy the ingredients needed to stay alive in this world. He walked up to a stall near the station where tea was being boiled, a rich tea made with thickened milk. Imitating Raja’s easy voice, he said, ‘Do you need someone to work at your shop? I have come from Calcutta looking for a job.’ The man at the shop was a neatly shaven, soft-spoken man. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked, noticing Jeeban’s Bangal accent. ‘From East Pakistan’s Barisal district, Sir’ said Jeeban. ‘Our house was in Dhaka, the land of money, talent and education. So what’s your name?’ ‘Jeeban, Sir. Jeeban Krishna Datta.’ ‘Nice name. Kayastha. Yes, I could do with some help here.’ ‘How much will you pay me?’ ‘Pay?’ he laughed. ‘Begin work. Let me see how you work for a month or two, and then we will decide about the pay. Am taking you in because you are of my land, my caste. We are Saha. Will I cheat you?’ ‘But give me some idea,’ Jeeban insisted. ‘I need a lot of money. I can wash glasses, make tea.’ ‘Okay, so how about forty rupees from the second month? The first month you will need to pick up the work.’ Only sixty days lay between me and forty rupees. Only sixty days till I held in my hands that railway ticket which would take me to that land of opportunity and happiness. Even as Jeeban ran from here to there like a hunted animal, a huge upheaval was taking place in the political scenario of the state of West Bengal. The Congress, the political party that had been in power since the independence of India was toppled when one of

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its ministers, Ajoy Mukherjee, did a somersault along with his supporters. The United Front of fourteen parties which came to power was led by Ajoy Mukherjee of the Congress Party as the Chief Minister and Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party as the Deputy Chief Minister. The police ministry was in Basu’s hands. This raised the hopes of the peasants and workers. They believed that with the reins of power being in the hands of a Marxist, the police force would no longer be used against them unjustly in accordance with the whims of the rich. They raised slogans about labourers having a claim on the land, about farmers being the real owners of the land. They believed that the earlier unjust laws would now change. That was in the year 1967. Autumn gave way to a severe winter that chilled the bones of the impoverished homeless. And after winter came spring. The season of love ushered in a season of formidable revolution. A teashop in a railway station. People walk in from various corners of the land bringing snippets of news and information from these places. A tense stillness pervaded the area. Jeeban senses that this spring had not brought happy tidings to the peaceloving people of this town. Everybody was scared. After a few days, Jeeban saw khaki uniforms cover the entire railway station. The headquarters of the district police was in this town and the CRP arrived. There was an endless coming and going of trucks, vans, jeeps loaded with sten guns, rifles, SLRs and hordes of police. There was an aggression in their movements, as if they were out to avenge the hiding they had received from the Chinese in 1962. Jeeban was intrigued by the stories of Naxalbari, Kharibari. He wished he could go and take a look at these places, and at the poor Santhal peasants and farmers who were fighting this unequal brave war. The name of their leader was Jangal Santhal. It was under his leadership that they had rallied together to fight oppression, exploitation and injustice. Jeeban felt he could identify with this fight. He felt he could be a part of it. But he remained here, cooped up beside the heap of dirty dishes and glasses. Eight to ten months passed in this way. Though Saha had said he would

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begin paying Jeeban his monthly salary from the second month, he showed no signs of doing so. At the end of the second month, Jeeban had gone to him with much expectation. ‘Sir, my salary.’ Saha babu turned with his smooth glistening face and silky smile. ‘Salary? Yes, of course I will pay. I will pay you a hundred times. But can we do this next month? There is no money now.’ Though dejected at not getting the money, Jeeban had consoled himself saying a month’s wait would mean a larger amount. It would mean he would have enough money to take his time and look around Assam for a good job. But every month Jeeban’s enquiry produced the same response in Saha babu: No money now. Next month? After six months, Jeeban’s frustration had burst out. ‘Every month you tell me next month. I have worked for six months here now. Now you pay me. My vest too has torn, and I need a new one.’ ‘Six months? Really?! Are you sure?’ ‘You count. I started in the month of Kartik, now it is Baisakh.’2 ‘My, my! What a calendar you are! Okay, okay, it is six months. It is not six years, is it? Forty into six is two hundred and forty. That is what I owe you. Stay on for another six. I will pay you altogether, it will be a hefty amount.’ Jeeban’s face crumpled with disappointment and sorrow. His voice was tearful. ‘Babu, we are very poor. I have smaller sisters and brothers. They don’t have enough to eat. My father has a stomach ache. He cannot get medicines. That is why I have come out to work. You give me my money, Babu, so I can send some money home.’ Now Saha babu got irritated. ‘You are quite a Kabuliwallah!3 I keep telling you I don’t have any money now and yet you keep nagging! I should never have hired you. This is why one should not dole out favours. Don’t they say charitable persons get swallowed by tigers! Can quite understand that now! You think I am going to rob you of your money? Be assured, God has given me much and I have no use for that chickenfeed amount of yours!’

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Jeeban persisted. ‘Sir, I want to go home. I have not seen my mother since long. I don’t even know if they are well or if any have died. You give me my money next month and I will go home.’ Said Saha babu in a generous voice, ‘Yes, of course, I will. Will give you a few rupees more, in fact. Don’t fret and do your work well.’ But the next month brought the same words from Binode Saha. ‘Surely next month. I promise. Will not fail this time. There’s really no money around now.’ In the house beside the triangular park across the road, worked a young boy from Bihar. One night, he slit his master’s throat and fled with money and jewellery. A similar desire stomped through Jeeban’s mind. But all he did was weep silently. Not a single leaf would that cause to flutter to the ground. Somebody had said, it is a sin to lose faith in humanity. Jeeban’s attempt to keep faith caused ten months to go by. Then he could not keep faith any more. His anger began to overwhelm him and he grew angry with himself, with society, will all humanity. He went up to Binode Saha and said, ‘I know you now. You will never pay me. I am not going to work anymore.’ Saha babu smiled sweetly and without a word of anger he said, ‘Well now, you will do as you see fit. You are a free citizen of a free country, I cannot force you. Perhaps I could ask you to stay back till I get a suitable replacement. I will not do that. But I would have paid you next month.’ ‘And how will I return from Calcutta to collect my pay next month?’ ‘There’s no need to return. Just leave your address and I will send it on by post. I have not cheated a single soul in my life. Why should I cheat you?’ Jeeban could not say a word. His tears dropped from his eyes soundlessly. The utmost useless thing in this wide world, they blurred his vision. The hungry hapless boy spent a few days roaming around barefoot in the streets of Siliguri. His first thought had been to return home. But then his eyes fell on his empty hands, rough, coarse from constant soap and water, and empty. Without

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a thing to take back to his brothers and sisters. His hands seemed to speak to him, Loser, loser, loser. You are a failure, a loser. What will you tell your parents after so many months? And his little heart was in turmoil. His mother’s tearful face flashed before his eyes, ‘Jeeban, what have you got for your brothers and sisters? Not a single seer of rice have you been able to get?’ Jeeban felt like crying out loud. ‘This is a cursed life, Ma. There is nothing left for us here in this cruel world. Long before we were born, all the wealth and all the good of the world have been taken over. They are not willing to give us anything. They give no value to our tears, our sighs, our labour. They are still busy finding ways to cheat us, to buy the sweat that trickles down our bodies at the least price. We are less than the goat or the dog here.’ Then one day, Jeeban remembered Assam and what Raja had said about the place. Not one word had he uttered against the place. Did not that prove that Assam was different? That the people there are not bereft of mercy and humanity. And then it occurred to him that if one could walk up the railway tracks and board a train bound for Calcutta, then surely one could walk down the railway tracks and board a train bound for Assam. Cursing himself for not thinking of this earlier, he started out along the tracks. It was about seven in the morning then. And Jeeban estimated that he would reach the next station latest by noon. Just after crossing the city, he came across a well from which a village woman filled his cupped hands with water which he drank greedily. The empty stomach ached, but Jeeban had no time to waste on such trivialities. After about three kilometres, the rail tracks bifurcated. The one that bent to the left was narrow, the one that bent to the right was broader. Jeeban took the left one that turned towards Assam, knowing that the other one was the narrow gauge, going on to Darjeeling. Gradually, the surroundings began to change. The buildings, people, horses of the city gave way to a deepening forest. Beside the tracks were dense bushes about chest-high and beyond that, tall sky-high trees. Innumerable monkeys swung from the branches of the trees and birds called. The monkeys gazed at Jeeban in

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wonder and made various noises to each other. Jeeban began to feel scared. He had seen forests at Bankura but these forests were very different. Every jungle has its distinctive smell—one that the experienced traveller knows. This forest was home to the tiger and the mountain cheetah and only a few days ago, this fast and fierce mountain beast had killed a cow here. Jeeban walked on, unaware of this, and after almost two and a half hours of walking, he reached his station. But to his amazement, the platform was completely empty, seemingly deserted years ago. Not just passengers, the station master, porters, signalling light, all that went into making up a station were absent. Beyond the station building, no hint of a village could be seen and not a single living creature was visible anywhere. Clearly, neither passenger nor mail trains stopped here anymore. The Gauhati Mail was at twelve. He had about three hours in hand. If he hurried up, he could still make it to the next station in time. Weak with hunger and thirst, he mustered up mental strength and began walking again. The jungles were thicker now, darker and more dangerous. There was no way he could stop, rest and feed himself in these jungles. The wild animals would get to him. The road seemed never-ending now, and the soles of his feet burned as the fiery heat of the sun beat down upon the railway lines that lay like the narrow and neat parting of hair on a human head. When Jeeban was still a distance away from the station, the train bound for Assam came rushing down from the Siliguri side. Hearing the roar of the train, Jeeban stepped aside and into the high grass beside the tracks. It passed him by, thundering down like a monster, making the jungles and the earth tremble. Climbing back onto the tracks after the train, Jeeban stared helplessly for some time at the receding train before he started walking again. After about another hour and a half, Jeeban reached the next station. But had he mistakenly turned and walked back to the last station? For this station too was deserted and empty. It would be foolish to wait here, Jeeban realized. So he decided to be intelligent and went staggering down the tracks again, reeling with weakness and hunger, towards the next station. By the time he reached the next

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station of Gulma, his body had become a weight that he was dragging around. The four o’clock train to Assam went speeding by the station, unwilling to stop at this insignificant platform. For the first time since he had left Siliguri, Jeeban met another human being. With a blue and a red flag in either hand, the man came walking down the tracks to meet Jeeban, wonder writ large in his face at this lone boy coming out of the forests. ‘You, child, where are you going?’ Jeeban answered without hesitation, ‘I want to go to Assam.’ ‘But are you planning to walk there?’ ‘I have no money for the fare, so…’ ‘Are you mad?’ said the man. ‘There is a train coming for Siliguri now. Go back on it. Do you want to get killed?’ There would not be any more trains for Assam tonight and the thought of spending the night on this empty platform, so near the jungles, filled Jeeban with fear. Returning to Siliguri may earn him a few slaps from the ticket checker, or worse, but all that seemed tolerable. Jeeban sat down dejected in front of the ticket counter on the platform. The train pulled into the station in the late evening. Jeeban boarded it without a second thought and, on reaching Siliguri, walked by more than one checker without anybody stopping him. He climbed up the stairs onto the over-bridge and then, feeling giddy, sat down, spread out his gamchha and lay down on it. He fell asleep almost immediately. When he opened his eyes in the morning, he found himself lying flat on the over-bridge, looking up at the sky across which was a piece of dark cloud. Perhaps this was a rain-bearing cloud, carrying precious rain to some parched, scorched corner of the land where the rains would make crops possible. Turning his head sideways, Jeeban caught sight of the chubby owner of the sweet shop on the platform. He was emptying a basketful of unsold samosas and kachauris at the edge of the platform. He threw them out by one, calling the crows as he did so, ‘Aah. Aah.’ Jeeban’s stomach ached with hunger and tears sprang to his eyes. He knew they would not give the food to human beings, though they gave to the crows and the dogs. This capitalist system was strange. The emotions of

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kindness, consideration, affection, love, had no role to play in this system. Its rationale was on the basis of give-and-take, and interactions were judged on the basis of returns made. In accordance with this mathematics, Jeeban was a worthless individual and it made no sense to give him anything. A train had come to a halt at the platform. Jeeban sat up as the rushing feet of a passenger went over his fingers. Sitting up, he found that the sun, till then half-hidden by a tree, had risen about eight feet over the horizon. It was then that he asked another hastening commuter the question, ‘What is this train? Where will it go?’ ‘Gauhati Mail,’ answered the man. Gauhati Mail. That train on the platform was going to Assam. Jeeban came slowly down the steps of the bridge and onto the platform. The checkers and guards were all on the platform and, if he could run up and board that empty carriage towards the front as the guard blew the final whistle, nobody would be able to catch him. So he did that. Ran up and climbed onto the moving train. He sat down at his usual spot across the entrance, and watched as the arrogant train whizzed by the small stations in disdain. After travelling for two hours, the train stopped at a busy junction. The engine was being changed here and water was being poured into the engine, as a result of which the halt was a fairly long one. This was breakfast time and people were busy at it. Suddenly, Jeeban saw this hairy arm emerge out of a window next to him and, with utmost contempt, throw out a package wrapped in sal leaves. As the package fell to the ground, it opened out, displaying its contents and Jeeban saw one and a half thick chapatis made of reddish wheat along with some fries inside. The sight of the chapatis reminded Jeeban that he had not eaten for long and that the package lying on the lines was food. At that moment was strangled to death the higher pre-eminence of Jeeban’s human soul. He did something which he had never known he could do. He jumped down from the train, ran to that discarded package and picked it up as precious treasure. A few scraggy mongrels, secure in the knowledge that humans threw food out of trains and so it made sense to hang around when a train drew

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up, had come rushing in too but were surprised to be beaten to it by another human. They protested with barks and chased Jeeban who fled to the safety of the train. He sat down at the gate and, opening the package, fingered the chapatis. The smell seemed to indicate that they had been fried in ghee. But they were not fresh, having been cooked at least yesterday or the day before. The fried stuff too was old and hard. Yet, even as they dragged man to the level of the dog, they held out the promise of a day’s relief from an aching hungry stomach. Jeeban succumbed to that temptation. After the meal and a drink of water, Jeeban’s mind filled with a sense of deep shame and remorse. He had snatched food from dogs to fill his stomach. Yet what could he do? What could anybody do? The aching stomach would not be satisfied, and many before him had rummaged around in the dustbins in desperation. The compartment Jeeban had clambered into was almost empty, but Jeeban had nothing to fear. He who has nothing to lose has nothing to fear either. Jeeban felt quite free of all emotion. Misery, fear, pain, hope, nothing seemed to make any sense to him anymore. He leaned on the doorjamb like an itinerant monk who had no material wealth or earthly desires to aspire for. The train was passing through the naturally beautiful regions of north Bengal, with its ancient hills and lush green trees. The cool wind blew onto his face, making him sleepy. Jeeban dozed. When he awoke, the hunger was back. The paltry meal seemed to have stoked the hunger that had lain dormant these past few days and Jeeban was having difficulty in controlling the pangs. Almost as an answer to his prayers, appeared before Jeeban a man who reminded him of village schoolmasters. ‘Where are you going?’ the man asked. ‘Wherever this train goes,’ whispered Jeeban, weak with hunger. ‘Where is your home?’ ‘We have no home. My parents stay in the camp,’ answered Jeeban. The man sat down beside Jeeban and heard his story. He bought some tea and bread for Jeeban. In his short life, Jeeban

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had never met with such kindness. His shabby and dirty clothes, his unwashed and uncared for appearance, had always aroused scorn and hatred, never sympathy. But this schoolmaster-like man seemed to be different. He remained silent in some inexplicable grief for a few moments before saying, ‘You have not eaten since yesterday. Come with my home to my home. Stay for some days and eat properly. After that if you want to go to Assam, go. Take a few rupees from me as you would from your father for the travel expenses. The man’s words held hope and promise for Jeeban, a temptation that had a mesmerizing effect upon him. He alighted at the next station with the man and followed him, moving towards yet another new experience of his life. The station was small, with a narrow road leading out of the platform. Along the road sat farmers with their produce and a few small shops selling sarees, petticoats and dresses. Rural shops in a rural place, lacking the smart slickness of the city. Entering a shop, the man said, ‘Show me some good sarees. I need to buy a few. And shirt and shorts for this boy of mine.’ Jeeban had never worn good clothes and the very idea filled his mind with joy. But before he could touch them, the man said, ‘You go get yourself a haircut first. Let me choose sarees for your mother meanwhile.’ Across the road was the saloon and the man sat Jeeban there as he returned to the saree shop. After sometime he told the shopkeeper, ‘Look, will you let me take about four or five sarees for my wife to choose from? I stay right near here. Till then, my son will be here. Let him wait here after he gets his hair cut. I will be back soon.’ The unsuspecting shopkeeper agreed, lured by the hope of high sales and lulled by the son who was waiting here with him. Jeeban was in the saloon and did not hear any of this conversation. When he emerged from the saloon after his hair cut, the shopkeeper called him saying, ‘Come, son, come and sit here. Your father will be back soon.’ He assured the barber too of the returning man who would pay him for the haircut. So Jeeban waited with the others. But after more than two hours when the

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evening moved into dusk, and the man had still not returned, they began questioning Jeeban. First questions, then slaps and blows. The more Jeeban repeated that he did not know the man and that they had met on the train that morning, the more he was accused of lying. After a round of ordinary thrashing, he was transferred to the local Committee’s Office. There began a round of more intense questioning. ‘Where are the rest of your gang?’ they asked. In their attempts to get the truth out of the boy, the men grew cruel, punching and hitting him. One blow landed on his chest. It knocked out the already weakened and frail Jeeban. When he came to, his face and body were drenched in water. These were part of the usual tactics employed upon a suspected criminal. When he fainted, the men first suspected Jeeban of pretence and socked him a few more times. When he did not stir, they splashed water on him to bring him to his senses. Realizing there would be complications if he died as a result of their beating, the shopkeeper gave him some hot milk, cursed his fate, accepted his losses and put Jeeban on the train to Gauhati. This was the train that had left New Jalpaiguri at four in the afternoon and reached here at ten in the night.

CHAPTER 5

On the Road for Five Years

T

he pain and sorrow brought on by the beating decreased somewhat for Jeeban when he realized he was on the train to Assam. They had threatened to take him to the police, to put him into jail. That they had finally done nothing like that made Jeeban feel quite blessed. If they had beaten him to death, he would have been helpless to prevent it. They had threatened it. Tell us where the rest of your gang is, they had said, or we will kill you and lay your body across the railway tracks. Jeeban settled his sore body in the corridor outside the toilets of the carriage, amongst the cigarette butts, lemon peels, torn paper, and fell asleep. He was beyond worrying or thinking about the future. The night train rushed on, stopping now and then at stations where crowds of people disembarked, to be replaced by newer crowds of people. Jeeban remained curled like a dog in a corner of the passage. People on their way to the toilet stepped across him, indifferent to his presence, till finally a voice interrupted his sleep. ‘Ticket!’ Jeeban sat up hurriedly, rubbing his eyes and trying to make out the speaker in the darkened gloom. ‘Don’t have one,’ he answered. ‘Get down.’ The train had halted at some unknown darkened station. Jeeban got down from the train meekly, walked a few bogies

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forward, boarded another compartment and lay down in a similar dirty corridor. Till another checker awoke him off and ordered him down, whereupon he walked to yet another compartment. The night passed in this way. At around eleven the next day, the train arrived at the long yearned for destination. This was a small station of Assam and there were few people around at this hour. A few customers stood around the stalls while a sweeper made his rounds with a broom tied at the end of a stick. The platform was quite clean. The usual groups of wasters, drunks, gamblers could not be seen. The sun was high in the sky and in the distance could be seen a line of hills against the sky. But Jeeban had little time to notice all this. His stomach was aching with hunger and he looked around impatiently for work which would get him food. Raja had said money was scattered on the streets of Assam. But looking at the city that lay beyond the station, Jeeban did not feel hopeful. Doubt and uncertainty sounded ominous warnings in his mind. This was a place like the other places he had known. The same roads, the same houses, the same people. Nothing would be any different. There would be no stunning success to be found here. At this moment, it was imperative that he found himself a job. He was already feeling giddy with hunger and, unless he ate something quickly, the debilitating weakness would overpower him by tomorrow. All this he knew from experience. Walking down the road from the station, he stopped at the first busy shop on the way. It was a Sikh Punjabi’s shop, with food stuff lined in the show case, employees running to and fro busily, and customers overflowing. Seeing Jeeban standing in front of the shop, the bearded owner thought he was a beggar and tried to shoo him away with threats of scalding water. ‘I am not a beggar,’ said Jeeban. ‘I am looking for work. I have worked before in a sweet-shop. I have experience.’ ‘Where have you worked before?’ asked the owner. ‘At a shop in Siliguri,’ answered Jeeban. ‘All that way from Siliguri to Assam?’ the shopkeeper looked at him suspiciously. ‘Who knows you here?’

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‘Nobody knows me. How will they? I have just arrived,’ answered Jeeban. ‘How do I know you won’t rob me and make off? No work possible here. Move on.’ This was the time when a tiny black cloud was gradually spreading across the horizon of Assam’s history. Bongal khedao: Chase out the Bengali. Very soon this would become a destructive cyclone and take its toll across Digboi, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Jorhat and Guahati for almost a decade. Houses would burn, shops would be plundered, people would be killed. Signs of that coming storm were already visible. A clash between Assamese and Bengalis had occurred a few days ago. Shreds of glass and broken bricks still lay strewn on the ground that this ignorant boy, in his primeval desire to live, trod upon as he walked forward. Some work he must find. Since he had managed to reach Assam, he would find some work and stay on for some days. Then, after he had settled down, he would begin his search for the Kamakhya Temple that was surrounded by impenetrable forest and guarded by fierce female warriors. If they captured you, they would charm you into a sheep. But if you managed to get by them, then the world would be in your grasp. These stories Jeeban had heard since he was a child. What was the harm in being a sheep? He had already lowered himself to the rank of a dog. How could a sheep be any worse? Such and other similar thoughts crowded into Jeeban’s mind as he went from shop to shop looking for work. ‘We are very poor, Sir. So I badly need work. My father was so strong he could pick up a sack full of grains and walk for miles without resting. I am his child. And can work as hard. Can anyone give me a job?’ But where would he find a job? Nobody knew him here and suspicion was contagious. The common man was nervous of strangers and scared of taking risks. By now, the sun was overhead and, like the fiery sun, Jeeban’s stomach was afire with hunger. He stood in front of a Bihari’s tea shop. The man was a Yadav by caste. This man’s wife and family were in Bihar, but he lived here

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with his two young sons. Though selling tea, the main business of the shop was milk which he sold around the city. The milk that was left would be made into curd with which the seller would make lassi. Jeeban found work here with no problem. ‘Yes yes, I need someone who can work.’ ‘Will you pay me?’ asked Jeeban. ‘Yes, of course,’ answered the man. ‘How much?’ ‘How much do you want?’ ‘No, you tell me how much you will give.’ ‘Two meals a day, one breakfast and twenty rupees every month. Is that okay?’ ‘But you will pay me at the end of every month?’ asked the much-bruised Jeeban. ‘Oh, yes, take it every month,’ replied the man who, with his pointed salt and pepper moustache looked like a village actor playing Shakuni’s role. ‘Easier for me that way. The amount will not get too big then.’ The thrilled Jeeban joined work. Work meant hoisting the twenty-kilo milk can on his head and carrying it through the city behind the seller. This did not defeat Jeeban. What did defeat him was the supper at night. The Bihari was used to living on sattu and chapatis. But Jeeban longed for the rice he had been fed on since a child. Even worse was when on some nights, the two sons returning after their wrestling bouts, forgot that there was an extra mouth to feed. On those nights, Jeeban’s supper was a tenuous one. The other fact that quite felled Jeeban was the growing realization that there was no mystery at the Kamakhya Temple. Charms and magic there may well have been in some distant time, but not anymore. Assam was, like all the other places he had seen, a mundane and prosaic place, subject to all the usual brutal laws of civilization. What then was the use of staying on in Assam? Yet Jeeban stayed on for five months. One major attraction of this job was that his boss handed him the monthly salary within the tenth of the month. This money Jeeban carefully kept secretly hidden

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in his pillow. Jeeban spent a little money on his necessities but the rest he hoarded away with the plan of taking it back home to his family. Unknown to Jeeban, this was an open secret, known to those who lived with him. One day when he returned from his duties, he found the blue envelope with the hundred rupees inside missing. The owner’s youngest son was home then. Blind with grief and disappointment, Jeeban accused him directly. ‘You have stolen it,’ he said, pointing towards him angrily. ‘There was nobody else here.’ Thieving is not as shameful as being branded a thief. Furious, the young man strode across to Jeeban. ‘You will eat off us, and then call us thieves. You dog!’ And picking Jeeban up with his wrestler’s arms, he threw the boy outside. ‘Clear off!’ Once again, after working for months, Jeeban was on the streets, penniless. He had no expectations from the world anymore. Some food twice a day, some clothing, and some shelter was all Jeeban asked from the miserly world. But even that the grudging world appeared unwilling to give. His father would say He who has given us hunger will also provide the food. The Lord provides for the tiniest worm inside the wood. His father had lain moaning in pain without treatment or medicines, had been unable to provide his wife with adequate clothing to protect her modesty and had watched as his wife shed hapless tears over the body of her child dead of starvation. Tossed about on a sea of troubles, his father’s belief in these words was one impenetrable puzzle. After sitting blankly on the station for some time, Jeeban boarded a train. He found no desire to enquire where the train was going or what he would do when he got there. This train was crowded and Jeeban found a space where he could sit kneeling only after sometime. The passengers with him were all of the labourer sort. They were all going for work to a place called Alipurduar. The irony of the situation struck Jeeban. He had come here looking for work, believing this to be a land of plenty. And here were crowds of people leaving this land in search of work.

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When they reached Siliguri, the night was almost over. Jeeban got down from the train and walked along the railway tracks. The town was still wrapped in the haze of sleep. The birds could be heard chirping and a sliver of light could be seen in the far east. It was then that Jeeban noticed the train, bigger than a tram, but smaller than a common train, this train had come to a halt on the narrow gauge in front of Jeeban. The Toy Train. From the conversation around him, Jeeban guessed that this train would leave soon for Darjeeling. The high tops of the mountains sparkling in the sunlight could be seen from here and Jeeban wondered, ‘Why not Darjeeling?’ Somebody had called the place Alkapuri—the city of Kuber, the god of wealth. Unlike the jeeps which wended their way through the mountains to Darjeeling, one could journey on the Toy Train without a ticket. One would need to evade the eyes of the few checkers on the ground, a task easily done if one could get on to the moving train. The engine that had been resting lazily till then, blew two whistles, preparing for the long journey uphill. There was no platform where the train waited. It was a largish field, with the open sky overhead across which a flock of migratory birds flew by. This was October and they had come from beyond the Himalayas and would return to their distant land in February. From the Himalayas would also come Ma Durga to the plains to be greeted by her worshippers during Bengal’s Puja. But none of that festive spirit in the air touched Jeeban’s mind because all that he could feel were the pangs of hunger. The train moved forward and after four revolutions of the mighty wheels, the black-coated checkers turned their backs on the train and made to move towards their cabin. Jeeban ran forward towards the departing train. His gait was not in rhythm with the train and his limbs weak. But he managed to clamber up nevertheless, even as the few passengers caught their breaths and gasped at this risky boarding. The first station where the train stopped was Sukna and from here, the train began its upward climb. Feeling the chill, Jeeban wrapped his gamchha around his vest. He noticed then that all the passengers were warmly clad. Poor, with shabby

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coats and patched trousers, but warm. The path wound through valleys of green. Jeeban wondered at the many forgotten hands that had cut through the mountains with hammer and pick. Did their fate resemble that of the man who could once hoist a sackful of grain on his head and walk miles? Like a giant caterpillar, the train climbed up the hill, sometimes being pulled up by the engine and sometimes being pushed up by it. The mountainside, covered with tiny colourful flowers, pressed in upon the train at times, and sometimes fell away to reveal the curving white road and little houses. All the passengers appeared jolly and cheerful, infecting one another with their laughter as they chattered among themselves. A group of youth, about Jeeban’s age, boarded the train and crowded near the doorway. Full of life and vitality these youngsters reached out of the moving train to pluck some flower off a vine and throw it at passing young girls, who laughed and waved back, or threw them daring kisses. Jeeban, the only melancholy soul on this train, huddled further into his corner, wrapped his arms tightly round his shivering body, gazed at the happy people with incomprehension, and sighed. About three the train reached Kurseong and then, after a short break for the passengers’ lunch and refilling of the engine, it started out for Ghoom. Much of the compartment emptied out at Ghoom and, with darkness rapidly falling, the train reached Darjeeling at about eight o’ clock. It was a dimly lit platform with feeble lamps, sheer darkness outside and there fell a drizzling rain. Jeeban was aware of having made some terrible mistake as he got down from the compartment. Many years ago, when in Bankura, Jeeban had walked off all alone to Bishnupur. There were two very large waterbodies there, Rani Bandh and Lal Bandh. The Mallar kings had created these to cater to the needs of their people in times of draught. In the middle of the Lal Bandh, Jeeban could see shaplas, water lilies, growing. This was a plant that could be boiled and eaten. Without a thought, Jeeban had jumped into the water and swum to the flowers. It was on his way back that he realized what a foolhardy decision that had been. His feet kept

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getting entangled in underwater weeds as he attempted to swim back. Every time the weeds dragged Jeeban underwater and he struggled to come up for air, he heard a voice at his ear. This was a voice he had heard time and again after that when faced with danger. ‘Don’t lose heart, Jeeban. Don’t die out of fear and succumb to death.’ He looked around vainly for help and, like a drowning man who clutches at straws, he clutched onto the weeds he had in his hand and floated on the waters for some time with their help. After regaining his breath, he would swim some more, then rest a bit again. Clambering back onto shore, Jeeban had sworn to never make such a mistake again. But now, stepping out of the train, Jeeban felt he had blundered again. He approached the sole man on the platform, wrapped in a blanket, sitting hunched before a pan of hot coal. ‘Where can I spend the night here? Can I stay on the station?’ The man looked at him with wonder. ‘The police don’t allow a mosquito on the station, he said. ‘Go to some hotel.’ ‘I have no money,’ said Jeeban, drawing closer to the warmth of the fire. ‘I am looking for work.’ ‘Where do you stay?’ Jeeban decided against giving too distant a name. ‘Siliguri,’ he said. The man grimaced. ‘Where is work here?’ he said. ‘People go down to the plains for work, and you have come up here from there looking for work!’ ‘Then what do I do now?’ said Jeeban despairingly. ‘How do I know?’ said the man. ‘Looks like you’ve come here to die. Do that.’ And he picked up his pan of coals and went indoors, shutting the door after himself. The wheels of the train started turning and Jeeban realized the train was returning. He did the only thing that came to his mind He jumped back onto the train. In one and a half hours, the train reached Kurseong and halted there for good. Jeeban

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stepped out again, walked to the nearby jeep stand, but not finding a soul outside in the drizzling rain, turned back. It was then that he noticed the guard moving from door to door of the train and locking up. A shudder of pure fear went through Jeeban. A night out in the cold on that open platform would mean certain death. On a sudden thought, he passed under the train and went across to the other side away from the platform. Sure enough, the doors on this side were unlocked. The guard was doing his job perfunctorily. Scrambling in, he curled up on one of the benches. He must have fallen asleep because he was woken by an unexpected sound. Opening his eyes, he saw in the gloom a tall man, evidently drunk, covered from his neck to his knees in a long coat. Swaying on his feet, he bent down and fingered Jeeban’s face. In the dark, the hairless young face of Jeeban must have aroused him for he reached for the buttons of Jeeban’s pants, pulling at them impatiently. Taken by surprise at this unexpected attack, Jeeban struck out with his leg involuntarily, hitting the man on his scrotum. The man roared with pain and crouched down to the ground. Whether drawn by his moans of pain or Jeeban’s cries of fear, two other men rushed in from the jeep stand. The offending man they appeared to be familiar with for they greeted him with an angry ‘Saala, you again!’ The man fled. All these people in the compartment spoke Hindi. With short noses and round eyes, they were not as fair as the Nepalis. Now one of them looked at Jeeban and asked roughly, ‘And who are you?’ A scared Jeeban gave them a brief introduction to himself in a halting, weak voice. The taller of the two, about thirty years of age, said to him in a gruff voice, ‘Come.’ ‘Where?’ said Jeeban. ‘With me.’ ‘Why?’ ‘You’ll die of cold otherwise.’ The driver put Jeeban on the back seat of his jeep, threw him a thick coat for cover, and said, ‘Go back tomorrow in the morning. There’s nothing to be found here. It’s a useless trip you have

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made.’ He lay down to sleep in the front seat, but Jeeban tossed and turned throughout the cold night, weak with hunger and cold, uneasy with fear. In the morning, as the little town of Kurseong woke to a sunny and clear day, the driver took Jeeban to a shop. He bought him tea with fifteen paise and two slices of bread with ten paise. ‘Eat up,’ he said. ‘The train will be starting back now. And don’t come here again.’ ‘I will do exactly as you say, Sir’ said Jeeban, with immeasurable gratitude for the driver’s generosity and kindness. It was sometime in the afternoon that the train which Jeeban had taken up to Darjeeling brought him back to Siliguri—from the pinnacles of hope to the level plain land of reality. Here the air and earth were of a familiar hue and tenor, and Jeeban could spend a day here with greater ease. The wind here did not pierce the skin like needles; the nights here were not impenetrable darkness. He tried hard to remember what it had been that had brought him out of his home. But try as he might, he could not bring to mind a single memory of any realistic, logical, believable reason. The easiest thing for him to do now would be to go and stand in front of a shop and say, ‘I will work for you.’ But every time he thought of that, a question irritated his mind, ‘What if they made him work like a donkey and then denied him his pay?’ Going around in circles with this question in mind, he passed the day and almost the entirety of the night. It was very late into the night when the Lucknow Mail train pulled into the Siliguri Station. It came from that dreamland that Jeeban had left behind, Assam. Thought Jeeban, Lucknow meant Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh meant Delhi, the capital city of India. The powerful people of the country lived there. Perhaps he would find many more opportunities there. After all, how worse could it get? Facing a brutal life, there was little he had to fear. It was possible there would come about an accident, and finally some good would come his way. Once when at Gholdol, he had chanced upon the broken frame of an umbrella. Sharpening its tip against a stone, he had tied it to a stick

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and made a kind of a spear with it. He had no experience of fishing with this though he had watched from a distance as others did. This was a little like trying to learn swimming from afar. Jeeban wandered through the flooded fields and along the canal for the whole day without catching any fish. Then when finally he gave up and threw his ‘spear’ away in disgust, it fell on a tiny inches-long shoal fish in the nearby rice field and stabbed it. An arrow thrown up aimlessly into the sky lands on the prey, a stone tossed into the dark hits its aim. But such events happen when destiny deigns to grant you some good fortune. Without much thought of his fortune good or bad, Jeeban boarded the tightly packed train. Thus began a two-and-a-half days’ long journey on an empty stomach into an uncertain future. As the night progressed, the train compartment grew increasingly crowded. Having got down at a station to get a drink of water, Jeeban found he could not board the train again. There were others like him who were unable to find a foothold on the compartment. Taking their lives in their hands, Jeeban and these passengers seated themselves precariously on the chains that linked one bogie to the other. The steam engine blew chips of hot ember onto their faces and into their hair. But lifting a hand to brush these away would mean jeopardizing their already perilous position on the chains and risk falling onto the tracks. During this long journey, Jeeban came face to face with a ticket checker once. An aged man, he reached Jeeban and said, ‘Ticket?’ ‘No,’ answered Jeeban. ‘Where will you go?’ asked the man in a gentle voice. Jeeban knew the name of the place the train was going to. But he hesitated to name a place so distant as his destination. ‘Bahut door,’ he said. ‘Very far.’ The old checker was hard of hearing. To this was added the noise of the train and the weakness of Jeeban’s weak, starving voice. ‘What? Gorakhpur? That is very far,’ he said. The checker seemed to be a sympathetic person and Jeeban wondered if he could request him for some help. He hadn’t eaten

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for a few days now and he felt weak with hunger. Perhaps if he told this man, he would take Jeeban to the jail for some days. Raja had said that they gave you food in the prisons. Lucknow appeared to be still some distance away and God knew how much longer it would take him to reach there. Not that somebody would bring him a plateful of food the moment he reached there. In fact, a few days of rest and food before the remaining journey would be a good idea. Going to the jail was necessary if he wanted to eat. He got up and approached the ticket checker. ‘I don’t have a ticket. I mean I am travelling without a ticket.’ The man turned his head and looked at Jeeban. ‘Yes, you told me that before. Why again?’ ‘Because you can catch me and take me with you.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I don’t have a ticket.’ Now the soft eyes of the old man grew angry. ‘Go and stand in that corner. Catch you and take you! Saala, the bastards who can afford to buy tickets, get away without buying! And you are clearly poor! It is obvious you don’t have enough money for food. What’s the use of arresting you?! Go, sit there!’ Jeeban’s humble request had angered the man but the man’s anger was not of the kind that would help Jeeban. Before he got down at the next station, the man assured Jeeban. ‘My duty is till Gorakhpur. Nobody will trouble you till then. You have no fear, son.’ He did not meet any other checker in the long journey as the train moved through Bengal, across Bihar and into Uttar Pradesh till it finally came to a halt at Lucknow’s Char Bagh Station. Seven o’clock in the morning. A chill in the air. Hundreds of passengers got down from the train and began moving towards the gates. Once Jeeban crossed the gates and entered the city, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, he would be free. He did not feel too good and hunger gnawed at his stomach. He would need to find some food here and then begin his journey again. Two checkers stood at either side of the gate, checking the tickets and allowing the passengers out. Jeeban’s ticketless state did

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not cause him any disturbance. What could the checker do? What power did he have over Jeeban? He would either take him to jail or he would let Jeeban go. Either option was profitable for him. He moved towards the gate with easy steps. But when he was still about twenty feet away from the gate, a harsh voice stopped him. ‘Hey, you!’ Not a checker. Jeeban had been hailed by a havildar of the GRP section. Middle-aged, with a thick moustache, dark glasses, a cane stick in his hands, khaki shorts, white shirt and heavy boots, the man reminded Jeeban of a wild boar. He blocked Jeeban’s way and grunted, ‘Where you going?’ Working at Lal’s shop had taught Jeeban Hindi, though he had some difficulty speaking it. With his Bangal accented Hindi, Jeeban said, ‘That way’, pointing to the gates. ‘Where you from?’ Calcutta seemed too far away to acknowledge and ticketless travel from there may result in too long a time in the prison lockup. A nearer place may curtail that six to seven days. ‘From Gorakhpur,’ said Jeeban. That startled the havildar for even that was a journey of over twenty hours. ‘You know where you are now?’ he asked. ‘Yes, Lucknow.’ ‘Why have you come here?’ Jeeban guessed the havildar was trying to find out if Jeeban was on the run after some mischief. But what was Jeeban to say now? Honesty is the best policy etcetera was all very nice to hear but not as nice to practise. If Jeeban had given his address as somewhere near about Jalpaiguri to Binode Saha, instead of the far-off Calcutta, he would never have dared to cheat Jeeban as he did. Now if Jeeban were to tell the havildar that he was very poor and had travelled all the way from Calcutta to Lucknow, looking for a job, it was doubtful if the man would believe it as the truth. So he constructed a truth. After all, many truths were constructs one could breathe life into. Like rubber, you could also stretch it or

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shrink it. As someone had said, the truth was that the birth of Rama was in the mind of the poet, rather than in Ayodhya. Bringing a tear to his eye, Jeeban said, ‘We are refugees. We lost everything in the riots in East Pakistan. Our house, fishfilled pond, rice-laden stores—we left all and escaped with our lives. The government kept us in camps at first, and then took us to Dandakaranya. I was travelling with my family, my mother, my father, my sister and my brother. At a station where the train stopped, my mother asked me to get some water. So I got down. But before I could get up again, the train left. And now I have lost them all.’ Jeeban wiped his eyes with the back if his hand. ‘I have no idea where Dandakaranya is. Someone said it is near Lucknow. Do you know where it is?’ The havildar shook his head. Jeeban’s face clouded with worry. ‘Nobody seems to know. Now how do I get there? And what do I do in the foreign land? What will I eat? You seem like a good man. Can you find me some work? I can work very hard.’ ‘Can you cook? ‘I can cook,’ said Jeeban, ‘I can cook everything.’ ‘Come with me.’ A person who is afflicted with cancer does not fear any other disease. A person who has been caught by the police does not fear the checker. Jeeban passed through the gates, boarded a rickshaw with the havildar and, after a fifty paise fare ride, reached the railway quarters. The havildar took out a key and unlocked the door. There did not seem to be anybody else about. There was not much furniture in the room. Two string beds, a line drawn across the room on which hung a gamchha, a lungi and a few police uniforms. At one corner of the room were a few plates, a few onions and potatoes lay rolling on the ground, a bottle of mustard oil, some spice and a tin of wheat flour. Two buckets and a coal stove with some chips of wood and coal stood in the verandah. And one big drum.

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Said the havildar, ‘Can you light the stove?’ ‘Yes,’ answered Jeeban. ‘Then light it and sift the flour.’ The havildar took off his uniform and sat on the string bed in his underwear. A hairy man, with Hanuman tattooed on one side of his chest, the stench of his perspiration was strong like the smell from an old goat. Jeeban knew how to cook. He kneaded the dough, made chapatis, cooked some potato curry and lentils flavoured with garlic. The flour and the lentils were measured out by the havildar. After cooking was done, the havildar said, Pour some oil into a bowl and bring here. He spread himself out on one side of the verandah and, when Jeeban returned with the oil, said, ‘Give me a massage.’ An ocean of hunger churned inside Jeeban’s stomach. The alluring smell of the cooked food assailed his nostrils. This was a treacherous moment. One could not risk disobedience at these moments. Jeeban began the massage. First the legs, then the back, then the hands, then the chest, and gradually all over the havildar’s body. Throwing shame to the winds, the havildar demanded, and relished, the massage from Jeeban’s youthful soft hands. He almost quivered at the touch of the tender hands on his body. After about fifty grams of oil, and one and a half to two hours of massage, the havildar felt refreshed. As he made his way to his bath, he put Jeeban on the next job. ‘Out on the road, you will find a well to the left. Get me water from there.’ Jeeban fetched six buckets of water on three trips to fill up the drum on the verandah. The havildar had a leisurely bath with that water, combed his hair and sat down to his meal. He had measured out the flour. He knew exactly how many chapatis would be made. He had four and left the remaining two for Jeeban. After which, he sat on his string bed and kneaded tobacco on his palm. Placing the tobacco in his mouth, he told Jeeban, ‘Go, take a bath and have your meal. Hurry up.’

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Jeeban had his bath with the little water remaining at the bottom of the drum, had whatever was left of the vegetables with the two chapatis, and cleaned the utensils. Then the havildar wore his uniform, put two brass locks on his door, and left for office. He told Jeeban, Stay on the verandah. I will be back by eight. Jeeban had neither eaten nor slept for some days now. Today, after a bath and a meal, his body felt near to collapse. He swept the verandah and lay down to sleep. He slept so deeply that the day passed by without him realizing it. He awoke to the chatter of children. In front of the havildar’s quarter was a small playground where the children from the neighbouring railway quarters had come out to play. Watching the children laugh and run as they played happily, Jeeban’s mind filled with peace. It also filled with sorrow. As he thought of his own childhood that had been robbed of him, tears trickled down his cheeks. All these children had parents or some relative who had a government job. The government had taken the responsibility of providing them with food and clothes, so their children could play happily. Government servants were government’s adopted sons. They could take a salary, they could take bribes, they could also work when and if they wanted to. It was only expected that their children would play happily. The children ended their play. As darkness fell, from a distant masjid came floating the sacred sound of the azan. And following the hallowed evening came the night—inky, menacing, and infernal. The havildar did return at eight. A tiny smile played about his lips when he saw Jeeban on the verandah, ‘Here still?’ Unlocking the door, he measured out the flour, lentils and potatoes again. ‘Make the food,’ he said. Jeeban cooked again as he had in the afternoon. The havildar ate, leaving some for Jeeban. By then, it was half past ten in the night. Spreading out a cloth that the havildar gave him, Jeeban

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lay down again on the verandah. The havildar slept inside, on his string bed. But he tossed and turned. Within his grasp, within his premises, lay a sixteen-seventeen years old, fresh-bodied, youth. How could he sleep? He opened the door and came out on the verandah. Somewhere among the trees a bird of prey swooped down on a baby bird. The mother flailed her wings desperately as her harsh shrieks pierced the darkness and rent the stillness of the night. The havildar stood and looked at Jeeban. Darkness hung bunched around him. This was the darkness of all that denied light, sheltering the beast within its darkest recesses, nurturing evil, depravity and malevolence. It was an ugly black night. Perhaps the earth had moved out of its orbit and gone spinning the other way? For human evolution seemed to have gone swaggering in the opposite direction, towards brutality and barbarism. All that humanity had aspired for with its civilization, its culture, its traditions, were pushed back in the violent savagery of that night. Like a hungry hyena, the havildar had pounced upon the helpless Jeeban. With his feeble strength, Jeeban had not been able to stop him. A strong arm clamped down on his neck before he could scream and vicious words were spoken into his ear. ‘Will break your neck if you shout.’ Jeeban gritted his teeth and bit down into the cloth helplessly, as the havildar poured dirty, sticky, foul indignity onto Jeeban’s body and soul. At the mess-house in Sibpur, in the train compartment at Kurseong, Jeeban had been able to protect himself. But he could not protect himself now from those who were the keepers of the law. Betraying all that was held sacrosanct by humanity, all that was decreed by the vocation of the police, the man raped Jeeban. He raped Jeeban’s soul, his spirit, his identity. How long lasted the rise and fall of that rubber piston on his anus, Jeeban could not say. How much had he suffered? How many drops of blood had been spilt? In comparison to the pain and humiliation that he had endured during his short life, how much would this be? Yet Jeeban felt that no other incident in his

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life had made him feel so low, so violated. And that nothing else would. If he lived, this one incident would darken all his thoughts and impressions about humanity. Rape was so heinous an act that anyone who heard of it grew troubled. It was an event that could poison the existence of the victim, making life appear heavier than death. It was generally thought that rape was committed upon a woman by a man. But in reality, rape was committed by women upon men, women upon women and men upon men. To the common man, these rapes did not appear as intense cause for concern since it was largely believed that these were infrequent and rare occurrences. In reality, such rapes were frequently and continually happening in societies. Nor were dogs or cows spared. I remember an incident that had taken place at the Sibpur Police Lines. A young bitch was raped by a man at night on the football grounds. The matter did not remain a secret. Someone who had witnessed the act talked about it and the news got around. But it remained only an item for gossip. Society comes down heavily on a man who rapes a woman. The rapist is condemned by society. The woman is sympathized with. But the rape of a boy or youth draws only ridicule from society. People jeer and snigger at him. Since nobody wants to be ridiculed, these rapes remain unknown. Jeeban too was not going to tell anyone. Whom would he tell anyway? To which policeman could he go to with a complaint against another policeman? Morning did come finally. The havildar’s quarter faced the west and sunlight came a little late to the verandah. Jeeban had dozed off towards the morning. By the time he awoke, the havildar had left for his usual morning walk. It was during one of these walks that he had chanced upon Jeeban on that fateful day. An overwhelming sense of filth gripped Jeeban upon awakening. He felt soiled and dirty, impure like the gutters into which people pissed. A thousand white insects seemed to be scurrying across his body, scuttling over his body and gnawing at him the way worms feed on an unclaimed corpse. He wanted to cry. He felt everyone across the road knew about his ultimate disgrace. If

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he went through the gates just now, they would curl their lips, sneer at him and say with a smirk, ‘Look, there’s the twink. He’s the havildar’s arsehole.’ Jeeban felt his body and mind on fire. An untamed bull shook its head inside his mind, impatient to gore the havildar with its sharp horns. In his blood, Jeeban felt the uproar that he had felt years ago that night at Park Circus. His hands twitched. Hands that still smelt of human blood. Fury blinds a person. But Jeeban was not yet that blind that he could forget his position. About eighty to eighty-five kilos in weight, a little over six feet in height, well-built body nourished and protected by the government. And confronting him a thin emaciated youth, criminalized by his very birth. This was too unequal a fight for Jeeban to win. The book called the Indian Penal Code ordained that a man who raped a woman would be sentenced to a maximum of seven years imprisonment. And if a man raped a boy, he would be sentenced to life imprisonment. It was said that every fifty-four minutes a woman was raped in this country, and the number of boys raped would not be far below that number. While there were possibly a few rare cases of a woman’s rapist being punished, no one had yet heard of any rapist of a boy being sentenced. So Jeeban did not really expect to find justice. Who would give him justice? Could the owner of the rice field expect justice from the farmer whose cow had eaten his crops? The one thing that Jeeban could do was to mete out punishment for the havildar himself. At night, once the havildar fell asleep, he could bolt the door from outside, put fire to the house, and run away. No police would be able to locate an unknown and nameless boy in this huge land where there were thousands like him. The fury that raged inside Jeeban would make it easy enough for him to burn down the house. What was more difficult was getting hold of ten or twenty litres of petrol for the deed. So what then? Was the havildar going to go scot free after such an odious crime? Jeeban thought and thought till a crude, simple and eminently reliable way to extract his revenge occurred to him. He walked towards the narrow shelf at one corner of the verandah. A small mirror, a

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razor and a few brand new blades were kept upon it. Simple things. This was where the havildar combed his hair and shaved himself. Jeeban picked up one of the razor blades. One flick at the base of his penis. Just one quick flick. Jeeban shook himself out of the torpor that had gripped him since the night. It was as if nothing much had happened. There was no need to look on what had happened as devastating. Just a small misunderstanding born out of a lack of prior planning. The havildar returned soon. Jeeban behaved normally, doing all the jobs that had been pointed out to him the day before. He lit the fire, kneaded the dough, made the chapatis, cooked the food, fetched the water and massaged the havildar. His hands did not falter today as they had yesterday, reaching every part of the shameless body that lay sprawled before him. The havildar was satisfied. The boy was a fast learner. He would be a good launda. The word ‘launda’ was a prevalent Hindi word. It meant the boy who could be used for anal sex. Happily, the havildar left for work. And Jeeban held the blade in his hands and waited for darkness to fall. But the havildar was one of those to whom fate was kind. A telegram arrived for him at the station post office that day from his mother, summoning him home. His younger brother had beaten his father and cracked the old man’s skull. The havildar could not ignore this call and left for his village home the same day. Before leaving, he put Jeeban to work at the railway engine repairing shed. Midway between the havildar’s quarters and the station was this loco workshop. About twenty to thirty coolies worked under the contractor. Jeeban was required to collect the ash from the railway lines and dump it at another place. The salary was a monthly fifty rupees. If you were absent from work, you would not get that day’s pay. Fifty rupees a month, which meant a rupee and an anna per day. This was very low pay considering the work required. Workers were available because at the end of the day’s work, every worker got a basket of burnt coal. This they could sell in the market. Jeeban would get his share too, which he would sell

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to buy the required food items for himself. So that Jeeban could cook and have his meals, the havildar had very kindly left a stove and the griddle on the verandah. So the havildar left for his village. His phallus remained intact. The job was from eight in the morning to six in the evening. One person scooped up the ash into the basket. Jeeban carried this basket to the dump. In the evening, he carried the basketful of burnt coal towards the residential area. There were many buyers for the coal. He sold the coal, then bought foodstuff with the money, which he brought home, cooked and had his dinner. Life bestowed remarkably few periods when one had enough to eat and a place to sleep in peace. Who knew what the future would bring? Let me enjoy these seven days, is how Jeeban’s thoughts went. It was after ten days that the havildar returned. But he did not return alone. He brought back with him his wife and his daughter, both of whom would from now be staying with him here. Somebody had commented that the world was a stage. The havildar now deftly pushed his animal-nature away and began to play the role of the dutiful good husband. But Jeeban’s life did not change. He continued buying and cooking his own food. After the havildar’s wife finished her cooking at night, Jeeban would put his coals into the stove and cook for the day’s meals. Then spend the night on the verandah. This was a small verandah. Proximity to the Himalayas brought the winter in sooner than it did in Calcutta. It had begun to get chilly. Jeeban’s hands and legs would dry up and blacken in the mornings. But this was still a shelter, and any shelter demanded a rent. Since Jeeban could not pay a rent, the havildar’s thrifty wife got him to do the household jobs without hesitation— wash utensils, fetch the water, wash the clothes. A month passed in this way and the day for receiving the month’s salary arrived. There was a palpable cheer among the workers. Jeeban too felt ecstatic. Within a few hours he would be holding in his hands a full fifty rupees. Neither he, nor his father had ever seen so much money all together. The thin cotton towel he carried with him was completely torn, and he planned to buy a

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new one. He had not had rice for many days. There was no pot to cook it in. He was going to have rice today. There was this small Bengali hotel near Charbag where he would get rice. Jeeban sat waiting with a lot of hope in his heart. The distribution of salary began from four o’clock. One by one all the names were called out and everybody was handed his salary. But Jeeban’s name was not called. A surprised Jeeban went up to the contractor. ‘Why, Saheb, you have not called my name!’ The contractor was a fair, round-faced Muslim man. He was very rich, possibly the descendant of the Nawab-badshahs of yesteryears. He owned a large house in the middle of the city and had three wives, the youngest of whom, a twenty-two year old, he had married about a year ago. Said he, ‘I cannot hand you your money. The havildar has forbidden me to do so. You live and eat at his house. I do not know what your equations with him are. But he has put you to this work, so in a way you are really doing his work. You will have to talk to him.’ ‘But I buy and cook my own food there,’ said Jeeban. I stay on his verandah and for that I do all the housework. In fact, I have even given two basketfuls of the coal that you give me to him.’ The man shook his head. ‘I do not know all this. That is between you and him. I am not willing to get into any problems.’ Jeeban felt trapped. There was an invisible spider’s web around him and no matter how hard he tried, he could not free himself of it. If he wanted to continue work here, he would have to stay with the havildar, continue doing all the household work there—the massage, the fetching water, the washing, the cleaning. But he would not get his month’s salary. ‘It is not that I do not understand,’ said the contractor. ‘I can see you are a poor boy, and that you are working here for a little money. But I am helpless here. I cannot do anything. One cannot quarrel with the crocodile and hope to live in the water. All of you carry out a basketful of burnt coal at the end of the day’s work.

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Now that is not quite legal. The law says that even a speck of dust shall not leave the premises. If I quarrel with the havildar, he will get angry and bring this to the notice of the authorities and that will stop my work. What am I to do in such a situation?’ So Jeeban bade farewell to the city of the Nawabs, the Badshahs, the Baijis, the Amirs and Umrahs, thumris and ghazals. So much of history was written in every road, every wall of this city. But this hungry boy would have to leave without getting to know any of it. As if reading his thoughts, the contractor said, ‘In this situation, I think it would be best for you if you left this place. And yes, if you decide to go to Kanpur, I have a contract there too. I can put you to a job. And there, the havildar will not be able to take your money.’ Jeeban spent the night on the ground floor of the contractor’s house and started out for Kanpur at break of dawn the very next day. The munshi from Kanpur had arrived here to collect the payment. He would need to reach Kanpur by eight in the morning so as to get the labourers to work. And consequently he was in a rush to get away. Kanpur was not far from Lucknow and they covered the distance in about two hours. This was a small loco shed. Work was less here and the workers too were few, but here too Jeeban could not remain for very long. Jeeban was born with a slippery earth below him. How could he stay still at one place? There was no way of cooking his own food here, so he would need to eat at the local hotels. But fifty rupees at the end of the month did not get one very far if one had to eat out every day. It did not cover the bare minimum of two meals a day. At night, he would buy four chapatis for eight annas and a dal for two annas. But though dinner got covered in ten annas, lunch needed at the very least a rupee—eight chapatis and four annas worth of vegetables. The ash that the engines disgorged had fire in it. To quench this fire water would be poured on it. A basketful of such wet ash weighed about forty to fifty kilos. Carrying the baskets to and fro throughout the day caused flames of hunger to erupt in Jeeban’s

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stomach. Flames which could hardly be fed by a meagre diet of eight or ten chapatis. The additional basketful of burnt coal that was available at the earlier place was not available here. Family members of the other workers sifted through the ash and carried it off during the day. By the time Jeeban got his first break during the day, it was all gone. At Lucknow, Jeeban was indulged to some extent by his co-workers as younger than the others. But not so here where the others had concluded that this sudden newcomer Jeeban was the contractor’s man, an assumption that drew resentment against him. They dumped greater loads on his basket, scooping up the ashy water with it, which then seeped down all over Jeeban as he carted the basket to the dump. There were seven amongst his co-workers who especially derived much fun from torturing him. But it was not only the ill-will that made Jeeban leave after a month. It was also the cold. Winter was beginning to set in with its usual severity in Uttar Pradesh. It would kill a few here before it moved on, with lessened malice, towards Bengal. Unlike in Lucknow, Jeeban did not have a place to stay here. This had not occurred to the contractor. Which was as expected. He was a busy man with a thousand other things to worry about. Big men have many worries. Jeeban had spent the first few nights under the tin shed, but with the coming of winter, the shed with its open sides became quite uninhabitable. So Jeeban left his job and started out again. At least this time around he had not lost money. His dues had been paid to him, though they had also all got spent.

CHAPTER 6

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t was almost five years now that I had left my parents, brothers, sisters and relatives. I had moved out of the state of Bengal for the past two years now. I had not eaten for days, neither slept nor bathed for days. At times I had been caught by the ticket checker for travelling without a ticket, and at another time I had been beaten up as a suspected thief by the rail police—had narrowly escaped accidents many times. Unable to bear the pangs of hunger, I had stolen a loaf of bread from a shop. I had got burnt by the sun and soaked by the rain, lain shivering in the cold on many nights and then cried myself to sleep. This was how I learnt what this heartless world was like. But the world was round. And so, travelling ceaselessly, I found my steps turning back to the place from where I had once started out. I felt the touch of familiar earth beneath my feet, felt the familiar breeze caressing my cheeks and heard the familiar sound of—O my beautiful mother tongue Bangla. The day I stepped on to Bengal again was at the height of summer in 1969. I walked from the Howrah Station to Sealdah. As far as I can remember, the tram fare for that distance was then nine paise, and the bus fare ten. Even after five years of struggle, I did not have that tiny amount in my pocket. I had left empty-handed, and had come back empty-handed. I met an acquaintance on the train which I boarded from Sealdah to go to Ghola Doltala. He stayed at the Ghola Doltala camp. It was from him that I learnt

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that my father did not live there anymore. He had moved with the family to Jadavpur. So I got down at Jadavpur station. This was not a small village where everybody knew everyone else. It was a huge area and I had no idea where I would begin my search. But I got down anyway. What choice did I have? The rains had not yet come down and the summer temperature was very high. Keeping pace with the rising temperature was the political pulse of the city. The 1970s were approaching. This decade would see a new chapter in the political history of this land written out in fresh young blood. A chapter that nobody had seen, heard or imagined before. Sitting in Siliguri in 1967, I had heard the name of the Naxalbari village and the rumblings of a movement spearheaded by peasants, field labourers and adivasis who had declared war against the eternal oppression they had faced. Their motto was simple, ‘To the ploughman belongs the land’. They seized the granaries of the zamindars and the jotedars, seized the reaped crops from the fields. They refused to accept the law which denied the farmer ownership over the crops that he had sown, tended and reaped. But the exploiting classes held in their control the multi-coloured political leaders with their police forces. And these forces were let loose on the protesting peasants. The aged, women, children, nobody was spared. The heap of corpses grew higher and with it grew the number of people who crossed that rising mountain to join the movement. Naxalbari was now a name that could be heard all across India. The call first heard in the forests of the Terai now echoed in other forests, fields and farms. Stepping into Calcutta, I found that that name had taken over the city—Naxalbari. Apparently, if one searches hard enough one can find even a needle in a haystack. But how many months or years that may take was not known. I searched for my loved ones in this crowded, large area. I knew little of the place. I knew the Bagha Jatin Crossing where my father would sit waiting everyday with his basket and spade, waiting for work. I had been there, but had not found him. Like many years earlier, my home was now the railway station.

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My work was no longer at the local tea stalls. I was now a full grown youth. I earned my money by carrying people’s luggage. And when night fell, I slept on the overbridge. One day, as I was returning after transporting to Pal Bazar the loads of fish for a fish-seller returning from Canning, I met my grandmother at the railway crossing. She worked at a house nearby. Cooking, washing clothes, cleaning utensils, sweeping the house. For this she was given two meals a day and paid twelve rupees a month. My grandmother gave me news about my family’s whereabouts. My mother worked as a maid at two houses. Put together, the two houses brought her sixteen rupees a month. My middle brother, Chitta, worked at a tea stall, washing glasses. He earned ten rupees. My father’s health was a little better now. He had heard from someone that drinking soda helped ease stomach pains. So he gulped down a fistful of soda with water whenever he felt the twitchings of any pain. He was still at work as a daily labourer like before, though his ability to work was now much reduced. But he no longer needed to go to the Bagha Jatin Crossing in search of work. He could find work in the locality where he lived: Shyama Colony. This is the same place where today the Sukanta Setu stands. Then there used to be a huge canal here and opposite to that canal was Shyama Colony. In front of the colony is now a high-rise. But then, this had been a huge empty field. At the corner of the field was a small makeshift hut that indicated that the field had been taken over. There were no water connections, no sewerage. The individual who had taken over this place had similarly occupied another plot on another colony. As a result of this other ownership, he lived there. But he would sell off this land when the prices rose. A gentleman named Kulada Karmakar, who lived in the Ramakrishna Upanibesh nearby, had made arrangements to make it possible for my father to stay in this hut for the time being. To the east of this plot is now a bank, which was then being constructed. My father’s job was to guard the sand, bricks, stone chips, bamboo that was being brought in for that building. He would get

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a monthly pay of fifteen rupees. This house that was being built belonged to a certain rich Bengali resident of Jorhat who had once decided to shift to Calcutta in the wake of the bloody conflict that had broken out between the Bengalis and the Assamese. During my stay in Assam in 1968, I had been aware of the beginnings of open hostility towards the Bengalis by the Assamese. Now and again, one would hear of a clash between the two communities. It was not difficult to presage that a conflict was brewing. Like many other rich people of that time, this man too had bought up a plot here though he finally rented out the place to a bank and decided to stay back in Assam. When I reached home that day it was afternoon and my mother was cooking lunch. Upon some bricks that made an improvised stove, with slivers of bamboo and wood for the fire, was a blackened pot in which was boiling a paste of wheat flour. Once done, this would be drunk up with some salt like barley soup and with this intention, my sister Anju and my brother Niru where crouching near her. Baba was not home then. He was carry-ing a sackful of rice to the neighbouring Narkel Bagan Colony from the ration shop beside our house. He would get paid eight annas for this job. When there was no job as a day labourer, Baba would go and sit at this ration shop. He would usually manage to earn a rupee or so this way. My brother and sister sat leaning on a pile of bricks, with their eyes fixed on Ma’s cooking, waiting with eager anticipation. At infrequent intervals, within that churning mass of flour, could be seen a piece or two of the greens they had collected from somewhere and brought back home. In their faces, their bodies, their eyes, their chests, I could make out the ravages of hunger. My siblings did not recognize me at first. My mother did. When recognition finally dawned on their faces, their eyes shone. My sister ran to hug me, ‘Dada, where were you all these days? You left us all and went away. What have you got for us?’ I am a being cursed from my birth. All that I try to hold on to dissolves before my eyes and I am left empty-handed. I shake

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my head helplessly—Nothing, I have been able to get nothing for you. This land, this people, this age, they have all turned me away empty-handed. Everybody has cheated me. My mother came over and asked in a pained voice, ‘Where were you all these years?’ How do I make her understand where I had been? I had been in hell, enduring the agonies of hell. The excruciating hell that has been fashioned on this earth by parasitic worm-like humans, feeding on each other and fattening themselves—that was the hell where I had been. How could I describe its torments to my mother? And what would be the good of describing them? So I stay silent, standing in a corner as the angry summer sun beat down on me, making the sweat pour down my back and drench my shirt. My eyes too were drenched with tears. Baba returned at this time. In these five years he had aged fifteen. He wiped his face with the dirty torn gamchha and looked at me as if seeing a ghost. Then he roared, ‘Why have you come? To see if we have died? No, we have not died. Come to burn us when we do.’ My silence angered him even more. ‘The birth of a son brings an elephant’s strength to a father’s heart. His sorrows will be lightened, he believes. For when my son grows up, he will share my burden. But I am this unfortunate man. My son grows up and grows wings. He flies off wherever he wants to. Cares nothing to see what happens to us.’ From every word that my father uttered, dripped the vexed poison of life’s torment. It was that which he had drunk for so many years. It was what the society had given him. That was all he had earned. And all he could give me. How could he give something which was hardly there in his possessions? Baba’s words pierced my heart. How could I blame him? A simple man from the villages, how could he know how powerless his young son was in this land? His arms were not strong enough to garner his own dues from the world. Neglect and disregard were all he had been able to gather at the many doors he visited.

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I had entered my home with a bowed head. I now left that home again with my head bowed. Back to the road. There was nothing on either side of me but the emptiness of the sky. I had once many years ago gone and waited at the Bagha Jatin Crossing. This was the place where my now prematurely aged father used to wait too. Today there was a line of people sitting along the side of the road. In the same way that lines of beggars sit at pilgrimage sites, sat these lines of poor people with a basket and a spade in front of them. They all needed work. And at the end of the work, they needed their fees. Their children were crying at home. They had to return home with some rice. The hopeful sat at the head of the crossing. The contractormasons and the babus arrived. In the same way that the cattle would be checked out at the cattle fairs, with their teeth and the muscles scrutinized, were people being bought and sold here. This was like the slave markets of old. The only difference was that the slave was not being taken for life. The sale was for a day. This was far cheaper than rearing a slave forever. I had not come here looking for work. My work was at the station, carrying loads. I had come here carrying a fish basket. The smaller of the retailers found it cheaper to pay us to carry the basket rather than load it on to a rickshaw. On my way back, I had paused to look at the scene. And it was then that suddenly this man planted himself before me. Longish, well-oiled hair, bare feet, a white sleeved vest, and the Brahmin’s sacred thread around his neck. ‘Aey, looking for work?’ he asked. Work? What work? ‘Work at a wedding,’ he answered. Fetching water, grinding spices, washing glasses and banana leaves, cleaning up the dining area. A fee of three and a half rupees, and as much as you wanted to eat of the scrumptious wedding feast. I belong to that community of people who, forget delicious food, hardly got enough to fill my stomach. Outside the station lived a few poor people who picked up titbits from the dustbins

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outside wedding halls. From them I had heard some of the names of these foods which I had never tasted. Why me, neither had my father or my grandfather ever heard these names or seen these dishes. If I joined up here, I would get to see and taste them. I agreed. Yes, I will. But I belonged to the Namashudras, the lowest of the lowly communities. We were ‘jal-achal’. A term which meant any water touched by us would be rendered unusable after that. We were untouchables. Entering the kitchen of a high caste was forbidden to us. The man who had offered me work was called Megha Das. He belonged to the fishing community. After much searching, he had located a guru who would give him diksha and the sacred thread. In this way he had found some stability in his profession. If you had the thread around your neck, nobody asked you your caste. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked me. On hearing my name, he said, ‘Don’t tell people this name. And if people ask about your caste, say it is Kayastha. Once you do the work and get the money, caste can go fuck itself.’ It is indeed a strange law of the world that one’s happiness is usually at the cost of another’s sorrow. The mother-in-law is thrilled that her son-in-law has arrived. And the poor goat loses its head. The wedding where we were contracted for work was expecting about four hundred guests. But there broke out a huge thunderstorm by the time the cooking was done. A Kal Baisakhi. Its rage uprooted small trees and broke branches of the larger ones, blocking roads and making travelling difficult along the dark, potholed roads. The roads to Bikramgarh were not as well done in those days. They consisted largely of bricks placed side by side. Only rickshaws plied on those roads, and now, fearing broken wheels, they refused passengers. Moreover, late nights would often see the beginning of shootouts and clashes among the local goons. How could the guests come? As a result, only about two hundred and fifty of the four hundred guests arrived. Compared to the common working hours for labourers, those who work at

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cooking have longer hours. From morning till after midnight. But they are not paid more for this. What they are given extra is two meals. Most usually have a full lunch and then tie up their dinners to carry back to their families. Because of this custom, the poor get to taste some of the delicious fare. That day when those cooking prepared to tie up their allotted food in their gamchhas, the master of the house came to them. He put a ladle down in front of us and said in a sad voice, ‘Take as much as you can. What am I going to do with all this food anyway? Lessen the waste as much as you can.’ There were five or six of us. We took as much rice and mutton that we could pile on to our gamchhas. But our head cook Naresh Thakur did not do so. He took only the sweet curd and the sweetmeats. I returned home at daybreak that day. I woke up my parents, my brother, sister, everybody. I sat them down before plates full of fine-grained rice and mutton. They ate with much relish the food of my earnings. Our land is the land of sages. They have advised us to surrender our greed and lust because greed and lust lead us into sin, which in turn leads us to hell, where there is much torture. But when have common men listened to the words of the sages? I too was a common man. My greed for good food got hold of me. It was like an intoxication, this passion for good food, and I took up the job of cooking. Our actual cook was called Naresh Thakur. He had once come from Barddhaman to Calcutta with his mother, and had never gone back since. People there apparently spoke ill of his mother and he had not wanted to listen to all that. Naresh Thakur’s aunt had, many years earlier, somehow landed up at Seth Bagan lane. Here she had a High Court lawyer who was her fixed babu. The lawyer had no wife or children, so he used all of his earnings to buy a large three-storey house for her. Keeping a few of the rooms for their own use, the aunt would rent out the other rooms on a daily basis. She had no children, so she brought over to this house her sister and her two nephews. All this I had heard from Naresh Thakur who cared a lot for me. Whether his

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mother too had taken up his aunt’s profession was something he had never discussed with me, and I had never asked. His uncle had passed away many years ago, and before his aunt too passed away, she willed the house to Naresh Thakur and his brother. There were about twenty to twenty-two girls in that house. The rent that was collected from them should have been enough for the two brothers even after paying off the police, the local strongman, the political leaders. But Naresh’s brother spent extravagantly. Gambling, wine, women—were his vices. This finally distanced the brothers, led to arguments, then to court cases. Funding for the court cases would usually be on money borrowed at an interest, till at last the house had to be sold off to meet the debts incurred. Both the brothers found themselves on the streets. By then, Naresh Thakur’s wife had died, leaving him with two sons and two daughters. He lived a month here and a month there at various houses, sometimes on the footpath. He was not literate, had not learnt any crafts, nor was his body fitted for any kind of demanding labour. How was he to live? After some days, all his sons and daughters left him. By the time I met Naresh Thakur, his elder son worked at a plastic manufacturing factory near Ganesh Talkies. He was married with two kids and they stayed in a rented house at Patipukur. His elder daughter found work at a bag-­making shop, where the supervisor of the place married her. She too had two children. The past of her mother and aunt had let her be. She was a happy woman. The younger daughter had taken after his aunt and had ended up in a room at Raichand Boral Street. She worked and lived there. And his younger son had returned to Seth Bagan lane. He was now the local strongman there. He took ­protectionmoney, got drunk, quarrelled and fought, and went to jail. I visited his children with Naresh Thakur many times. His younger son Buro and I became good friends. I went with Buro to the sex workers’ colonies and, having heard the sad stories of the girls who stood there waiting with painted faces, could not bring myself to be contemptuous of them. Naresh Thakur loved me like his son. He believed that I was like family to him and would take

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responsibility for his well-being if he ever needed it. I could not live up to his faith, though. I was then running for my life, seeking to safeguard myself when he died without any treatment on the verandah of the Ramakrishna Palli Mangal Samiti. I heard his body was thrown in with other unclaimed corpses. But that was much later. To get back to the present, I was then into my sixth or seventh month of work as a cook. This was unlike the usual work because one did not get work every day. Only about two to four times a month. But every time I went on work, I remained near the huge wok-like karai where the cooking was being done, and watched. I needed to learn. I would have to find a source of earning so I could live. Naresh Thakur too had learnt and lived. Then one day he got the contract for a rice ceremony at North 24-Parganas.1 The guest list was for about three hundred invitees. He took an advance from the client. This was the usual custom. This placed both the parties under an obligation to each other and secured the contract. The professional catering system was yet to catch on then. In those days, the host did the marketing himself, got his trusted people to cook, serve and wait upon the guests. This gentleman had tasted Naresh Thakur’s cooking when he arrived at Jadavpur at the marital home of his newly wedded daughter. That very day he had decided that Naresh Thakur would do the cooking for the coming ceremony of his grandson. This was a lucrative contract and Naresh gladly secured it. But within a few days arrived news of another job on that very same date. And this was one client that he could not refuse. This was the interior decorator through whom most of Naresh’s contracts came and he insisted that Naresh come himself to supervise the cooking for this very special occasion. Consequently, the responsibility for the North 24-Parganas ceremony fell upon me. Naresh Thakur was confident I would be able to handle the job. With me he sent Dukhe from the Betberiya village as my helper. ‘Tell them I have fallen very ill suddenly and have high fever. After completing the work, ask for the remaining forty rupees.

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They have paid ten rupees. With this forty, the total will be fifty, as promised.’ We were to leave that afternoon, the work would be tomorrow, and we would return the day after. Two half days and one full. Since I was the main cook, I would earn sixteen rupees. I made up my mind to buy a saree for Ma with fifteen rupees. I do not know for how long she had had to remain secluded in dark corners with that mosquito net. I heard Karmakar’s wife had given her a used saree which finally rescued her. That too was a torn rag by now. It was late evening when we reached the house. They were doing up the place for the next day. Two men were busy planting two bamboo poles into the earth at the gate. These would be decorated with flowers tomorrow. Others were filling the oil lamps. Electricity had not arrived here as yet. On the clean, dung-washed courtyard of the house, below a mango tree, sat the master of the house, reclining in an easy-chair. He had on an expensive dhoti which he wore like a lungi, was bare-bodied and had a thick strand of the sacred thread around his neck. In front of him, on a mat, slept a child. This beautiful, golden-hued child was wrapped in gold ornaments. His hands, ankles, neck, waist, everything was encircled with gold. Seeing us standing at the gate with the oversized ladles and stirrers in our hands, the man asked, ‘Hasn’t Naresh come?’ ‘His health…,’ we began. ‘Has suddenly failed, right? He has high fever. Isn’t that what you are going to tell me?’ Then he paused for some time. ‘Who’s the cook between you two?’ he asked. I lifted a finger and pointed to Dukhe. Dukhe lifted a finger and pointed at me. ‘Listen,’ said the man. I am not bothered which of you will do the cooking. But look there.’ He pointed to where one man was splitting kindling with an axe. ‘If the cooking is not good, I am going to break one of those on your backs.’

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The evening passed into night. And with much fear in our hearts we began making our preparations. It was pitch dark outside. The crickets chirped. In the jute field in front of us, a snake caught a frog. The shrieks of the dying frog came to us across the dark expanse clearly. We built two stoves at the place where we were to do our cooking. And then, after having the dinner they gave us, went to sleep there itself. But sleep would not come. I knew I would not mess up the cooking, but Dukhe quaked with fear. When things had quietened down and everybody was fast asleep, Dukhe whispered in my ear, ‘Come, let’s run away from here.’ Cooking was an unpredictable art. Sometimes it would taste delicious, at other times quite horrible. These people were obviously not very kind-hearted, and any mistake in the cooking would cost us dear. But running away now was even riskier. They could go to Jadavpur and get us beaten up there. Or worse, they might slap a charge of theft against us. I told Dukhe as much and tried to assure him. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll do a good job.’ I was right. People were happy with the food and praised the cooking. But all our joy was washed away rudely when our caste identities were suddenly revealed. The son-in-law of the house was no ordinary man. He was one of the tough guys of the Jadavpur area. All this while, he had been in the banana garden beside the house with his cronies, feasting on fries and alcohol. When he came out, he immediately recognized Dukhe. ‘Didn’t you come that day to clean up the pond?’ he demanded. Now the problem was that cooking was not a job one could bag every day. Yet hunger arrived every day, without fail. Like me, Dukhe too had to look out for odd jobs on the side and cleaning a weed-filled pond was considered a lowly job that only the very poor would do. Upon Dukhe’s frightened admission, the son of

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the house and the brother-in-law came down heavily on us. ‘So what caste are you?’ We could not keep up the façade and it was soon revealed that one of us was a Kaher from the south of Bengal and the other a Namashudra from the east. Both of us belonged to the untouchable community. They then took us aside, out of earshot and eyesight of the family, into the banana garden. They made us hold on to our ears and do sit ups. They made us bend down so our noses touched the ground and were rubbed against it. This may have been simple fun for them but to us it was the ultimate humiliation. The next day at break of dawn, we stole away without telling anybody. Our minds were filled with such shame and inadequacy that we were unable to ask for our dues. In the Ramakrishna Upanibesh Colony lived a man who kidnapped young boys. His name was Pranab Chakraborty. Tall, fair, educated and cultured, this man was always on the lookout for youngsters and had his eye on me for some time now. He called me at times to the local tea stall and shared his tea with me. He once told me, ‘All that is precious, valuable and noble in this world has been created by the labouring man. This is why the greatest among humanity are the working masses, the peasant and the labourer.’ But the life of labour no longer held any charm for me. Nor could I look upon it with respect. I had no desire to go out on work anymore. If somebody called me for cooking, I felt a blind rage course through my veins. So I sat quietly at home without work. A pot of boiling water had overturned and scalded my brother Chitta’s leg. He had returned home. When his leg had healed a little, he started looking around for a job. The boss who, after such an accident, had felt himself relieved of his responsibility after applying Burnol and sending Chitta home, was not a person for whom Chitta wanted to go back to work. At the Ramakrishna Upanibesh Colony across the Raja Subodh Mallick Road, lived three friends Anil, Bilu and Basak.

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None of these names were real. Anil had four or five brothers and his family owned a large fabric shop at Jadavpur. Bilu and Basak worked at the Sulekha Ink factory. They were also members of a certain political party. To the east this Colony, to the west the T.B. Hospital, and between the two ran this large canal. In the waters of this canal, Basak’s mother reared about a dozen ducks. One day these three friends arrived at our house, caught hold of my brother Chitta and took him away. They accused him of stealing a duck. Nobody had seen Chitta steal, but someone had seen him hovering around near the dirty waters of the canal at dusk. Immediately after that the duck could not be found. And this conclusively proved that Chitta was the thief. The dhol-kamali bushes near the canal was a place we were compelled to frequent because our house did not have toilet or sewerage facilities. We knew the place was infested with snakes, leeches and scorpions, but we had no other alternative. Our most favoured times for making this trip of necessity were either the wee hours of the morning or late evening, just after darkness came. In all likelihood that was the reason Chitta had gone near the canal. But we were outsiders here. We lived on one person’s generosity, on another’s land. We were poor and of low caste. Who was going to speak up for us here? Why should anyone? The only person whom we could call was Pranab Chakraborty. But for whatever reason, he was nowhere to be seen that day. Could that be because Anil was a member of his party? Who knows? Those who had taken my brother with them had sound logic. All these years nothing had been stolen here from anyone. Right after we came, this theft happened. That definitely showed up one of our family members as the thief. Along with this conclusion, went far-reaching insights. Today it was a duck, soon it would be much more. Who knew whose door would be found broken within a few days and things of far greater value stolen. This had to be nipped in the bud. And the best way to teach thieves a lesson was to give them a severe beating. So they began thrashing him.

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My father had not yet returned from his work. Weary after the day’s hard work, he returned home to hear the tearful narrative from my mother and rushed like a madman to the place. With folded hands, he broke into tears, pleading, ‘Babu, do not beat him anymore. My son has not eaten anything throughout the day. He will die if you beat him anymore.’ My father’s words gave them the evidence to base their accusations upon. Why do people steal? Obviously out of want. The boy had not eaten throughout the day. This family did not have food. Simple mathematics. Either he had stolen the duck to sell it for some rice and lentils. Or he had already cut it up and eaten it. The thrashing should continue till he told the truth. It is not possible for any father to watch quietly as his son gets beaten up in front of him. As soon as they began beating him again, my father threw his weak emaciated body upon that of his son in a desperate effort to shield him from the brutal blows. By then my brother was bleeding from the nose and lips, his body was covered in dust and he could hardly stand. The leader of these angry youth was Anil Saha. He dragged my father up from where he had fallen on Chitta. He picked up my father’s body with his muscled arms, well-built at the Pallimangal Samiti’s gymnasium, and flung him onto the middle of the road. ‘Get away from here. Or we will do you up too. Bunch of thieves.’ The hurt that my father suffered at being thrown on to the ground was nothing compared to the hurt his mind suffered. Throughout his life, he had believed that it was enough to be an honest man, a hardworking man who harmed no one. He respected people and maintained good relations with them, and in turn he was loved and respected in the locality. That he could be so harshly and brazenly humiliated in his own neighbourhood was beyond his imagination. What was the use of holding on to such a worthless life, was the thought that went through his mind. And he began running towards the railway lines.

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I was returning from the Jadavpur Bus Stand when I saw my father staggering, with unsteady steps, towards me. Catching hold of him by the shoulders, I steadied him and heard what had happened. Standing there then, inside that belittling blackness, I swore against the All Merciful God. I denounce You, You who have never been with this man, your blind follower. I profess myself a worshipper of your rival, Satan. And I called upon Satan to give me strength. The hand which Anil had lifted against my father I would take apart from his shoulder. Give me success. They had taken my brother away as evening fell and they let him go finally at half-past nine. During this long period of heckling and thrashing, not one soul came forward in his support or to ask if there was any proof that he was indeed a thief. All stood by and watched the fun. I realized that day that even after all these years, the world that I had known had not changed at all. Poor, weak and powerless people were fair game for anybody with money and strength. No reason was needed. One word here, I could not, unfortunately, cut Anil’s hand off as I had sworn. That is my greatest regret. By the time I had achieved that stage, Anil was dead of a brain tumour, leaving his newly-married wife behind. And another word, that duck was found. For whatever reason, it had crept into the dhol-kamli bushes. Late at night, when it began to quack loudly Basak’s brother went and rescued it. I was particularly soft on my younger brother Niranjan, usually called Niru. His head was small, his stomach was big, and he had inherited my mother’s complexion and her features. I had had no toys when I was a child. My father could not have afforded them. I had not had marbles, kites, or spinning tops. But I got these for Niru, trying to assuage my own childhood deprivation through watching him play. The place where we stayed was surrounded by educated, upper-class people. People who earned their bread through physical labour were viewed by them as lowly. They therefore did not mix with us. Unless compelled to by some situation, they did not talk to us. Our poverty and our

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difference of caste kept us distinct and separate from the social life of our neighbourhood. The construction of the building that we had been hired to guard was stopped for some time, so the usual heaps of sand and stone chips did not cover the small area in front of our house. Niru and Anju spent the larger part of the day wandering around in this small expanse, playing. Sometimes, the other children of the locality also came here to play. They would then chase my brother and sister away. From their shabby clothes, dark complexions, rough skin and coarse hair, the other children would easily conclude that we were not ‘proper’ like them. They immediately implemented the distance between us and them as the accepted norm. Many years later, possibly around 1981–82, when I used to pull the rickshaw, two little girls returning from school had boarded my rickshaw. I was to take them to their home on North Road. The girls were between seven to eight years old and as sweet as roses. They chatted and laughed with each other as they sat in my rickshaw. Listening to their innocent words and delightful laughter, I forgot for a time the pains of my own ass-cow-horse’s life. I struck up a conversation with them. What is your name, Khukumani? Where is your school? When I put them down in front of their neat and nice house at North Road, I forgot myself far enough to ask, in the glow of an all-embracing humanity, ‘Will you come to our house?’ Then I saw contempt cloud that flowerlike pretty innocence as she curled her lip and answered, ‘Nobody will go to your house. You are rickshaw-wallahs.’ In the Indian social system, and in the minds of the Bengalis, especially the urban-resident Bengalis, three words are inextricably linked with each other: lowly folk, lowly caste, physical labour. All who are of the low caste are lowly. They are the ones who pull the carts, carry the loads, wash the utensils, and do all the many other forms of physical labour to fill their stomachs. And the ones who are the gentlemen, live in nice houses, eat nice food, and work in such a manner that no sweat dirties their clothes. Within this narrow and limited orbit, lies all their vanity and conceit. Growing

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up in this ambience, the children too are infected by the surroundings. Their impressionable minds are etched with this ‘we’ and ‘they’ division of class. This is a mindset that has polluted the tree from its roots to its highest branches. No poor man can think of himself as a gentleman today. They are scared of doing so; they are embarrassed of doing so. I remember I had once gone in search of a man who lived near Radha Housing near the Bypass once. He had told me that he lived right behind the Housing. He was a van-rickshaw-driver. On arriving behind the Housing, I found three or more hutments in a row. Not being able to understand which of them was this man’s house, I asked a young girl who was standing there. ‘There is a gentleman who lives here. He drives the van-rickshaw. Can you tell me which is his house?’ My question put the girl in a dilemma. She said, ‘The gentlemen here all live in that Housing. None of them drive van-rickshaws. My father does drive one, but he is…’ The girl was about twenty-four, more or less educated, and working at Devi Shetty’s Hospital. But she too had been conditioned to not think of her van-rickshaw-driving father as a gentleman. But to return to that day, five or six children of the gentlefolk were playing with their bats and balls in the small space in front of our house. It is true that there was no other place for the children of the locality to play. So they came, chased away my brother and sister, and occupied the place. My parents were at work and Chitta was away. I had returned home for something when I saw Niru crying. The other children had chased them away and had flung his glass marbles into the bushes, of which two he could not find. Something burst inside my head. We live here. We have been told to live here. As long as we are residents here, we have a greater right over the place than the other residents have. How dare they throw my brother’s marbles away? I rushed out, pulled out the wickets and threw them away. ‘Get lost. Nobody’s going to play here.’

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They went and informed their brothers, the Dadas of the area. Not letting us play. Has thrown off our wickets. The brothers came running. One of them was about eight to ten years older than me, and about ten to twelve inches taller. He slapped me on my cheek. ‘Sister-fucker. How dare you! Living in our locality and lording it over us! Go get the wickets and plant them back!’ I had been beaten by these boys earlier too. This particular Dada too had beaten me once. But now I was a different person. Satan was my God now. And my God told me to fear none. A man dies once, a coward many times. He who does not fear death is feared by all. I turned and landed a slap on his cheek. That action of mine was like flinging a stone into a beehive. All six or seven of them jumped upon me. Kicks, blows, punches, it was like a storm raging over me. When they let me go finally out of exhaustion, the front of my shirt was drenched with the blood that ran down from my nose and mouth. When a fight broke out at our camp, other people intervened and dragged the fighting parties away from each other. But that was not how it happened here in the city. When ten thrash one person, the others stand and watch. The philosophy appears to be, if he cannot defend himself, he may as well perish. I pulled myself up from the ground. And shook off the dust. I was not going take their beating lying down. I called upon Satan to be with me. Many beatings had I taken from many people. I would not take any more. Either let me conquer fear and fight, or let me die. There was an axe in our house. It was one my father would take into the deep jungles to chop down firewood. Now that axe was in my hands. This was Parashuram’s axe. This had destroyed the arrogant oppressive Kshatriya clan twenty-one times over. I chased them with that axe in my hands. I had then forgotten that I was one and they were many, that I was weak and they were powerful, that I was poor and they were rich, and that the law of this land protected the rich and devoured the poor. All this had gone clean

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out of my mind. A sleeping volcano seemed to have erupted inside me. An eye for an eye. Blood for blood. They had not expected any retaliation from me. They had expected me to cry, to beat my forehead, to complain, in short do all the things that my caste, class, community of people usually did. That I would break that time-honoured tradition and set myself up in the seat of the judgement to mete out punishments myself was beyond their imaginations. The moment the axe landed on one’s neck, the others ran helter-skelter in panic. That day, for at least fifteen minutes, not a single man was able to stand before me. I had gone striding through the streets alone with that axe. What had earlier appeared to be a chakravyuh, a maze of concentric circles that closed in upon me, was transformed in an instant into an open expanse. The elder guardians of the locality had come out after this. They took the axe away from my hands and handed me over to the police van which, seeing the chaos, had pulled over on the road. But for whatever reason, the police did not record a case against me. They kept me in the lockup for a day and a night and, with a few clouts and cuffs, let me go. The neighbouring colony of Ananda Palli housed Kajal and Ponu, two upcoming scoundrels. These two were, to me, the avatars of my new deity, Satan. Word about me had reached their ears. They realized that I had the element in me. There is fire in wood, there is fire in stone. To bring out that fire, the stone or wood needs to be struck against another. They realized that if I am put through the process, I too will breathe fire. I was taken in as their companion. I used to be one. Now with two of them with me, we became twelve. I learnt to make bombs, to throw them. And within a few days, I came to the attention of the police. They would not let me off without a case if they caught me now. In the centre of the Ramakrishna Upanibesh was a small one-storey house, surrounded by high walls. The people of this house had licensed guns and were owners of large plots of land in the country. How at all they got land in this area of forcible

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occupation by the refugees was one of the wonders shrouded in the mist of the plot-allocations. They were not even from East Bengal. Whatever that may be, there was a Kali Mandir beside their house. The famous writer Jajabar has written that wherever the Bengalis go and settle down, the first thing they do is erect a temple to the Goddess Kali. In keeping with the custom, the refugees had built a temple along the side of the T.B. Hospital where a poverty-stricken Kali was worshipped in this poor man’s temple. One day ‘Potato-Swapan’ and I sat chatting beside this temple. (Swapan’s name owed its etymology to his father’s retailing of potatoes.) The topic of the Naxal movement kept cropping up in our discussion. The entire state was aflame with this movement and since I had been at Siliguri at the time of its inception, I knew something about the Naxalites, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal. As our talk ended and I turned my steps home, Swapan picked up a burnt coal from the fire in front of the temple and advanced towards the Bhaduris’ house. There, in a corner of the white-washed wall was written three letters from the English alphabet: C P M. Quite unnecessarily, Swapan added an L to the letters. The letters now read C P M L. This signified that the wall, which till then had been under the control of the CPM, had now passed into the hands of the CPML, which was the Naxal group. Debdas, the leader of the CITU Union at the Sulekha factory was passing by that way. He witnessed the act of artistry and noted the artists. And then, as expected of a dedicated party worker, informed the Party’s Office. The Youth wing of the CPM, the DYF had organized a procession that day. Pintu Sen, the militant leader, was at the helm of its affairs. After winding down the lanes and by-lanes with ‘Fight, fight, fight for our rights’ the procession finally ended at Mejda’s tea stall. I was sitting there. They grabbed hold of me and took me away. Granted, this was not the Sundarban jungles. Yet this was a place where tigers lived. The name of the tiger was CPM. The name of no other party could be heard of in the vicinity. They had all been eaten up by the tiger. And here was this animal living in

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the tiger’s lair! The biggest fear of the CPM being then the entry of the Naxalites, this needed immediate remedial action. Pintu Sen was an astute leader. He had been reading with attention the book What Needs to Be Done. Potato-Swapan was a permanent resident of the area. He was a good footballer, and so popular with the young of the locality. Besides, he had four or five brothers. They were Kayastha by caste and his father was reasonably well-off. Harming him may have complicated fallouts. But that other guy with him—what was his name? His father was a labourer and his mother a maidservant. They were not of this area. Low caste too. Also, there was some notoriety about the boy. He was the one to pick on. As leader of the Party that represented the have-nots, Sen babu did feel somewhat bad to thrash a have-not. But there really was no other way out. This was a political necessity. Discipline the maid to teach the wife was an old adage. Which is why the beating would have to be one that could be held up as an example. So that the message got to the other wayward youth of the area. Look what happens if you try supporting the Naxals. So that nobody dared utter the word Naxal. I was taken in front of the Party Office at C-Block and tied to a lamppost. Sen babu took the wooden stump to which the ‘Fight, fight, fight for your rights’ flag had been tied. With much care, in a measured way, he struck me on my knee. Where are your bombs and pipe guns? How many have you murdered? Who are the other members? Since when are you a Naxal? Each question followed by one strike. They knew very well I did not have answers to these questions. I too knew I had no answers, so all I do was howl in pain and beg for mercy. Then finally there came a question I knew the answer to. ‘Why did you write on the wall?’ ‘Mui lehi nai! I did not write. I cannot read or write.’ The answer did not change anything. The beating continued. For around two hours they whacked me, pounded me, powdered me, and then finally called a rickshaw and dumped me on its footrest.

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‘Go, put him down at the Shyam Colony Crossing.’ That entire night I lay writhing in pain with a high fever. A fear had gripped me then, that I would never be able to stand on my legs at all. That they had crippled me. I needed treatment, but we were too poor to afford any. Kajal and Ponu did not come anywhere near me the eight to ten days that I lay bedridden. It would not be the intelligent thing to do. Times were changing, and in order to be successful bullies, they realized they would need a political umbrella. Potato-Swapan went with his father to Sen-babu and surrendered, ‘Will do exactly as you say from now.’ Pintu Sen definitely gained by punishing me, but since one action may have many reactions, I too gained. I became quite famous. As I sat in Mejda’s tea stall one morning a week or so later, when somewhat mobile, there arrived the tube-well plumbers Nakul and Goshto from the Selimpur Rail Colony. Mejda introduced them to me. Whereupon in a low voice they told me, ‘It’s for you we’ve come. Ashuda wants to meet you.’ Ashuda meant the Naxal leader Ashu Majumdar. In the Jadavpur of those days, this man was known as the noble leader of a great struggle. He wanted to meet me! It no longer remained possible for me to remain implacably aloof. I followed them without a word. It was as if my unseen future drew me to Garfa.

CHAPTER 7

My Entry into the Naxal Movement

T

he entire city, in fact, the entire state of West Bengal, indeed, some even said the entire land of India, was then divided into two clear camps. In one camp was the combined force of native and foreign capitalism, supported by American imperialism with its powerful intelligence agency C.I.A. On this side were also the ruling classes of India and the police and military, armed with weapons and technology. With them were the multi-colouredflags-waving, sympathy-for-common-man-mouthing politicians. And behind them loomed the powerful presence of the moneyed bigwigs. On the other side stood a group of students, youths, labourers and peasants, who had dedicated their lives to their ideals. In short, the revolutionaries. No one could stand aloof in these difficult times and claim objectivity. He who did claim to be unbiased was in fact lending his silent support, perhaps unknowingly, to the ruling hegemony. Ashu Majumdar was not an individual. He embodied the hopes of the Age. The Age had called upon me to fulfil my obligations. I would have to respond to the call and stand beside either community. Which community would I choose? If I had to join, I would surely join those who were like me, unprivileged and deprived. Ashu Majumdar had included himself among them. With his selfless generosity, he had passed the severe examination of selflessness. It was not votes that this community looked for; not position that it yearned after; not luxury that it desired to

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possess. What it wanted was to build a society that was classless, without exploitation, and egalitarian: a society that promised equality to all, and equal respect to all. A society where there would be food, housing, education and medical facilities for all. Such a state would not be reached in one day. To achieve this, a rotten, mouldy and worm-eaten social and political framework would have to be destroyed. And the new society that would be built on the ruins of this old was what would usher in the revolution. Revolutions everywhere have had to take recourse to violence. For nowhere would the ones in power sacrifice their privilege and position peacefully. Lives would be lost, lives would be sacrificed. And the youth in Ashu Majumdar’s group had proven themselves equal to the task. Braving bullets, they were writing out chapters of a noble history of self-sacrifice in this land. The drop of water that remains separate is dried up by the sun. But the drop of water that reaches the ocean becomes part of a mighty movement. I had reached the ocean. My feet were now standing on the pages of history. A history that spanned the distant years from Spartacus to Sidho, Kanho. Birsa, Vir Narayan, Tilka Manjhi and the martyr of this Naxal movement, Babulal Biswakarma. The blood that had flown from their veins had created an ocean of which I was one of the inheritors. This recognition had dawned upon me. I could not return home. The police arrived that day on one of their routine raids a couple of hours after I reached Garfa. Sometimes the police, at other times the CPM, would launch attacks on this area in an effort to stamp out the movement. Thwarting these attempts like the mighty Himalayas, were a few courageous youth armed with their ideals. By sheer coincidence therefore, with my weak and disabled body, I became a participant in the battle on that day, fighting on the side of these fiery young men who had only a few hand-made bombs and stone chips from the railway lines against the technology-abled hyena-like police armed with weapons of death. Yet it was the police who had to retreat that day. Fear had itself grown afraid that day. In a battle, losses could occur on either side. I do not know what losses the other side incurred. On our

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side, Katu, a young boy from a middle-class family, lost his hand. He was running with a bomb in his hand in front of the Kathgola behind Pal Bazar. With rubber sandals on his feet, he slipped on the wood and fell, causing the bomb to explode in his hand. As for me, a poor, weak, oppressed and exploited human being, the rhythm of the revolution awakened within my heart an echoing beat as I felt one with Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. True, I was uneducated and illiterate. But I knew these names and their histories. These had been related to me by the RSP leader, Pranab Chakraborty, the one who kidnapped young boys. The RSP was the Revolutionary Socialist Party of India, a Marxist-Leninist party, founded in 1940, with its political roots in the Anushilan Samiti, a group of young militants who in the early twentieth century fought for India’s independence, sacrificing their lives, and forming the core of Bengal’s nationalist movement of the early twentieth century. I do wonder sometimes, if the boys who had beaten me had not belonged to the CPM, or if those who had roughed up my father had not been of the RSP Party, would I have stayed with Pranabda? And now, having watched the shameless sycophancy of our politicians at Singur-Nandigram, Lalgarh and Basanti struggles over land, would I have been tearing out what remained of my hair for the forty years that Pranabda had duped me of? At Garfa, my place of residence was at the Rail Colony of Selimpur. I stayed there with others like me, Nakul Goshtho Montu Haru Madhai Ratan Nitai and Nanida from Rajapur, all who, like me, had left their families. Among us, only Nanida came from a middle-class home. The rest of us were all from poor families. Some used to be rickshaw-wallahs, some ferried loads at rail stations, some sold kindling as firewood and some worked at repairing tube-wells. Working for the revolution was not an elitist luxury for us. It was a necessary step towards achieving a healthy, decent life. A dream for which we were willing to fight till our last breath. There were some educated youth from well-off families who had sacrificed their futures and their lives to fight with us. But I was more comfortable with those who were poor like me.

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Compared to the bookish language that the educated boys used, I found their language easier to understand. They spoke of the exploitation of the jotedars and the mahajans in the villages. Our days and nights were spent in constant anxiety and fear, with the persistent threat of an attack. To the east of the Jadavpur station was Kamarpara, bastion of the CPM. To the west was Pal Bazar, Garfa, a stronghold of the Naxalites. With the station between them, the two gangs would line up on either side and fight each other. Bombs would be hurled, shots would be fired, blood would flow. After quite some days of such battles, I began to tire. Questions arose in my mind. Those on the other side too were from poor families like ours. These poor fought those poor, the police killed both of us, sometimes the police dragged us to jails. But none of this touched the corrupt and the powerful. What then was the use of this bloodshed? We guarded day and night every road that the police might take to enter our domain. One night, Nitai and I, keeping guard at the railway tracks fell asleep in the early hours before dawn with our heads on the tracks. The four o’clock train from Diamond Harbour had just left the Jadavpur Station for Dhakuria. A man from the Rail Colony who had come out to relieve himself happened to see us and pulled us away. We were saved. About ten days later, Madhai was cut up by the train possibly for having fallen asleep in the same way at the same place. Nobody had woken him up. Thus arrived 1971. The War of Liberation began in East Pakistan. The Awami League was supported by Indira Gandhi’s government against Pakistan and its Khan Sena, the Rajakars. Pakistan had always been seen as hostile to India, land of the kafers. The anger therefore spilled over to those Hindus who had remained behind in East Pakistan. Brutalized and persecuted by the Rajakars, these families crossed the border into India. Once again, there was a large group of uprooted impoverished people. But they were not called refugees. They were called sharanarthis, or asylum seekers. The Danadakaranya Project to which the government had been trying to send the refugees since 1956 was still lying incomplete.

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Not enough had agreed to go there. Among those who had gone, many had fled the place after a few months, becoming untraceable as they returned to mix with the crowds in the cities. The wealth of the forests therefore remained unharvested for want of labourers. This time the government had learnt from its earlier mistake. It did not place the asylum seekers in any camp in Bengal. They were transported directly to the site of the Dandakaranya Project or to other camps in Madhya Pradesh. The plan was simple. If, at the end of the war, they wanted to return to their homes across the border, they were welcome to do so. Otherwise, the families could stay and work here for as long as they wanted. The empty quarters built for the Partition refugees would house them. My father was one of eight brothers. Three had died. One had become a sadhu. One had stayed behind in East Pakistan when his three other brothers crossed over into India. Now, leaving his family at the makeshift camp, he had come looking for his long-separated brothers. He had gone to the Doltala Camp, from there to the hutment at Jadavpur where my father now stayed. After I joined the Naxalites at Garfa, the neighbourhood people had objected to my father staying on at Shyama Colony, and they had had to leave. After the usual questions and exchange of information, my uncle enquired after me. Has he run off again? Whereupon my father related my entire story, ending with, ‘I don’t think I will be able to save this son of mine. Every day there are deaths there. He will arrive as a dead body someday soon.’ My uncles put their heads together and, after much discussion, advised Baba to join them at Dandakaranya. ‘We are going there. You come with us too. You’ve stayed here for so many years. How has it helped you? There, at least, your son’s life will be safe.’ So Bipin Byapari, who once recoiled at the thought of Dandakaranya, agreed to go with his brothers. This was like fleeing from a tiger and jumping into the water without knowledge of swimming. But there were no tigers at Dandakaranya. There the humans swallowed humans.

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My younger brother Chitta braved the threat of bombs and bullets to hunt me out at the Naxal stronghold of Garfa. But this put me into a fix. Those I held dearer than life, and who had risked their own lives to rescue me from death on more than one occasion, were fighting for a dream here. How could I desert them and run away? On the other hand, I had never fulfilled even a single one of the filial duties expected of a son towards his parents. My father’s health was such that it was plain he would not last very long. And even as he battled for life, he would be thrashing about on the bed in agony and anxiety, sick with worry for me. He was a God-fearing religious man who believed in the Hindu rite of the son lighting the father’s pyre. An even greater burden was placed on my mind with the thought that, after my father passed away, my remaining family would be left utterly helpless. They did not have their names on any voter’s lists and consequently had no food ration card, no citizen’s rights. My greatest fear was for my brother Chitta. One of the Congress leaders in the Bijoygarh area was a man called Bhajan Nag. Unable to get hold of him, his enemies had caught hold of his brother Pujan Nag, a three-foot dwarf, and slit the man’s throat. I was within an area that was guarded, but my brother Chitta was vulnerable. What if they killed him off to spite me? After much vacillation, I decided that my duty for the time being lay with my family. No matter what others thought about me, I would leave with my family and try to settle them in a place where they could breathe freely and live fearlessly. While it was true that they could go there by themselves without me, how would I find them in this jungle of people after this war was over? That was, of course, assuming that I survived this war myself. So I asked my brother the date when they were planning to leave, and promised to wait for them at the Sealdah Railway Station.

CHAPTER 8

To Dandakaranya and Back to a Changed Calcutta

W

e reached Taki station. My uncle had papers with which he had crossed the border. We showed the papers that said we had come from East Bengal, registered our names in the register and entered the tents as asylum seekers. Our summons came after about a fortnight and we boarded a train called Refugee Special from Sealdah. That train took a long winded route and, after three days of covering a distance that usually takes twelve hours, arrived at Jagaddalpur. This was the largest city in the Adivasi-inhabited district of Bastar. From here, trucks carried some to Odisha’s Malkangiri, Umarkot, and others to Bastar’s Paralkot. One hundred and thirty-three Bengali villages were housed at Paralkot. There were no names, only numbers. The Paralkot Village was called PV in short. We were given space at PV98. The nearest market was twenty-five miles. There was no bus stand here. The nearest railway station was about two hundred miles. The place was surrounded by dense forests. An area amidst the forests had been cleared out and the village set up. This was such a village that even if a World War raged outside, the people here would have remained unaware of it. If this village had been wiped out from the face of the earth, the world would not have known of it. There had been twenty-five families here already. With our thirty-five families, the count was now sixty, though after some days, ten families were taken from here to PV56. Of these fifty

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families now here, ours and my uncles’ made up four. The government’s plan was to house a hundred families in every village. A plan that did not succeed despite repeated attempts between 1958 and 1964. And after 1964, more and more people began to look for ways to escape from here, despite the presence of guards. A room of about eighteen feet by twelve feet, enclosed by a thick mud wall. For most of the families being moved there, the Namo, the Pod, the Jele, the Kamar, the Kumor, the Gharami, such a house would have been unimaginable back in East Bengal. Why would people want to leave such good houses and prefer to live on the footpaths and beside the drains in Calcutta had always been a mystery to me. The mystery did not remain so for very long. When we arrived here, the government office gave each family some utensils, some clothes, spades and shovels, some rice and dal, and some money. I don’t remember the amount of rice and dal, but the money as far as I can recall was about seventy-five rupees per month. On this food and money, our family of seven could, with a lot of rationing and calculation, last for about half the month. This was a fact that was known to the planners who had accordingly calculated the dole or, as it was now called, subsidy. For the rest of the month, we would need to work as labourers to clear the forest and earn our money. The wages however would be minimal, a fact that we could hardly dispute since we were as good as captive workers in this scenario. We were taken by a contractor to the area that needed clearing. He measured out one acre for us, marking the trees, and said that the job would entail cutting down the trees and then digging up the roots. He would pay us a hundred and fifty rupees for the job. My father, my brother and I laboured for twenty-two days on that acre to complete the job. By then our spades and shovels had blunted. The soil was as hard as rock over here. When one hit the ground with the edge of the blade, sparks flew and a metallic sound rang out. There were different kinds of jobs, cutting down trees, digging up the earth, chopping up bamboo, breaking the rocks, collecting tobacco leaves. From one job-contractor to another. Yet no

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matter what job we did or how hard we worked, the wage at the end of the day never exceeded two or three rupees. One day, the three of us went to place called Khairkheda. The contractor took us there on his truck. A huge dam was being built there with help from the World Bank. The work had begun in 1958, but was still not completed. Now with the fresh batch of refugees arriving here, the work had been begun with enthusiasm. Exactly what water the refugees would get to water their promised land was still unknown. But that a few contractors, jobbers, politicians, leaders would soon be millionaires appeared certain. At Khairkheda Dam, we were paid on the basis of work done. For digging up a square of land ten feet by ten feet, one foot deep, one got paid seventy-five rupees. We had jumped at this and clambered onto the truck. Chitta and I would manage this. Baba could rest. We were confident of our energy and skill. But on reaching the land, we were gripped with fear. This was not earth. It was a whitish, sticky, soft kind of a rock. Our usual tools did not work on this. We would have to chip away at this with hammer and chisel. It would take days to eke a decent living out of this land. To make matters worse, this was the month of May. The sun burnt our backs with the bite of a hundred angry snakes. It was the notorious loo of Bastar which was blowing, causing blisters to form upon our bodies. Used to the wet climes of East Bengal, we began to fall sick. The disease of my youth, dysentery, returned to fell me again. I had to be hospitalized at Pakhanjur, about eleven kilometres from PV56. It took me about a week of saline, medicines, injections to be released from the hospital. After I returned I remained at home. Work seemed an impossibility with a broken mind and a half-broken body. Baba too was not well. How much would Chitta earn alone? Things came to such a pass that after the food subsidies were spent, we had nothing to eat. The menace of hunger and starvation, ever present on our thresholds like a slouching beast, loomed over us. The adivasis of the area too were very poor. How could we do any better? They lived on kendo, kutki, mandiya and such other grass

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and seeds. They cooked the tender stalks of the bamboo plants. We too began to do the same. The government had promised us land. We could have tried to plant some crops if that promise had materialized. But a year went by and nothing happened. My mind began to rebel. What was the use of living like this? Cut off from the rest of the world, of no use to anybody in these jungles of the adivasis, every day of life lived here was an added pain. I would return to Bengal. Whatever be the cost, continuing here was out of the question. I told Chitta. He too had grown restless as despair crept in. ‘Yes, go,’ he said. ‘And as soon as you can, make arrangements so we can join you there. We’ll die here, we’ll die there. We are from Bengal, so may as well go die in Bengal.’ I had five rupees with me for the road. The nearest railway station Raipur was two hundred miles from here. The fare was ten rupees. While ticketless travel was possible on trains, it would not be so on buses. I made further enquiries and came to know that there was another station Dalli-Rajhara. A passenger train or two passed through that station at some time on some days, bound for some destination. I did not have the luxury of thought. I bought a ticket for a rupee and ten paise and boarded a bus from Kapashi one day. After a journey of two hours, I reached Dalli. I was a stranger at Dalli then, just as Dalli was a stranger to me. But one day in the future, I would grow to love this town. By that time though, this small town would be a large city. It would give me solace and a purpose in life. But that was in the future. This was only 1972 or 1973. Shankar Guha Neogi had not yet reached Dalli. He would arrive here in 1977. He would create history and I would get to be a part of that history. Upon reaching the railway station, I learnt that the train which passed through Dalli was bound for Bhilai, but had left about two hours earlier. That train would return at eight in the night. There was no other train till then, going either up or down the line. So there was nothing for me to do but roam around aimlessly. I stared at the bazars, the buses, the labourers returning from the mines, the

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small Union office with red flags. And as evening drew in, I bought myself some puffed rice and Bengal grams, and lay down beside the small temple near the station. All this would soon change. The temple would be huge when I returned here after about twenty years. The Union Office would be bigger. The red flags would be changed by the labourers for another colour as all Chhattisgarh left the CPM and joined the Mukti Morcha. The next day I took the train to Bhilai. I had no idea then that there was a direct train from Bhilai to Howrah. So I took a train to Raipur, hoping to catch the BombayHowrah Mail from there. About ten minutes before the train entered the station however, there suddenly descended on the till now empty platform hundreds of police and checkers. The police raised their batons chasing away all the vagabonds, porters and beggars from the Number 1 platform. I too was chased out. So I crossed the overbridge and came to the platform opposite, the Number 2 platform. There I waited, with the hope that once the train arrived, I would run across the tracks and board it from the opposite side. But a checker at this platform saw through my plan, and put me outside the station upon learning that I had no ticket on me. Standing behind the gated entrance, I rested my chin on the iron railings and stared despondently as the train pulled in. This was no ordinary train. It was the Bombay to Howrah Weekly Special. Its fares were higher, the facilities made available to the passengers too were better, it moved faster and had fewer stops. After about five minutes, the whistle announcing its departure blew. What was I to do? How could I let it go? In sudden desperation, I climbed up on the railings. If the checker would not let me through the gates, I would find my own way. Hadn’t I always done that? Losing my balance in my hurry, I crashed down on to the platform, skinning my knees. But I had no time to think of that. My eyes were on the departing train, rapidly gathering speed. I jumped down on the tracks, ran after the train and made a lunge for the handle of the last door. By now the entire platform full of people was screaming in fear.

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‘He’ll fall!… He’ll fall!’ I did fall. But not under the wheels. I fell inside. Gripping the handle with one hand, I pulled myself up on the step, turned the handle with my other hand and fell through the door, making my unwelcome unwanted entry into the carriage. Without looking to any side, I went to the place designated for people like me, the short passage in front of the bathrooms, and sat down. Evening had just begun to set in when I boarded the train. Now the lights had come up and, after about a half hour, arrived the checker. What strange eyes he had. One look at me and he knew which class I belonged to. The class that had no tickets. Raising his index finger, he ordered, ‘Move ahead to after two carriages.’ This was his domain, I realized. He was just pushing unwanted refuse out of his territory. The next man too repeated the same instructions. And in this way, I remained shifting through the length of the train till about two o’clock in the night. The compartment I arrived at then had the door on the side opposite the platforms wide open. The cool night air rushed in through it. Without wasting a moment, I spread my gamchha in front of the door, lay down and promptly dropped off to sleep. I don’t know how long I slept. I was awakened by something crashing down on my head. My ears rang and my head reeled with pain as I tried to make sense of it. Had the train slid off the tracks? Had we dropped into a ravine? As the numbness receded somewhat, I opened my eyes to find a booted foot raised above my head. It was this that had dealt the blow. A checker. He saw nothing wrong in kicking the ticketless traveller and had raised his leg to strike again. I sprang up and so did the devil inside me. Nobody was awake in the world now. Everyone was sleeping. It was only him and me in that narrow and short passage with the dark world whizzing by out the open door. I glanced at it. All that was needed was a push and he would go flying out into the darkness. And that was what I would do. My hand, stained with blood from many years ago, came up and I advanced towards the checker. But the man had sensed the change in me. He had read

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my intention to kill in my eyes and my body. I had advanced but a few steps. He stared at me in wild-eyed fear and ran into the compartment like a dog with its tail between its legs. The rest of the night I spent uninterrupted, reaching Howrah at seven in the morning. At the Howrah Station stood the usual guards manning the gates. Either pay up or bribe them or get taken in. I thought of the soldiers who advanced by crawling on their chests over the ground during a war. What was life if not a battleground? I spotted an entrance where the guard had gone somewhere after locking the gates. Moving to the right against the wall, I went up near this gate, dropped onto my chest and crawled out under the gate. Then I began walking towards Sealdah. I did not have even the twenty paise that was the bus fare on me. My asset of five rupees had got drained before I reached Raipur. I had not had anything but water since last evening. Hunger, exhaustion, strain made my body feel like a burden that I was dragging along. The only place I could go to and find friends was Garfa. They were the only ones from whom I could expect help and warmth. But I was in for severe disappointment. On reaching the Jadavpur station at about midday, I met an old acquaintance who informed me that Ashu Majumdar had been killed in an encounter with the military on the day of the elections in 1972. The Naxals were no longer there at Garfa and Jadavpur. Some had been killed, some were in hiding, some in prison and some who were opportunists had taken shelter under the Congress flag. The area was now under the control of the Congress goon, Handless Jiten. All Jadavpur outside Kamarpara was in his grip. I was in a fix. That the city could change so drastically within a few months had been beyond my imagination. I was utterly friendless now. Besides, I was not the regular common man. I had too many enemies who would willingly lie in wait for me on lanes and by-lanes with an open knife. While bomb-throwing and clashes between groups were fewer in this area now, my acquaintance informed me that the number of corpses at the end of each day

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was high. The earlier paradigm of inter-party hostility had changed. The members of one party would now wait in ambush for a rival, grab him and simply slit his throat. I spent four or five days uncertain of how to go about things. While I managed the day more or less, nights were a terror since I had no place to sleep. Sometimes in the darkness of the steps leading up the railway overbridge, sometimes behind the banyan tree in front of the ticket counter, sometimes in a locked rickshaw that had been left in the queue. I hardly ate these few days. Neither did I bathe or sleep. One early morning I lay thus crouched inside a rickshaw trying to sleep. The morning light was still grey and the haze of early dawn suffused the area. The stoves had been lit at the tea stalls in front and white smoke filled the area. A few of the rickshaw-wallahs who spent their nights on the platforms were unlocking their cars as they rubbed the sleep from their eyes. The Bihari hotelier Hechan Sau had wound his holy thread behind his ear and, with his pot of water, was crossing the tracks, presumably to answer nature’s call. The newspaper-wallahs were heaving their bundles up to their bicycles and tying them on. This usual rhythm of the morning was broken rudely with the sound of a series of loud gunshots. A startled bunch of birds nestled in the banyan tree opposite fluttered their wings and flew away. At a glance down the road that ran between the tea stall and the ticket counter, it seemed as if a cyclone had crashed through or tigers had been let loose on the people. For the passengers who had just alighted from the train that had pulled in from Canning were running madly out of the station. Some stumbled and fell, but the others trampled over them and ran on. A man with his basket and spade on his shoulders was pushed over. Another’s large can full of fish was thrown to the ground and the water and fish spilled out on to the ground. Among all this chaos, the station sweeper Bijay came rushing out and collapsed in front of the waiting rickshaws, bleeding from the stomach where he had been hit by a bullet. He flailed his arms and legs like a slaughtered goat for a few moments before going still. As I came down from the

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rickshaw, a man ran by me and shouted, ‘Run! The Naxals have attacked the police camp and taken the arms! Two murdered!’ Ten or twelve youths, making a pretence of playing football, had made a sudden attack on the police camp. There had been one sentry at the door and the other policemen had been sleeping inside. The boys stormed into the camp and made off with three rifles and one revolver. Those who tried to resist them were either injured or killed. While all this was happening, four constables of the GRP, having completed their patrol duty, were waiting on the platform for their train home to Sonarpur. They noticed the group of youth running with the arms and fired at them. One of their bullets hit Bijay. Everyone knew what would follow; a huge police force would arrive in the area and cordon it off. They would begin combing the area for the suspects, would fire at anybody they found suspicious, would arrest and beat up many, leave many half-dead and dead. Already a small battalion of police had arrived and, within their limited means, had begun the job. The first act saw the death of Night-Blind Jyote. He had gone to relieve himself behind the bushes. The police thought it was a Naxal-in-hiding and fired. I had successfully hidden myself behind trees and under over-bridges till now. But I would not be able to escape a combing of the area. I needed to flee immediately. But which way should I go? One was towards Pal Bazar, Selimpur. But then that was the direction in which the Naxalites had fled. The police would surely go that way. The other was towards Santoshpur, but that side was blocked by a group of police who were firing there. After Jyote was finished off, Tapan of Rajpur. Or I could move down the station road to the Jadavpur crossing and get into Bijaygarh. But if the police force was on its way, then that is the road they would come through. If I came across them, they may recognize me or someone could point me out. The other road out was through the T.B. Hospital. A part of the hospital wall near the station was broken. If I got in through that, I could get out of the second gate, cross Raja Subodh Mallick Road, get into Central Road and hide somewhere. With this plan,

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I entered the hospital premises and headed for the second gate. But I could not get very far. I had just about covered the road that led from the main gate to Kamarpara and turned towards the second gate when a voice called out behind me, ‘Halt! Put your hands up. Try to escape and we’ll blow your head off.’ I had been told that the CPM had occupied only the Kamarpara area. I should have known that they will sometimes leave their caves and come out to hunt. From behind a clump of bushes and trees near the Employees Union Office, emerged a pair of familiar figures. My legs went weak and my feet grew rooted to the spot on seeing them. They came up to me. I felt the cold touch of metal on my back and on my chest. Six deadly teeth peeped out of the pitch-black barrel in front of me. Six fatal bullets. A single curve of a finger and the teeth would bite into my chest and finish me off. Tata Dutta and Nanu Das. I knew them well. As they knew me. Our introductions had been made to the sound of bombs, the smell of gunpowder and the sight of blood. They would come dressed to the hilt to the Number 1 Platform as we would to Number 2. We would curse each other roundly and fire or throw bombs at each other. Both of us would believe that we were making possible the revolution. Tata pushed the revolver further into my back and commanded, ‘Move towards Kamarpara.’ Kamarpara. This was not just the name of a locality. It was a bastion. An area populated by people of a certain ideology. An organized movement. The bravest youth grew terrified at the thought of entering Kamarpara. Despite its police and its Central Reserve Police Force, the Congress adherents steered clear of this area. The saying was that you went into Kamarpara on your feet and came out on your back. This was where I was being taken. From the hospital to the culvert of Kamarpara was a distance of one kilometre. Had I walked that distance that day? Was that person who walked to Kamarpara the person whom I know as me? My recollections are faint of the event. I had possibly dragged my starving and weak body over that terrain—a terrain

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that proved to be the most difficult I had encountered in my life till then. I had dragged my body along in the same way that the herds of the cows to be slaughtered drag their tired emaciated bodies to the butcher’s shop. As if the legs could scarce hold up the weight of their bodies any longer. Every step was an effort at lugging this body forward. Every step diminished the time it had left to live. Any slackness in its step was prodded by the butcher who hurried it along. The condemned had no choice. I would have to carry my body to the place of slaughter. I placed one foot before the other and moved forward as Jesus must have done, carrying the cross on his shoulders. I looked around me with tender eyes, the sky, the sunshine, the earth, humanity. I would never again see these. The world that I was leaving behind. It had given me nothing but humiliation and misery. Yet how my heart ached to let go of it. In a corner of this world lived my Baba, my Ma, my brother and my sister. There was much that I needed to have done for them, many duties and responsibilities. All that would remain undone. The Kamarpara culvert was abuzz with people and activity. Many had been drawn out of their houses in the early hours by the sound of the shots. Were the Congress attacking? Was Kamarpara, the Leningrad of Bengal, the bastion of the people’s revolution, in danger? All were dressed to fight. If it came to a fight with the reactionary Congress, they would fight to the last on this soil. But news arrived soon. No, this was not their fight. It was between the Naxals and the police. Reassured, they began to look around and noticed me. Surprise! For they knew me. ‘Hey, you! Do sit. Sit. Here.’ A small tea stall beside the culvert. The owner had lit his coalstove. He washed out the glasses, popped some tea leaves into the sieve and poured hot milky water over them. With a rock-like unflappable face, he handed out the glasses of tea with his right hand and with his left turned over the .303 bullets that had been put out to dry beside the stove. It was all routine work to him. A militant comrade of the party, slicing bread and slicing bodies meant the same to him. He was equally skilled at both.

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Those who had brought me here, Tata Dutta and Nanu Das, were done with their job. Now that they had brought me to court, it was up to the magistrate or the executioner to take the necessary steps. They were relaxing with lemon tea in the shade of a building in front. I was seated on a bench near the tea stall on the opposite side of the road. There were people on the alert to my front and back. I was a prisoner of war. My fate was more or less decided and known. The magistrate, the jury, the people were all quite unanimous on this. What was left to be decided was the method of execution. Here or somewhere else, now or at night, knife or bullet. They stood around me in small groups discussing these. Not that I was listening. I was gripped by fear. A chill was creeping over my chest and my back as I sat there in the scorching sun. If they had thrashed me, kicked me, I would have felt pain, but I would not have felt this fear. Letting out their anger through beating would have allowed me to hope for some mercy at the end. It was the restraint in their actions that terrified me. They were holding their anger in check so as to deal the most fatal of all blows. Someone or the other would approach me now and then, observe me from head to toe, and then walk away again. They did nothing, said nothing. Only gazed at me intensely, quietly. ‘How much longer?’ Someone asked. ‘As soon as Khokada is here,’ came the answer. ‘When will he come?’ ‘News has been sent to him. He’ll be here shortly.’ Khokada was Khoka Das. The commander-in-chief of the Kamarpara army. It was rumoured he had killed a score. Like Angulimal, when he struck, he killed. He wielded the knife and the switchblade as an artist wields the brush. My life span was to extend till his arrival. What bliss was life. I felt the immeasurable joy that every breath could bring. Never before had I relished every breath in this way. An infinite tenderness for this life I was leaving behind pervaded my mind. I was drawing my breaths with difficulty now. My eyes felt clouded and my vision unclear. The people moving around me seemed to be ghostly images whose voices were muffled by a tuneless din that rang in my ears. I had

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receded to some distant island, far away from the sun, the blue sky, the green trees and the crowds around me. At one point, I even felt that I was already dead, and that this body seated on the bench was the body my soul had given up. Somebody brought over a double-barrelled rifle, stuffed two cartridges into it and stood it leaning on the door of the garage. Would I then be shot? Would they be so kind to me? In these days of inflation, how much did a cartridge cost? ‘Hey you, what’s your name? Want some tea?’ I stared blankly at the smooth-voiced man who was asking me. Tea? But why would he give me tea? I did not know him. ‘Want some tea?’ he asked again. The man was about forty. He wore a clean kurta, a clean dhoti, had a roundish, well-fed face and body like the owners of cloth-shops. No. I shook my head. But he was adamant. ‘No tea? Okay then, some milk and water? No? Then a coconut maybe?’ Let us suppose this man’s name was Benu Sen. Someone came up and tried to dissuade him. ‘Really, Benuda. Let him be.’ Benuda smiled. ‘I want to feed him something. After all, we are Hindus. The scriptures say attending to the dying brings many blessings.’ ‘Ha! As if you believe all that!’ ‘You bet!’ answered Benu. ‘It’s been around for centuries. This thing called tantra-shastra. It is very powerful. If you don’t believe me, get me a bone from the ribs of a Chandal who died a violent death on a Tuesday or a Saturday. I’ll show you.’ What day was it today? Tuesday or Saturday? Nobody could save me now. My bones were much sought after. Mohit Barman had arrived. He was a close associate of Khokada. A close associate or a close competitor? They vied with each other to break that record of a ‘score’. He held a bunch of wires in his hand, at the end of which was attached a detonator. Coming right up to me, he studied me closely from head

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to toe. There was no anger, no hatred in his eyes. He was all infused with a noble detachment born out of a stern dedication to duty, however unpleasant. Out of fear that mercy, gentleness, kindness and other such softer emotions would taint his mind, or that people would suspect him to be humane, he had created an aura of vicious brutality around himself. It was said he preferred unconventional methods of killing people. He had put someone into a sack and painstakingly pounded him to death with bricks. He had plunged an entire blade into someone’s skull. He had torn open someone’s jugular with his teeth. His eyes were sunless and half-closed like that of Ismail the butcher. Ismail would gaze at the sheep with detached eyes, seize one, pull him out and slit its throat with a practised hand. This was his daily job. And this was in no way evil to him. This was the job God had ordained for him. Mohit Barman was beginning to lose patience. ‘What is the use of delaying so much? Tie him up to this coconut tree and I’ll put the detonator on his stomach.’ ‘Khokada has been informed,’ someone said. ‘Till he arrives…’ ‘You people are useless. For every trivial thing, you need to inform Khoka. Learn to take responsibility on your own and complete jobs. This is a useless waste of time. Rifles have been snatched. A police raid can happen at any moment. Hiding the body will become a problem then.’ The faces of my dead friends floated before my eyes. What was his name? That boy who had been sliced up into pieces and put into a sack? They had dumped him in the hogla bushes. By the time we found him, the jackals had been at him. Many years ago, in a juvenile fit of emotion, I had yearned for death. A shot would ring out. I would be hit on the chest. Within two minutes it would all be over. My friends would lift me up on their shoulders as a martyr. Crowds, flowers, raised slogans, ‘Long live. . . .’ Death had not been this grisly ugly thing then. A cold current was flowing down my spine. A tingling in the palms of my hand. As if I was standing on top of a high-rise and looking down. The jackals

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would get to me. My parents would never get to hear of me. That was as well. Forgive me, Ma. My debt to you remains unpaid. The debt of milk is a lifetime’s debt. That man came to me again. Benu Sen. ‘Any last wish? Tell me fast. You will not have time once Khoka is here.’ ‘Could you give me a bidi?’ ‘A bidi? I don’t smoke bidis. Wait, I’ll give you a cigarette.’ He lit a Charminar and handed it to me. ‘Who’s at home?’ Upon hearing my answer, he asked, ‘What does your father do?’ He shook his head in sincere pain at my answer. ‘Shame,’ he said. ‘You are the elder son. Shouldn’t you be working hard to earn for your family? Instead, you go and join the party. How stupid can you be? Politics is rajniti. Statecraft. It is for Rajas to worry their heads over. What does it have to do with poor people?’ He sighed. ‘Well, what’s done is done. No use crying now. Pray to God. He is the Master.’ I was hating the man. This smooth-voiced, soft-talking, ­sympathy-spewing man seemed to me to be as deadly as a snake, as sly as the fox. His eyes seemed different from the many pairs of cold eyes watching me from a distance. He was the head priest at the altar of the human sacrifice today. A remorseless apathetic presence at the centre of the naramedha yajna.1 Finally, the wait ended. Murmurs rising to raised voices were heard around me. Khokada has come. My limbs gave way, a chaotic spinning in my head, my senses numbed, my thoughts stilled. Just that one sound was the last that I heard before my senses crumbled in an avalanche: Khokada has come. I saw my torn bloodied body on the earth before me. In a desperate bid at life, my hands had clawed into the soil, grass and mud was in my nails. My eyes were wide open, staring, looking to see more.

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Khokada came. I stared at him, stunned. This was not the Kamarpara Khokada, infamous for his ‘score’. This was the Bijoygarh Khoka Chakraborty, now absconding from his locality. He was one of the highest among the CPM leaders and known for his gentleness and sympathy. I reached him before he could reach me in a frantic rush. Standing right in front of him, I said, ‘Khokada, save me. These people have brought me here to kill me. Please, save me.’ Taken aback, Khokada took a step backwards. ‘Ey, ey, who are you?’ ‘I am a TB patient. I had come to the hospital for treatment. These people caught me and brought me here.’ Khokada took a close look at me. I was wearing a dirty torn vest, a gamchha wrapped around my loose underwear, dishevelled hair, bare feet, concave stomach and a hollow ribcage that heaved as I drew my breaths with difficulty. ‘What do you work at? Rag-picker?’ I dare say that was what I looked like then. ‘Can’t any more nowadays. Feel feverish. My chest aches. Blood spurts out when I cough. That is why.’ Khokada’s soft heart melted. He turned to his boys. ‘Ey! who is it that brought him here?’ Tata Dutta came up and stood with bowed head. ‘You! You really are a no-gooder. Lifted a patient from the hospital bed and dragged him here!’ ‘How was I to know?’ mumbled Tata Dutta. ‘He didn’t say anything then. Used to be quite something earlier. Saw him loitering around there and thought… . .’ Khoka Chakraborty turned to me. ‘Go, go, get out of here.’ A breath of relief rushed out of me. The condemned man had been let free. But had he? The loaded rifle still stood by. What if they fired the moment I turned my back? So many had been killed in this way. Why not again today? Take this man Khoka Chakraborty himself. He was my saviour today. Yet within a month, the police would take him to the Layalka field and shoot

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him dead from the back. I do not know who else shed tears for him that day. But I did weep for this man. ‘Go, get out before Kamarpara’s Khoka arrives. He will not listen to your patient-fatient story. You won’t get time to say anything then. Run, run.’ I did want to run. But which way? I spotted Potato-Swapan in front of me. My old friend who had scrawled that ‘L’ on the wall and the one who, after I got beaten up, went and put his name down as a CPM party member. He was now a valuable asset to the party. Had been shot in the stomach by the Congress goons and been hospitalized for six months. I went up to him and caught him in a tight embrace. ‘My brother, have not seen you for so long! Tell me how you have been.’ Swapan tried to wriggle free from my sweat-stinking embrace. But I held on tightly. Pulling him along in a Dhritarashtra-like grip, I moved ahead. I was safer now. No matter how expert a marksman, any shooter would hesitate to fire now for fear of hitting his own. When we reached the sweepers’ quarters, after about a hundred yards, I told him, ‘Remember that L you wrote on the wall?’ ‘But I wiped it clean the very next day with a wet cloth.’ ‘Oh, I can see that,’ I said. ‘You people can wipe letters out just as easily as you write them. It is we the unlettered who can neither write, nor erase.’ These quarters were outside the range of the rifle. So I let Swapan go. ‘Now you go.’ But just as I stepped forward, came a sharp call from behind, ‘Wait.’ I turned round to see the Made-in-China-holstered Tata Dutta striding up. There was only one way out now. Make a run for it. Within a few seconds Tata would have me within the range of his revolver. But even as I lifted my leg to run, I saw what had made Tata come rushing up behind us. A huge battalion of police, firing recklessly to the left and right, with huge black dogs pulling at their leashes, was directly in front of us on the road. Tata had

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reached us by then. He laid a hand on my shoulder. This was a different touch, a softer, human touch. ‘Not this way,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to go through the back.’ I raced back with Tata, Nanu and Swapan, retracing my steps into the heart of that fearful area from where I had been yearning to get out. Through the winding lanes, out onto the Rajapur canal, pushing through the jungle of dhol-kamli and hogla, parthenium and wild yam, we stopped only when we reached the water bodies of Anand Pramanik’s fish farms. There was a large ancient banyan tree there. The four of us plonked down under it.

CHAPTER 9

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hese years were a time of grave crisis for the state of West Bengal. Violence came in waves, one upon the other. Before the common man could get over one, there arrived even more gruesome details of another. The morning newspapers brought in daily reports of unabated violence. Either the police had killed Naxals, or the Naxals had killed the police. Either the Congress had murdered the CPM, or the CPM had murdered the Congress. Here some Naxals had broken out of jail, and there the guards had beaten to death some Naxals after their failed bid to escape. As far as I can remember, this was the time when a dozen corpses were found at Diamond Harbour, and there was a mass massacre at Baranagar-Kashipur. In these troubled times, it was unlikely that the Jadavpur station incident would remain for long in public memory. People soon stumbled back to their usual rhythms. Within ten days, the food stalls and liquor dens were open in the evenings, customers crowded the tables, the gambling dens at the rail sidings and the godowns opened, the Kamalas and Kaminis began visiting the empty bogies of the garaged goods trains. What was I to do now? I had achieved the impossible by returning alive from Kamarpara, but I needed to eke out a living. ‘Pull a rickshaw,’ Tata Dutta advised. Like the donkeys, the bullocks, the horses, human beings too pulled loads. They carried palanquins or pulled rickshaws. Tata Dutta owned a few rickshaws.

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He rented one of them out to me for two and a half rupees every day. He had got to know by now that I was no TB patient and so, he could put me to work. I was to be a rickshaw-wallah. That species of humanity that is known to the babu classes as drunkards, gamblers, repeated wife-changers, uncivil drivers who rode the wheel over the pedestrian’s foot, or turned the other way when passengers approached him in desperate situations. Life was forcing me into this notorious profession. It is only the swan that can glide un-drenched through the waters of life. And that was why Ramakrishna had advised men to be like the swan. But humanity could not. If man spent too long a time in the jungles, his animallike instincts came to the fore. When the water of the holy Ganga is poured into the gutter, the Ganga becomes the gutter, not the gutter the Ganges. Had I ever been holy, clean, good? I do not know. But now, my environment swallowed me. I drank, I gambled, I quarrelled. An anger seethed within me. So many young lives lost. And yet the common man went about his life normally. Eating, drinking, shopping, going to the cinema in the evenings, making babies at night, whiling away time at tea stalls. Nobody gave a thought to their sacrifices. I could not be part of this humanity. These people were all my enemies. Enemies, all enemies. I strode through the station all day. Sometimes drunk, sometimes not drunk. I strode around, and looked for people to beat up. Beating people calmed me. Pickpockets, snatchers, kidnappers, pimps, any colourful Romeo troubling girls of the poorer classes. I would thrash them all. Within days I became a terror to the goons of the locality. On the other side, to many people, I began to be seen as the saviour. This was especially true of the young maidservants who would come to the city to work as domestic helps. This was a time when the train services would get stalled frequently for a variety of reasons. Maybe the rains had flooded the tracks, or the overhead wires had snapped, or the wires had been stolen. As a result of these many mishaps, the girls would often have to spend the night on the platforms. That was when they would come looking for me to find them a safe haven for the night, away from

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the unwanted attentions of both the goons and the police. Soon many others joined me. One who worked at the liquor shop, one who scraped off the scales of the fish for the fish seller, another who was a rickshaw-wallah, another who was a rag-picker. A young maid was raped and murdered, and then hung from the ceiling in an attempt to pass it off as suicide. We gathered girls from the rail colony and pelted the house with stones. Tata Dutta kept trying to redress my shallow knowledge of politics. From time to time, he would drag me to the political classes of a certain leader, Sanchay Putatunda. But I did not learn much. I joined a radical militant Left group for some days. Then lost touch with them. Only the militancy remained. And this earned me notoriety. The oldest of the rickshaw-wallahs at the station was Haren Ghosh. His hair had all turned white, his skin hung loosely and he had lost all his teeth. He was the secretary of our Rickshaw Union and all of us treated him with respect. But the king of the goatherds remains, after all, a goatherd. Just as the tribal king remains a tribal. So a rickshaw-wallah secretary remains a rickshaw-wallah. And hence of the lower orders. And hence hardly deserving of respect. When and why has a prosperous babu shown any respect to the lowly? So one day there was this passenger from the babu class who came and addressed Haren Ghosh in the language that his ancestors had always used for the Harens, with the familiar ‘you’, ‘tu’. ‘Ae, tui, Rickshaw. Will you go?’ Many days ago, when we lived at Shyama Colony, a certain Keshto babu who lived in the Ramakrishna Upanibesh, used to address my father in this way. I was a child then. It would irk me, but I had not been able say anything then. Now I did. I was sitting in the rickshaw next to his. I went up. What I should have said was, ‘Sir, please mind your language. This is an elderly gentleman. Almost of the same age as your father. Surely addressing him in these tones is not desirable?’ But the words that came out of my mouth were quite different. ‘Ae, tui! Where will you go?’

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The words appeared to throw chilli flakes on the man’s skin. He stuttered and stammered before managing to ask incredulously, ‘Wh-what? What did you say?’ ‘Exactly what you heard,’ was my defiant answer. He raised his hand in a threatening slap. ‘Don’t even think of it,’ I said. ‘If you so much as touch me, I will break your hand.’ There followed the inevitable argument and pushes and shoves. Then I hear he is the brother of some political bigwig. I had to go into hiding for some days, abandoning my rickshaw. An impudent rickshaw-wallah of Kasba, Ballygunge, who had dared to lift his hand upon a babu had been found murdered in the Rajdanga canal. Posing as passengers, some people had led him away. My earning ceased. I could not send money to my parents. I had noticed the man when I came to the station and settled down. His name was Gazi. He would sit on the platform Number 2 with an array of roots, stones, amulets and talismans. While I knew this was a fraudulent business, what I had not known was that this was a cover for the man’s real source of earning, kidnapping children. He was part of a mafia gang that traded in children. He would set himself up at some station and steal babies. The very rich oil merchants of the Arab countries apparently had a strange hobby. They would race camels to whose neck or stomach they would tie a baby. When the child began to cry, the camel would startle and run. The more the baby howled, the faster would run the camels. By the time the race was done, the baby would be either severely hurt, or dead. There was little access to birth control pills or contraceptives in those days, and too many unwanted infants would be left abandoned on the stations. These children would grow up on the platforms and, if one or two of them went missing at times, there was no one to enquire or worry about them. One such infant was Yadav. His mother had arrived in this-Bengal with him in her lap during the 1971 War and, after moving from place to place, had

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ended up at Jadavpur station. She took shelter under the stairs of the Number 2 Platform but died soon after with some infection. Bhaja and his gang from the Rail Colony laid her dead body out beside the road with pleas of charity and received so much that they could complete her funeral and have money left over for snacks and liquor. Since then, these half-starved people had taken responsibility for feeding the child. The porters, hawkers and rickshaw-wallahs with their station-centric lives looked after him. At the shop run by Hechan Sau, who hailed from the Ara district of Bihar, there would be available a plate full of rice, dal and vegetables for a rupee and ten paise. A ‘seconds’ plate of rice could be bought with twenty-five paise. This plate, with some dal and vegetables added to it by the two, three or four people who were sharing that day’s cost, was for Yadav. Golam Gazi would take Yadav with him at times and buy him a sweet or two. Nobody suspected anything till one day Yadav disappeared and one of the ‘working girls’ of the Rail Colony happened to catch sight of Gazi with Yadav through the window of a fifteen-rupee-rent shanty at Ghutiari Sharif. By the time she had dressed herself and got her wages from the ‘babu’, Gazi was nowhere to be seen. Now Gazi knew that Yadav was no ordinary child and that his loss would turn the Jadavpur station upside down. So he stayed away. He would board the train but would not get down at Jadavpur, remaining hidden in the vendors’ compartment which the passengers did not use, and go on to Park Circus. But he was spotted and dragged out on Jadavpur station one day. When I arrived, he was seated in the dark shadow cast by the pile of stone chips at the Rail sidings. One look at his face and we knew that he was a fish of the deep seas, a wily veteran of the dark waters. Like a straight finger dipped into the jar does not bring up any ghee, with Gazi too straight questions would get us nowhere. One would need to crook one’s fingers if one were to get any information out of him. So we started work on Gazi’s fingers. One me, Gopal two, Ganesh two and Kalia another, before we could get through his ten fingers, he confessed.

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‘In the name of Allah, believe me, I know nothing of the earlier babies. This Yadav I did take. But only to give to Brindaban babu. What a sweet, flower-like child. It hurt me to see him in tatters here. Brindaban babu is a rich man, with a house, lands, ponds. But Allah gives with one hand and takes away with the other. The wife is barren. They have no children. I thought Yadav would get a good family and they too would be happy. Believe me, he will be happy there.’ When we stretched our hands out towards his other fingers, he cried and confessed some more. Yes, he had got some money, but not because he had sold the child. The Babu had been so happy that he gave Gazi twelve hundred rupees. Gazi had been caught at about ten or ten thirty that night. It took us a full two hours to get the truth out of him. It was not to Brindaban babu, but to a certain Sheikh Anwar to whom Gazi had sold the child. That man had reached Bombay by now, from where another man would take them across the Arabian Sea. There was no way the child could be brought back now. Now what were we to do with Gazi? Who would punish him for this colossal crime? We did not want to hand him over to the police because we knew that the police could be bribed. They would register some smaller case against Gazi and would let him off with a light sentence. It was then decided that since Gazi was a Muslim, our companion Jalal would decide the punishment. Jalal said the Koran demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. So then we assumed that Yadav would not be killed at the race of the camels, but he would be left disabled. Thus, in accordance with the Shariati Law, bricks were placed below Gazi’s legs and, using a pick axe, we disabled him. About a month after this, I was taken to Kamarpara and the events which followed led some to suspect that Gazi had used his ill-gotten wealth to pull strings here and there. There was this hoodlum called Kartik who lived in front of Kamarpara, in the Taltala Rail Colony. He used to be a petty thief earlier, but after joining the party, he had become Khoka Das’s

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right hand. Khoka Das had about ten hands in total, but right hands he had four: Chandu, Bishu, Bhaiya and this Kartik. Around this time, the entire area of Kamarpara was empty. The combined attacks of the Congress and the police had sent all party leaders and comrades into hiding. The intellectual leaders Mohit Barman and Sibu Ray Chaudhuri had fled to Sealdah and were selling second-hand clothes. Jatin of Ram Thakur’s Ashram sold bananas, while Tata Dutta and Cut-hand Bhaiya had fled to Assam. Nobody knew where Khoka Das was. Kartik had just completed a one and a half years’ stint in the jails and returned to the warrior-less Kamarpara. Finding the field quite empty, he decided to score his goals in the way he knew best. So he formed his own gang and returned to his petty looting thieving, extortion, liquor. As a consequence, he had been declared ‘out of control’ by the CPM party. There is a peculiar similarity between writers and goons. They need to keep reminding the people of their presence through repeated works so as to keep themselves alive in the public mind. After release from jail, Kartik was not being bothered by the police. Going by the logic of a man’s sins being washed away with a visit to the holy Ganga, Kartik too had been purified with his visit to the jail and till someone registered a written complaint against him, the police would not worry about him. He was, consequently, not creating much of a stir in the neighbourhood. Business was not doing too good since the fear his name commanded was rapidly fading. It is at this time of a lull in his professional life that my case was handed to Kartik. I was a safe prey. No family around, ate at hotels and slept on the railway platforms, with no connection to any political party and a goon in the eyes of the public and the police. Plus he would get paid for it. Three of them closed in on me one hot burning June afternoon on Platform Number 1. ‘Need to talk to you,’ they said. There had been no hostility between us, so their words surprised me somewhat.

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‘What about?’ I asked. ‘Not possible to talk here. Come with us to Kamarpara. It’ll only take ten minutes. What are you scared of?’ ‘Why should I be scared? I have no enmity with you.’ So I went. The roads were desolate as the sun poured its molten fire into the earth. Their eyes met as we walked down, but I could not catch the meaning. I could have run away, but I was curious too. Maybe this would be an offer of friendship. After all, there had been no enmity with them. Their eyes were red, their legs unstable. They had drunk a little, perhaps to muster up courage for the job they were about to do. The place where we finally came to a stop was where the road ended, branching off to the right and the left, to form a T. The house in front was an old, now deserted house where renovations appeared to have been begun and then left off. ‘Get inside the house,’ Kartik ordered. His voice had changed. It had now a harsh, abrupt quality to it. I did as told. The ground floor had three or four rooms, the door and window openings gaped, shutterless. We climbed up the stairs to the first floor. The bathroom stood on one side of the landing. No door on this one either. I was ordered inside. And Kartik followed me in. Mani stood waiting at the door and Sibsankar had stopped by the main entrance. Now Kartik stretched his hand out to Mani without a word. Mani fished out a Kanpuri knife from near his waist and passed it to him. I was genuinely surprised. He wanted to knife me? But why? Maybe they want to threaten me about something, I thought. The reality of the situation became apparent to me when Kartik plunged the knife into my left shoulder. The direction in which he had swung the knife could have killed me. The hollow between the clavicle and the neck is a vulnerable area and a knife plunged hard can reach down and pierce the heart. He swung out again, this time driving the knife in a horizontal motion. I swerved to the right and saved my throat. He swung again. By this time, I had no further room to move. My back was to the wall. So I raised my arm and shielded my throat. I caught the knife a little below my

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left elbow. Blood spurted out and onto the floor. A little unnerved after three failed attempts, Kartik took a step back and again raised his hand with the knife, now aiming for my stomach. My mind was in turmoil. They are going to kill me. I am going to die. But no, a voice said within me, I will not die. I will live. Kartik may have killed many, but he was no superman. A knife to the left of his chest would kill him just as it would kill me. I watched as he steadied himself. He was smaller than me. It was the knife that gave him an advantage. But alcohol had weakened him. He was swaying slightly on his feet. If only I could wrench the knife out of his hand, I would live. Like a cornered cat, I straightened up with my back to the wall, ‘Come.’ Kartik had been unprepared for this reserve of mental strength that I possessed. His hand was wobbly as he swung towards my stomach. I stepped to the left. The knife grazed the skin of my midriff. In a lightning move, I was on his hand and had wrenched the knife away from him. Twisting the knife around in my hand immediately, I plunged it into his stomach. With a shout of pain, he fell on me. Holding on to him with my left hand, I kept plunging the knife into his back with my right. Every plunge spurted blood as the knife dug into his flesh. The unexpectedness of the situation had caught Mani off guard. The tables had turned now. Looking around helplessly, he picked up a brick and threw it at me. It hit Kartik on the head, who slipped out of my grasp and collapsed on the ground. I rushed at Mani with the knife. He rushed down, and made his escape by jumping over the wall. Sibsankar went running down the lane and I went chasing him till that culvert near Kamarpara. There I gave up the chase, passed through the compound of the T.B. Hospital and entered Subodh Mallick Road. The thought of going to the police was out of the question, despite the right of every Indian citizen to demand justice on the grounds of self-defence. I was no law-abiding citizen on the police records. I was an anti-social. Kartik did not die, though. It was rumoured that he had a turtle’s life. After remaining in hospital for a few months, he managed

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to return but was too weak to continue his earlier ‘profession’. He opened am illegal liquor shop and drank himself to his death within a couple of years. My incident with Kartik had created quite a stir in the locality. To be taken into Kamarpara and return alive after a knife fight was quite unheard of. Not that the CPM leaders or workers were upset about my knifing Kartik. Many had begun seeing him as a nuisance, tainting the image of the party. This was before the CPM party had come to power. Pollution had not yet sullied the group then. Ideals and ideology held much meaning for many back then. The younger generation of today in their twenties and thirties will not believe me. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that at one time the CPM party was an admirable one. A few members of this party have been responsible for much that has done irreparable harm to me. Yet I must acknowledge that there were at least ten times more good and noble people than bad in this party. If they had not come to power, I believe they would have remained like that, an ideologically driven party striving for justice and equality for the common man. The police could have easily got at me too. But they did not seem to care. I used to stay near the hospital campus most of the time those days and could have been easily located. At the far eastern corner of the hospital grounds, was a furnace where they burnt the garbage. A narrow road ran down the front of the furnace. To the left of the road was a pond where Nanu farmed some fish, and to the right was a large dump pit into which all kinds of waste water from the hospital emptied out and which was infested by snakes, insects, frogs. The road went on to meet the bank of the canal that ran by Raja Subodh Mallick Road, to Kamarpara and then on to Dhapa, the city’s garbage dump. Situated beside the dump pit was a slum where the sweepers stayed. They kept dogs, farmed pigs, drank, quarrelled and fought amongst each other. The atmosphere was, in every way, unhygienic and polluted. As a consequence, few people approached this side. It was, consequently, a safe place for people who wanted to hide. I preferred this place too. For one thing, Nanu was here.

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He ran an illicit liquor shop on the premises. And so were a few other friends I had made who worked at the hospital as sweepers or ward boys. The ward boys often managed to steal out the food that had been left uneaten by patients who had lost their appetites. This they gave to me. Nanu gave me a glass or two from his shop. Ganesh, Gopal, Jalal sometimes raised a little money and gave me a rupee or two. This was how I passed my days. The nights I spent in the room where earlier the corpses would be kept, which was now Nanu’s liquor den. If one followed the dirty canal behind the hospital to where it met the Subodh Mallick Road, one came to a locality where a number of plumbers and other repairmen or mistris stayed, and which had come to be known as the Mistri para. But with many middle class homes coming up in the area, the earlier name had grown embarrassing, and had been changed to the Kali Temple Lane. In this area lived a boy called Bablu. Fair and handsome, this boy, a good plumber, had been associated with the CPM party, had got embroiled in a case or two, and now had both the police and the Congress after him. With the change in the political power equations of the area, the financially better off of the CPM members had all left the area. It was people like Nanu, Bablu and Kartik who still remained here, fearing for their lives every moment. I do not know where Bablu took cover during the day, but in the evenings he would come over to our area. Our adda would continue late into the night. Bablu’s recurrent lament was his absolute lack of experience regarding sex, ‘Saala, am nearing twenty-six, and have never known a woman,’ he’d say with intense regret. ‘Here I am on the police hit list. Will get it in the chest one day, and that will be that.’ We teased Bablu over this. We’d say, ‘When you get to heaven, ask God to make you into a rooster in your next birth. That will be compensation enough for your loss in this life.’ Yet the truth was that all of us worried over this. I could feel the thirst and need inside me too. I longed for some person who would love me, who would give all of herself to me, and would

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take all of me. People were dying like mice there in those days. The certainty of impending death had embedded itself in my mind. I too would be killed soon. I would not live to see the next decade. After Bablu’s death that night, the hunger born out of fear burnt with a more scorching flame. A woman entered my life around then, a few years older to me and more courageous and more mature than I was then. This was Golak Sardar’s abandoned wife, the daughter of Pagla Sardar of the Baruipur Police Station. There had been some celebration that was on that night at the slum. A pig had been slaughtered, a lot of liquor was bought from Nanu’s shop, there were people gambling and someone had won eighty rupees. Out of that money had been bought some puffed rice and crispies which we had placed on a sheet of newspaper. We sat in front of the furnace, on the narrow road between the pond and the dump. Evening was drawing in and the entire area had taken on a haze of blue. Familiar faces appeared unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar ones familiar. A certain Pal babu used to be the Officer-in-charge of the Police Station then. It was rumoured that he could hit a coin placed on the ground from a distance of one hundred yards. Even as we sat chatting there, a police jeep was heading in our direction with four policemen on board, having received a tip-off from an informer. Taking advantage of the growing darkness, they were now on the other side of the furnace. And we were within a hundred yards from them. I was sitting with my back to the Subodh Mallick Road, facing Kamarpara which housed my enemies. If Kartik’s brother, Mani, or Sibsankar came for me, they would approach from that side. Bablu, with his fear of the boys from Bijoygarh, had his back to Kamarpara, and his eyes on the Subodh Mallick Road. Nanu had his back to the Ramakrishna Colony, and his eyes on the corpsedissection room which was now his liquor den. Brisk business went on there as ‘Baby Dilip’ handled the customers. It was from the fourth side that remained unattended that death approached. Bablu had been wearing a lungi and a new white vest that shone like a light in the dark. It was an easy target for Pal babu. A shot

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from his .38 calibre revolver hit Bablu on his broad chest. With a short ‘Ohh!’ he fell into the pond. Pal babu advanced a step and shot again. The water turned red as Bablu sank under. Shaking myself out of shock, I jumped into the snake-worm-frog-infested dump pit behind me. But I was not on their list that evening and no third shot rang out. The jeep, waiting near the main gate of the hospital, had heard the shots. It now drove up closer to the furnace and the police, having completed their job, left. But how was I to know that the police had left? From six to ten that night, I remained motionless in that pus-and-blood-filled water of the dump. The worms feasted on me as they would on a corpse. There were about twenty leeches on me when I finally crept out. The next morning, Nanu fled to a sister’s house in Medinipur. I too would need to run. With Nanu, my mainstay gone, I could no longer remain here. With some help, I now put up at Sealdah. My name is Byapari, which means trader, and now, with an investment of twenty rupees, I launched myself in business. I would buy twenty coconuts from the Kolay Market every morning and sit with the basket in front of the church. With the one or two rupees of profit that I earned, I bought some food and at night, slept on the pavement. Here I met again Mohit Barman, Sibu Ray Chaudhuri and Jatin. I also met many girls who would stand with painted faces below the lamp posts of the notorious Haarkata Lane. Much has been written on the sorrows and agonies of these girls. But somehow, I have found the girls in the novels very different from the girls I came to know then, with their helpless and vulnerable faces after a long day spent waiting, ‘Dada, found no customer today. Will you buy me some bread?’ My stint as a trader came to a halt sooner than I expected. One particular day, gripped by indigestion and stomach cramps, I had left my basket with my neighbouring seller to make a trip to the toilet. The toilet was some distance away at the Kolay Market, a filthy and unclean place where there was always a long queue of

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desperate people waiting. When I returned after relieving myself, I found the place deserted with a few broken baskets and torn slippers lying around. The ‘halla-gari’ of the police had come to clear up the roads and pavements. Drifting from place to place then, I landed up at one time near Boral Road at Garia. Near a small petrol pump here was a transport agency. Trucks were loaded with sand, cement and bricks to be transported across the state and beyond. Through a friend, I got a job here as a helper on a truck that transported goods from here to Assam. The owner’s name was Kaltu Mukherjee and the truck number was WMK 4810. Accidents and fear of highway robbers became familiar concerns for me. There was news one day of a dacoit called Lali who had been caught by the police after he killed four and made off with a truck load of tea leaves. One truck load of tea could fetch a price of one and a half lakh rupees. In the early 1970s, this was a lot of money. Compared to this money, the lives of a driver and his helper were insignificant. Lali’s plan was to murder two, but unknown to Lali, the driver had picked up another driver and his helper whose truck had met with an accident on the roads. So Lali had to kill all four. Our truck too sometimes carried tea leaves from Assam. En route to Assam, there was one longish stretch of about thirty kilometres through the dense forests. As far as I can remember, this forest was called Hatimara or Hasimara, or some such name. We dreaded crossing this stretch after eight or nine at night. Too many trucks had been overturned by robbers here. At any moment, some Lali might stand blocking the road. All this terror had been taken on for a job that fetched me seventy-five rupees a month as salary and six rupees for food on the job. It was a twenty-four hour job, and rest was never more than three or four hours at a stretch. The reason I stuck on was that I hoped to learn driving while on the job, get myself a license and eventually live a more stable life. But unfortunately that possibility was ruled out on this truck. And one could hardly blame the driver. The truck left with

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eight tonnes of building material and returned with eight tonnes of tea. Who would risk teaching a novice with that kind of a load? I would have to take the local trucks, my driver advised me. Those trucks went loaded, but returned empty. I got a job on a shabby old truck of the Bedford Company, a Model J6. This truck carried sand from Singur or Tarakeshwar. We would wait with the sand at Babughat, where enquiring customers arrived to buy off our load. But this truck was in such a sad state that it would create some trouble or the other every day. It would either get a leak on a tyre, or the engine would refuse to start. One such desperate day saw us at about ten or eleven in the night, on our return trip from a vegetable market in North 24-Paraganas, stranded on the highway near Dumdum. We had stopped to eat at a roadside dhaba. On our return to the truck, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of eight to ten shadowy figures. The demand was for hundred rupees. For what, my friends? ‘Ram babu’s puja,’ came the answer. Our driver was a simple, straight-talking man called Baishakhu. ‘We can give you twenty rupees,’ he said. ‘But not more than that.’ There followed an argument. What good would twenty rupees do them? They were so many. The argument dragged on and subsequently they tried to grab me by the collar and drag me down. I was sitting to the left of the driver and at my foot, in readiness for trouble, the iron rod of the car-jack. I got down with that in my hand and hit hard the first person who was near me. The others immediately fled and I shouted to the driver to start the engine. But the engine would not start. Every time the driver turned the key, there was a khhhrrr khhhrrr sound which sputtered and died away. I could see that the figures that had fled were moving back, some bending down to pick up stones or sticks from the road. I was alone on the ground. The others were all seated trembling on the truck, too scared to come down beside me. With joyous enthusiasm, the gang fell on me. The iron rod fell out of my hand and a blow cracked my middle finger. I was backing away from their blows and had moved some distance away from the truck

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when I heard the recalcitrant engine come to life. Without waiting for me, my friends immediately took off in the truck, driving away into the darkness, leaving me to my attackers. I did the only thing that I could do then. I ran. I ran through a number of roads, managing finally to reach the railway station from where I took the early morning train to Sealdah, and thence to Garia where my truck was. By then, news of my possible fate had reached the owner and he had arrived. Expecting me to be lying dead or dying somewhere along the highway, they greeted my arrival as that of a ghost. However, when he quite logically suggested that a complaint should be made at the police station, I had to hastily back away. The local police station would be the police station at Sonarpur. The young man who had beaten me up many years ago at Shyama Colony was now an Assistant Sub-Inspector at this station. In the heady days of my Naxal-association, I had once accosted him and, with a dagger held to his stomach, had forced him to beg for forgiveness for his past actions on my family. There was no way I could step inside that police station. ‘I can’t go to the police station with you,’ I said. ‘But why not?’ ‘Umm, I have some problems,’ I said. ‘What problems?’ he asked. ‘I cannot tell you that.’ So saying, I turned around and left, leaving him staring at me. This was before Bablu died. I had drunk much one evening and was in the vicinity of the Jadavpur railway station, when I met a woman I had a passing acquaintance with. I was a known face to most of those who came on the trains from the suburbs or the villages to work in this area. Among the many I had helped in small ways had been the aunt of this woman. The aunt’s husband had made off with some ‘bitch’ and the aunt wanted me to ‘size’ him down a bit. We came face to face in front of the Hospital Canteen and she immediately said, ‘There was something secret I needed to tell you.’ ‘What?’ I asked. ‘Not here,’ she said. ‘Let us go to a less crowded place first.’

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This was evening and the area was crowded with homeward bound passengers. Where would we find a lonely spot now? There was one beside the big canal. So I led her there. She bent her head in a shy smile and said with a swift sidelong glance at me, ‘I have decided to do a love marriage.’ Why one? You can do ten, I thought. But she had red sindoor on the parting of her hair, and on her wrist were white and red plastic bangles in lieu of the more expensive shell bangles that indicated a married lady. She was already married. So I said, ‘You are married. How can you marry again?’ She grimaced and said, ‘That can hardly be called a marriage. Not even a month were we together. The bastard fled.’ This was true, I knew. It was common knowledge that her father, Mad Sardar, had given her in marriage to Golak Sardar, a younger man he had been very fond of. But to this girl of then fourteen or fifteen years of age, men were an unknown and unwanted entity. She would run crying and screaming out of her room at night. And then a crowd that gathered at the door would roundly chastise Golak for his impatience and lack of sympathy. One night, things went so far that Mad Sardar rushed at his son-in-law with a bamboo stick. The next morning, Golak fled. All this had happened six or seven year ago. Now that girl had grown into a woman, with her own longings and desires. She now sensed the pleasure that lay for a woman in those nights of male insistence and force. Her body, mind and soul now yearned for a strong male body. He would satiate her with the pleasures she had once unknowingly spurned. Even if he could not earn and feed her, let him come to her. She would work to feed herself then as she worked now. For some reason, she was convinced that I was the person most fit for this job. So she had got hold of me. Unaware of her meaning, I innocently answered, ‘That’s all very nice. But I can’t help you in this business of love marriage. I have no idea how to go about matchmaking.’ Whereupon she said, ‘But it is you I want to do love marriage with.’

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‘What?’ I retorted, amazed. ‘You have no idea about me! People call me a thug.’ ‘So what? Aren’t thugs human beings?’ she said with irrefutable logic. ‘Oh. So… But where do I keep you if I marry you? I have no house or place of my own.’ ‘If the loved one is near, even a jungle is a good home. I’ll stay with you wherever you say, under a tree, on the footpath, wherever.’ Now this was a fine situation. The more I tried to convince her of my ineligibility, the more she pushed aside my reasons. The more I tried to slip out, the more firmly she held on to me. Till finally I got tired of fighting myself, my own needs and desires. There used to be a number of girls who passed through the Jadavpur station and whom I knew. There had been a few among them who had stirred in me longings for a home and a family. I had met one or two of them at the Harkata Lane later, and it had occurred to me that if I had had any capability, I would have saved at least one of them from that miserable life. Now this woman wanted to be a part of my restless life and would not be dissuaded, an act that appeared to me to be a wilful beckoning to death. Well, die then, I thought. How long will I be around? It is you who will suffer then. ‘Go home now,’ I told her. ‘Give me ten or twelve days to think it over.’ ‘But you will do love marriage with me?’ she demanded. ‘I have said I will, haven’t I?’ ‘So when should I come again?’ ‘After ten days,’ I said. After this meeting, had occurred that fateful day when Bablu was shot dead. I had not been able to meet her after the scheduled ten days. But today, after a gap of about three or four months, I met her. After turning away from the Sonarpur Police Station that day, I had spent the next eight or ten days moving around, looking for a job. I had two hundred rupees with me and I was planning to

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get myself a driving licence with that, or start a business. The idea of selling coconuts again had been a possibility and I had visited the Kolay Market to check that out. But my spot had been taken by someone else, and I knew no one else who could get me a space on some other pavement. As I sat at the Champahati station, dejected and confused, she was returning from work. She accosted me immediately. ‘And where were you all these days? I’ve been looking high and low for you. And just whom are you sitting here waiting for, may I ask?’ When a man is sinking, he will grasp at any straw that comes to hand. When a man is hungry, he will accept any food, fresh, rotting or stale. When a man is thirsty, he will run in desperation towards any mirage. I do not know now which metaphor would be applicable to my present or future, but the truth is that, on that day, alone, friendless, helpless and vulnerable, I had said to her, ‘It is for you that I have come.’ ‘Come, come,’ she said. ‘Come to our village. I have told everybody about you. They all want to see you.’ Their village was about seven miles from the Champahati station. The first four miles could be travelled by a bus and then the rest could be covered on foot along the mud path that lay by the canal. We covered the entire distance on foot. That was what she did every day. The bus fare was twenty-five paise each way. If the bus took up seven and a half rupees every week, what would be left? The little money that remained was thanks to that saving on the bus and train fares. By the time we arrived at the village, it was pitch dark and the village looked like an isolated island amidst all that darkness. There were thirty families here. They were Kahers by caste. By profession, they used to be fishermen, palanquin-bearers and drum beaters. But now the palanquins had been rejected for motor cars and there were no fish in the nearby water bodies. So the men worked as daily wage labourers and the women as domestic maidservants or vegetable sellers. I had been somewhat apprehensive of the kind

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of reception we would get at the village. I had no legal relationship with her. This was, after all, no liberated, ultra-modern community of the upper class where couples ‘lived together’, but a backward village. But I found the villagers quite happy to see me. That the drifting dinghy of Mad Sardar’s daughter, afloat rudderless for no fault of hers, had finally found land was good news for all of them. The Sardar’s wife knew me because she went to sell cow-dung cakes at Jadavpur and it was her earnest wish that the two of us should work together and live together cordially ‘as siblings do’. Not every day are the kitchen fires lit in this village. Not every day saw rice and vegetables on the plates. But rice was cooked tonight, and so were some vegetables. Some yam had been planted by Mad Sardar on the precious land in front of the house, beside the canal. Sale from that ‘crop’ had brought in some money with which rice and shrimps had been bought. After supper, a bed was laid out for me in the adjoining yard. It was after many days that I was being given a place to sleep in peace and safety. I fell asleep almost immediately. I do not know how long I had slept when I was awoken by a soft push, and a soft voice, ‘Move a bit. Make space for me to lie.’ And then, without hesitation, the person lay down beside me. It was her. On that dark night, when the world lay silent and sleeping, I was unable to turn away empty-handed the demands of her yearning body. I surrendered myself to her, without thought of the future. Bablu’s dying face flashed through my mind. I too would end up like him soon. And I did not want to die with his regrets. Come, Life, let me partake of your cup of poison-filled nectar.

CHAPTER 10

A Bomb Explodes in Barddhaman

H

is name was Meghnad. I knew him as little or as well as one person can know another. He would carry his basket of green coconuts to the university gate and sell his wares there. One day, with implicit trust, he laid bare before me his other identity that lay shrouded in darkness like the dense jungles of Africa. Life in the villages of Bengal had always been one of poverty and hunger. But in 1959, this poverty and hunger had reached an intensity that brought out onto the streets rebellious processions of the usually patient people, many of whom were beaten to death by the police with their batons. Meghnad’s father, unable to bear the pangs of hunger, stole half a sackful of grain from a jotedar’s store one day. But the rice from the grains did not reach the empty stomachs of the family. The jotedar had spies everywhere to keep track of the grains and the sound of threshing was heard by a neighbour who carried the tale to the jotedar. Meghnad’s father was brought before the jotedar who ordered the bones of his two hands to be crushed by the blacksmith’s hammer. This was done so that the sight of him would drive fear into the hearts of the villagers and no villager would henceforth dare to steal grain for his hungry family. Meghnad had been a child then. He grew up watching his father lie in bed with his crushed hands, wetting and soiling the bed helplessly and groaning in pain. His mother travelled some distance to a place where she would not be addressed as the Thief’s Wife, and begged there. Meghnad grew up swearing

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revenge on the rich Purokayesthas who had crippled his father and turned his mother into a beggar. In order to shoot a tiger, guns are required, as is required a thorough knowledge of the jungle. Meghnad had taken admission into the class that would give him the weapons and knowledge, and enable him to strike that final blow. Suppose the teacher’s name was Ahbali. Sometime ago, three members of the M.C.C. group (Maoist Communist Centre, one of the largest armed Maoist groups in India which would go on to join forces with the People’s War Group in later years) had come here, one of whom was Chandrasekhar, usually called by the name of Dadu. They had not come to undertake any action, but merely to make the beginnings of an organization here. The thought of such a group, even in that nascent stage, had frightened the jotedars. During one of their meetings, the jotedars’ men beat the three to death on the accusation that they were dacoits. Those who had been attending that meeting as well as the villagers who had given them shelter, were thrown into jail. Ahbali had been in that group. That had been Ahbali’s first political class. At that time, almost all the prisons of Bengal were filled with Naxal prisoners. But the higher level Naxalites who studied, theorized and masterminded the operations, were in Presidency Jail. Some others were at Dumdum and some at Baharampur. The prison inmates Ahbali found at his jail may have been good as workers but were not much good as teachers. As a consequence, though Ahbali learnt to sing the song, ‘Awake, awake, you who have lost all…’ to the correct rhythm and melody, the understanding of class struggle, use of land, and revolution remained unlearnt. Class hatred, a part of Ahbali since childhood, had been aggravated by the M.C.C. episode, but his incomplete education propelled him into directions that were well intentioned but confused. While one may locate similarities with the actions of Raghu Dakat in Ahbali’s doings, there was little of Chandrasekhar’s philosophy in them. It was him that Meghnad had taken as his guru. I came to know all this much later. I had not known then, when as an acquaintance from my Jadavpur days, I asked him if he had any information about work that I could do. The two hundred

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rupees that I had had was over by now. I stayed with six others and, even at the most miserly levels, at least two kilos of rice would be required every day. And then some potatoes and pulses. I would pitch in with ten rupees, the others would bear the rest. My pocket had emptied out fast. Meghnad knew of my past. He thought that I too knew of his past. Which I did not. So when I asked him about possible work, he drew his own conclusions and said, ‘But have to ask Ahbalida first. Cannot take you without asking him.’ ‘Who is Ahbali?’ ‘The man I work with. He will not say no once he hears of you, I know. There is this bond between Nashkals, na?’ I was, in those days, the ‘victim of an incomplete education’. Every step that I took embroiled me in increasing muck. With no firm support to hold on to, I was rapidly losing my way in a mindless darkness. Many days later, I was to understand my plight through the words of the labour leader, Shankar Guha Neogi, who used to say, ‘One should not expect morality and principles from the poor.’ In truth, one cannot. Hunger has the power to destroy the mind-intelligence-conscience-mercy-love-affection-humanity. I have seen a father, unable to bear the pangs of hunger, prostitute his daughter. I have seen husbands lead the wives by the hand to the prospective clients. I have seen mothers give away their children in exchange for rice. I have seen them fling the infant into a well. In these difficult times, who was I to cling to truth and integrity and fend off the pangs of hunger with my gamchha tied tightly around my stomach? In another day or two, hunger would swallow me whole. Then my head would spin, my feet would tremble, my vision would grow clouded. What would I do then? A sadhu lived on the station. That is, if unkempt hair, beard, and saffron robes made one a sadhu despite the smell of alcohol on his breath. He would claim that he taught his disciples not to thieve, but to be the leader of thieves. He had said to me once, ‘Of all the sins in the world, the greatest is the sin of keeping your body

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hungry. Hunger makes your soul suffer. And your soul is a part of the Great Soul that pervades the universe.’ So when the call finally came from Ahbali through Meghnad, ‘Come, it is time to go for work,’ I did not have the option of looking back. I started out with them, trampling on my way all the values and virtues that I had so carefully guarded for these many years. We were travelling to Barddhaman. The entire plan for this trip had been laid down by Ahbali. He had bought the tickets, and he was buying us tea and food. I guessed he would calculate the costs later and take it from us. I had no idea. I was new to the group. With surprising ease, he had taken apart the two guns we were carrying. He would put them together again once we reached our destination. The butts were being carried in a largish bag and the barrels were wrapped in a mat that had been bought. About four torches with fresh batteries were in a separate bag. And four or five pipe guns in another. Our group totalled seven. From the clothes we wore, people would have taken us for a group of labourers and repairmen who had come from the villages for work in the city. There was someone to show us the way to our destination when we arrived at Barddhaman station. It was his responsibility to see that we reached our workplace safely. It was he who would bring us back to the station after the job was completed. Two and a half hours by train from Howrah to Barddhaman. And then on bus for about an hour. Then on van rickshaws at a fare of a rupee per head we covered five to six miles. Then about three or four miles on foot. The entire journey took around eight to nine hours. Having boarded the train at Howrah at nine in the morning, we reached our destination village at six in the evening. This district was famous for its production of rice. On every side, the green fields with the swaying heads of the budding grains stretched far into the distance, as we walked between the rice fields towards the village. About forty to fifty Bagdi families lived here. They were all landless. Working as farmhands on other’s lands and fishing were their sources of income. If opportunity permitted,

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they picked up a few potatoes here and a few bananas there from other people’s farms; sometimes maybe a sackful of ripe and unripe mangoes. Or some fish netted by a fishing net thrown rapidly into someone’s pond. As a result, at least one name from every family brightened the red note book at the local police station. Understandably, the Brahmin and Kayastha villages around did not eye them with much cordiality. Surrounding the village were fields of rice with their raised heads out of knee-deep water. The boys tending to the cows would seize these stalks of rice between their teeth to draw on the whitish thick milk inside when the pangs of hunger got too severe. I too have done this in my childhood. These fields had once belonged to the Bagdis whose ancestors had many years ago cleared the forests and claimed these lands. But through numerous court cases and debt burdens which they little understood, the ownership was now lost to some distant Sen-Bhattacharya-RayChakrabarty family who stayed some miles away. They were now hired labourers on land that had once been theirs. The money that they received in return was never enough to fill their stomachs. On many nights, some Bagdi would venture into the fields and cut down some grains which they would bring back home. If caught, the men would be beaten and the girls or married women would lose their virginity or chastity. Having taken the beating and humiliation for years, the people of this village had now reached a point when the oppression had become intolerable to them. They were angry and willing to stake all in a fight. They had, through someone, contacted ‘Nashkal Ahbali’. The man who was guiding us through the fields now was called Bhuto. His body, with an oversized head and protruding stomach, was a picture of malnutrition. Around thirty years of age, he had a sister who had crossed fifteen last year. They were yet to find her a husband, though. It was difficult marrying off the girls of this village. The groom’s party would, when they came to see the girl, find devious ways of finding out whether the girl had ever been caught by the babus when she went to steal grain

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from their fields. Bhuto had a brother too who was night-blind. He had lost his mother. His father was alive, but nobody knew where. They had once received news that Bhuto’s father had been found wandering the streets of Barddhaman, to all appearances mad. But Bhuto had been unable to find him despite a long and frantic search. Bhuto was married. His wife was pregnant and was expected to deliver the child in a few months. On reaching the village, we put up at Bhuto’s house. This was a mud house, two-storey, and by far the largest and best house compared to the other huts in the village. Bhuto had snatched a gold chain from a Brahmin woman once, at some fair, and it is with that money that the house had been built. We were taken up to the first floor where Ahbali unpacked and took out a large bundle which he handed to Bhuto with the instruction, ‘Keep this with you. Tomorrow we will need this to be ground into fine powder.’ I realized then that this was the powder that would go to make bombs. Since travelling with prepared bombs was too risky, Ahbali had got the raw materials. All of us who had come here would be merely the helpers of the real battle which would be fought by the villagers themselves. Thrilled at our arrival, they crowded into Bhuto’s house to see us. Their body language spoke plainly of the pent up, tremendous anger. It was clear that in the houses they would attack tomorrow they would leave not a single brass plate behind from which a meal could be had, not a single piece of cloth behind which could be worn. What they would not be able to carry back they would tear and burn and smash. I had worked with the fiery Naxalites for many days. But not one of the bombs I had thrown or shots I had fired had touched the body of a ‘class-enemy’. It had all been wasted on a false war, a futile meaningless squandering of self. Now finally it seemed the splinters from my bomb would pierce the chests of the enemies of the people. A family that was so hated by all the young and old of this destitute village could be no friend to society. My heart was light and my mind joyful that I was to be

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a part of this ‘good’ work. One of the villagers told me, ‘Brother, you have no idea for how many years we have been planning to kill the bastards. But we could not. We have no weapons, you see. Our sticks and spears are no match for their guns. But now we will have our revenge. We will punish them as they deserve. First that old fiend. We will strip him and tie him to a tree. We will beat him to our heart’s content first. And then we will decide what to do with him.’ Dinner had been prepared for us. The entire village had contributed to this meal however they could. Some had brought in a few fistfuls of rice, some a potato or two, some a slice of pumpkin. They served us rice and a pumpkin dish on banana leaves and all in the village ate with us. It was like a celebration that night at the village, celebration of the coming hunt. ‘We rarely sleep in our huts at night,’ they said. ‘We are usually among the clumps of bamboo or banana trees. But you sleep in peace. We will keep guard. Besides, we have dogs. If any stranger nears the village, our dogs will attack them.’ With the water and the rice fields surrounding it, this village was as well secured as an island. Anybody approaching the village could be spotted from a distance of a couple of miles. There was only one road to go through the village and that was a road that was not motorable. The mud and water on this road made it slippery and treacherous. Thus though there were ample police cases against the villagers, the police seldom ventured into the village and, if they did, they seldom could catch anybody. In the monsoon, especially, the village was almost submerged. Next morning, after our breakfast of parched rice, onions and chillies, Ahbali looked at me and said, ‘It’s your responsibility now. The powder is ready for the bombs. Tie up as many as you can.’ I stared at Ahbali in amazement. How had he known that I could tie bombs? Had I told Meghnad at some time? And then he had told Ahbali? I looked at the raw materials brought in and, making a quick calculation, I said, ‘This should make about twenty, I think. But how will I make so many alone?’

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‘There is nobody else here who can do this,’ he said in a pleading voice. ‘You must try and do it. This is a job that will need bombs. We could have two thousand flies buzzing around us. The sound of the bombs will help to keep them away.’ I said, ‘But you told me the man was a scoundrel. Why should others come to help him?’ ‘He is a scoundrel,’ replied Ahbali. ‘And they will not come to help. But we have seen, the richer the person, the more powerful the person, the more the people who surround them. Once we reach there, though, all of these people will vanish. They will stand at a distance and shout. At the most they will throw a few stones. We have seen this time and again. But it will not do to be too confident and go unprepared. We have to be careful. I have brought about fifty cartridges. With these twenty bombs, we can handle five thousand people.’ He paused for some time and said, ‘I have made a recce of the place. If we can just collect the jewellery worn by the women, it will add up to about a kilo.’ Bhuto’s sister had prepared the powder and Bhuto had sieved it through a piece torn from a mosquito net. Bhuto’s wife had neatly laid out a seat for me in a corner of the stable. Not just Bhuto’s family, but the whole village was now pushing towards a single yearned for goal. They had just had dedicated their minds, their hearts, their bodies to a dream. None of them knew anything about politics. Political philosophy and political theory about villages surrounding the city and the need to destroy class enemies were unknown to them. But they did know that they wanted to kill those who had stripped their women and brutalized them. In some sense, their desire appeared to me to be similar to that of the Naxals. No hesitation or indecision clouded my mind any longer. If it were a sin to help so many people concretize their dream of revenge, so be it. I was willing to commit this sin again and again. I sat down to the job with a crowd of villagers standing or perched on the haystack as my audience, mixing the seemingly harmless reddish and white powders to construct a deadly instrument, one

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that when hurled at the enemy, would tear their bodies apart with a thunderous sound. In a large enamelled plate, I mixed the powders together with shards of glass, tiny sticks from fishing nets and iron ball bearings. As they watched me at my job, I could sense their intoxication mounting. Will kill them all. They have a lot to answer for. All I had taken was a bunch of bananas, and they beat me for a whole day. And then threw me in jail. I rotted there for two years. My wife ran away unable to bear the hunger. Will get them now. Livid with anger, he struck a match to light a bidi. He did not get to the bidi. A spark flew onto the plate before me. There was an ear-splitting sound, and a huge ball of fire went up in billowing white smoke. The thatched roof of the stable was engulfed in blazing flames and splinters flew. Some who had been sitting on the haystack watching me were hurt. Their hurt was slight but people panicked and tried to rush out. The bomb that I had been holding in my hand fell to the ground and exploded. If the seven prepared bombs lined up at a distance caught fire, the blast would destroy all. There was complete pandemonium. I managed to run out with difficulty and collapsed outside the stable. My right side which had been near the plate was charred. Burnt skin hung from my face and my hands and, peeping through the burnt skin, white as egg in colour, was my flesh. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder hit my nostrils. Hearing the sound of the explosion and the shouts, Bhuto, Meghnad and Ahbali rushed out of the house. I was thrashing about on the ground, screaming in pain. But they had no time to tend to me right then. They rushed for water with whatever they could lay their hands on. Thankfully, the pond was right next to the stable. The fire was controlled before it spread any further. They picked me up then and lay me on a mat inside the house. Someone shouted for alcohol to be brought. They held it to my lips, ‘Drink. The pain will subside.’ I gulped down a large mugful of country liquor. The pain did subside, for within ten minutes, I lost consciousness.

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The sound of the blast must have reached far. It had definitely reached the upper-caste villages and, from there, would possibly also have reached the police station. The plan would have to be shelved for now. I could make out that Ahbali and Meghnad were desperate to leave the village. They were not my friends or relatives. Nor were they politically committed idealists who would risk their lives to defend their comrades. What could they do? They had not been schooled in ideologies. To them their lives were precious. I could understand that if once they got out of the village, they would never return again to see whether I lived or died. But how I could stop them while in this state? I heard Ahbali tell Bhuto, ‘What is the use of us staying here any longer? You keep him hidden here for a day or two. We will make some arrangement to take him away once we get to Calcutta.’ Before darkness fell, they had left, leaving some money with Bhuto. ‘Keep this for medicines and costs. We will arrange things within a few days and return.’ This was not the first time I was in danger. But unlike the earlier times, my body and my mind were severely disabled now. I was completely helpless now and, I sensed, utterly vulnerable. This was an alien land to me and the people, all strangers. The relationships that build up between human beings need time. They do not happen overnight. I came, I sat down, and a relationship happened—things are not that simple. I could sense that I was in grave danger. In an unknown land, amongst people who were impoverished, hungry, and hounded by the police and the powerful. These were people who could not sleep in their beds with their beloved at night. With a half-burnt person like me in their midst, they were in dire peril. I must have lost consciousness again. When I came to, I found Bhuto’s wife, his sister and his blind brother, all desperately fanning me with palmyra leaf-fans. Sweat trickled down their bodies with the unceasing effort. This lessened the burning sensation all

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over my body, but only by a few degrees. Somebody arrived with a Burnol ointment. The pharmacist’s shop was very far away. It had taken the person all this while to go and come back on foot. But what could one tube of ointment do for a person whose entire left side of the body was so charred so that his skin was falling off. Before I had lost consciousness, I had been in daze of pain. Now when I came to again, I found the scalding pain searing through my body. It felt like I was being burnt alive on a fire. Yet there was nothing I could do but bear the pain. I was utterly helpless. ‘Water, some water.’ Sudha, the fifteen-year-old girl who had so looked forward to the plans of revenge, brought a glass of water and held it to my lips. ‘Drink, Dada, here is water.’ The rest of the village was gathered in the courtyard. The voices of the men could be heard low and soft. My ears, attached as they were to my only partly conscious body, were not functioning well. But I could make out that they were trying to arrive at a decision. And that this decision did not augur well for me. ‘Think rationally, Bhuto,’ said a low voice, ‘by now the information of this blast has reached the police. The police can arrive at any moment. And where can we hide him? And for how long? The police will catch him sooner or later. And then you know the police beatings. How long will he stand it in this state? They will drag our names out of him. And then more cases will be slapped upon us. That is why I say.’ Another voice said, ‘It’s monsoon now. The water is high in the river and the current strong. It will pull him very far away within minutes. Nobody will know anything.’ Then Bhuto’s voice said, ‘Bhai, I know what you say is after much thought and consideration. But I cannot find it in myself to agree to this. A man—he is still living—how can I throw him into the river? He is not to blame for the state he is in. He is in this state because he had come here for us. I am sorry, Bhai, I cannot do this.’ ‘Bhuto is a soft-hearted person,’ someone said.

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‘Get some alcohol’, said another voice. ‘That will help him get over his weakness.’ After some time, I heard, ‘Don’t get so depressed, Bhuto. We really have no other way out.’ Alcohol arrived and the drinking to strengthen the mind and eradicate weakness had begun. It was not that these people were merciless, but their situation that made them so. Bhuto came into the room once to look in on me. I gritted my teeth and lay like a corpse. If they got to know that I was conscious, their voices would drop lower and I would be completely in the dark, unprepared for any eventuality. But the alcohol was failing to get Bhuto drunk that night. The others had decided that Bhuto would have the last word. It was he who had brought the strangers to this village. And Bhuto, the man who had been responsible for showing us the way here, and who was responsible for taking us back to safety, was finding it impossible to relinquish that obligation to cold logic. My life hung from a thread now—on a yes or a no from him. His word would be like a bullet. Once out of the barrel, it would not be possible to reverse the sentence. And Bhuto would have to bear the onus of that decision for the rest of his life. I lay in anxiety. My will had no value now. In accordance with the decision of the majority, I was as good as a dead person now. Then I heard Bhuto’s agitated voice, ‘Look here, this plan that all of you have made is not a correct plan. They have said they will come back for him in two days. Whether they come or not, we will have to wait for them. What if they do come back and demand, “Where is our friend?” What am I going to answer them?’ ‘And what if the police arrive meanwhile?’ ‘And what if they don’t?’ ‘If they don’t, it will be a blessing for all in the village. But what if they do?’ All were quiet. Not a sound could be heard. The wind blew over the water lands. Not the wind. It was like a thousand sighs from a thousand collective bosoms. The stalks of grain raised their

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heads above the waters and swayed like snakes. It was as if a shudder of fear passed through the earth. And over it all, stretched the impenetrable darkness. No child whimpered, no old man coughed, no dog barked. No sound of life could be heard. The black figures that sat huddled on Bhuto’s courtyard whispering in hushed tones were the ghosts. After some time came Bhuto’s voice again, impatient, ‘And what will I tell them when they come back and ask me where he is?’ ‘You will say he is dead. Who can question death? He died so we disposed of the body.’ ‘What can I say then? Do as you say,’ said Bhuto’s tired voice, finally yielding to the collective pressure of the others. A man came into the room after some time with a bamboo frame. He did not look at ease with what he had to do. It was possible that a feeling of guilt hounded him. This was the man who had lit the bidi in a fit of anger. He knelt beside me, ‘Dada, move onto this. We will take you to another place which is safer.’ Bhuto’s wife and sister stood up and moved away from the bed with anxiety written large on their faces. The blind brother, possibly seeing much more than those with sight, uttered what I can only describe as a howl of grief, ‘Where are you taking him!?’ I knew no pleas for mercy would help. These were desperate people, scared people. If I did not cooperate with them, the alcohol in their stomachs would make them fierce. They would then force me onto the frame, throttle me if I screamed, and may even resort to tying me down. Many a time have I seen fear make people do what the utmost courage failed to. These villagers were, at this moment, assailed by feelings of vulnerability and terror. They could do anything to save themselves. I should not even hope to live in this situation. I should rather reconcile myself to death, so that dying would be easier. I rolled myself painfully on to the frame, ‘Okay, brother.’ This was a strange funeral procession. Four people shouldering the frame at its four corners uttered not a sound. There were

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not the usual haribols, the scattering of khoi, the incense sticks burning. Only the quiet sound of the four’s footfalls on the muddy path, chhup, chhup, chhup, chhup. Lying flat on my back, I stared up at the sky. Like a huge black umbrella gnawed at by insects, there were tiny openings through which the sparkles of light shone through. Was that the Saptarshi constellation? Was that the Kalpurush? I would never know now. But I have known much in my life. And this gentle rocking of my deathbed on the four shoulders as I stared up at the magnanimity of the sky, was this a trivial gain? How many got to see this? I did. Should I be grateful to life for this? Grateful to him who had given me life? The left side of my chest still beat with the steady rhythm of life. But that was a nominal truth. The situation laughed that away. You are gone. You are past. You are dead. All this sky, stars, breeze are all futile. You have only a few minutes to live. After that, you will be carried down by the river and be food to the riverine creatures. I used to swim well. Once when at the Shiromanipur Camp, I had almost drowned. Whereupon my father had taken pains to teach me swimming. All that effort of my father would go waste. For my half-charred body would be too feeble to fight the current. I began to feel drowsy. Possibly because of that gentle rocking as they carried me. The lullaby my mother used to sing as she put me to sleep came to mind and a hazy vision of my mother beckoning to me, ‘Come back, dear. Come back home.’ But I was too far gone now to return. How could I return? Step had followed step and I had strayed far too far. We could now hear the angry roar of the Damodar River, swollen by the monsoon rains. The mad waves lashing against the shore could be heard not too far away. I was finding it hard to breathe. A mute cry rose to my lips and salty tears trickled down my eyes. The left side of my chest was pounding. A few steps more. And then I would be in that water. I found myself counting time or the footfalls I do not know—one, two, three, four. Then suddenly, tearing through the darkness came a cry, ‘Bhu-u-u-to! Wait! Stop!’

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‘Who?’ ‘Budho!’ ‘What?’ ‘Wait!’ In this darkness, the night-blind Bhuto had scrambled through the waters and the bushes. Behind him two other shadowy figures, Bhuto’s five-months pregnant wife and the girl-woman, Sudha. Bhuto was at my left foot. At the sound of Budho’s voice, he had rooted himself into the soil like a stake. It was as if he had willed this to happen, a miracle that would stop this death procession. Budho ran up to the front of the men. Standing near my head, he shouted at my four bearers, and seemingly at the sky, the fields, the darkness, ‘You bastard sons-of-bitches, are you human beings? Or were you born to foxes and jackals? Calling yourselves Byagra Kshatriyas! You have any Kshatriya blood in your veins?! Fucked up Kshatriyas! You cannot touch a hair of the babus who rape your sisters and wives! And this man, who has come all the way risking his life to help us, now that he is in danger—you’re carrying him to throw into the river! Chhih chhih!’ Standing behind him, even the child in Bhuto’s wife’s womb seemed to concur, Chhih chhih! Someone spoke up in a feeble voice, ‘But the state he is in, he will die anyway. Either tomorrow or the day after, he will…’ Budho’s voice rang with fury, ‘And you! Going to live forever, are you? Either this year or the next, Yama will take you. Then why do you go scuttling here and there with your life? As long as there is breath, there is hope. When breath goes, hope goes. This man is still alive.’ ‘But the police?! They will catch him.’ ‘The better for him! He will get medicines there!’ ‘And what if he tells on us!’ ‘Big deal that will be! Now the police search for us with five warrants, then they’ll come with six! Big difference!’ Without a word, Bhuto turned himself around. They were now facing the direction they had come from. We headed back.

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Fear had been striding through the minds of the four on their way here, but now as they retraced their steps, I seemed to sense their steps were lighter, their hearts freer. In the skies, a faint hint of light seemed to be breaking forth from the east. I had been granted another new life. I was placed back in the room I had left some time ago. Bhuto planted himself at the door with a spear and such determination, that he appeared capable of repulsing even the Indian Army. Sudha and Bhuto’s wife began nursing me with care and tenderness. But my burns were so severe that this was not enough and Bhuto set out to look for a doctor with the fifty rupees Ahbali had left him. It was a market day that day as Bhuto began hunting for a doctor. Not any doctor would do. He would need to be both a doctor and a trustworthy man who would not tell on them. This appeared to be an impossible combination. Finally, he located the brother of a doctor who spent much of his time sitting alone at the pond with a fishing rod, with stars in his eyes about achievements he would accomplish sometime in the future. He did not have a degree. But he had learnt much through watching his brother and had also boasted to his family that he was as good as his brother. Now finally, was the chance to prove himself. I was a ‘safe’ guinea pig. If he could make me live, his name was made. If I died, there was still enough water in the river and Bhuto et al would do the necessary work out of their own fears. Nobody would get to know of his failure. He examined me and went away, returning some time later with medicines and his fishing rod. He had already informed us that, if things proved difficult, he would need to consult his brother. He now gave me two injections, one of tetanus and the other penicillin. Then Soframycin ointment on my burns. The first day’s medicines itself cost Bhuto forty rupees. Now what tomorrow? The family owned a goat. They sold that for a hundred and twenty rupees. Sixty rupees saw us through the next two days. Two injections a day and a medicinal powder to apply on the burns. Three days went by with no sign of Ahbali or any of his

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group. This of course was something I had known all along. It was only naïve Bhuto who had trusted Ahbali’s words. My doctor had, meanwhile, been seized with all the enthusiasm and energy of a novice starting out on his career. He arrived to look in on me sometimes thrice a day. He stole medicines out of his brother’s dispensary to bring to me and on the third day, he got caught while thieving. Then Bhuto began raising money from other villagers. The man who had lit the bidi was put under great pressure by all the villagers, especially Budho. He owned a rickety old bicycle which he had stolen many year ago and which he had not sold even when in dire straits. But now he sold it for three hundred rupees, of which he gave Budho one hundred and fifty rupees. Thus with money collected from many and unceasing relentless care from Bhuto’s family, I raised myself up with a stick on the fifteenth day and walked out of the door with slow steps. Looking around at the new morning, I found the earth indescribably beautiful. The sun’s rays on the tips of the swaying golden grains looked as if they were laughing. The caress of the breeze was like a mother’s tender touch on my bare back. Seeing me on my feet, the faces of Sudha and Bhuto’s wife lit up with smiles. But none could touch the incredible happiness on my doctor’s face. Crowned with success after fifteen days of constant monitoring and about fifty to sixty rupees of his personal money spent on my medicines, he looked as if he had been awarded the Nobel for Medicine. Said he, ‘Tonight I will take you to my home. I want my brother to look at your burns now.’ Forgive me, Ashuda. Forgive me, all you martyrs of the Naxalbari movement. I had not known that the people of the villages loved you so much. I had not known that they uttered your names with such respect. I was with you for some days. I was not like you. I understood little of the revolutionary political philosophy. Yet that slender part of my identity, born of the fact that I had been with you at one time, made them love me. A labourer who creates a product, or a farmer who nourishes to life his crops, grows conscious of the exploitation underlying

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the systems of production through his lived experiences. Theirs is a knowledge born out of the reality of their lives. As a result, their anger at the prevalent system is often greater, and their desire to destroy it often stronger, than the principle-driven political worker. The small or big tribal and peasant rebellions that we have seen in India, which would number about two hundred, were begun by people who had not read Das Kapital or the Red Book. It was their reality that had urged them into rebellion. I was neither a labourer nor a peasant. I had no nation. The circumstances of my life had been such that I had not been permitted to grow roots anywhere. The dedicated study that enables one to comprehend political philosophy and ideology had been prevented by my illiteracy. Yet that day, the burnt scars on my skin had shielded all my lacks, all my ignorances, all my incompleteness. When the evening had grown dark enough, my doctor had arrived with a muscular young man. This youth had completed his graduation and was now sitting unemployed in the village. The young man lifted me on to his shoulders and carried me over the swamps and muddy roads for about four miles to the doctor’s village. There I was quietly let in through the backdoor of the house. Though my doctor had suggested having his brother examine me once, he finally decided against it. Let’s not take the risk, he said. I too was relieved to be out of Bhuto’s house. Every night there had been a fearful one, with every nigh sound threatening a visit by the police. A proper road ran in front of the doctor’s house and the next morning, I was taken out as secretly as I had been brought in. We boarded a van rickshaw and arrived at the bus stop. As we stood waiting there for the bus, a fellow passenger asked me how I had got so burnt. My doctor answered for me. A stove had burst, he said. I was one of their labourers who worked on their land, he said. He boarded the bus with me to Barddhaman station, bought me my ticket and saw me off on the train that would take me to Howrah. All this was so many years ago. I have not forgotten my saviours Budho, Bhuto, his wife, Sudha, my doctor or that young

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man who carried me on his shoulders to safety, unquestioningly. I have never gone back to thank them. I wonder now if they will ever read this and know my gratitude. Bhuto and his family were illiterate. But the doctor could read. Surely they will know why I could not go back, and will forgive me from the goodness of their hearts. Once at Howrah, I limped up to the bus station with the aid of a stick and boarded a bus.

CHAPTER 11

Into Jail and the World of Letters

I

  hid myself among the crowd and slinked into Bagha Jatin station. I waited there till evening fell and then took a rickshaw to that familiar crossing where Naresh Thakur was usually to be found when out of work. This was the one man I could rely on. I knew he loved me, but I was yet to realize how deep and unconditional that love was. Naresh Thakur had a difficult life as it was. His love would arouse my protective instincts and I had avoided keeping contact with him during those days when friendship with me could have spelt trouble for him. Only a few days ago had occurred the terrifying mass massacre at Kashipur-Baranagar. When the targeted person had not been found, the murderers had killed any friend or relative of that person they could lay their hands on. Even after my return from Dandakaranya, when I had spent four or five days without food, I had kept myself away from Naresh Thakur though I knew full well that if I went to him, he would, because he was so fond of me, give me a share of whatever food he had. I met up with him later when I began driving the rickshaw. He would invariably bring back some food for me whenever he went on an assignment. I would find him waiting for me at the station with the bundle of food no matter how late I returned. After the Kartik incident, I had avoided him again. Naresh Thakur was then staying at a rented place at Anandapalli. There were some people there who had some relationship with the Kamarpara people and I was afraid that if they came to know

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Naresh Thakur was my friend, they may consider him part of the enemy camp, and make his life difficult. But I was helpless today. All possible doors were shut to me now. He was the only hope I had. I was lucky. Naresh Thakur did not have an assignment that day and was at the crossing. I drew him aside and told him, ‘I am in deep trouble. I have got burnt all over.’ ‘How?’ he asked. ‘Gunpowder,’ I replied. ‘I was working at a small-time fireworks factory. It did not occur to me that I should not smoke there. I lit up, and everything went up in flames.’ ‘They did not give you any compensation?’ he asked. ‘They did. It is with that that I got medical treatment and am back on my feet. I have found another job. But I cannot join just yet. I need another ten or twelve days to recover. But where shall I stay and what shall I eat?’ Naresh Thakur was a simple man, but not foolish enough to swallow all I said. But he did not ask a single question. ‘I have a room now towards the Sree Colony side. Does anybody know you there?’ There was someone who knew me that side. But I refrained from revealing that to Naresh Thakur. A certain Congress leader lived there now. He used to be part of the Naxal movement at one time. But on a night of torrential rain, a group of people raided the Naxal den near Sree Colony and took away five of this man’s friends. These five were found with their throats slit in the mud of the Layalka field. It was at this time that a CRP Camp had been set up beside Sree Colony at Bijoygarh. The Congress party workers who had been forced out of the locality by the CPM earlier, were now using the strength of the armed police, to locate and drive out the CPM workers. This man had gone, had joined up with them. As a result, he was called Congxal. And with the single-minded objective of destroying all who had killed his friends, he was now working to root out the CPM from this area. He had told me once, ‘This is my disguise, taken on because I had no way out. I am what I used to be. Come over and join me.’

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I had not gone to his Centre, though. I knew the kind of work joining them would entail. They would not feed me for nothing. I would be handed bombs to throw. But whom would I be hurling these bombs at? Either this side or that, both sides were lined with people who were from my class. They were fictitious enemies. Our real enemies were outside our grasp. This was a truth that I had realized by then. If Kartik came for me again, I would in all possibility knife him in retaliation, but that act would give me no joy. It would give me pain. Yet though I had not joined him, I knew he would not harm me. Rather, he might even rescue me from dangers. ‘Don’t say you have been burnt by gunpowder,’ said Naresh Thakur. ‘Say you had gone with me on a cooking assignment and the wok full of hot oil overturned.’ That is what I told others henceforth. When, after some days, I was able to walk without the help of the stick, I began to be plagued with the feeling of guilt at the burden I was placing on Naresh Thakur. I needed to find some means of earning again. There had always been the responsibility of my parents and siblings. To this had been added the responsibility of a woman, and Naresh Thakur too expected that I would be of some help to him in his old age. So I took to the road again one day. But my life was a cursed life, bereft of sweetness, with all possibilities of a straight path being closed to me. The only paths that were open to me were dark, winding, narrow, slippery with blood. If one ended in the corpse-cutting room behind the hospital, another ended in a salt-filled hole. Yet another might end as food for foxes and vultures, or another in the claustrophobic cell of the prison house. It was this last place that I ended up at. I will deliberately leave unwritten the details of the intervening days between the time I left Naresh Thakur and the time when I ended up at the prison. The details are so full of blood and violence that I would rather not write of them. Nor would they make pleasant reading. If one travelled about eight miles down the road to the left of Baruipur station, and then, after crossing Champahati, turned

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towards Baruipur and travelled another four miles, one would reach a salt water canal. Walk along the canal or another three miles, and you would arrive at where Mad Sardar lived. Having got some money in hand, I invested eighty rupees in hay, forty rupees in eight bamboos, about twenty rupees more in nails and ropes, paid some thirty rupees as labour charges, and made myself a hut beside the canal. At the opening of the door hung a piece of torn sackcloth. A door was unnecessary since there was nothing of value to be locked up. Our possessions consisted of a somewhat torn mat, a pot for water, a blackened vessel to cook rice in, an old karai, and two aluminum plates. But the inhabitant here was deemed of value to the government and one morning, before break of dawn, a salaried and presumably important police officer sacrificed his night’s sleep to come for me, down the slippery road before sunrise, with about twenty armed policemen. I awoke from sleep at the voice of this newly recruited officer to find him pointing a shiny new revolver at my head. They put handcuffs on my hand, tied a thick rope to my waist, one end of which was held by a uniformed sepoy, and marched me down to the road in this manner. There was a black police van waiting there. It sped off through the south of Bengal, past fields, ponds, guava trees, schools, hospitals, towards Lal Bazar. Lal Bazar—a deceptive name, for it did not stand for a place of common buying and selling, but symbolized the centre of state power. On reaching, they took me to upstairs where I found thirty others like me who had been rounded up after night-long raids across urban and rural Bengal. I did not know any of them except one whom I had once taken to my hut. He had been caught by the police the morning earlier and, after intense grilling by the police, had given them whatever they wanted to know. He had given a few names, those few had given more names, and finally this was what the total had added up to. Some of us were released after questioning, some were bailed out the next morning, some others would be released after ninety days. I myself would have to stay for the time being, because I could not afford bail and there was nobody who would pay it for me.

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The police had come to the conclusion that I was a bigwig from what they had heard during the questioning session. They were deeply disappointed when no arms, no ammunition, no bombs were discovered at my place. On questioning me, they realized that I knew neither the Red Book nor the Deshabrati, the CPI (ML) newspaper. I was no firebrand political leader, merely a coolie who carried out orders. But maybe subjection to the PC would get some more answers out of me, they decided. I am still in the dark about the location of Bipin Pal Road. I do know that Bipin Pal was a nationalist leader and that he, along with Bal Gandhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai, known as the famous Lal Bal Pal trio, had robbed the British colonizers of a decent night’s sleep. So the police slapped a Section 307, 3/5 case upon me, accusing me of aggression and creating a ruckus on the road named after our famous leader. If they had made that 3/5 subsection into 25/25, then it would fallen under the MISA act, and I could have remained forever grateful to the government for guaranteeing me a lifelong pension for those years in captivity. But they did not. Though the government has earned my eternal gratitude for sending me to prison because it is there that I learnt to read and write. Thus began my prison life. The writer Alka Saraogi has said that there are ten lives hidden within this one life. My prison life was one of those ten lives. Within a few days of my arrest, Internal Emergency was declared all over the country. It was 1975. Why do human beings freely take their clothes off within the bathroom? It is because there is none to see them there. The premises of the prison house too are girded by high and thick walls, hiding all that takes place within its walls from prying eyes. It is not surprising therefore that, during the Emergency, the most monstrous acts of brutality occurred within the prison walls. This was not a correctional home. It was the secure field where atrocities of the worst kind could be played out without fear and shame. I had wept a lot that day. Staring out at the tiny section of the blue sky that could be seen from the prison window, I wept. My

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body was aching and burning after the third-degree I had been put through. The jail evokes fear and despair in the hardest of hearts. Many girls do not, perhaps, weep when they leave their parents’ home for their in-laws. But for any man leaving the freedom of the world to enter imprisonment without tears is rare. The jail was like a jungle, with vicious animals waiting to ambush you at unexpected moments. I was weeping silently. On my way here from the courtroom, I had been told that tears inside the prison stoked the grief every prisoner felt and, unable to assuage that grief in any way, their grief could find an outlet through desperate anger, which may result in me getting beaten up. But my tears had not escaped the attention of one man. About fifty to fifty-five years of age, he was sitting at the large window to the south of the floor, observing the people, the cars, the buses on the road. Somewhat thin and with an unshaved chin of a few days, he looked to all appearances a poor school teacher at one of our village schools. He beckoned me over to his side and asked, ‘What case?’ I said, ‘The case where I have to stay in jail for ten years.’ ‘Ten years! Which section is this?’ ‘I don’t know that.’ ‘It’ll be on your ticket. Read it.’ ‘I cannot read or write.’ He looked at me with Durbasa’s fury in one eye and Buddha’s mercy in the other, put out his hand and said, ‘Here, give me your ticket.’1 A while ago, I had been handed this ‘ticket’. This was known as the History Ticket upon which would be written the prisoner’s name, age, height, weight, identifying marks, section of the Penal Code under which he had been charged, the next date when he was to appear at court, and other details. I also had in my hand the plate and blanket they had given me. I gave him the ticket. He glanced at it and evinced a ‘Hmm.’ Then he asked me, ‘Who do you have outside?’

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‘I am alone.’ ‘Totally alone?’ He looked worried. ‘In that case, getting lawyers, paying the bail, fighting the case, who will do all this?’ ‘I have no one who can do all that,’ I answered. He was silent for some time. Then he took out a bidi from his pocket, took a light from someone, inhaled twice and said, ‘This criminal case business, it’s like, as if your hands and feet are tied and a mason is building a wall all around you. You are helpless because you can do nothing. Then someone comes up for you, and breaks down the wall. This man is your lawyer. The mason is the government’s lawyer, and the police are his suppliers. Now if you cannot get a lawyer for yourself, the police will settle the case entirely to suit them.’ ‘So then there is no hope of getting out before ten years?’ I ask with fear in my voice. ‘That cannot be said for certain. It all depends on how strong the police case is, how many witnesses they can gather, how many of those witnesses turn up that day, what mood the magistrate is in that day—too many factors.’ ‘So then when will all this happen? When will I get to know exactly how much agony is in store for me?’ ‘Difficult to say,’ he said. ‘There are thousands of cases in line. If some case gets stirred up for some reason, that case may come up faster, otherwise it can take years. Many are here waiting for four or five years. I myself have been waiting now for two.’ He pauses for a bit, then continues, ‘Your case is such that, if the police set up the case against you properly, then your sentence can be anywhere between five and ten years. The years that you have already spent waiting for the sentence will be subtracted. The remaining years, a year is counted as nine months here, well, shut your eyes and hang on. They will pass.’ It was not yet an hour since I had entered the prison from police custody. But an hour seemed as long and unending as a hundred years here. My heart ached inside me. So many years without seeing the ones I loved and called my own. I would never

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last. I would surely die here. Seeing the tears roll down my eyes again, the man asked, ‘Why do you cry?’ ‘I shall die.’ His lips twisted in scorn. ‘You shall die? What will you do then? Die? You are not allowed to kill yourself here. Have you seen those condemned to death? They look for an opportunity to commit suicide. To relieve themselves from the agony of dying every day inch by inch. But can they do that? You have no freedom here, not even the freedom to die. Get rid of useless thoughts. Try to think of how you can have a more or less decent life here.’ He took a few more puffs on his bidi. ‘Look there,’ he said, pointing out of the window beside which he was seated. I looked. The southerly wind blew in from the window. The sound of traffic wafted in. On the opposite side of the road was this mansion-like building, large verandas, many large trees. ‘See anything?’ he asked. I couldn’t see anything remarkable. ‘Look at that cornice of the National Library. See that tiny green sapling there? How do you think it grows there? How does it draw water from that hard cement cornice?’ Seeing me silent, he answered his own question. ‘The truth is there is water and nourishment in that hard concrete too. The proof of that is the living sapling. It would have died otherwise. But its roots yearned for water, searched for water, and found it. What is the bottom line, then? He who searches, shall find.’ His eyes were now like half-closed, deep in reflection, like that of a sage. ‘Search. Here too you shall find joy and hope. How shall a man live here for years otherwise? There is no sense in regrets and tears. Men have been coming here ever since prisons were made thousands of years ago. Those who wept, died weeping. Those who survived were those who conquered their tears. And those who could laugh are part of our history.’

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I stared at him, mesmerized. His words belied learning and wisdom. ‘Learning’—a word that was inextricably tied with books. And as I looked out through the window, I could see the palatial National Library, where scholars spent hours immersed, culling wisdom from the pages of books. But that was a world not meant for me. I was bereft of the letters. I belonged to this side, an inhabitant of the prison. At the age when children went to school, I had spent grazing goats. One evening, as I was returning with my goats to our tent, I had lingered beside the schoolhouse that had been shut down. A tin shed with cemented floors. Two rooms. I had entered the now abandoned rooms, a silent wail forming within me. Whether it was for the deserted classrooms or for my own miserable unlettered childhood, I cannot say. The dust was thick on the floor, and spider webs crowded the corners. There in a dark corner, amidst the cobwebs, I could see her. She whose blessing had made the foolish Kalidasa a scholar and a poet. My father had told me the story. The Goddess of Learning, Saraswati. I seemed to see her face awash with a maternal tenderness towards me, and hear her voice call me as a mother calls her long-lost child, Come, Come to me. And drawing near to her, I placed my thirsty lips upon the nipples of her breasts. I still do not know why I did that. But perhaps this was how a child’s mind had welcomed in the goddess of learning as a mother. There was nobody around. And I drunk deep, allaying the anguish of my unhappy life. My sage descended from the window sill and made space for me beside him on his rug. ‘What is your case?’ I ask him. He smiled, ‘I am a hunter.’ Wild animals were protected by law, I knew. ‘So how many tigers have you killed?’ I ask. ‘I don’t hunt animals or birds. I hunt men’, came the answer. It was difficult enough to think of this man as a hunter, and impossible to imagine him a murderer. ‘I have two hobbies,’ he said with a smile. ‘Chess and hunting. Both require you to work your brain. The more the work, the

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greater the fun. Just as a competent rival makes a game of chess enjoyable, similarly it gives greater joy to hunt an intelligent man who is himself a hunter.’ He paused. ‘Joy. Do you know who said this? Gautam Buddha. He did not speak of heaven or hell, this life or after life. Neither of extravagance nor indulgence or opulence. He spoke of joy. We are made immortal when we are touched by amrita, the nectar of the gods. Joy and amrita are one and the same. Man is born in joy, and so is called the child of amrita. Now what is this joy? Just a state of mind. Different for different people. Some arrive at joy through celibacy, others through profligacy. Some through receiving, others through giving. Buddha renounced all in his quest for this joy. Alexander conquered one land after another in his search for joy. So it is with me—I find joy in making a fool of wily and clever people.’ The ward where we were placed housed about seventy to eighty people. But none were as old as this man. The others were all between twenty-five and thirty. There was much commotion in the ward now. Some had sat down to games of cards or ludo. Others walked up and down the area needlessly. Amidst all this noise, in one corner, sat a Naxalite prisoner, his eyes fixed on a book held in front of him. Preparing for his secondary examinations. My guru had meanwhile stretched himself out on the floor, his eyes on the ceiling, his gaze far away. Finally he sat up, turned towards me, and placed a kind hand on my back. ‘An excess of anything damages. Excess wealth, excess power, excess knowledge. Yes, knowledge too. And that is what happened to me. The knowledge I had would have taken me to a reasonable job and a reasonable position in life. But things happened differently.’ Then, in a voice bereft of any emotion he said, ‘I am booked under Section Number 420.’ There was an hierarchy among the many cases under which the prisoners were booked. The highest status was that of Section 302, though now the prisoner booked for murder had relinquished his high status to that of the political prisoners, especially

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the Naxalites. The case most denigrated by all was that of rape. In prison-parlance this was called skin-theft. These prisoners were much hated. The prisoner who was charged with cheating, Section 420, was somewhere between these two. While taking advantage of a person’s trust was disgraceful, the intelligence of the cheat earned him some credit. Many even said that only the fool went to the extent of murder, while the intelligent used his wits to accomplish the job through cheating. Eleven gongs sounded from the beaten prison clock. From eleven to twelve-thirty was the time allotted for bathing and lunch. So we could get out of the enclosed ward for this period. All the wards were surrounded by iron railings placed around a square yard that lay in front of every ward. In front of these railings, sat the ‘Square-labourers’ with the food. They would ladle out the rationed food to the prisoners who approached in lines. Regarding the food, the less said, the better. Both the quality and the quantity were deplorable. It did not fill our stomachs, driving some prisoners to cup up the rice starch flowing down the Square’s drains to satisfy the gnawing hunger. I returned to the ward and lay down beside my new found guru after the rationed meal. Iron locks were place on the gates of the ward again, to be opened later at four, when we would get another two hours outside on the Square. Everybody was resting. But my body ached and sleep would not come. I had just returned from police custody. Two constables had pounded my body like clay for four nights. There was so much information they wanted from me. The next seven days, they had beaten me less, and threatened me more. I could still feel the aftermath of their questioning on my body. So I lay awake and talked to my teacher. I told him of my childhood, of how I grew up, my desire to learn. He listened carefully. Afterwards he said, ‘Here you will get two hot meals a day. You will not have to go through the kind of hunger that you spoke of. You have a roof over our head, so you will not have to get drenched in the rain or burnt in the sun. If you fall ill, you will not be left without treatment. Most important, you will be free of the fear that you speak of in your life outside. Nobody can harm

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you here. Your enemies cannot touch you. Here you are secure. Here you also have all the time you want on your hands. Even if you are given the minimum punishment, you will be within these walls for three or four years. Put this time to use.’ ‘How?’ ‘Learn to read and write. Look there.’ I followed his eyes to the other corner of the ward. The youth I had seen earlier had returned after his lunch and was deep in study again. ‘It is a difficult case he has been booked under. But he has no worries about that because he is immersed in learning. With this will power, man can attempt the impossible.’ While it was true that there was a deep regret in my mind regarding my illiteracy, I was at the moment rather restless. My mind was full of the people I had left behind outside the prison walls. I grieved for them, and was yet to accept the reality of these walls that would hold me in for so many years. Would I be able to put my mind to something that required such concentration in this state? My feelings must have shown on my face, for he said, ‘Forget the world outside. Imagine yourself as having arrived here where you will stay for a length of time. The sooner you can get that other world out of your mind, the better for you.’ ‘At this age…’ I said hesitantly. Do you think I will be able to learn at this age?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘There is a saying in Hindi. Sab jaga, tabhi savera. When all awake, it is morning. Why should you think of yourself as too old? Think of yourself as six, eight or ten? Whatever you imagine.’ There was a hypnotic quality in this man’s words. His voice mesmerized you, willing you to believe in what he spoke of, see what he saw. Days passed. Every day began at five with a counting of heads. To find out if anyone had escaped in the darkness of night. Then another counting at six, to tally the count of those remaining in the ward, and those who had been sent out on diverse labours. Then we could go out for our morning ablutions. This was also when

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we got some food. On most days the food would be chhole or matar. On a few days, chire and jaggery. We could stay out on the yard till eight. Then another tallying after the midday lunch. Then again at four. From four to six we remained outside, had our meals and then were herded in again. In this way, with many tallies and little for our bellies, the days passed. I was taken to the courthouse once, where I spent the day in the lockup, and returned without witnessing the face of the judge. One day, as we lay down to sleep, my teacher said, ‘In the prison, all one can do is eat and sleep. This purposeless cycle kills many. Yet, if only we used our minds—who knows, maybe some could even claim immortality.’ ‘Immortality!?’ I ask. ‘That’s just a way of speaking,’ he said. ‘Every human is mortal. But some do attain immortality through their work. Take for example, my guru Socrates. Nobody will ever forget him. So that makes him immortal, right?’ One day I told him, ‘All this learning that you ask me to do requires a few things. A slate to write on, a piece of chalk. Where do I get those?’ ‘Where there is a will, there is a way,’ he said. Then, after a pause, he said, ‘Think carefully before you move forward. Remember people will laugh at you, taunt you. Only if you can hold on despite all the insults should you begin the journey. Our Shastras say the person who breaks off midway from his training will face the misery of hell. Well, firstly all these years of toil laid waste, and on top of that the sneers and the shame of being unsuccessful in the endeavour, isn’t this hell enough? So think carefully before you come to a decision. If you do decide to learn, I will arrange for everything.’ I did think hard for quite a few days. Then I asked him, ‘But why are you so interested in getting me educated? How do you gain in this?’ Did my words hurt him? He remained silent for some time, then said abruptly, ‘Because you are an egg.’

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Seeing my puzzled face, he explained, ‘The mother sits nesting on her egg because she knows a chick will hatch from it. The egg has that potential. You too have potential. I know this for certain because I have worked with human beings throughout my life. I can recognize that in your eyes, your words, in what you have told me of your life. So if I invest some time in you, it will not be wasted.’ He looked at me and laughed loudly. ‘A tree lives on through the seed, a parent through the child, a teacher through the student. I will live on through you.’ The ward was sunk in silence now. Everybody had fallen asleep. The young boy always immersed in his studies, had surrendered himself to an exhausted sleep. The moonlight flooded in through the window, but the harsh white of the tube lights paled its brilliance. My teacher spoke again. ‘Every human on this earth is a mix of good and bad. I am yet to find one person who is pure evil or pure good. My many evils distanced my wife from me. But I too had some good.’ A dark pause. It seemed as if he had suddenly been brought face to face with a terrifying storm, and out of the whirling tornado a slender shrivelled branch had come flying towards him, which he now grasped desperately with both hands as his last hope. With the dying embers of his spirit he clung to that branch, willing it to be green and alive, ‘Be my shelter.’ ‘When I was young,’ he continued, ‘I read a lot and soon began considering myself a scholar. On taking up a job, I grew impatient with my superiors for I sensed them to be ignorant fools of little learning. With youthful arrogance and resentment, I gave up my job, unwilling to see myself as ordinary and average. My father had some property, so I did not have to starve. But after the death of my father, my brothers separated and the little property apportioned to each of us was too little to sustain my family. Our Shastras say that mountains can be moved with the magic of mantras. What really are these mantras? Nothing but words. And finding these unending in my store, it was easy for me to slip.

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Everybody desires something or the other. They pray to the gods for their yearnings, willing to bribe them with a sweet or two more, unaware that it is they who are being fooled, for the sweet goes to fill the pockets of the priest. So I became this priest, pocketing the offerings with promises to reach the prayers to their destinations in the corridors of power. I became the all-powerful who could double money, get bar licenses, convert black money to white. People believed I could, and I hunted them shamelessly.’ Somebody somewhere had said that the prison was like a library. That on this side of the high walls lay much wisdom, born of years of experiences. It was at this library that I had arrived. There is a group of convicts in jails for whom there are no visitors. Either they have no one, or their families are too poor to pay the travel expenses. So that little bit of extra food and bidis that could complement prison diet and make it near-sufficient for an adult was absent. What the prison authorities did was put these unvisited men to some extra work in lieu of which they would get double the ration of food and a few bidis. These under trial prisoners would, in prison parlance, be called loafers. I joined this group. I was familiar with one of the four Naxal-inmates in our jail. But I was barred from talking to him. I could only see him as I walked by his cell. Being an ordinary prisoner, with whom the police had been unable to establish any concrete Naxal links—how could I be a Naxalite? I had not read the Red Book, I did not know the full form of CPI(ML), I had never thought patriotically— so I was charged under a criminal case. Sections 148/149/307, clause 3/5. When they came to recruit for the Loafers’ work that day, I joined up. My work would be to fill with drinking water the pitchers of these four Naxal inmates, get the prescribed medicines or medical diets for them from the hospital, and get them some tea twice during the day. For these jobs, I would get double the rice, dal and vegetables, and eight bidis. Most important, I would get to talk with my friend. There was this large pond in the middle of the jailhouse. To the east of this pond were our wards and to the west was the

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hospital. Beside the hospital was the mental asylum. To the north was the kitchen, and to the south the cells. To the left of the cells were the toilets and to the right was the Entry/Import Ward and the Case Table. If you advanced a little with the Case Table to your left, you would come upon the Main Gate of the prison, opposite which was the playing ground for the inmates. Earlier the prisoners would play football here. But after an aborted attempt to escape by the Naxal prisoners, when eight prisoners were killed—one of them being Paritosh Banerjee of Panchanantala—the games had been stopped. Once on an errand to get some milk from the hospital, I noticed a rather striking youth of about twenty-five, washing his clothes at the pond. He looked completely out of place in these surroundings and more so since he was obviously an inmate of the asylum. There were two kinds of insane inmates here. Some who had gone out of their minds after living in the prison for years, and another who had committed a crime in a fit of madness. The second kind would be treated with kindness by the jailers and other prisoners and would be sometimes allowed out of their wards. But the first kind often tended to be violent and would need to be kept imprisoned. My curiosity would not be contained. Crossing all bounds of courtesy, I approached him to hesitantly ask him what he was doing here. He turned his large eyes on me and said in a tired voice, ‘My mother put me here.’ Mother? I was shocked. The country had been placed under Emergency. Now the prison houses were the playing fields of the butchers. Knowing these realities, how could any mother bring her son to such a place? A live man and a corpse were now separated by a few minutes. Just a few days ago, eight young boys had been beaten to death by the guards. The siren could go off at any time in one of the fifty-two jails of Bengal, and when it did, and the police fired or sprang forward with their batons, anyone could get hurt. Any mother whose son was within these walls would have difficulty going to sleep at night, knowing the threat of constant danger her son faced at every moment. My mind turned bitter at the thought of such a mother. This handsome young man’s mother would

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surely be a beautiful woman, who drew men to her, and surely this son was a hindrance to the wicked life she would have wanted to live. ‘But why?’ I asked. ‘I had broken some rather expensive stuff at my home,’ he said hesitantly. ‘And why should you do that?’ I asked shocked. ‘I had gone a little mad,’ he said shamefaced. ‘But how did you understand that?’ I persisted. He smiled sadly. ‘When I understand it, I am quite sane. It is when I cannot understand that I am mad.’ ‘But why did you go mad?’ I asked. ‘It happened after reading a book. Saratchandra’s book. The Whore. The whole story was so incredible that I could not get it out of my mind. ‘Can a book drive a person to insanity?’ I asked my teacher. ‘Perhaps it can,’ he answered thoughtfully. ‘Look at these young Naxalites. Aren’t they all a little bit mad? All driven mad by the books authored by Mao Zedong. Insane to the extent that they dare to challenge the might of the state, armed with its formidable machinery of police, military, law courts, weapons. How can one do this unless one is quite mad?’ His vice softened, ‘And it is these insane people to whom we look to with hope. Everybody lives for himself. Who lives for others? They do. And they sometimes die for others too.’ There was this under trial prisoner who had been put in charge of our ward and who was extremely cruel. He derived much fun from necessarily or unnecessarily tormenting other inmates. We therefore wished for his speedy punishment. Some said there was no way he would escape the hangman. Others, like me, felt the hangman’s noose would be too kind an end for this man. He deserved a lifetime of punishment: a life term. We argued over which was the harsher punishment, leading me to question my teacher one day.

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‘So which would you say is the easier punishment?’ I asked. ‘Possibly a life term,’ he said. ‘If you live, you never can say what opportunity life will present to you. Let me tell you a famous story,’ he said, sitting up. ‘This debate began at a party being held in the house of a rich man in a big city. Which verdict is kinder to the prisoner? Execution or life term? The debate grew heated and at one point the host, who believed in the former said, It is easy to pronounce opinions on a life term in the jail. I will offer twenty thousand dollars to anybody who is willing to live in solitary imprisonment for twenty years. Will anyone take up my offer? One man stood up. I will, he said. Twenty years in solitary confinement in a room of my house? I will not allow you to see or talk to anyone. I agree, said the man. Most of those seated around the room on that day thought this was good entertainment. After all, how long would the man last? A few days? Then he would give up. So the man entered the assigned room on the fixed day. And a huge lock was placed on the door. The host sent a servant to the man every day to give him his food. And anything else that the man required he would write down on a slip of paper and hand to the servant who would deliver the things the next day. In the first few days, the man ordered many delicacies, the kind he had not been able to afford earlier. But he appeared to tire of these soon. Then his demands shifted to religious texts. More days passed and the man began asking for books that would teach him languages. He possibly mastered the languages, for he began asking for books from around the world. And then he would ask for nothing else. Years passed. People forgot about this one man living alone in this solitary room. All except the host. By the time the twentieth year drew near, the host was no longer the rich man he had been and so loath to give up a sum as high as twenty thousand dollars. One night saw him stealthily entering the man’s room, with a drawn knife in his hands.

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He found his friend seated at the writing table, a candle flickering in front of him, his head on the table, asleep. Approaching closer, he found to his surprise that the man had been writing a letter to him, the host, but had fallen asleep midway. ‘Dear Friend,’ he read in the wavering candle light. ‘I expect you will come one of these nights to murder me. For you can ill-afford to pay such a high sum. I will leave the place before the twenty years are up, for I would not want to see you thus humiliated. For I owe you a debt of deep gratitude. I know now that wealth is as nothing compared to the wisdom and the experience that I have gleaned from the books you so kindly gave to me. So leave the door open for me.’ ‘And that is just what he did,’ concluded my teacher. The dawn that broke over the prison the next day seemed a different dawn to me. It held the promise of many more brighter dawns, and after the five o’clock tallying of the day, I did not go to my Loafers’ job but came and sat at the feet of my teacher. ‘What is it?’ he asked, surprised. ‘Teach me,’ I said. ‘I want to learn.’ He looked at me for a while and then handed me a twig that he was holding in his hand. ‘What is this?’ I asked. ‘Your pen,’ he said. ‘And the floor of this yard is your writing page. Today is Thursday, Gurubar, a good day. Perfect for the initiation.’ He drew a triangle on the ground. ‘Slanting from the east to the north, slanting from the north to the west, then again up to the north. And now a hook. This is the first letter, Ka.’ Thus began my journey across the dark waves of illiteracy. Thirty-two consonants in the Bangla alphabet. ‘You will master five every day,’ my guru decreed. ‘He who has fallen behind must run faster.’ My available time outside our ward amounted to a total of four hours, two hour in the morning and two in the evening. During this time I had within my reach just earth. With a twig I drew my letters on to this soft earth, Ka Kha Ga Gha. When inside

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the ward, I wet my finger to trace on the hard cement floor. When eating, I drew my letters on my curry-smeared plate. When I had nothing at hand, I wrote in my mind. I saw nothing but letters all around me. In people’s faces, their smiles, their movements, their gestures of the hand, I could see the letters of the alphabet. When the man dipped into his large bucket and then raised his hand to ladle out the food to us, I recognized a giant-sized Ta. Once I sat out on the yard, etching my letters on to the ground, absorbed in my writing and dead to the world. I had failed to notice that the others had all gone into the ward, and the order to return had been repeated twice. I returned to this world at the sound of Bhuvan Sepoy’s voice behind me. ‘And just what are you doing here?’ The answer was scrawled out in front of me, crooked awry letters that followed one another in inept lines. Bhuvan Sepoy was a stickler for rules, known for using his hands and his baton freely. But his angry voice changed to a gentle one as he said, ‘Time up. Go in now. Write in the evening again.’ The surprise did not end there. After this dreaded Sepoy had let me off without punishment for breaking rules, he cornered me one day in the ward and handed me a box of chalk pieces, quite in contradiction of prison rules. ‘Let this be my contribution in your sadhana,’ he said. With the box of chalk pieces, I brought my writing indoors into the ward. Writing on the cement floor, making words with the letters. My teacher’s leisurely watching of the world going by from his window became a lost luxury. Now he was constantly busy with me, teaching, checking, writing. Write ‘My Name is P-a-t-h-i-k.’ ‘But my name is not Pathik,’ I protest. ‘“Pathik” means a traveller. You are now travelling, from darkness to light. Inching forward, one step at a time, towards the dawn. Write, keep on writing. Don’t stop.’ I seemed to be immersed in a world of dreams. And one night I dreamt of this bright angel-like figure who told me, ‘What you write on the prison floor are not the letters, but your life.’

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A blood donation camp was organized in the prison one day. In those days, social consciousness was low regarding the need to donate blood. The current practice of regular camps being organized at various institutions was unknown then, and the prison was one major source of the blood needed at hospitals. An undertrial prisoner would be given twenty rupees for a bottle of blood and a prisoner serving his sentence would have twenty days waived from his sentence the first time he donated blood, then twenty-two days the second time he donated, then twenty-four the third time, and in this way, an additional two days would be waived for every time he gave blood. I was a prisoner under trial, so I would get money with which I could buy what I wanted. Our demands needed to be put down in a notebook at the jail gate, and the authorities would procure the desired product for us. So with my History ‘ticket’ in hand, I joined the queue at the camp. After waiting for about an hour behind about ten other prisoners, my turn came. Then up to the gate to register my demand. Most of the demands were for chire, jaggery, bidis, soap. The man who was writing it down was about five feet in height, balding, with much snuff-smeared hair poking out of his nostrils, and large glasses on his nose over which he looked up at you. ‘What do you want?’ ‘Sir, pen and paper.’ ‘And what will you do with that?’ ‘Learn to read and write, Sir.’ His eyes danced with amusement, ‘What will you do with reading and writing? Become a Vidyasagar?’ ‘I want to be a writer, Sir.’ Once a prisoner had been sentenced, he would have to serve either at the Square, or at the Grinder, or in the Blanket Room. All of these were very hard work, but the illiterate prisoner had no choice. The literate prisoners, though, would be sent to work at the offices and the most respected among these ‘official’ jobs was that of the Writer. This man would move up and down the

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prisoner wards, dressed I clean clothes with a pen sticking out of his front pocket. He was the one who would draw out the lists of which prisoner was to appear in court on which day, who had been called to the interview. This was the position I eyed. But the man at the desk emitted a short and dismissive ‘Huh’ sound and pronounced, ‘No pen and paper allowed for undertrial prisoners.’ ‘But there is this boy in our ward who studies. He does…’ ‘He’s got special orders from the Magistrate.’ As I was walking out of the door thoroughly dejected and wiping my tears, who should I meet but Bhuvan Sepoy. On hearing of the incident, he turned me around and commanded me to follow him. So back I went into the room. ‘Sir, the prison houses are now being called Correctional Homes. Now here is this boy trying so hard to correct himself. How can we deny him this opportunity? Just imagine. He has sold his blood to get to the pen and paper.’ Faced with Bhuvan’s strong words, he man hesitated. ‘Okay, let me see what I can do,’ he said. Six reams of paper and a fountain pen arrived after three days. I would be handed two or three sheets of paper which, when covered with my scrawled, amateurish writing, would need to be taken back to the Office so I could be issued fresh sheets. All this strict rationing was to prevent any possibility of me handing the sheets of precious paper to the undertrial Naxal prisoners. Perhaps they were scared that someone may use the paper to write a letter to the newspapers revealing the torture that went on behind the prison walls during these days of Emergency Rule. The person who said that politics was the last refuge of the scoundrel could not have met the Naxalites. Though our present political leaders do incline us to believe this statement, the young men who were part of the Naxal movement were different. They had everything that one could ask for in life. They had education, they had money, they had relatives and contacts in the higher echelons of power. They could have used all these to have a life

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of success, prosperity and ease. But they gave it all up to fight for the rights of the downtrodden, the peasant, the factory worker, the poor. Within the prison walls, the state used its machinery to beat and torture them incessantly. All so that they could be cowed down. All so that they would give up their dream of a fair and just society. In one of the prison wards would reside the chosen thugs of the police. There were special allowances for them for they were the extended arms of the force. Any Naxalite who was found to be too intractable would be transferred by the authorities to this ward where, after the evening tally at six o’clock when the prisoners returned to their wards, the thugs would thrash him. If any news of these incidents reached the outside world, the authorities would make light of the matter as the consequence of a quarrel between prisoners. The prison food was a source of income for many of the prison officials. We received far less than the stipulated amount of fifty-six grams of rice, and the rice and dal they served were filled with worms that floated on the surface. Much of the government food was sold off and profits pocketed. Before the Naxalite prisoners arrived, we ate our given food obediently. We were all criminals of some kind. Murderer, thief or robber, we had all wronged and therefore lacked the courage to speak up for our rights. But the Naxals were different. They took the plate of rice and dal to the Jail Superintendent and asked, ‘Is this what you are giving human beings to eat?’ They complained about the medicines and medical treatment too. Though their complaints were largely futile, their courage angered the officials, and provoked their brutality. The poet Nabarun Bhattacharya has written, ‘This terrain of death is not my land’. But the truth was that the entire land was then the terrain of death, the butcher’s field. And the most blatant unabashed of all these were the prisons. Meanwhile, my education continued and I read on, stumbling over the difficult words. Plagiarist. What was this? My teacher told me, ‘Thief.’ But a learned thief. One who stole others’ ideas and passed them off as his own.

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Some days passed, my guru suffered a heart attack and died. I was sleeping beside him when he awoke with a severe pain in the chest. By the time, we had carried him outside, he was dead. But he left within me a terrible insatiable hunger for books. Where would I get books in the prison? With the prisoners of the cells. The Naxalite prisoners. They would have piles of books brought to them by their relatives and friends, which they returned after reading to get new unread books. I made my way to them before the second tally of the day. If I got stuck on some difficult word, they would help me out. The first book I read from start to finish was Nishi-kutumba, The Nocturnal Friend. Then I read Louha-kapat, The Iron Gate. My winter, summer, monsoon sped by as I sat with my eyes glued to books. The pages held open their many doors to me, opening one door after another as I leaved through the books, and walking through them, I entered new worlds. Ever since the day I had entered the prison, on my way to the toilets every morning, I used to peep in through the iron bars that barred the room where the new prisoners would be lined up. One day, I spotted Kanai of Dhakuria, a member of the Youth Congress. He had been in some fracas, and had shot and killed somebody, which landed him in jail. However, he had contacts at high levels’ and was released within a few days on bail. Then another day, I saw another familiar face among those sitting waiting on the bench: Pari. I forget what his full name was, Parimal or Paritosh, but we called him Pari, and he was an expert pickpocket. Picking pockets was considered one of the smallest of crimes and one would be released, with or without bail, within a fortnight. I spoke to the head warder and brought Paro over to my ward. He stayed with me till he was called to court. Knowing that he would probably be released, I asked him to convey my situation to Naresh Thakur. Naresh had been like a father to me and I wanted Pari to assure him that I had not died. If he really felt like seeing me, I said, ask him to come to the courthouse on the date of my trial. He would see me there. The date of my visit to the court was after about a week and Naresh Thakur did come. He treated me

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to some bread, tea and cigarettes. And assured me that he would try to get me out on bail. I had been in prison now for about two years. The six who had been jailed with me had all been released on bail by then. In all this time, the police had not filed the chargesheet against me. Those who had once said that I would be behind bars for at least ten years were now saying that there was little in the charges against me to keep me here. This proved true and the Magistrate granted me bail on payment of a thousand rupees. But that was a large sum. Old Ratan Muhuri at the court could pay the money for a payment of ten percent of that amount. One hundred rupees. That too was an extravagant sum and Naresh Thakur could arrange that money only after some days. I had seen one with greater misfortune than me at the prison. A young man who spent eleven months in jail for stealing twenty-five kilos of salt. He could be freed against a bond of a hundred rupees. But ten rupees was too high and the boy spent eleven months rotting in jail. On release, however, I had the distinct feeling that I had no regrets for these two years that I had spent in the jail. I had learnt much and not a minute had been wasted. I did try to meet the police officer who had been responsible for putting me to behind bars, but he had retired by then. I would like my readers to know that when finally my case was resolved, I was acquitted of all charges. But my experience of the police and the prison taught me that it was quite difficult to gather even evidence to prove the charges that were brought against prisoners. So even if the police do manage to arrest the culprits, taking the case to a successful completion requires both hard work and good luck.

CHAPTER 12

A Rickshaw-wallah’s Meeting with Mahasweta Devi

I

  was back at my beloved Jadavpur now. This city had never given me anything but insults and humiliation. Yet the thought of leaving this city for another was unthinkable to me. True, I had enemies here. But it was here that I decided to stay. My old friends Ganesh, Gopal and so many others were overjoyed to see me again. It was like a celebration. We went to have a bath together at the Garfa lakes. Refreshed in body and mind, we feasted at Chhechan’s Hotel. I was like the long lost son of the neighbourhood who had returned home from foreign shores. As far as I can remember, the 1977 elections had been completed and the Communist government was in power. Kartik had died, I heard. Many who had left the area and gone underground, Tata Dutta, Nanu Das, Shibu Roy Chaudhuri, had all returned home. Political prisoners who were still behind bars were also being freed. I, however, was like a madman then. My thirst for books haunted me like a demon and I moved restlessly from place to place looking for pages to read. There was this man who would hawk magazines and newspapers at the station. I would eat them all up in the morning. There was this other bookseller who would sell chapbooks on homeopathy, the one hundred and eight names of Krishna, herbal medicines, home remedies, Swapan Kumar’s detective stories, Coke Shastra, erotica, palmistry, astrology, and many other subjects. I devoured those. Chhechan Sau’s elder son

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ran a shop that bought junk paper, old newspapers, bottles and tins. I discovered Shuktara, Ulta Rath, Prasad and other festival issues. I also found one volume of the Prabashi journal, one yellowed worm-eaten copy of Tagore’s Sanchayita. But these did not quench my thirst. They aggravated it. I raided my T.B. Hospital-acquaintance Tata Dutta’s house one day. Here I found much Marxist literature. Maxim Gorky’s Mother, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and many others. Journalist Amarnath De stayed atop the Bharat Sweets shop. He had a large collection of translations of international literature. He would not allow me to take the books home, but I could sit there and read as long as I liked. That brought me greater profits, for I often ended up being served lunch and evening snacks. Then there was the schoolmaster Subodh Chakraborty at Shyama Colony from whom I garnered Rabindranath Tagore’s works, Saratchandra’s works, Satinath Bhaduri’s works and the works of the three Bandopadhyays, Tarashankar, Bibhuti and Manik. I read up Mahasweta Devi, Sunil, Samaresh, Shyamal, Shirshendu, Shankar and the entire canon of Bangla literature as a member of the Vidyasagar Library on Kalinath Lane. But how was I to quench the fire within my belly? So I went back to my old trade of driving the cycle rickshaw. In the older days I kept a dagger hidden under the passenger seat of my rickshaw. That dagger’s place had now been usurped by a book. After butchering nine hundred and ninety nine men, Angulimal met the Buddha and became a believer in non-violence, Chandashoka was transformed into Dharmashoka. The touch of books transformed me too and I began filling my beggar’s sack as I harvested the labour of the wise and the learned, and made their knowledge my own. It was not an easy transformation. Repeatedly around me there were incidents that prodded the devil within me. And I had consistently to remind myself to discard the angry dacoit Ratnakar within me, and usher in the person Ratnakar eventually became, the sage Valmiki, the first poet in Sanskrit who authored the Ramayana.

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I had also grown selfish. Nothing touched me, nothing disturbed me. When my friend Naran was crushed under the wheels of a bus and we had to wait for two hours at the morgue after going to Mominpur and identifying the body, I sat beside the morgue and opened a book. Beyond Death. The book helped me overcome my sorrow for my friend. A poster at the book stall at the Jadavpur station read: If you want a day’s happiness, have a good meal. If you want a month’s happiness, go travel. If you want a year’s happiness, get married. If you want a lifetime’s happiness, read books.

I can’t remember who, but someone has said, ‘Working men, take up books. They are your weapons.’ So from 1977 till 1981, my time was spent reading Katha literatures, folk literatures, translated literatures, travelogues, religious books. Some praised my dedication to books, some taunted me. I ‘bypassed’ all. None of their words made any impact upon me. What a wretched and sordid life. When I turn over the pages to re-view the milestones of my life, I find the shadow of some unpleasant squalid event lurking behind it. Take, for example, my literacy. My unlettered blindness had given way to knowledge through my experience of the prison. What can be greater than literacy? What can be worse than being jailed? A similar contradiction occurred in my life. It was on an afternoon at the height of summer. I had had a pint to drink that day. Earlier, I used to drink heavily. Now, I drank on occasions. I had not been able to get rid of all vices and become a free soul. Not that I wanted to do so either. I was literate now. But so what? I was still a rickshaw-wallah, once a prisoner. Some are born to be fed on sugar and cream. I had been born to be fed on the inedible. Though literate, I had not grown an extra arm or leg. I was still part of the no-gooders.

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Somebody has said that those who say they do not get drunk despite having alcohol, are either lying or have drunk water. Well, I had not drunk water. So I was quite drunk that afternoon. And when I get drunk, my eyes become red, my words get garbled, and my legs unsteady. I staggered into Hari’s Hotel near the railway station and plonked down on a bench. ‘Give me fish and rice, Harida.’ This bench where I had sat down was already occupied by a youth and his pregnant wife. Though from the suburbs around Lakshmikantapur, the young man possibly worked as a labourer in the city and was familiar with the ways of Calcutta. They were perhaps returning after a visit to the doctor for his wife. The bench was not too long and three on it was a bit of a squeeze. Seeing a visibly drunk man walk in and seat himself beside his wife had aroused his suspicions. And now, as I lifted a handful of rice to my mouth, my elbow touched the wife’s breast. Nature has given women breasts and this woman’s breasts were unusually beautiful. The husband was well aware of the attraction that his wife’s breasts would hold for another male and the second time I lifted my elbow again, he slapped me. Now this was my territory. Everybody knew me here. And everybody had seen what had happened. With that one slap on my hand, the young man had thrust me several feet into the ground. By tomorrow the word would go around that Madan was beaten up when he tried to touch a woman’s breasts. Where would I hide this shame? The husband was a fool. He had a pregnant wife with him and he should have kept his cool. For I had no way to back out now. I could have moved away if this were any other place. But how could I do that here? So I wasted no time and landed a blow on the man’s jaw. There was blood. But the youth was not one to be cowed. He picked up a broken brick and threw it at me. The brick did not hit me, landing beside me. I picked it up and threw it back at him. It went and hit the pregnant wife. She fell to the ground with a cry. Now, quite understandably, the surrounding crowd of people turned against me. They were not of

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the locality. They were passengers bound for different destinations. Sensing danger, I jumped over the hospital wall and fled. After this, the angry people lodged a complaint against my name at the police station. Then some boys came and broke down the liquor shops. This, after all, was at the root of all evil. Today there was one drunkard creating a ruckus, and tomorrow there would be another. But what was I to do now? I could no longer ferry the rickshaw. Or at least not for some time. Public memory was short so perhaps I would be able to return some day. For the time being, I went to the Jadavpur 8B Bus Stand. I had taken a passenger that day from the Bus Stand to Bijaygarh near the Jagarani Club, beside the Jyotish Ray College, and was waiting at the rickshaw line for a passenger. There were some eight or ten rickshaws waiting for passengers before me. Seeing that this would take at least an hour and a half, even if one passenger arrived every ten minutes, I got out a book and settled down to read. So this was a summer’s day like any other. I was immersed in my book, the magic of the black scrawls transporting me to the enchanted world that inspired one with dreams, encouraged one to hope, made you laugh, cry, forget your hunger and the passage of time. The book that I was reading was Agnigarba (The Fire Womb). A collection of short stories where every character was a known and familiar face to me. Every story had at its centre a protagonist who was a labouring man, who was a representative of the protest of that class, who was unwilling to accept defeat and who fought till death, then rose again to continue the fight. I had a particular affection for this author. Having been once accidentally drawn into the Naxalite movement, I had spent much time with them and heard the story of the martyred Brati, a character in her novel Hajar Chaurasir Ma (The Mother of 1084). This book had endeared the writer to the Naxalites, who spoke of her as a maternal figure to them. Engrossed in reading, I suddenly awoke to the fact that my turn at the rickshaw line had come. The familiar figure of a teacher whom we all knew by sight stepped out of the college and approached us. She was not alone. There was a young man of

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about twenty-five with her. I flipped the pages and, seeing that only about six or seven pages were left, asked the man behind me to take this passenger. I would take the next one. ‘Oh, get off your high horse,’ he answered angrily. ‘Trying to be clever and shirk the load of two passengers! You take what fate has given to you. I will take what comes to me! We are all suffering the heat. Put your book aside and work!’ What Fate has given to me? That is true. Otherwise why should she come to be my passenger today? I got up and unwillingly pushed the book under the seat. Though the sun was dipping westwards, the heat was tremendous. My body was drenched in sweat. The streets were more crowded than usual. It was a Saturday and the schools and colleges had just got over, and the homebound students filled the roads. The elderly woman who came and stood before me now had greying hair, spectacles, and a bag at her side. Her face was serious and she looked the teacher that she was. She would go to Jadavpur. It was midway through the journey that I remembered this difficult word I had come across in a book by Chanakya Sen some days back: jijibisha. Nobody had been able to tell me the meaning. So I ask her. ‘Didi, if you don’t mind, can you tell me the meaning of “jijibisha”?’ She must have been surprised at the question. For she said. ‘Jijibisha means the will to live. But where did you get this word?’ ‘In a book,’ I answered. A silence followed. There was no way I could see her face as she sat behind me on the passenger seat. Then she asked, ‘How far have you studied?’ ‘I have not been able to go to any school.’ ‘Then how did you learn to read?’ ‘I learnt a little on my own,’ I said. The wheels turned and we moved closer to our destination. But which wheels were really turning? The rickshaw wheels or the wheels of my destiny? Which moved forward? Was it just my

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rickshaw or was it me? Moving from a nameless life of darkness and humiliation to one of dignity and respect? Then she said, ‘I publish a journal where working people like you write. Will you write for me? If you do, I will publish it.’ I had believed that those whose names illuminated the cover pages of books, those whose voices we heard on the radio, those whose faces floated on the television screens were all people of a different planet. They did not eat, sleep, go to the market, or walk down the streets like us. They did not, most definitely, drive rickshaws. And here was this lady promising me such a reality? ‘You will print my writing?’ ‘Yes, that’s what I said. Will you write?’ ‘But what will I write about?’ I said. ‘Your life as a rickshaw-wallah,’ she answered. ‘How you came to this job, how much you earn in a day, whether that is enough for your family. Will you?’ ‘I have never written before,’ I replied nervously. ‘But I will try. If I find I can, I will bring it to you. Will you give me your address?’ We had reached Jadavpur by now. She got out a pen and paper, scribbled some words onto it, and handed it to me. ‘Here,’ she said. My world began to sway when I read what was written on the slip of paper. ‘You?!’ I exclaimed in surprise. ‘Do you know me?’ I know you very well, O great writer! That knowledge is born out of the blood and sweat of struggle, protest, resistance and fury. It is the fury with which your pen flashes like a sword for the exploited and defenceless people. Your story ‘Draupadi’ drove me to hunt for her rapists so I could kill them. If not them, then somebody like them. Of course, all this remained unuttered. I said, ‘I have read your books. Your Agnigarba is right here.’ And I pushed aside the seat to draw out the book. I do not know what thoughts went through her mind as she stood with the book. But I seemed to read a rare satisfaction on

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her face. It had possibly brought her happiness to find that the labouring masses for whom she wrote her books acknowledged and read her writing with devotion. As for me, I was by then beside myself with excitement. My heart beat wildly, my body trembled, my mind trembled, my life trembled. I was having difficulty in holding myself upright on my two legs. I could not hold my head up high. It bowed of its own accord towards this woman and I prostrated myself at her feet. We get many chances in life to hold our heads up. It is the opportunity to bow our heads that comes but rarely in our lives. The child who had sated his thirst on a mother’s breast milk many summers ago in a makeshift schoolroom, was now in front of that swan-borne deity. Was not Mahasweta another name for Saraswati? She asked me to come to her the next morning and to have lunch with her. Her bus had arrived and as she boarded the bus, she waved to me, a gesture of divine assurance. The next day, I reached her house before seven. Her home was on Ballygunje Road. And I climbed up the winding stairs, rooted in the soil where was nature’s plenty: flowers, fruits, also weeds, reptiles and insects. But whose other end stretched up into the promise of an endless space, yet immeasurable, where lay hidden the yet unknown future. The stairs creaked and welcomed me in their own language. By the time I had reached her door on the first floor, I felt I had reached my life’s pinnacle. Her voice answered my timid knocks. ‘The door’s open. Come in and sit, Madan.’ She had not seen me, but she knew it was me. The mad man yesterday, who would not be able to slip a wink at night, and would come rushing the moment morning broke. This was the room where she wrote. A table and a chair, with her pens and paper on the table. She arrived in ten or twelve minutes. Today was Sunday. A holiday. Many others began to drop in and she introduced me to everybody as a writer. ‘This is my new writer, Madan.’ Writer.

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And then began the most difficult period of my life. A battle far more difficult than fighting with pipe guns and bombs. A struggle worse than I had ever known. One line snaked up onto the other line. I found words spelt differently in different places. How was I to know which was the right one? Which word set where in the sentence made the sentence both comprehensible and grammatically correct? I wrote on the pages. And then I tore them up. I ran through some reams of paper and some litres of kerosene, and bunked my work for some days before I was more or less satisfied with what I had written. Entitled ‘I Drive Rickshaws’, it was published in the January–March 1981 issue of Bartika. Mahasweta Devi was not just a writer. The poet Manish Ghatak’s daughter, the film director Ritwik Ghatak’s niece, dramatist Bijan Bhattacharya’s ex-wife, she was a personality established as a significant form of resistance. After my name appeared in the journal edited by her, a reviewer for the Jugantar newspaper put in two lines of praise for my writing. Then in her weekly column ‘So near yet so far’, Mahasweta Devi wrote, ‘Madan is a great fellow. He drives a rickshaw, he writes…’ This made my name known and many periodicals from the city and the suburbs began asking for my writings. I became famous as the rickshaw-wallah-writer. All this stoked my enthusiasm and gave me confidence. Yes, I could write. My state then approached that of the mad man. It was as if an impoverished pavement dweller waking up from sleep to find he was the owner of a billion. Till yesterday, I had been among the dross of society. Now even the educated intellectuals treated me with respect. I was invited to their houses, introduced to their friends, and cited as an ideal to learn from. My life was fulfilled. I would rise and rush over to Ballygunje every morning. I had no money to pay for train tickets. So I would run up and board the last compartment as the train pulled out of the station, then sneak away from the back of the platform once I reached. I would sit in that treasure house, gorging on the books. I had my lunch there, returning only in the evening. My job as a rickshaw-wallah, my food, my house rent, all were then of secondary importance to me.

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I am possibly among those fortunate few writers who have not had to do the rounds of publishers with manuscripts, only to be rejected again and again. By and large, my writings have been accepted. So unlikely appeared my good fortune that I grew suspicious of it, wondering if it were Mahasweta Devi’s known affection for this writer Madan Dutta that was forcing the hand of the publishers. So I sent my work under the pseudonym of Jijibisha to five periodicals, Runner, Hathiyar, Lok Vigyan, Sisrikha and Banga Barta. They accepted the writings. My confidence touched the sky. I had felt the need for a stable home after my release from jail. Spending nights on the pavements with my rickshaw seat under my head as a pillow had its disadvantages. If the rain and the cold were not bad enough, the police would make occasional raids to clear the pavements and kick you awake. So I was looking for a small quiet place where I could live and work in peace. But this was difficult to get. In the lower income areas of this city and its suburbs, a lone young man, especially if he was a rickshaw-wallah, was not trusted by the landlords. They were liable to stay for some time and then flee without paying the rent. Or worse, they eloped with someone else’s wife or a daughter of the neighbourhood. Some recent incidents had occurred where such tenants had been discovered to be criminals using this place as a hideout and posing as rickshaw-wallahs. So the preferred tenant was the family man, man, wife and child. I remembered then Pagla Sardar’s daughter. I had had no news of her for the last two or three years. I now felt it my duty to enquire after her well-being. She sold sugarcane-liquor on the railway tracks near the Park Circus station, I heard, carrying the stuff from her village in a pitcher. I had to search for her for a few days before I found her. We rented a place for fifteen rupees a month and began living as husband and wife. It soon transpired that I had made a mistake. If the earlier mistake could be pinned on her, this time I was the one who was responsible. I had long heard that habits make the man. That without the familiar ambience, a human is rendered as a fish out of water. I remember Anil, who would serve us our rice when at prison. He was unable to live

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as a free man in the outside world after his release and returned within two months. While I had changed from the man I used to be earlier, belligerent and violent, she had not. I had hoped she too would change because I wanted a life that was free of chasing policemen and cursing drunkards. But she had grown accustomed to the rough, filthy language and aggressive behaviour that she used with her customers. And she used the same on me, pulling at my clothes. Our fights were frequent because I had little time for my rickshaw-job now. I was too engrossed in my world of books. As a result, want was a part of our home. We quarrelled and shouted, and sometimes our quarrels turned violent with either me beating her or her beating me. Our neighbours laughed at us, ridiculed us, got annoyed and grew irritated. I was a little bit famous by then as a writer. What would have hardly touched me as a rickshawpuller, now irked me. I could no longer tolerate the scorn and humiliation. Once we had a rather bad fight. She had got to know from some trusted source that I was having an affair with some girl and all my money went behind her. Since I had been working for long in the same area, I did know some women there. I did speak to them when I met them on the roads. Some who had left for Bihar and Delhi had returned. Some shed tears over their lives, some laughed. It was with one of these women that I was in a relationship. Men were dogs, they licked every plate they could. Women were bitches. They salivated after every male. And it was an eternal truth that butter if kept beside fire would melt. I had melted. I was no gentle soul and the wild bull sleeping within me stirred. I beat her up. Then went away to my work. When I returned at night, I found a 350-page manuscript that I had been writing during a year, ‘My Prison Days’, had been shredded and scattered throughout the room. She had left with her belongings. I searched for her in a mad rage for some days. She fled. Thus ended our relationship. Mahasweta Devi’s son, Nabarun Bhattacharya, was an actor and writer. We called him Bappa da. He lived in an apartment at Golf Green with his wife and son, Bau. I was often at their house.

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He had this small theatre group called ‘Nabanna’, named after his father’s play, where I once played a role. It fell on me to take Bau to school every day and bring him back on my rickshaw. I got paid fifty rupees a month for this. Bappada had this friend called Tulu who was the cashier at the Bharat Television Co. He offered me the gatekeeper’s job at his company. The monthly salary would be three hundred and fifty. I worked there for more than a year, till the company wound up its Calcutta office because of Trade Union problems. But a few months after I had joined work, and been moving around in ‘gentlemanly’ attire, this woman began pestering me to get married. You’ve danced around for long enough; now settle down with a wife. This woman was the Boudi, or elder sister-in-law of my old friend, Nanu, who himself had returned consequent to the victory of the Communists, and had got married. She worked as a cook for a family near my office in Hindusthan Park. The car, swivel chairs, smart uniforms and glass doors of my office had misled her. That I was sharing a room with three others from my office could not convince her otherwise. She was convinced that I was some hotshot, who even received an occasional mention in the newspapers. But I was hesitant to enter into another relationship with a woman and I tried to convince her of my ineligibility as a husband. Most people still knew me as a ruffian who had once served a prison sentence. Why should anyone be willing to give hand his or her daughter’s hand in marriage to me? She waved away my objections. Men will have a fault or two, she said. Who is a holy tulsi leaf these days, washed in the holy water? I will find a good wife for you. You are a changed man now. It is a lucky girl who will marry you. I myself have rushed things, she grinned ruefully. If this were five years ago and I were single, I would have taken you for myself, she laughed. Unable to shake her off, I acquiesce finally to her persuasion. On the condition that she would hide nothing from the prospective bride’s family. ‘Okay, so what kind of a girl are you looking for?’ she asks. ‘Whatever,’ I say.

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‘No, tell me,’ she insists. ‘Well, gentle and well mannered. She should not chase me with a brick or call me a bastard in front of people. She must be dark and not too pretty, or she will be far too vain of her beauty. She must be literate so she can teach the children. I will not be able to sit with their studies when I return home after a hard day’s work. But she must not hold any degrees, because then she will hold me in contempt. And she should not have any parent, aunt, uncle, brother or sister, to whom she can go off in a huff when she fights with me.’ ‘Anything else’? asked Boudi. ‘Any dowry?’ ‘No. I am against dowry,’ I answer. I uttered these words in a light vein, certain that no sane girl would be willing to marry me. But Boudi promptly assured me of knowing a girl who easily fulfilled all my demands. She was darkish, had studied till Class VIII, and had only an old mother who would likely not live too long. Little did I know then that this mother had already come with Boudi and watched me from a distance, appraised me and my workplace, and pronounced her satisfaction regarding my eligibility. She was a white-haired lady with a young daughter whom she was keen to see safely married off. And she had promised Boudi a good saree, along with a petticoat and blouse, if Boudi could bring her a ‘good boy’. It was following this that Boudi began chasing me. The mother’s verdict did not really worry me much since I was convinced that a modern, literate girl of today would not accept me as a husband. Girls these days were not the timid and obedient ones they once used to be. So when Boudi came to me and asked when I wanted to go ‘see’ the girl, I answered, ‘I don’t need to see her. Why don’t you get the girl here to see me instead? I am quite certain she will reject me.’ ‘She doesn’t need to “see” you, she said. She is okay to leave this to her mother.’ Now I begin to get really suspicious. Was there something wrong with this girl? For all I knew, she was physically handicapped,

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or had a bad reputation, and maybe her family was desperate to get her married anyhow. I insist on knowing exactly what details of my life Boudi has conveyed to her. Had she told her everything? Or had she given an edited account of my life? ‘I have told all that I know,’ Boudi answers. ‘And what did she say to that?’ ‘She said, it will be as fate has written for me.’ Well, now that is something I too believe in. So I finally give in to what destiny has in store for me and agreed. I was still more or less certain that the wedding would be called off. My belief was stronger because the girl’s mother lived in the Shahid Smriti Colony near the Bagha Jatin railway station. This was very near my territory of the Jadavpur station and many people of that area knew of my past. Somebody or the other would seek her out and poison her ears before the wedding could take place. Boudi thrust a photograph into my hands. ‘Well, if you won’t go to see her personally, at least take a look at her photograph. Can you tell which one is her?’ It was as if I had been bitten by a scorpion. The photo was one of five girls taken at some school ceremony. I raised a shaken finger to the girl at the centre. ‘Is this her?’ Boudi smiled. ‘You sure have eyes,’ she said. ‘Yes, she is the one.’ ‘But I know this girl. I have seen her,’ I said. ‘That’s impossible,’ says Boudi. ‘Anita lives in Nadia, at Shimurali. You’ve never been there.’ ‘Be it Nadia or Nagpur—I know her. Schedule a date. I will go to see her.’

CHAPTER 13

A Girl from the Past

T

his was during the days after the Haren Ghosh fight but before the Kartik affair, when I would keep changing my night’s resting place out of fear for my safety. I was off that night to sleep atop the roof of the half-constructed Jadavpur Super Market when I heard Jhantuda’s voice calling me. He had a tea shop there—a shanty that leant on a section of the high wall that ran in front of the 8B Bus Stand, beside Subodh Mallick Road. It was possibly more correct to call it a drinks shop, since everything from tea to liquor was sold at this shop which Jhantuda kept open till past two at night. ‘Madan! O Madan! Do listen, my boy!’ An undertone of desperate plea gave his voice an edge that drew me to him. ‘I have a daughter just like her, Madan. Please, do something to save her. My heart will burst with fear. There is nobody for her now.’ This man, uprooted from East Bengal, was near to tears. It was a dark cold night of the Shiva Chaturdashi festival. By this late hour, the muted laughter of the evening, the tinkle of the glass bangles, the rustling whisper of the new sarees and the intoxicating charm of the flowing tresses had all melted away into the thin wintry air of the night. All were indoors, with latches securely bolted. The night was now in the hands of the yelping dogs and the drunks who staggered down the road. Like every year, a tent had been put up near the place where the statue of Rajiv Gandhi now stands, and kirtans were being sung. But it was late night now, and

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the audience had dwindled to about a score of aged infirm men. With these old men was a girl, at odds with her surroundings, who lay deep in sleep on the dusty tarpaulin. Childhood was yet to yield its claims on her body and leave, but one could discern the first signs of youth blossoming in her young figure. Her shampooed hair had escaped its pins and lay around her head. A pair of red full pants and a T-shirt, with a sparkling bindi on her forehead, and a pair of thin gold rings on her earlobes, it was this girl that Jhantuda was so terrified about. She was from Giletala village in the Khulna district of East Bengal. People around knew their house as the Datta House because of the Durga Puja that would be held there annually. During the 1971 War of Liberation, the Khan army shot dead her father Ramen Datta, forcing her mother to flee with her two daughters across the border to India. They stayed for some days at a relative’s place in Madanpur and then, on being asked to look for shelter elsewhere, had come to Jadavpur. Here they took a small room on low rent at the Shahid Smriti Colony. The little savings they had brought with them was soon spent and the mother took up work at a nursing home while the elder daughter was put to work as a cook for a family. God knows how but this daughter caught fire and got burnt to death. Despite these difficulties and tragedies, the mother and daughter were managing to survive somehow till this growing girl caught the attention of a local ruffian who lived in the Jadavpur Rail Colony. This guy, named Madan like me, was much feared by the locals, being one who had served a jail sentence after attempting a robbery. Finding his proposals for marriage going unheeded, he threatened to carry her off forcefully and bring her to such a state that she would be ashamed to show her face in public. Poor and helpless, the family could scarce find anybody who was willing to stand by them. The times were bad. The only escape would be to get out from the locality and take up a house elsewhere, but it would be difficult to get another room on such a low rent. The area around was not as well-populated as it was now. The few houses were surrounded by stretches of flat land, forests of hogla

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bushes and waterbodies where fish were farmed. Electricity had not arrived, and the area would be plunged into darkness with the coming of dusk. Desperate, the mother advised the girl to stay indoors during the day, and then get out to the main roads of Jadavpur. Roam around for sometime near my workplace, she said, and once my duty hours are done, I will pick you up and bring you home. Don’t, for heaven’s sake, stay home alone after dark. So that was what the girl did. She stayed home as long as there was light, then came away to the Jadavpur bus stop where she had made a few friends. She moved around with them, chatting and passing the time till about eight, when she would come to this crossing to wait for her mother. Her mother, who would come to Jhantuda’s shop at times to buy green coconuts for the patients, had requested him to keep an eye on her. Watching the girl waiting forlornly on the road, Jhantuda often felt the urge to call the young girl over to his shop and ask her to wait for her mother there. But he did not. His was, after all, also a liquor shop. The mother had a twelve-hour duty, from eight to eight. But tonight, she had not got her release as expected at eight. There was a pregnant patient undergoing a difficult delivery and the woman who was to come in at eight to relieve her mother, had not arrived. In these circumstances, Anita’s mother could not be released from her duty. Now what was the girl to do? Having kept the Shiva Chaturdashi fast during the day, the girl was exhausted and hungry. She had been sitting waiting for her mother under the tent for many hours listening to the kirtans, till sleep overcame her and she lay down on the tarpaulin, unaware of the stark danger all around her. The night had its fangs and its claws waiting to rip apart the soft vulnerability of this young girl. To destroy her present, her future, her hopes of living with dignity and respect. The information that a budding flower lay defenceless beside the roads had already reached the ears of the body-hunters. Under the protection of a certain political party, these were people who walked the streets with bombs and knives strapped to their waists,

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killing on order and being labelled as martyrs if killed by the rival parties. Come night, and they would need alcohol and women. Such a group of six were now lurking in the shadows in the northeastern corner of the 8B Bus Stand. A taxi driver appeared to be part of the gang too, waiting with his car for an opportune moment when they could yank the girl into the car and whisk her away into darkness. Jhantuda had watched this small crowd gathering. He knew them well. The girl was doomed. He would not be able to do anything for her. His hands were tied because of the liquor that he sold. It was an illegal trade and if he stopped these ruffians today, they would inform the police and that would be the end of his earnings. Yet he could not stand by and watch this girl be ruined. These were not days when the land was caught up in the insanity of communal rioting and plunder, when the law of the land had been swept aside. Nor was it a place like the Marichjhapi Island, surrounded on all sides by water, cut off from the civilized mainland, where monsters could be unleashed with the license to do as they pleased. This was the city of Calcutta, inhabited by the educated, the cultured and the respectable. This was the place to which their ancestors had fled from East Pakistan, hoping to safeguard the lives and dignity of their mothers, sisters and daughters. It was an irony of fate that the descendants of those uprooted people were now preying on the daughters of other similarly uprooted people. Had Jhantuda in his terror and desperation sent up his prayers to God that night? I have heard it said that even God cannot change the decrees of Fate. If anybody can change Destiny’s decree, it is Satan. I had at one point of time wanted to live as a human being. But I had not been allowed to do so, and I had turned into a worshipper of Satan. Jhantuda knew this. And Jhantuda also knew that iron could be dented only with iron. It is with this assurance that he called to me. ‘The girl is from our land. Save her!’ I knew the boys he spoke of. As they knew me. But they knew me as a rickshaw-wallah. So I wrapped the thick black blanket I

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had with me around my body, covering half of my face as dacoits did. I had drunk a little alcohol earlier. I now swallowed another pint from Jhantuda’s store. Alcohol was that unerring medicine that made the coward brave, and the brave the super-brave. I took hold of the sickle Jhantuda used to split the coconuts, hid it under my blanket, and sat myself down by the girl. On this night, I was her self-proclaimed protector. Whosoever dared to reach out for her, I would chop his hand off. I was a war veteran. I knew that in these fights, it was the one who attacked first that won the day. They were no fools. Seeing my still unmoving form beside the girl, they realized the prey would not be as easy as it had seemed. They hung around for some more time before moving away at last, possibly to Tollygunje or Kalighat where they would get a woman at a cheap price. I remained sitting. At a certain time, the girl awoke from sleep. She sat up, dusted her clothes, and then with tired steps walked towards the railway station. The sky was clearing now. It would be light soon. She could now go back home. A sigh had escaped me then. Why? My work was done. But Jhantuda still had work left. He kept his eyes glued to the road for the girl’s mother. He narrated the events of the last night. This night had passed, but the girl was no longer safe here. She had been noticed. Anita’s hapless mother beat her forehead and broke down. ‘God! What am I to do with this girl! With tigers on land and crocodiles in water!’ Her tears eventually reached a doctor at the nursing home who called up his neighbour and arrangements were made for Anita to reside in the orphanage at Shimurali in the district of Nadia. This was the Bhagirath Shilpashram which would take care of the food, housing and educational needs of the child. Though Anita was not as good at studies as she was at games, she could have remained there for some years more, but Anita’s mother was keen to get her daughter married. She wanted to die in peace, with Anita settled into domesticity with some nice boy. Besides, that ruffian of the Shahid Smriti Colony had reappeared. He was now

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married with two kids. But he still pestered Anita. What got them really scared was that he had turned up at the ashram once. So one reason for me being the chosen one for Anita was undoubtedly Boudi’s belief that I would be able to keep that ruffian at bay. So that is how it happened. A certain Anita Datta was wedded to a certain Madan Datta. There’s nothing wrong in a small white lie when the bride and groom are both willing. I took up a small house near Garia at twenty rupees monthly rent. I was now what was called a decent, family man, deserving of society’s respect and dignity. So there was no difficulty in getting a house. But setting up house was quite another matter, and much more than books would be required. None of which I had. Anita’s mother helped us there, with reed mats, blankets, utensils. And I settled down to life with my ‘own wife’.

CHAPTER 14

Marichjhapi

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ne day, on my way to the Hindusthan Park Bharat T.V. Company office, as I alighted from the train at the Ballygunje station and took the long way around the back of the platform to evade the ticket checkers, I meet Rasamay Bala. Rasamay knew my family. And it was from him that I heard the grievous news that my father and younger brother Chitta had passed away. Chitta passed away after being afflicted with meningitis. Baba passed away unable to bear the blow of Chitta’s death and also because his health had already been badly affected after he broke his ribs on being beaten with a rifle butt at Marichjhapi. This had happened because, with many others, he too had journeyed to Marichjhapi in 1978. My brother Chitta had come away from Dandakaranya to try his luck for a second time in West Bengal. He had been hoping to meet me, to get some job here so he could bring the family back here. But the fever came upon him all of a sudden at Raipur station. He knew that his widowed mother-in-law lived at the Raipur Mana Camp, and he managed to reach her somehow. But lacking proper treatment, he died, leaving behind his wife and two minor sons. This was a bad blow to Baba. He had already lost me, his elder son, of whom he had no news, living or dead. And now this other son too died so suddenly. There was yet another grief he had had to endure—the treachery of his Communist leader, Jyoti Basu. The treachery inflicted upon the poor people who returned from Dandakaranya to Marichjhapi island.

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Marichjhapi. A ruthless saga of massacre and rape, arson and plunder that is comparable to the likes of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Perpetrated by the state on a small, riverine island nearly forty years ago, the brutality of the violence would be difficult to match in the annals of human history. About 100,000 people had arrived on this island in the month of March 1978, from different regions of Dandakaranya, with hopes of settling here. They had demanded no help from the government. What they had demanded was mercy. ‘We are people who have lived off this air and soil, Babu. Give us some land here in Bengal. The land of Dandakaranya is alien to us, its soil hard and rocky, its language and culture foreign. Moreover, the government of that land is totally indifferent to us. We can hardly survive there. There is this uninhabited island to the corner of your state—let us stay there.’ And this plea was made to those who had expressed shock when the refugees were asked to move to Dandakaranya, who had advised them not to go to the stony land, who had claimed that refugees of Bengal should be rehabilitated in Bengal itself, had pointed to the land lying fallow in the Sundarbans, and had even mentioned this island of Marichjhapi. We had arrived at the Shiramanipur Camp in 1953. Two years prior to that, under the leadership of Bidhan Chandra Ray, an initiative was undertaken to rehabilitate on the Andaman Islands all refugees who had arrived at the camps since 1947. An organization of the Communist and the Forward Bloc leaders, called the United Central Refugee Council, popularly known as the UCRC, had then opposed this governmental initiative. They organized meetings across the camps, advising the refugees against crossing the kalapani. It was largely due to their efforts, that the rehabilitation plan saw little success. Then the Central Government formed the Dandakaranya Development Project which took off on 12 September 1958. Under this project, the refugees began to be moved again to rocky, barren land areas of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. These were dry infertile lands, with little or no

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connection to civilization, populated by tribes. The UCRC was active again, provoking the refugees to refuse to leave Bengal, and assuring them of rehabilitation on the Sundarban island. This was followed with a deputation made to the then Chief Minister of Bengal, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Ray, on 12 August, 1959, with a proposal that 6875 families be rehabilitated upon 65.5 square miles of developed land in the Sundarbans. Besides these, 3300 other families of fishermen could be settled within the bheri area for fishing, an area of 12,000 square acres of land. Bidhan Ray himself, in one of his speeches, mentioned 5000 bighas at the Sundarbans that was lying fallow.1 Thus the hope of settling down on the Marichjhapi island was one that had been long sown in the hearts of the refugees. Though the government had not encouraged this dream, forcing them to shift to Dandakaranya, the hope had remained alive that some day they would be able to return to their own land of Bengal. This movement of the refugees from Bengal to Dandakaranya continued from 1959 to 1971, a movement to the place that was matched by the number of people who escaped from the place. Those who could return to Bengal built ramshackle huts beside the drainage canals or the railway lines of the city of Calcutta. Then on 25 January 1975, Jyoti Basu, the leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), visited the Bhilai industrial belt to address a meeting. Here he brought over from the Mana Camp some who were leaders among the refugees and assured them that if his party came to power, they would fulfil the demands of the refugees to be rehabilitated within West Bengal. A promise made like that by Charandas the Thief, unaware that the future could be vastly different from the present. Charandas had vowed to never eat off a golden plate, never ride on an elephant and never wed a queen, all these appearing unreal and impossible in the context of his present life. So must the dream of coming to power have appeared to Jyoti Basu—unreal and impossible. When, however, his party was elected to power within two years, the promises stuck like thorns in his throat.

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That same year was organized a meeting of the All India Refugee Association at the Mana Camp. Ram Chatterjee, Kripa Sindhu Saha and Jambhurao, all of the All India Forward Bloc, with Jambhurao as the secretary, were present at the meeting where the assurances of rehabilitation in the Sundarbans area were repeated. Knowing the Communist Party to have opposed the Andaman and the Dandakaranya Refugee Projects, the refugees were heartened to hear these promises. Then when the Leftists came to power in 1977, a group of representatives from among the Dandakaranya refugees went to Jyoti Basu on 12 July that year, with a memorandum listing the difficulties they were facing and a demand for the promise of rehabilitation in Bengal to be made good. It was in this context that the government minister Ram Chatterjee, and the Vidhan Sabha or state assembly members Ravi Shankar Pandey and Kiranmay Nanda visited Dandakaranya on 28 November 1977. They toured the area and concluded their visit with an address to assembled refugees. At this assembly, Ram Chatterjee proclaimed that the government had indeed exiled the refugees in the name of rehabilitating them, and promised to being this matter to the notice of Jyoti Basu. Another group from Dandakaranya met Mr. Basu on 17 December. At this meeting, Jyoti Basu told them that there were many who lived on the pavements of West Bengal. If nothing could be arranged, at least this refuge would be granted and the state police would not evacuate them with their batons. Ram Chatterjee and the Left Front Committee Chairman Ashoke Ghosh revisited Dandakaranya on 16 January 1978. More tours followed. At the end of which Ashoke Ghosh declared that on their return to Bengal, the refugees would find fifty million people with their 1 billion of hands welcoming them back home. So many promises from so many leaders. And relying on these assurances, refugees from various places of Dandakaranya began their journey back to West Bengal in the month of March 1978. Ignorant of the machinations of political leaders, they learnt of the hypocrisy that was integral to politics at a great cost to themselves.

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For Jyoti Basu was then singing a different tune. He alleged that the island of Marichjhapi had been conserved for the tiger and hence was no fit place for human beings to live on. He also alleged that this mass of people arriving from Dandakaranya was a deliberate ploy by the Opposition to embarrass the Left Front government, a friend to the poor and the oppressed. This was what, in political lingo, would be termed as changed circumstances. The government then had only one aim: to get the refugees off the Marichjhapi island. And they were willing to go to any lengths to accomplish that. One rumour has it that Jyoti Basu’s interest in getting the refugees out of the island was that the refugees had begun farming prawns in the wetlands, preparing the area for fish farming, and Basu now wanted to give the area to a close associate. The Basu government sat up and took notice when large groups of refugees began arriving by train at Hasanabad. The police were then directed to patrol the roads leading into the state, especially the rail stations of Kharagpur and Asansol. They checked every train, forcing the refugees off the train, even if they held valid tickets, and herding them into trains that were travelling the other way. But the refugees were desperate. Forced to board the returning trains, they travelled till the next station, disembarked there, moved away from the railway lines and onto the fields, covering on foot the distance to the station that came after the one that was guarded by the police and where they had been forced off the train, and boarded the train again to reach Hasanabad. Some reached the Kashipur refugee camp in Barddhaman. Here, provoked to aggression by the police who tried to send them back to Dandakaranya, they were fired upon. Six refugees died here. One policeman was killed when a refugee hit him with his axe. On 18 April, braving all the obstacles, the refugees crossed the Kumirmari island to arrive at Marichjhapi. Like the island portrayed in the Manik Bandyopadhyay’s novel, Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of the Padma River), this island was twenty miles in length and eight miles in width. No human had possibly ever set foot here. This uninhabited island was soon transformed into

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a bustling little town. Roads, schools, markets, bread factories and bidi factories sprang up here in no time. And all this happened with no help from anybody outside the island. The only plea the people had for the government was that they be allowed to remain on this island. But this plea could hold meaning only for those who were humane. It left Jyoti Basu’s government unmoved, and they unleashed the police and their own political cadres on the refugees. On the morning of 19 August 1978, the police arrived and surrounded the island with about 40 or 42 launch boats. Section 144, the Criminal Procedure Act that forbids the assembling of more than four people in one area, was imposed on the island. Nobody could enter and nobody could leave. Not even media representatives, political activists, sympathetic intellectuals, academics or writers could enter the island. At that time, there was no potable water available on the Marichjhapi island. Water, medicines, and most items of food such as rice, lentils, vegetables, had to be procured from outside the island. The police blocked the entry of all these in a ruthless attempt to starve the people to death or kill them by denying medical treatment. When some, in a desperate bid, tried to break through the police barricades on their dinghy boats and reach the other islands, the more powerful police boats smashed into theirs. The number of such boats that the police grabbed or capsized was over two hundred. Locals say that the rivers of Sundarbans contain less of water, and more of sharks and crocodiles. Many of those on the sinking boats either drowned or became prey to these creatures. Driven insane by hunger and thirst, the refugees went into the jungles to look for fruit, herbs, roots, anything that they could appease their hunger with. It is then that the police, realizing that the trapped people were yet unwilling to surrender, moved into the island. This was 31 January 1979. The police shot about two dozen teargas shells into the crowds that stood shouting slogans along the edges of the island. This broke up the crowds and the police alighted on the island. Then began one of the most fearful chapters of the century’s history as

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thousands of half-starved, unarmed people were beaten, raped, murdered. It is said that people were shot, bodies piled on the boats and then dumped in mid-sea and in the depths of the jungles. Some surmise that it is at this time that the Sundarban tigers grew used to human flesh, turning maneaters. The carnage continued from 31 January to 8 May, a long span of over three months while the conscience of Awakened Bengal slept. The few refugees who remained alive returned as ordered to Dandakaranya, completely broken in body and spirit. The Left Front declared that no refugee was killed in the Marichjhapi incident. Only two people who were locals died in the police firing. This was a claim that could not be disputed since no written records existed of how many refugees had entered the island. From different records, it has been surmised that 14 people were killed on 31 January itself. Years later, Jagadish Mandal, in his book Marichjhapi: Noishabder Antarale (Marichjhapi: Beyond Silence, 2002), tried to put together a list of the names of the people who could be identified as having been killed during those months. He was able to make a list of 128 names and identities of people killed, of 23 women raped by the police and cadres, and of 239 who died of starvation or lack of medical treatment. The idea that I myself have gained from my visits to the island corroborate these findings. The total number of people killed, though, would possibly be around two thousand and of those raped about two hundred. The easiest way to justify the murder of a dog is by first branding him mad and dangerous. This time-tested method was used to justify the Marichjhapi firing. It was alleged that a group of people, with the active cooperation of the neighbouring nation of Bangladesh, had crossed the border into India with the objective of creating a separate nation here. This improbable declaration had not met with any objection from the many fellow Bengalis who resided in West Bengal. Even more heart-rending were the accounts of remaining refugees. They were piled into train compartments like cattle with no food, water or medicine and sent on their way. Many were separated from their families, many were too

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ill or infirm to be moved, and children who succumbed to death during the horrendous journey were summarily thrown out of the moving train. I had had no news that my father and brother Chitta had arrived at Marichjhapi via Hasanabad. He had probably thought that once he had settled down somewhat, he would send Chitta to search for me. But the police intervened. That night, the blow with the rifle butt that came down on my father’s chest, had been meant not for him but for my brother Chitta. My father, in an attempt to save his son, had thrown himself in front of Chitta, and caught the full impact of the blow. Rasamay Bala, from whom I learnt of my family, had returned to Dandakaranya after being forced out of Marichjhapi. But unable to survive there, he escaped again and now lived along the Thakur Nagar railway tracks, earning his living by selling gamchhas. Despondent at the news of my father and brother, I was planning to visit Dandakaranya where my mother, sister and another brother lived when, like a bolt from the blue, came the news of my company closing down. This was also the time when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguard, triggering a vicious backlash on thousands of Sikhs. I had left the rented room at Garia and built myself a place to stay near the Haltu-Rajdanga Canal. This had ended my monthly worry about the rent. I was no longer working as a rickshaw-wallah now. My salary from the company took care of the family’s needs. I could also devote some time to my writing in the evenings. By then, quite a few periodicals had begun more or less regularly accepting my writings. I was hopeful that some kind editor would notice me and give me a job at his paper. I would get a decent salary. But then, there was this sudden blow. The shop from where we bought our monthly supplies gave us our grocery on credit the first month. But the next month, he began insisting on payment. The four bangles, the pair of earrings that my wife Anu had got from her mother at her wedding, the watch and the ring that I had received lasted us a couple of

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months. Then luckily I got a job. This was a cold storage that was being built with aid from the World Bank by the West Bengal government in North 24-Paraganas. The post was called Site In-charge. I was told that this was a job that could be taken up even if there was no salary promised. I was even given a room on the site where I brought my wife. So what was the job? I was to check the amounts of brick, stone chips and sand that the trucks would arrive with. And then again check how much was spent after the masons worked throughout the day. The secret of this job being worthwhile with or without salary lay in that register and the numbers I was to put down there. My salary was three hundred and fifty rupees a month. That meant a sum of less than twelve rupees a day. But that hardly mattered because I could make about two hundred rupees extra a day if I only added a sack more of sand than had really been spent that day. Or added the presence of a labourer more than there had been and chalked up a higher expense of stone chips. Who was to notice? But I was this Madan who had been bitten by Yudhisthira’s dog.2 The few articles that I had written and which had been accepted and published, had given me ideas about my cleansing role in society. I was to eradicate corruption, inspire social consciousness and cure this world. How could I cheat? And then there was Anu. If I was mad, she was deranged. She had begun imagining herself as the wife of a writer. They had read Mahasweta Devi’s Jhansir Rani (Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi) in school. She was especially proud of the affection that she knew this great writer had for me. I therefore dared not indulge in any wrongdoing for fear of falling in my wife’s eyes. But my eligibility for this job had not been my ability to write, but my ability, if need be, to serve a sentence in jail. An individual who is not afraid of the prison is capable of much that an ordinary person is not. Sanyal babu, the A-1 Grade Contractor under whom I was working was the very person who was egging me on to steal. His profits rose with my fudging of numbers, and as his profits rose, the guarantee of my job increased. So every night at

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about one, he would send this Matador van to the worksite into which I would silently lift fifty bags of cement, and then dutifully put that number down in the register as expended. I accosted the man who had given me this job. ‘What kind of a job is this? They are asking me to steal.’ ‘How are you stealing?’ he replied. ‘You are only doing what the job is asking of you. Now, suppose you were in the military or the police? And your officer pointed to a man and asked you to shoot him, would you not do it? If he pointed to a girl and said, Rape her. Wouldn’t you have to do it? This is just your job. If you are not up to it, leave.’ Within a few days of such cement pilfering, I realized that despite the darkness and the secrecy, the local police was well aware of what was happening. They could arrest me any day. My man assured me again. ‘What is it to you?’ he said. ‘But it is me they will arrest!’ I protest. ‘You fool. You are working for the contractor. He knows you are innocent. He will get you out of the prison soon enough. You may need to spend a couple of weeks in the prison at the most. Don’t worry. They will look after your wife.’ But my fears would not go. What if my readers got to know? Or my writer-friends? What if Mahasweta Devi asked me, So you were stealing the public money? Anu was pregnant with a child now. When she visited me in prison, what if the child she carried in her lap asked why his or her father was in prison? No, I would not be able to do this. So I returned to my hut beside the Canal. The Eastern Metropolitan Bypass was being built then. A mammoth project encompassing the area around the Ruby Hospital I took up the job of a munshi for a contractor there. I worked there for almost two months on a daily wage of ten rupees, learning how to get the job done. Then I took up a sub-contract from him to build the road to Panchanna Gram. This was to be a road about two miles in length and ten feet in width. Soil had to be dug up from the neighbouring pond, laid out on the road which was to be raised

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and levelled to a height of two and a half feet. I used my acquaintance with a group of workers I had met from Ghatak Pukur when at the North 24-Parganas site, and got the job. I needed an extra hand to manage so many people, so I had asked a boy of my locality to be my munshi. He was younger but bigger than me in build. Little did I know then that he was the brother of the local strong man Biswanath. Just as there were three Khokada, there were two One-Eyed Ajits in the locality. One stayed at Bagha Jatin, and the other here in Rajdanga. This Biswanath was the nephew of the One-Eyed Ajit here, and used to be part of his gang at one time. Following an incident when Biswanath double-crossed One-Eyed Ajit who then happened to be under arrest and made off with a twenty thousand heist, the two had become sworn mortal enemies. My work on the road was nearing completion, when I met Sudash, an old friend of my prison-days. He used to procure arms and sell them. Now he knew me as a one-time thug, hardly a ‘genteel-man’. So after a minute or two, he dropped his voice and informed me, ‘I have a good item. Real stuff. Made-in-China. Do you want it?’ How was he to know that I had shifted my allegiance from Ma Kali to Ma Saraswati? That the man who would earlier move with a knife strapped to his waist, now moved about with a pen clipped to his pocket. Trying to end the conversation, I hastily answered, ‘No, no. I am a changed man now.’ But Biswanath’s brother Poto, who stood beside me, had heard him. ‘How much?’ he asked. ‘Two thousand,’ answered Sudash, unable to read my desperate signals. ‘I have a customer,’ said Poto. ‘I live in Kasba,’ answered Sudash. ‘It is no use coming to my house for you will not find me there. I am at the tea stall in front of the Purbasha Cinema Hall during the evenings. If you have a customer, inform me, I will get the stuff.’

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On hearing that I had married and had a daughter, Sudash insisted on coming to my house and meeting my family, an event that was not viewed with approval by my wife. Despite her dirty looks, I had to bring a smile to my face and behave hospitably. I did not dare anger him. But about a fortnight after that, Sudash suddenly turned up one day, uninvited, at the break of dawn. The sun was not yet up when he pushed me awake and announced, ‘The stuff. I’ve brought it.’ My knees trembled with fear. ‘Stuff?’ What I was blissfully unaware of was that Biswanath and his brother Poto had hatched a conspiracy, keeping me in the dark. They had planned to snatch the ‘stuff’ from Sudash and what better place to do it than at my home? Sudash trusted me. So he would not suspect anything if he was told that I had asked him to get the stuff and the deal could be worked out at my place. Arms were nobody’s legal possessions. It belonged to whoever could grab it. If Biswanath snatched the stuff from Sudash, turned it upon him, and said. ‘Run. Will shoot you otherwise’, there would be little Sudash could do. Poto and Biswanth did not know me as the Ganesh-Gopals of Jadavpur did. Here I was a meek, domesticated creature, and they saw no threat from my side when they robbed my friend at my house. Sudash was a shrewd player. He knew there was the fear of Biswanth’s boys waylaying him en route my house, so he arrived early, before they could take up positions on the road. Once inside trusted Madanda’s house, he believed he would be safe. I immediately sensed the conspiracy Biswanath had hatched. There was no time to explain. Poto’s house was on the other side of the canal, and my house was clearly visible from theirs, with a good view of all who came or left. Poto, standing brushing his teeth at the side of the Canal that morning, had in fact already caught sight of Sudash. It would take them some time to arrive, because the road was a little roundabout and they would have to cross the bridge. ‘Leave right away,’ I told Sudash. ‘There’s something wrong. Will explain later.’

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Sudash was intelligent. He wasted no words, taking the other north-bound route away from the Canal. The real drama began within minutes when Biswanath and Poto arrived at my house. ‘Where is your friend, Dada?’ asked Poto. ‘What friend?’ I asked in an innocent voice. ‘The one who said he would sell the Made-in-China.’ ‘He hasn’t come here. And why should he?’ I answered in a naïve tone. ‘Now don’t try to be smart,’ said Poto. The usual polish that his voice had when he spoke to me had disappeared. He was not my employee now. He was the local strongman’s brother and I, a creature of the timid species. ‘I’ve seen him come here.’ I said again, ‘Why should he come here?’ ‘Because I asked him to,’ he replied. ‘Why?’ ‘We want to buy his stuff.’ ‘If it is you who wants to buy the stuff, why should he come to my place? He will go to yours.’ I too had played with fire once upon a time. Would they have dared to plan to make a sucker out of me if this was the Jadavpur station area? They would have been crouching in that corner, nursing bleeding noses by now. My temper had shot up by now. ‘Whether you will buy or whether you will snatch is surely your business. Why have you involved me in this? That is why I sent him away. You want to buy, very well then, you know where to find him in Kasba, go ahead and get it from him there.’ Two thousand was a lot of money in those days. As was the power of a Made-in-China sticking out from your waistband. Just the possession of that would raise one’s status in the underworld. And I had acted as the impediment to this rise of Biswanath. It was not surprising then that he lost his temper with me and threatened me with dire consequences. Luck, however, was not on Biswanath’s side. His muscleflexing and heated words had been noticed by two others down

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the road whom he had once beaten up. Their desire for revenge had driven them into One-Eyed Ajit’s gang and these two now approached me. ‘What is the matter, Dada? What was Bishwanath threatening you about?’ Aware that I would need their support since Bishwanath and Poto were now furious with me, I narrated the events to them. Sudash, I know, is a dangerous guy, I told them. If something untoward does happen with him while he is at my place, do you think he will let me go? If Biswajit and Poto want to buy a Made-in-China stuff, why don’t they go to his place or call him over to theirs? Why are they involving me in this? The eyes of the two boys widened. A Made-in-China stuff! So Biswajit was now aiming to buy the real thing? Now this was real news, and they had to get this to One-Eyed Ajit’s ears immediately. Be warned! Biswajit was quietly arming himself well. If that stuff really came into his hands, One-Eyed Ajit’s days would be numbered! That very afternoon, One-Eyed Ajit arrived at my place. I had to repeat the entire story to him. He listened carefully to all that I said. Dark in complexion, thin and about five feet in height, his one good eye held a cold, snake-like stare. I knew that look. I had seen it on many others. Perhaps some others had seen it in my eyes too at times which I have prudently left out of this narrative. And I grew a little worried about Biswajit’s future. ‘So he doesn’t have it as yet?’ ‘Not yet.’ ‘But he will once he pays the money?’ ‘Yes, possibly. They know where Sudash stays. This is his business.’ ‘Don’t tell anyone I came to you,’ said One-Eyed Ajit and left. The very next day, in the darkness of the evening, Biswanath was shot and hacked to death with a chopper in front of his liquor shop. I had been sitting on the Rajdanga Bridge with another local boy, Bapi. One-Eyed Ajit crossed us on his way to Biswanath, and returned a while later having killed him.

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But Biswanath did not die alone. He took with him a host of other youths as his murder triggered a spree of killings in the area. On this side of the Ramlal Bazar, beside the red gate, lived Swapan. The area around Ruby-Golpark was then hot property, with the E. M. Bypass coming up, there was much buying and selling of the land there, and huge amounts of money were changing hands. This place had been under the domination of One-Eyed Ajit till now. But after Biswanath’s murder, Ajit was on the run, and Swapan decided to take advantage of this vacuum. He took Biswanath’s brother Poto under his wing, and armed him with weapons. Kill that bastard Ajit. Poto could not get to Ajit, but he did get to an accomplice who had been involved in Biswanath’s murder. This man’s body was found with a slit throat, in a sack dumped in a drain. Then Ajit’s gang killed one of Poto’s. One morning, after a night of restless wakefulness because of the horrendous heat, I was awoken by a posse of policemen banging on my door. They were looking for rickshaw-wallah Madan. They woke up my wife and daughter, peeped under my bed and, before leaving, warned us that they would disturb us every day unless we gave them information about Madan. At first, I had thought it was me they were looking for. But then I realized they were searching for Kasba rickshaw-wallah Madan. I was the Jadavpur one. Then one day, I got murdered. Somebody or bodies strangled me and threw my dead body by the side of the Bypass. Ganesh and Gopal of Jadavpur hurried over to stand by my wife and daughter. And raised their eyebrows on seeing me hale and hearty, sipping on jaggery tea spiced with bay leaves. ‘O ho! How were we to know this was another rickshaw-­ wallah Madan!’ they said. The dead have no fears. It is the living who are burdened with thousands of anxieties. Living in an area largely ruled by Poto and his gang, I was sorely worried that at some point they would remember that this entire saga had been begun by my recalcitrant behavior that upset their plans. What was to stop them from coming in one day and blowing my brains out? I decided to leave and return to my familiar territory of Jadavpur.

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The thought had come to me one morning. By afternoon, I had hired a van-rickshaw and piled our earthly belongings onto it. I must get out before dark. There were too many enemies lurking in the shadows here. About a month after I left, One-Eyed Ajit was murdered by his rival gang at a tea stall. They beat him to death, dragged him by the legs and dumped him in front of his house. With that, the sixth murder in the locality, this killing spree came to an end. I stopped the van-rickshaw at the Double Bridge of Santoshpur. There were not so many buildings here then. But there were a number of makeshift huts. After asking around for some time, I finally took on rent a room at one hundred rupees a month. With the issue of a shelter solved, my next problem was an income. There I used to work as a contractor. What I was to do here? Go back to being a rickshaw-wallah? This was another ordinary day when I was sitting at Jhantuda’s shop. Everything was the same. Jhantuda was still a poor shopkeeper with a shabby looking shop. One of the legs of his old table had broken. It now stood on three legs and a pile of bricks that propped up the fourth corner. The other change was that there was a newspaper or two at his shop these days. His son was a newspaper vendor now. It was such a newspaper that I was leafing through when my eyes fell on a column at the corner of the first page. ‘Nata Mallick was ill’, I read. I poured over the news. This was a man I knew because one of his daughters was married to an employee of the Jadavpur T.B. Hospital. He was no poet, politician or star, so how did his illness merit the first page? This was because he was an executioner, and with him falling to an ailment of the heart, the Alipore Jail authorities were rather worried. Two prisoners awaited the death penalty within their walls. I knew these prisoners too. An astronomically rich and powerful father-son duo of this city, owners of a prestigious educational

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institution, who had been accused and convicted of murdering their daughter-in-law. The case had dragged on for some years before they were convicted at the Judges Court. But they would now take the case to the High Court and the Supreme Court, in their endeavour to bribe their way out of the conviction. I knew little of the way the system of law worked. So the way I interpreted the scenario was that Nata Mallick had been bribed to claim illness and lay off his work. This would delay the hanging. From my experience of the prison, I knew that if the sentence could not be carried out within a period of two years, then the execution would be stayed on humanitarian grounds, and the sentence would be changed to one of life imprisonment. The father-son had already been behind bars for about one and a half years, if they could stretch this to another six months, then the sentence was taken care of. As for life imprisonment, that meant twenty years. But there were many ways of reducing that. Firstly, every month was counted as twenty-four days, since two Saturdays and four Sundays were holidays and not counted as part of the sentence. Then there was the system of what was called ‘remission’: you could get days discounted from your total sentence for good behavior. The Big Jamadar could get one day, the Jailer four, and the Jail Super seven days taken off from your sentence. And then there were the holidays accruing from the national holidays like Gandhi’s birthday, Independence Day, and such others. But the biggest remission of prison sentence could be earned through blood donation, which I have written of earlier. But there was a loophole here too. The poorer convicts looking for ways to make some money and get a few luxuries during their prison stay would donate blood in the guise of the richer convicts. Ram gave blood, Shyam babu got twenty or twenty two days off his sentence, and Ram made some money to buy jaggery or puffed rice. I had been with the Naxals once. I cannot claim to have been a Naxal though. The word was synonymous with the word ‘revolutionary’ in my dictionary. This much I had realized that a Naxalite

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is born out of a deep sense of love and sympathy for the poor and the exploited. I had also heard them say that no Communist could be a true Communist unless his hands had been reddened in the blood of his class enemies. I decided it would be a good idea to take up this job and to rid this society of vermin like this father-son duo. So I set out for the jail. Upon arrival, I found that it was the hour when families and friends came to visit the prisoners. They had written out details of their identity and whom they wanted to visit and dropped the paper in to a box. The man who was manning the box was writing all this out for a fee of two rupees. I was no longer illiterate, so I thought I would not need to pay him to write out my letter. But I had no paper, so I asked him for a page, whereupon he demanded a payment of two rupees whether he wrote or not. So I fished out the two rupees I had in my pocket and wrote out a longish letter to the Jailer-Babu. The letter went something like this: Respected Jailer-Babu, I have come to know from the newspapers that the executioner Nata Mallick has fallen ill and that this has stalled the execution of two villainous prisoners. These two are unworthy of living another day and therefore deserve to be executed at once. Their breaths poison the air they breathe and their touch makes barren the soil they tread upon. I am willing to cooperate with the authorities in this work and execute them. I would be grateful if I were employed for this job. Etcetera etcetera…

I then sat waiting after having dropped my letter. What I had not realized was that this box was for letters addressed to the inmates of the prison cells. All through my life, my actions have been marked not by shrewd and nuanced thought, but by somewhat crude, though candid and forthright, thought. A letter addressed to the Jailer in that box would mean either a joke at his expense, or an attempt to humiliate the Jailer. The letters were all deposited on the Deputy Jailer’s table. As he commenced

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calling out the names of the prisoners, he drew up short at the name of the Jailer. Lowering his voice, he said something to those sitting beside him, in all likelihood sniggered a little. I was then summoned to the office. There sat the Deputy Jailer, a sepoy, one or two educated prisoners serving long hauls, and another officer. Their eyes shone with glee, but they kept their faces straight. ‘Is this your letter?’ the Deputy asked. ‘It is,’ I answered. ‘What do you do?’ ‘Nothing much. I do whatever comes my way.’ ‘Have you ever killed anybody?’ ‘Umm… why do you ask me this?’ ‘All that I want to know is whether you have any prior experience.’ ‘I do,’ I answered humbly in a low voice. ‘Good.’ He said. ‘In any job, the one with some experience will get priority. And how have you killed? No, no, you have no fear. All you see here today have some experience in that line.’ There was a note of disbelief in his voice. I looked up and said, ‘You can take my word for it. I have earlier, and I will be able to do again. My hand or heart will not tremble.’ He glanced at the others and then said, ‘I have done it, I can do it—such vague claims will not cut any ice. You need to tell us where and how you have hanged somebody.’ ‘No, Sir, I have not hanged anybody. But I have lassoed a man around his neck with my gamchha and half-strangled him. He could have died.’ ‘Well, you will have to complete that. Full-strangle. Get that experience and then come back. We will consider your candidature for this job.’ As I walked out of the prison, I could hear the roars of laughter behind me. With an empty pocket, I walked down towards the Kalighat Bridge like a fool. Jadavpur was about five miles from here. As I came down the bridge and turned left into the Mahim Haldar

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Street, who should I meet but Subodh Chakrabarty of Shyama Colony. His school was here. ‘How have you been?’ he asked me. ‘You have not been to my place for long. You haven’t brought any books over either. Are you still writing?’ I narrated my life’s events to him. Everything was too uncertain now to allow me to concentrate on writing. I needed a job badly. Could he get me one? ‘What kind of job are you looking for?’ he said, sounding worried. ‘Jobs are very difficult to come across…’ I interrupted him to say, ‘Anything. I have no preferences. I will do any job that will give me a fixed salary. I don’t mind doing anything. Cleaning bathrooms too is acceptable to me.’ He was silent for a while and then he said, ‘Well, I can get you a job if you are really willing to do it. A government job.’ ‘A job! What job?’ ‘What you said.’ His voice was halting and a little hesitant. ‘You said it was okay, so I said. We do need a person in that post at our school.’ This was before the time that bathroom-sweepers began to be treated as full human beings. The Bamun, Baids and Kayets had not yet begun lining up at the Corporation for jobs as Safaiworkers. The sweepers at the Jadavpur T.B. Hospital would not be allowed inside Kali’s tea stall that stood in front of its gates. So I knew how humiliating this job could be. But every passing day the fearful maw of hunger widened. I needed a job and I agreed. ‘You will work as a casual employee for three months,’ said Subodhda. ‘During this time, the salary you receive will be a little low, but once you are confirmed, the salary will be seven hundred and fifty rupees. You will receive Provident Fund, Gratuity, and get the stipulated number of Casual and Medical Leaves.’ He took me with him to meet the Headmaster. Once inside the

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school and on being taken to my work area, I realized that there could be no question of turning me back that day. The absence of a cleaner had turned the area of the toilets into hell. The area around the lavatories was green and slimy with dark moss and a pile of rubbish that had accumulated over the past weeks. I began work the next day with buckets of water, brooms, acid and phenyl on that mountain of refuse and human waste that had been piling up since the beginning of creation: vomit, excreta, stools, urine, shit, faeces, some of which had come crashing down and spread out in hideous streams into the drains, potholes and gutters nearby. In that haven of stench and filth, nurtured by the humidity of the monsoons, thousands of white tiny wriggling lives had taken birth. Progenies of the world’s plenitude. And these creatures had begun on their life’s precarious journey, swarming under the wash basins into the neighbouring verandahs, under the staircases and into the classrooms. Hitching rides on the shoes on the running feet of the students, they were travelling across the school compound, making the area unhygienic and unfit for children. It was my job to clean and sanitize this place. And for that I would be paid two hundred rupees a month for the time being. I try to console myself that all work is, after all, work. The soldier who fights on the battlefield and the cook who stays at a distance, preparing food, are all involved in the same project. The teacher who wields the cane in the classroom and the sweeper who wields the broom, are all working for the same society. All work is sacred. Haven’t you read Mahatma Gandhi’s biography? He too cleaned lavatories! Thus began my countdown. Three months, that is ninety days. And after that, all my financial woes would end. So I tie my gamchha around my nose, and wade into the sea of filth day after day. I wade, I swim, I crawl in filth all day. But the promised three months turn to six, and that to nine, and that to one full year. The confirmation of my job remains elusive. Every month there is a meeting of the Governing Body. But after the meeting, the

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Headmaster widens his eyes on seeing me, and utters a dismayed ‘Jah!’ For he had quite forgotten, yet again, to raise the topic of my confirmation. After all, the matter of my job was a trivial matter. How could he, the man burdened with such onerous responsibilities be expected to remember each and very insignificant detail? With the passage of the year, there arrived the school’s Foundation Day. Subodhda said to me, ‘I have been given the responsibility of publishing a souvenir journal this year. Write something for it.’ The beats of the drum are irresistible to the feet of the dancer, and I got carried away in the euphoria. Unaware of the disaster I was about to bring upon myself, I sat down with pen and paper, and using the pseudonym of Acharya, wrote out a story of an idealistic schoolmaster, devoted to his students and his vocation. The magazine was published after about a month. And the world around me underwent a rapid transformation. No teacher looked at me straight any more. There was a resentful suspicious look in their eyes. Till one day, Rathin babu called me to his office. ‘Tell me the truth. Who has written this?’ he asked. ‘I have,’ I answered. ‘I cannot believe that. The other writings in the journal pale in comparison to this one. Yet they are so much more educated than you. How can this be?’ ‘I cannot comment on the others,’ I said. ‘But this is mine. And this is not the first. There have been about twenty articles of mine which have been published. I have also written for Mahasweta Devi’s Bartika.’ ‘Well, why didn’t you stay with those journals? Why did you have this bright idea of writing in this school journal? Your job has not yet been confirmed, and already the other teachers are feeling humiliated by your writing. Besides, things may not be as clean as they appear. Sudhir babu is of the opinion that this has been done on purpose and that the word “Sweeper” placed after your name

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is a deliberate ploy to insult the teachers by showing the poverty of their writings.’ He paused. ‘I believe I have caught you out. You are an educated boy. You have completed at least the School Secondary exams. And you are associated with the Leftists. That of course is quite clear from your writings.’ Within a few days I was called by the Headmaster. On other days, I would stand humbly before him. But today, I was given a chair to sit. ‘Why, I find you are a talented young man!’ he said. ‘What a powerful story you have written!’ I got gooseflesh when I read those lines—when the master is lying on his deathbed and telling his students. ‘Educate yourselves. Education will engender the conscious, and consciousness will engender revolution. May you be the winds of change that bring revolution to the stagnant pond of society.’ He took off his spectacles and wiped them clean, and then tapped his pen slowly on the table. ‘There was this one vanity I had. That I could know people at a glance. I have to admit that I have failed with you. When you first came to me, with your looks and your dress, I took you for a real sweeper. One who can deceive my old eyes must be, I have to admit, an extraordinary person.’ He picked up a glass of water and drank from it. ‘My father too was a revolutionary. He was with Masterda at the Chittagong Armoury Raid.3 He had escaped from the Jalalabad Hills, come down to the Hooghly and was living disguised as a boatman on the river. Nobody recognized him. I have heard say that he once ferried the very darogah who was hunting him.’ His voice deepened. ‘I have some idea of what it is to be truly, sincerely dedicated to an ideology. I know what immense sacrifices can be made possible through this devotion to one’s ideals. On seeing you, I am compelled to say, that a party that can inspire such a spirit of

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sacrifice among its members, will go far. Look at our boys. They cannot imagine themselves cleaning toilets. Even postering the walls embarrasses them. It is here that our party is losing out to yours.’ ‘Sir, it is not as you think. Believe me,’ I said in a trembling voice, when he paused. ‘I have no connection with any political party. I am a poor man, with a hungry stomach to feed. It is out of sheer desperation that I have taken up this job. I have no other objective in mind. It has been many days, Sir, the salary is so low— will you please do something about my raise now?’ He smiled. In fact, this was the first time that he had smiled today, but such a chilling smile I had never faced before. ‘Let me tell you one truth,’ he said with the same smile. You will not like to hear it, but let me tell you all the same. I would hate to say a talented individual like you with a broom in his hand. I want to see you wielding the pen. The pen that breathes fire. Ha ha ha! But yes, and that is why I cannot bring myself to do anything that will kill this extraordinary talent. You wield a powerful pen. If you devote yourself to writing, I am certain Bengal will gain a great writer and the Leftists will gain a Bengali Gorky. Placing the temptation of a mere job in your hands will be unjust of me. Unjust and criminal. I will not be able to do that. And I believe one day you will recognize the rightness of this decision and thank me for it. I suggest you talk to Subodh babu or Swadesh babu. They run a number of papers and journals. Let them put you to work as a writer. I do not remember when the Head Sir’s lecture ended. My ears were ringing by then. An agony of fear and anxiety—the intense grief of a dream shattered had swallowed up my being. It was as if I stood dead with the misery. A corpse in which the rot had set in, as in the unclaimed corpses that lie in a heap, worms swarming all over it. I do not remember when I dragged my numbed senseless body down the steps to the darkened space near the water taps. I sat on the floor unaware of the spit and mucous, with the sharp stench of the shit and urine invading my senses. I must have sat like that for a long time till I heard the school bell ring, signalling

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the end of the school day. With slow steps I went out onto the road. The end had come for me too. After walking down many streets and knowing many people, I returned to my old familiar address—the Jadavpur railway station. A rickshaw-wallah standing in line with his rickshaw again. And I thought that no matter how high a kite flew, it was tied to its string and would be brought down to the ground. This was its fate. My life was the same. An invisible string tied it to humiliation and impoverishment. I would never be free of this. Ever. The easier, rhythmic life of normalcy would elude me forever. So be it. If I was to live as a beast of burden, then this was my life. Since I spent the major part of my day among these people, since when I died it would be these shoulders that carried me to the crematorium, these were my people. I would therefore try to make our combined lives a little less difficult and wearisome than it was at the moment. So I decided we would make a Union for ourselves—a completely different kind of a Union than those that were around. There had been many Unions in the area but none of the leaders of those Unions had been those who pulled the rickshaw. They had been from among those who rode the rickshaw. And by virtue of being a member of these Unions, the rickshaw-wallahs had three specific tasks laid out for them. The first was contributing the monthly membership fee, the second was adding to the crowds on the days of meetings and processions, and the third was, in accordance with the directions issued by the Union leader, ferrying particular voters on election days from their houses to the polling booth and back, and of course, charging no fee for the service. The Union leader of the Rickshaw-wallahs’ Union at the Jadavpur station was, and had been for a long time, a certain ruffian who was a henchman of the Congress Party. Despite belonging to the Congress, however, he appeared to be on excellent terms with the Communist leaders of the locality. We had no idea how the many two rupees fee that he collected from each of us every month was spent. The rickshaw-wallahs were all poor people. It would be expected that it would be obligatory for the

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Union to help out with some funds in the case of an accident or an illness of its members. None of the leaders till date had fulfilled this responsibility. My belief is that if a Labour Union is formed at a factory with the reins of control in the hands of the owners, then that Union would bring its benefits not to the labourers but to the owners. In the same way with a rickshaw-wallahs’ union. So I spoke with my brothers in trade. I repeatedly told them that we would ourselves have to decide what was good or bad for us. That was the only way the Union could benefit us. We will make our own union. The current Union leader was an old and well-known thug. And many were scared—what if he gets angry, they said. So I said, a young bull is stronger than an aged tiger. We will not give our hard-earned money to anybody else. If that makes them angry, we will handle it. So one day the old sign board came off and a new one went up in its place—The Rickshaw Labour Union. The President was Haren Ghosh, Secretary Madan De, the Treasurer Abhimanyu Das, and Ganesh, the two Gopals and me were the members. Some days ago the Salkia plenum of the CPM had been held, where a number of new resolutions had been taken. Earlier they would say that religion is like opium, it entranced the senses making rational thought impossible. Now they resolved that the Party members would from now take part in the religious festivities of Durga Puja and Kali Puja. Yet another resolution was taken. That labourers of the unorganized sector would also be organized into Unions. So hawkers, small shopkeepers, employees of the larger shops, the coolies at the railway stations, the domestic workers at the babus’ houses, all were being brought together into the all-encompassing octopus-like clutches of the Party. There were possibly about a thousand rickshaws in the Jadavpur area and active attempts were made to bring them all under the red flag. It was either join the Party or face the threat of finding it impossible to ply your trade if you refused. As a result of this, they were almost entirely successful. The CPM leader Shibu Ray Chaudhuri and the Congress Union leader of our locality were drinking buddies. So this one area they had left untouched till date. But now, with us proclaiming an independent Union, the obligations of friendship

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no longer hampered them, and a few Youth Leaders of the CPM came visiting me one day. This Union will not do. Everybody will have to join the All Bengal Rickshaw Union of the CITU. I, and my fellow rickshawwallahs, knew what that would mean, for these too were from the class of people who rode, not drove, the rickshaws. So I said, ‘We will not go with any party. We will make our own Union.’ This angered them and they left with an angry ‘Very well then. We will see to this.’ Among the most vulnerable creatures of this suburban world is the rickshaw-wallah. He can be beaten up with impunity at an opportune place with no passer-by lifting a finger to help. And the persecution began from the next day. If they could beat down the few of us who had built this up together, then the other elderly, middle-aged, half-dead members could be taken care of. They would sit if ordered to; they would stand if ordered to. Among some rickshaw-wallahs playing cards in the afternoon, was Dark Gopal—he was picked out and beaten up for gambling. Jalil was beaten for getting drunk and mouthing obscenities. Ganesh was beaten for charging more than he should. And then one day I too was beaten up with a bamboo in front of my wife and kids. My crime was not one, but many. I had been committing crimes from that distant past of the year of ’79 when I was about ten or twelve years old. I was ordered to stay away from the Jadvpur area. Don’t ever touch the handlebars of a rickshaw again, I was told. It is because of criminals like you that the whole community of rickshaw-­wallahs gets a bad reputation. If you dare touch a rickshaw again, we will take you to the Dhapa Fields and bury you there. I was without an income again. My old world of the rickshaw, and my old world of Jadavpur were lost to me and I never returned here again. Life took me further and further away. Now my mother-in-law came to my aid and, through some people she knew, secured me a job as a night guard at a factory. The monthly salary was three hundred and fifty rupees and, since they gave us a small room within the factory compound, the rent that would otherwise have been needed, was saved. I stayed here

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for two years. My second child was born here. We named him Manik, after the famous writer of Padma Nadir Majhi. My first child we had named after my favourite writer, Mahasweta Devi. Some of my writings began to be published around this time. I received four hundred and fifty rupees—more than a month’s salary for me—as payment for my story ‘Addiction’ in the magazine Manorama. On 28 March 1988, I was written about in the column ‘Kolkata’s Diary’ of the Ananda Bazar Patrika, the largest selling vernacular newspaper in Bengal. The writer Nikhil Sarkar wrote, ‘We had asked him, Why do you write? His answer was, “There are certain things I have to tell the people, and it is only me who can tell them of these things.”’

CHAPTER 15

To Dandakaranya, Dalli and Bastar

I

 received a surprise one morning in 1989. My younger brother Niru had come to Calcutta from Dandakaranya in order to procure some goods for his shop. It had occurred to him to look for me and, searching for me like a needle in a haystack, had found my Narendrapur address. He had gone first to the Sulekha Company, then from there to the Jadavpur Rickshaw Stand, and on being told that I now lived near the Narendrapur Mission, had arrived here when someone directed him to this factory. Perhaps Jyoti Basu deserves gratitude for awakening the refugees to the reality that no political party would reach out to help them. The deeper the sleep, the greater the shove required to bring people to their senses. The brutal murders and rapes carried out by Jyoti Basu’s party cadres had shattered the illusions harboured by these people. They no longer looked to the upper castes or classes for help. This had been a boon for they had now learnt to think and act on their own. When a man first goes to prison, he is restless for the outside world. But gradually, realizing that this will be his life for years now, he settles down and makes the best of the little he has. Some paint, some grow flowers, some sculpt. When the refugees realized they meant nothing to Bengal and the Bengalis, they accepted the harsh, shingle-laden, rocky land of Dandakaranya. They dug for themselves wells, planted whatever vegetables grew, and some levelled out the ground to plant the kharif and rabi seasonal crops. Some tried to get their

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children educated in order to secure jobs, some began small businesses which were called dhanda in the local tongue. Very often in these small entrepreneurial ventures, the trading was less, and opportunism, or the dhanda, was more. Niru too was in ‘business’. He loaded snuff, oil, soap onto his bicycle and sold his wares at the tribal villages. He was now in Calcutta to buy bangles, earrings, ribbons for the hair. These too would sell very well. Human beings being human, succumb to momentary emotions and take hasty decisions. My brother Niru was a somewhat hard-hearted person, without much mercy or kindness. But his usual nature had been overtaken by his emotions on seeing his brother after almost seventeen years. He made a proposition: ‘Dada, why stay here in this state? Come home. Much of the land that the government has given us lies uncultivated. Father has passed away, brother has passed away. Come over to us. We two brothers will till the land and live like earlier days.’ The fool had then forgotten that he had two sons to feed. They would grow up one day, they would marry, and the land that now appeared unnecessarily large would grow small then. Niru stayed for two days at my place and left on the third. But he left behind a storm in my house. My wife Anu was then like a drowning man, clutching at straws. She had sensed security and stability in Niru’s words. She was adamant. ‘Let us go to our country, our desh.’ She had grown terrified of the life here. The image of the six Rajdanga corpses haunted her. The other day, she had gone to collect the food staples from the rationing outlet at Haltu, and had seen One-Eyed Ajit murdered before her eyes. She had seen her husband beaten up before her eyes. Unused to such violence, accustomed to the peaceful, ­routine-bound existence of the orphanage where she had grown up, Anu was scared. She was certain she would be widowed any day. One of these days, I met Samir Ray, the teacher-poet-friend at the Chetla School, and told him of my decision. ‘I am planning to live out the rest of my days there with my family. Have taken my leave of the others. I wanted to meet you before I left.’

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‘This must be well-thought decision,’ said Samirda. ‘Since you are going to Bastar, make time to visit Dalli. That is not very far from there. Meet him.’ Who was this man Samir Ray talking of? This man was the king of the hearts of the labouring Chhattisgarhis—Shankar Guha Neogi. The much loved and respected Shankar Bhaiya of the masses. I knew this name. I had read of him, possibly in some torn old journal among the heap at Chhechan’s shop, in the days of the Revolution. But I had never seen him and my curiosity now grew to meet this man at Bastar. So after a couple of months, we bundled up our necessities and few possessions, and arrived at Paralkot. Niru no longer lived at the old house PV56 where my father had lived. He lived in a new house built near the tribal village Harangarh. There was some cultivable land here and some empty land which made it possible to rear cattle and poultry. Niru also had a small grocery shop here from where the tribals bought their necessities. Niru was not there when we arrived towards the late afternoon. He had gone to the PV56 to play cards. His son was dispatched to inform him, but the information apparently did not induce him to drop his cards and return home at once. For he returned at dusk and, on his return, the unsmiling faces of Niru and his wife made the eager anticipation die out in my mind. I knew then, that like many other decisions that I had taken, this too had possibly been a mistaken one. That it had been unwise to land up here with my entire family. My mother’s indifferent behaviour too conveyed to me the distance that had grown between us over the years. Her family now consisted of that of her younger son. It was their well-being she cared for. Aware of the Mahabharata story, Ma knew that dispute between brothers over property would mean much suffering and it was a possibility she dreaded. But while I could understand everything, I was helpless. This was a foreign land to me and I knew no one else here but Niru. I had, as it were, jumped into a well with my family by coming here. I did not have the money to return to Calcutta, or a room here

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where I could house my family. We were therefore compelled to stay on at Niru’s pace for about three months. Conscious of our helplessness, we tried hard to keep them happy. Anu would wake at daybreak, clean the stable, sweep the rooms, carry home water, cook and serve. We were a total of eleven or twelve people and meals had to be served thrice. In the morning, we had some boiled rice and vegetables, after which we all set out to work. I would go into the nearby jungles and cut down branches of bamboo which I brought back to the house to build a fence around it. The house that had remained unfenced all these years, now needed a strong fence around it. The people of the house shifted all the work of the house onto us. They possibly hoped that the heavy work would work as a discouragement and we would leave. Niru’s wife could now no longer walk to the tubewell for her daily bath. She was with child. So Anu had to carry the buckets of water from half-a kilometre away and, in apparently sadistic pleasure, she would pour two or three buckets of water onto herself. Nor was Anu given proper food. I would eat earlier and so would remain in the dark as to whether there was any food left for her. While my mother and Niru’s wife ate their fill of rice and wasted some, Anu would remain hungry. To add to this were quarrels. My sister who was married and lived nearby would come over and join the others in attacking her. Most of these quarrels happened when I would be away at the forest. One day, it so happened, that Anu was not given anything to eat the whole day. When I returned in the evening, I found her sitting under a tree with her son and daughter, hungry and in tears. We came away that day to my father’s PV56 plot. The house was in ruins then. The thatch of the roof had rotted and would give way in the rains. My other brother Chitta’s widowed wife lived here with her two minor children. According to law, as Chitta’s wife she could lay claim to a section of her father-in-law’s land, but Niru had not given her anything. She earned her rice by working on other people’s land and by cutting their grain. I should add here that I was able to get her the deserved share of land in time,

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and I gave my share of the land to her two minor children. Niru must have then rued inviting me over to this place. This possibly is what the Bengalis mean when they speak of someone digging a canal to bring the crocodile in. Be that as it may, we arrived there and woke up Chandan’s mother [Chitta’s widow] from her sleep. ‘Make us some rice. We have not eaten the whole day.’ That night we lived through. But what about the future? We knew no one here who would give us a handful of rice. A neighbour advised us to go onto the forest, cut down wood and go sell it to some hotel nearby. With that money I would be able to buy rice and dal for my family. This sounded better than work as a labourer for someone in the area, most of whom could not eventually pay his workers. At the end of the week, they landed up in the market with grain, jute, sesame, hens, or oil from their homes in an effort to sell these so as to pay off their labourers. But I could not wait till the end of a week. I would need money every day to buy rice. People who sell wood command no respect here. They are called defaulters. Wood gatherers here were treated like those who gathered old newspapers from the streets of Calcutta. But I needed food, not respect. With a wife and two kids, I needed to earn money. So I went and got hold of Gopal who ran a small hotel at the end of the Kapashi Bazar which was three miles from PV56. ‘Dada, pay me a rupee less than you pay the others, but buy wood from me. I am in dire need. I will give you more wood than the others do.’ He agreed to pay me ten rupees for every bicycle load of wood. The Kapashi Bazar had come up about thirty to thirty five years ago and since then these small hotels and eateries were plying their trade here. There were ten to twenty villages too in the neighbouring forests. Each of these establishments needed wood for fuel and therefore dry wood was impossible to get in the near vicinity. I would need to go at least twelve miles into the forest, about four miles after the farthest village numbered 130

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into the dense forests. Attacks by bears or being carried off as human sacrifice for the tribal god Anga were not unknown fates there. At one time, human sacrifice was a universal feature and was present in India too, as the Yajurveda testifies. A shloka in Kalika Purana says that while the sacrifice of one human will keep the devi satisfied for a thousand years, a sacrifice of three human beings will satisfy her for one lakh years. Human sacrifice is heard to have existed in Bengal at the time of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and, not too long ago, during the colonial age, at the Kalighat Kali Mandir and at the Chitpur Chitteshwari Mandir. From ancient times, the Gonds, Madiya, Mudiya, Halba, and other primitive tribes had been practising human sacrifice and one of their kings who inclined towards this was a man called Bhairo Deo. The Danteshwari temple at Jagaddalpur in the Bastar district saw many human sacrifices during his reign around 1876. The king’s men used to smuggle boys from the neighbouring province of Odisha for this purpose. The times had changed now and the authorities kept a strict check on the area. The forests too were not as dense as they had been. But one or two rare sacrifices to Anga, a God or Goddess of the tribals, could still be heard of. Besides this, there was the fear of snakes and scorpions. But I could not afford such fears now. There was this old blunt axe of my father’s and, with a borrowed bicycle, I set out for the depths of the thick forests. It was obvious that not too many ventured in because there was much dry wood here. I had taken the steep road that, passing by the Village No. 100, went over the hill and towards Kapashi. It was possibly the steepness of this half-a-mile long path that discouraged other wood gatherers from coming here. I was new to the place and so did not know any of the other jungles. Hunger was chasing me and I gauged that I had about another eight hours before it felled me. I would need to act fast. To make matters worse, this was the month of June, when the weather became intolerable after eleven. The hot, searing loo started blowing forcing people to take shelter indoors. It scalded the skin and killed many who succumbed to sunstroke. I would need to return with the wood before that.

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I managed to cut down some wood with my blunt axe and piled it atop the bicycle. I would now have to tie the load to the cycle. It was almost ten by then. I could feel the whiplash of heat on my skin and hunger gnawing at my intestines. My lips and throat felt parched. The more experienced locals of this area would not dream of entering the forests for wood without carrying some water to drink in their leather skin bags which they called chhagals. But I was a greenhorn here. As I hurried to gather up the wood and tie the load, a tiny black scorpion scuttled out of the pile and plunged its sting into my foot. A sharp, burning pain shot up from my foot as if a hot iron needle had been pierced in. I clutched my foot with both hands and sat down on the ground. But after a couple of minutes of sitting crouched in pain, I realized that the foot would soon be unworkable and I needed to get out of the jungle and to the first habitations at Village No. 130 before that happened. But I could not leave the wood I had cut down. That would render futile all this effort that I had put in since early morning. Besides, I needed food for my wife and kids. Now, Rabindranath is not one of my favourite poets. Among the few of his poems and short stories that I have read was the poem, ‘Two Acres of Land’, in which the Babu cheats the poor Upen of his meagre two acres. I never could support Rabindranath’s decision to make a sadhu of the penniless Upen, freeing him of his home and giving him the whole world. My class hatred told me that he should have made Upen face the Babu with a sickle in his hand. But now, as I struggled with the wood and the cycle, one line of Rabindranath’s kept going round and round in my head: Yet, O bird, my blinded bird though you are, Do not let your flight be over just yet.

So I fastened the load of wood to the back of the bicycle, pushed it painstakingly over the uneven roughness of the jungle floor, and walked it to the road. But every time I tried to get up on

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the seat, the bicycle with its unwieldy load of wood would hobble precariously and almost topple over. So I leant it on a tree, placed one foot on a flat rock nearby and clambered up onto the seat. But the load of wood was both heavy and ill-balanced, and I fell down, bicycle and all. Pulling the bicycle up again with the load strapped to it was beyond my ability then. I was weak with the agonizing pain that had spread beyond my foot and was now hammering at my head. What could I do now? There was only one way. I untied the bundle of wood and pulled the cycle up. The veins in my head throbbed. My body cried for water. I could feel my mind beginning to weaken and I despaired of carrying back the wood I had gathered with such labour. I would be defeated today. But then I remembered that story by Samaresh Basu, ‘The Crossing.’ In the film, the role had been played by Naseeruddin Shah, and that of his pregnant wife by Shabana Azmi. At an anna per pig, the couple had agreed to transport the herd across the swift river. They cannot give up. Life and hope are on the other side. I knew then I would have to reach the village and reach it with my wood. I arranged the pieces again, one at a time, on the back of the bicycle. Holding it up, I climbed up again. Grasping the handles firmly, I stepped down on the pedals. The bicycle did not topple over this time. I reached Village No. 130 in about fifteen minutes. The thirst that I had held in check till now overpowered me as soon as the refugee houses came in sight. But I was seized with a fear of losing my grip on the bicycle if I stopped and got down. The road I was cycling on was of bitumen. But if I swerved to the sandy branch roads to get a drink of water, the bicycle might skid and fall again. Then I would need to lift all the wood on to it once again. I may not be able to climb up on the seat this time. Or I may not be able to keep my balance on it. With all these fears in my head, I rode on without stopping and after another fifteen or twenty minutes, reached the steep hill that I had crossed. Pushing the empty bicycle up it had exhausted me then. Now it was a loaded one. But whether it was the bearded old poet, or the writer of ‘The Crossing’, I managed to stagger up the hill with that loaded, heavy, wobbling bicycle again.

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With one numbed-out foot, an angry June sun beating down, a famine-worthy hunger inside my belly, the tar road burning hot under my bare feet, I beat all these odds and kept pushing ahead. There was nothing on this side. Life and hope were on the other side. I would have to reach there. Life is a journey, life is a battle. Life is defeating death and living on. Pushing the cycle up possibly took me about an hour and a half. Once I reached the top of the hill, I rested. The sun was overhead. I guessed it would be around one in the afternoon. Riding downhill was no problem. By now, my body had also got the balance of the bicycle, and I reached Gopal’s shop without any difficulty. Seeing my devastated appearance and on hearing of my experience, they came up to help with the load. And they paid me ten rupees. Ten rupees. Life support for my entire family for one day. The man my thoughts would keep turning to during these days of friendlessness and helplessness in Bastar was Shankar Guha Neogi. I believed that if I could stand before him and tell him of my life’s earnings—all that I had earned through hard work and persistence, despite the odds, I would receive help from him. It was not that I had ambitious desires. I was a small man and all I wanted was a job that would bring in enough for my family and me. The satisfaction of being in a job that was beneficial to society. But in those days, travelling to Dalli was expensive for me. I received twenty rupees with the wood I bought. Ten of that went for food, five to pay the rent of the bicycle, and the remaining five I drowned in the sweetness of the mahua juice. I was then a defeated, spent man. The world had forsaken me. I was of no use to it. At one time I had been a writer. People respected me, recognized me. But now I was a wood gatherer. Of what use was this life! When I returned with the wood to Kapashi, I felt certain the people were looking at me, laughing at me. I would move away from them as soon as I could. I no longer enjoyed the company of people. I preferred to be alone. Amidst the jungles. Two rivers flowed by this place that was called Big Kapashi, moving towards each other near the jungles to form a triangle. On that triangular

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land, I found some land and built ourselves a hut with bamboos and balli, and thatched it with leaves. I went to the forest twice to get wood. Apart from that, I remained here. Anu got me rice and water for lunch. This was 1989. The year that Arjun Singh quarrelled with Rajiv Gandhi, left the Congress and, with the aim of sinking the Congress Party, rallied the Opposition parties together under the one banner of the Janata Dal. The arch rivals CPM and BJP too came under that umbrella to attack the Congress with the Bofors issue in the coming elections. I, though, was blind then. There were no Bangla newspapers here and I could not read Hindi then. So I had no idea of what was happening in the many corners of the country. My sources for news were either the people or the radio. So I heard that the elections were imminent. And that the Janata Dal was fielding one candidate after another against the Congress as they prepared for the battle. Our area was under the constituency of the Kanker Lok Sabha. The Congress had been winning seats here since independence in 1947. Except for the Narayanpur Vidhan Sabha, all the other seats were in their control. The candidate here for the Janata Dal was Lambodar Balihar. There had been some tussle over this seat. The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha had demanded that this seat be left to them. They had a huge labourers’ union in Dalli and their candidate, Janaklal Thakur, had won the Dondi Lohara Vidhan Sabha seat in the last elections. They would pledge their support to the Janata Dal. But the Janata Dal had refused, fielding their candidate, the ever-winning Arvind Netam, here. So the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha candidate here was Janaklal Thakur. Many Bengalis lived in the area of Paralkot in Pakhanjur, Band and Kapashi. The Congress Party drew many of their supporters from the contractors, businessmen, local employees, wood thieves, and thugs of this area. The tribals too voted for the Congress. Those who blamed the Congress for the Partition of India supported the BJP. The CPM had few supporters here. The wounds of Marichjhapi were too fresh in the minds of the people

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here. A few upstarts who felt they had not received their deserved recognition in the Congress or the BJP took to the CPM. Someone by the name of Madhu Malakar who had recently fled here from Bengal had now added to their strength. Though few in numbers, they were loud in words and created much fracas in the area. The government employees here were all corrupt, and a part of their left-handed earnings went to the political parties they supported, the BJP or the Congress, as a ‘donation’. This was obviously a way to keep the power of the political parties on their side. Some were now beginning to pay the CPM too. These were the three local parties. Into this fray had now entered the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Their workers and leaders were all from Dalli and they were yet to have local support here. They took up three rooms on rent as offices at Pakhanjur, Band and Kapashi. The BJP and CPM too had their own separate offices though they were fielding the same candidate. The election canvassing had reached a feverish pitch at the Kapashi bazar where the two offices of the CPM and BJP faced the two offices of the Congress and the Mukti Morcha. That day I had returned with wood from the Khairkheda jungle. This jungle was not as fierce as the 130 one, nor was the road as difficult. Though the distance was ten kilometres, the steep road you encountered only on your way to the forest. It was a Sunday and the market was busy. Along with the local tribal and Bengali population of buyers and sellers, were the brokers, contractors, traders from outside the province. About a thousand people in all milled around the bazar as I made my way with my loaded bicycle to the eastern fringe where Gopal’s shop was. On reaching there, I saw that microphones had been fitted to bicycles and the CPM Party was canvassing. Madhu Malakar, the brother of Haridas Malakar, had begun his election speech: ‘Friends, that which we never thought would be possible has been made possible by the grace of God. All of us have come together to join hands in chasing the Congress out, etc., etc.’ This was no speech. I thought I heard a cat meowing—a cat whining. If the name of the party was Communist, what was the

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whine doing in this man’s voice? Where was the fire, the anger, the roar that could lift sky-high the hopes of the toiling man? Where was the vocabulary that could string sentence after sentence, directing them, like the mythical sound-tracking arrow, into the hearts and minds of the audience, amazing them with the defiance of their dreams? This party may be the CPM, but it was a Red Flag-bearing party. The members of the People’s War Group had carried this flag into Dandakaranya, setting on fire the forests and robbing the capitalist owners of their sleep. Standing there in the bazar, I was much pained at the lack-lustre whimpering of this Madhu Malakar. My personal scores with this Party could wait. At the present moment, it was a question of ensuring the deserved respect for the Red Flag. The fire of the Red Flag needed to be enkindled in the minds of the people here. It was a question of snatching the Red Flag from the hoodlums of Marichjhapi and handing it over to the right people. Nobody had enlisted me, but the historical onus had, as it were, been placed upon my shoulders by this very forest land. Did I consciously think of all this then? Hardly. The alcohol I had swallowed was creating havoc inside my belly then. As I say, alcohol makes the coward turn brave, and the brave turn reckless. It makes the fool turn garrulous, and the garrulous into the supergarrulous. How else can I explain what I did next? Before this, I had never ventured to speak publicly before five people out of fear and embarrassment. And now, in this market full of people, I went up and grabbed the microphone from Madhu Malakar’s hand. ‘Here, Dada, you’ve said enough. Now give this to me.’ The CPM supporters surrounding Madhu had not been too happy with his speech either, though their reasons for displeasure were somewhat different from mine. The topography here was harsh with its hard soil and fierce sun. A language appropriate to this place would need to be in the same league of toughness. Any speech here began with words directed at the opponent’s mother, and ended in the same way. The greater the profanity, the louder

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the applause. The greatest speaker was he who could successfully rape the word ‘Mother’ the highest number of times. And here was Madhu Malakar who had not once said ‘mother-fucker’ in his speech. How was the audience to be appeased? And here was I, a wood-seller, from the lowest rungs of society. And quite visibly drunk. So the crowd understandably greeted me with some expectation. When Madhu tried to grab the microphone back from me, they stopped him with, ‘Let him speak, let him speak.’ One among the audience attempted to tune me to the right note: ‘Go on, Bhai, give them a few of your choicest curses.’ ‘I won’t curse,’ I said. ‘But what I will say can father a league of curses.’ Needless to say, my words were carried by the microphone to the Congress Office who perked up their ears. Father of curses? What could that be? I was then buoyant on the wave of confidence powered by alcohol. Looking around me, I felt these people were ignorant philistines who had gathered around me for my sagacious wisdom. They knew nothing. It was up to me to fill their empty vessels with delicious fruit, upon consuming which the ignorant would move from darkness to light. I was the guru. It was my job to teach them. Now all these thoughts were not mine, of course, but of the alcohol that had come alive inside me. Nevertheless, it was also true that no leader had spoken of the Materialist philosophy to the seventy-five thousand people living in the one hundred and thirtythree villages of this province. The people here were living as they had lived five hundred years ago, with their blind belief in ghosts, spirits, wizards, witches, heaven, hell, this-life, after-life, talisman, charms, and a hundred other superstitions. Politics to them was casting a vote and receiving some money in return. I would have to tell them another story through their stories of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, ghosts, spirits, kings and queens. I would have to tell them that the world had not been created by Brahma, but by an explosion that occurred in the sun. That their present misery

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had been brought on not by their deeds in an earlier life, but by a present group of people living here. And that the change would be brought about not through any Guru or Gossain, but through relentless struggle. Bare bodied and bare foot, I had only my gamchha tied around my waist. My skin was dark, burnt darker by the sun, and my hair unkempt. People of such adivasi-like appearance did not deliver speeches here. They stood among the crowd, listened and clapped. Seeing such an unlikely speaker holding the microphone, people of the marketplace stopped and came forward, curious. And I began my first ever speech inspired, without the least trace of any doubt, by alcohol. I began at the very beginning, with the Big Bang, so to say. ‘Friends, this world has not been created by any God, Allah, or Bhagwan. It was created by the Sun, an inextinguishable, eternal ball of fire out of which the earth was born. And we are children of that earth, possessing within us that unquenchable blaze which can turn to ashes all injustice and evil. It is that fire that we have to bring back, and burn to ashes the weeds that are the enemies of human civilization.’ Big Bang in the sun. Creation of the earth. Beginning of life. Evolution theory. Primitive egalitarian society. State system. Slavery. Feudalism. Role of religion. Monarchy. Crumbling of feudalism and coming of capitalism. Birth of the labouring class. The Eight-Hours movement. The historical importance of the Red Flag. Marx’s Das Kapital. Paris Commune. Soviet Socialism. The International Communist Party. Manabendra Nath Roy, Rajani Palme Dutt. CPI. Indo-China War. CPM. The Naxal Movement. Emergency. Janata Dal. Bhindrenwale. The Golden Temple. Indira assassination. Rajiv Gandhi. Bofors. The present alliance. And the elections. Like an actor in a countryside jatra, I narrated all that I had learnt from my Communist friends and leaders all these years, raising and lowering my pitch as the occasion demanded. It was as if I was Shantigopal of the ‘Lenin’ show.

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After completing this story, I went over to the story of the Jan Sangh. And for that I travelled back four thousand years to the Rig Veda and to the verse in its tenth mandala that supported varna or discrimination based on birth. This verse was such a favourite of the Germans that they translated the Veda into their own language, to later become an inspiration for Nazism. Nazism brought in Hitler. The superiority of Aryan blood and consequent hatred towards non-Aryan blood. The Holocaust. The World War. Axis powers versus the Allies. Attack on Soviet Socialism. Hitler’s defeat. Guru Golwalkar’s taking up Nazism to begin the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The attempts at neo-Nazi supremacy of Brahminism. Jan Sangh, Shyama Prasad and finally, the rise of BJP. After the BJP, I turned to the Congress. That story started with the Battle of Plassey, 1757. Then the East India Company, Sepoy Mutiny and many adivasi rebellions, all resulting in H. K. Hume’s making of the Congress Party.1 Gandhi in South Africa and his return to India, leadership of Congresses. Tripuri Congress. Gandhi and Subhas. World War. Partition. Independence. Nehru family’s dominance. Emergency. Massacre of Naxalites and the present time. I think I spoke for over two hours at a stretch. My body was bathed in sweat. My lips were foaming. And the veins in my forehead throbbed. I ended my speech with, ‘You are all intelligent people. I am certain I will not have to tell you whom you should vote for—who will take care of your needs. Be careful whom you choose, for it is you who will have to pay the price.’ When I finished, I found that the milling crowds had drawn nearer to me and been rendered absolutely quiet as if by the touch of some magic wand. Within about fifteen minutes of me beginning my lecture, the Toothpaste, the Ringworm Ointment, the Sundari Bidis had had their smaller microphones shut off by the people. The BJP had switched off its mike on its own, but that was so that they could get to learn the unknown history of their party’s rise. The Congress switched off so as to know how to refute the litany

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of the father of curses that I would recite. And the Mukti Morcha because they had been taught to let everyone have their say. After some moments of absolute stunned silence, the words that first reached my ears were profanities addressed to my father. The words came from a BJP supporter, who thereupon proceeded to push his head up between my legs and hoist me up on his shoulders to do a mad dance with me around the area. I was finally thrown down in front of Avinash’s liquor shop with a ‘You son of a swine! You know so much and you go around hawking wood!’ He turned to Avinash with a roar, ‘First a pint of English for him!’ Everybody possesses a unique language. The poet Bijoy Sarkar had gone to sing at a village. His songs so moved one among his audience that the man could hardly express himself in words. His very own language was, ‘Go hack his head off and get it to me. I need to see what the hell is inside it!’ Ganesh loved this girl madly. One day the girl says, ‘You really don’t love me!’ Which angered Ganesh so much that he dealt her a stinging slap on her cheek, leaving the marks of all his five fingers. ‘Don’t ever say that to me again!’ This too apparently expresses love. So I could hardly get angry with this boy. He was admiring me in his own unique language. ‘Have that drink and then get yourself home. Come back in the evening to deliver another such punch.’ Another went and gave my bicycle a hard kick, making it topple over with its load. ‘No more selling of wood and all! We run your family from today. You are not to do anything else till the elections are done. Just keep drinking and delivering speeches.’ A group of youngsters went round raising money. The owner of the video shop who screened blue films gave twenty rupees, the abortion specialist Doctor Satish gave twenty, Avinash the liquor shop owner gave ten, Mishra the black-marketing-fertilizer-trader gave ten. In this way they toured the market and within half an

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hour had collected one hundred and seventy five rupees. They handed this to me and said, ‘Have your drink, buy your food stuff and go home.’ At home, we had a full meal of fish and rice that day. But once the effect of alcohol wore off, and my head cleared, I was filled with fear. This was a jungle area and it was the law of the jungle that prevailed here. The People’s War Group ran a parallel government at Bastar and in order to keep them in check, the state government had endowed the police with immense powers here. They could crush anybody anywhere. The police and government were puppets who obeyed Arvind Netam, the minister. The biggest chela of Arvind in Kapashi was a guy called Jiten Banerjee whose word held sway over the police, post office, bank, forest, irrigation and all departments of the area. If he prodded the police to look into my antecedents—‘This new guy here- who is he? What is his past? A Naxalite or something?’—I would be a goner. Digging for frogs, they would unearth a snake. A young Naxalite had fled Jadavpur and was working in a hotel as a small-time employee. Quiet and timid in appearance, no one had suspected him. But one day, he picked up a copy of The Indian Express that some customer had left behind, and read through a few lines. The IB was informed of this unusual happening, and the youth was identified and arrested. I had come here to live a domesticated, peaceful life, undisturbed. I wondered whether I had ruined it all in my state of intoxication.

CHAPTER 16

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I

  did not get out that evening, determining to stay indoors with my family as long as I could. Who knew how many days I would be allowed this peace? There was no moon in the sky that night, and the darkness closed in upon our little hut. The many trees in front of our house, the neem, the mango, the jamun, cashew nut trees stood in the deep shadows. My wife and I had spread out a palm-leaf mat in the courtyard and lay there with our kids between us. The heat was too intense for sleep to come visiting. But possibly, I had dozed off for some time, for I was awakened by the harsh sound of a diesel-powered jeep that rumbled down the main road and then turned into the narrow path that led to our house. The headlights that blazed like the eyes of the tiger, came to a stop near Kochiya Jago’s grocery shop. That was as far as a car could come near our house. Jago was measuring out the corn, sesame and mustard that he had bought for his shop into smaller sacks. He would load these onto trucks tomorrow and send them off to be sold at Raipur. He had electricity in his shop, and in that dim light I could make out the local boy Haradhan guiding four or five stocky, shadowy figures carrying torches, towards our house. Anu had woken up too. She reached out and clasped my palm, her terror evident in the trembling hand. I too was very scared. What would happen now? Who would look after my family if they took me away? They came right up to us and stood around our mat.

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I could recognize one of them. This short, thin bespectacled man with an unassuming appearance had spoken to me at the Kapashi Bazar today. He had asked my name, my address. So this Bengali man was from the police? Another man, a little taller, wearing glasses, bearded, was the first to speak. ‘We are from the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. We have come to meet you and to speak to you.’ I had heard of Shankar Guha Neogi. I had even dropped two postcards asking to meet him after coming to Kapashi. What I did not know then was that he was the founder of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. I asked them to sit on the mat, for we had no other place to sit. Two of the group were Bengalis, one of whom was Dr. Saibal Jana of the Dalli Shaheed Hospital. It was he whom I had met today at Kapashi Bazar. The other person—did not want his name to be made known. Averse to publicity, this man works silently, far away from the arc lights. I am, therefore, compelled to keep his name a secret. So I will, for the purpose of my narrative, give him the name of another person whom I love dearly—Jogen, who lives in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park. His father is a senior government officer and mother a superintendent at a hospital. Coming from such a family, Jogen received good schooling in elite schools, and had friends among the rich. But they were different from the usual young people who came from prosperous backgrounds and were concerned only with their own careers and salary prospects. Jogen and his friends really cared about the weaker and vulnerable sections of society. They believed that every human being should be able to lay claim to food, shelter, clothes, education, healthcare and occupation. Needless to say, they veered in their thinking towards the Naxalites. Jogen’s father was bitterly disappointed that his son, instead of making a career for himself, became involved with the Naxals in anti-state activities. He cut Jogen off from his inheritance and refused to recognize him as his son. This did not, however, dissuade Jogen from his chosen path. He remained unperturbed regarding the role he had chosen for himself.

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Then one day the stormy seventies ended. Dreams died. And the many young people who had pledged their lives to the cause scattered, surrendering their hopes to the stubborn status quo that persisted. Some left for foreign shores, others secured jobs in this country, but their concern and responsibility for the poor and the deprived did not die out. So they got together again and decided to create a fund with a part of their earnings. The responsibility to decide how to use the funds fell on Jogen. He would take his decisions independently, with the full trust of his friends. Jogen did not marry or take up a job. He lived like a sannyasi, dedicated to his work, working with a number of social groups spread throughout the country, determining how best the fund could be spent in helping people. This responsibility Jogen had been fulfilling for years now. When the gas disaster occurred at Bhopal, Jogen was on the first trucks to arrive with help. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, the movement of the fishermen at the Mongra Barrage, wherever there was need, Jogen would arrive, do his work and leave silently. He did not sit on the dais, he did not appear on television, he did not give lengthy interviews to the media. He was now in Dalli with medicines for the Dalli Shaheed Hospital that had been built by the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Taking advantage of one of the jeeps plying to and fro because of the coming elections, he had arrived in Dalli. An adivasi movement had been building up in the area, a movement that had emerged out of the water, soil and forests of the area—led by the organization called Chetana Mandal. He was curious to go see that movement from close quarters if possible. These two Bengalis warmed my heart, as did the two other men who were with them, a labouring man from Dalli and a famous folk singer from Chhattisgarh. One was the driver and the other a Morcha worker. ‘We heard about your speech today,’ said Dr. Jana, ‘and guessed that you were not of this area.’ We have not found much political consciousness among the many patients who come to our hospital from Paralkot. Won over, I confided in them frankly my reasons for coming here. I also told them that I am a writer and that one of my poems had been published in the Naxalite journal

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Aleek. I show them the piece and Dr. Jana notes down the poem in his little diary. Dr. Jana returned that night to Dalli and, despite the busy schedule for the coming elections, managed to convey to Shankar Guha Neogi information regarding me. He said that he had told Neogiji that I used to drive the rickshaw earlier, and that I now sold wood, that I was a writer, and showed him my poem, upon which Shankar Guha Neogi had expressed his desire to see me. A few days after this, the Mukti Morcha arranged for a fairly large election meeting at the biggest marketplace of Pakhanjur. I arrived there with Jogenda before it began to see a tall fair man, with bright eyes, clad in khadi pajama-kurta, seated with many others on the grass. Though amongst many, he did not blend in with the crowd. The power of his personality was evident in his smiling, clear face. He stood tall, a full head and shoulders above the others— a head that had not learnt to bow before injustice. Had not been broken and bowed by fear. A head that money could not buy. I spoke to Neogiji for a maximum of ten to twelve minutes. But it seemed to me that I had known him for ages, that he was my friend, my near relative. And I decided right away. Let this be my new identity—that I am Neogiji’s man. I had taken out a bidi from the pocket of my sweat-drenched kurta, and he had extended to me his box of matches. He said, ‘Come to Dalli once.’ Not an order, neither a request. With those four words, he had reminded me of my true place. What power of magic or hypnotism lay in those words! I had nodded and said, ‘Yes, I will.’ I would have to go. I had no way out. I was fated to arrive at that destination. How could I deny the call? The word that cannot be uttered, cuts into your heart and sits there. The drop of water that cannot reach the ocean is consumed by the soil. But if it can once arrive at the ocean, all its smallness finds a conclusion. Becoming one with the vastness, the drop too becomes vast, great. The ocean was calling me. How could I not go? The Lok Sabha elections concluded with the victory, as in earlier years, of the Congress leader Arvind Netam. The Mukti Morcha workers returned to Dalli. Neogiji had asked me to go to

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Dalli, but the entire trip would cost me around fifty rupees. Twenty to go and twenty to come, and ten rupees for other expenses. I was not being able to arrange that money. Two months had passed and there had been no news from them. I was a little hurt too. Neogiji had spoken to me, had asked me to go to Dalli, but now they seemed to have forgotten me. I was wrong, of course. They had made enquiries about me from the many patients who went to their hospital from here. Then one day a milk-white Ambassador arrived at my house. ‘Neogiji has asked me to take you to him.’ This was that car that Neogiji used or the car they used to transport the important, respected persons to their office. This was the car that had brought the earlier Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh here. This very car had carried Ram Vilas Paswan and George Fernandez. This car would be used to take the Arya Samaj leader and the then United Nations Dalit Dastanidhi Swami Agnivesh from Nagpur to Bhilai. On that journey, though, I too would be travelling with him and Anup Singh. And now this car had traversed the hundred miles with the express order that it was to pick this wood-seller up and transport him to Dalli. Did I even deserve this respect? My shirt was torn and I did not possess even the ten rupees worth sandal of tyre-rubber on my feet. Barefoot, I boarded the car. I had not been given the luxury of thinking what I did or did not have. Neogiji had left for Rajnandgaon by the time we reached, but Dr. Jana and Jogenda were present. Dr. Jana was in charge of managing everything in the hospital, so he could not stay to talk to me for long. But Jogenda remained with me. He noticed that my feet were bare. This place was not flat land like Bengal, but uneven rocky ground, where walking barefoot resulted in stubbed and bleeding toes. Jogenda caught hold of the young doctor, Pradip Das, passing by with chappals on his feet. ‘There are more chappals in the room. Give these to him.’ Neogiji returned very late that night, exhausted. Seeing me, he smiled. ‘You are here. Rest tonight. We will talk tomorrow.’

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The office of the Morcha consisted of a large spacious room with enough durries where about fifty could spread themselves out with ease. Attached to it was the kitchen, which saw meals being cooked twice every day with about fifty kilos of rice, and ten kilos of dal. The Morcha workers came from far, had their meals here, and went to sleep. That was what I too did that day. The next morning I went to meet Neogiji at his residence. To my surprise, I found his was as poor a residence as any found in the labourers’ slums. One single room with two verandas on either side. Mud walls with burnt khaprel for the roof. The kitchen was in one of the verandas, where sat cooking, on a wood fire, Neogiji’s wife, a daughter of the Adivasi community. When I arrived there, Shankar Guha Neogi, with his monthly allowance of seven hundred and fifty rupees, was sitting happily with his family of wife, two daughters and a son, on an unsteady chowki, sipping tea. Ashadidi handed me a cup of tea. Neogiji said, ‘This is your first visit to Dalli, Stay here for a few days and look around the place. Talk to the people here, visit our schools, workshops. We can talk after that.’ He said, ‘We are trying to break down a system. But if we fail to show the people the alternative system that we will build in its place, why would people be encouraged to destruction? Jai Prakash Narayan had attempted a constructive movement, but that failed. The Naxalites attempted a destructive movement, but that too has failed. I’ve therefore come to the conclusion that a certain harmony needs to be brought about between construction and destruction. Hence our slogan, ‘Construct to destroy, and destroy to construct’. It is with this in mind that we have attempted, through our organization, to build here hospitals, small schools, workshops, cooperatives and cultural societies. Through these efforts we have tried to tell the people what the new society that we have in mind could be like. The other thing that we try to do here is to avail the maximum benefits from the avenues allowed to us by democracy—through meetings, rallies, demonstrations, memorandums, deputations. But at the same time, we try to show the

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people that we can progress only a short distance through these avenues and that to enable the full promise of democracy, we will need to fight the last battle.’ He paused. ‘There are many powerful trade union movements all over India. But most of these movements remain within the narrow politics of economic demands. There is no constructive thought given to the life that the labourer lives outside the factory walls. We have done that. We have tried to ascertain what a man or woman needs to make life healthy, progressive and beautiful. This is our uniqueness. And it is this that differentiates us from most of the other unions.’ ‘We have demanded higher wages for the labourers. Higher wages have been achieved. But that wage has gone into liquor. So we had to build up an anti-liquor movement. Now that is not an expected part of the trade union’s itinerary. And so there is no such planning in the Communist Party. We have therefore had to turn to Gandhi for inspiration. We have drawn from the welfare theories of all isms—Marxism, Gandhism, Lohiaism, Ambedkarism. We have studied them, borrowed from them, and adapted them to suit our needs here. This too is our uniqueness. Stay on here for a few days and see for yourself. Then we can talk together.’ Rajhara is a site of pilgrimage for labourers. It was here that for the first time the labouring class moved out of the grasp of the capitalist owners and their union-leader-agents to set up their own union controlled by them. Neogiji was then in prison, the first detainee of the controversial Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). Shankar Guha Neogi was from the Jalpaiguri area of West Bengal where he was associated with the CPI(ML) Party. Charu Majumdar and other leaders had been known to him. Then he moved to Bhilai to work in the steel factory where he began work on building up a labourers’ movement. Within days, he was noticed by the proprietary class who sacked him and put the police after him. Consequenty, Neogiji had to go underground. It was during this time that Neogiji travelled through Chhattisgarh. Sometimes travelling as a trader of goats, and at other times as a

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trader of clothes, he got to know the lives of the people from close quarters. Chhattisgarh—the most backward area of India. Under the rocky terrain were deposits of iron, copper, bauxite, dolomite, and other rich minerals. Above the ground were sal trees, teak trees, kino trees, baans balli, and an unending supply of leaves to use as the bidi leaf. The land would yield a golden harvest, and was therefore called the Rice Bowl. Yet, despite this wealth of land and minerals, the people of this place, the tribals, were destitute. None of them had enough food in their stomachs, proper clothes on their backs, chappals on their feet. And all this was the consequence of an army of outsiders that comprised the seth, the baniya, the sahukar who controlled almost all the available cash in the area, lending out money or selling goods on credit, either at high rates of interest or with land as collateral. Then there were the industry mafias who were on the land, exploiting it. He toured three hundred and twenty villages, explaining to them, convincing them and organizing them into a movement. During these days, he moved under a different name—Madan. I remember seeing this news item in a Calcutta newspaper once. It was over the structure of this movement that Neogiji’s differences with the CPI(ML) leadership arose. They wanted him to build a secret organization that would break down the capitalist hegemony through repeated guerrilla attacks on the industrialists. Neogiji was more inclined to a mass movement which, through small demands, expanded its base and established itself as a large-scale movement that would move towards that final battle step by step. As a result of this disagreement, Neogiji was thrown out of the CPI(ML). He left for the Danatola rock quarries after this, taking up work under an assumed identity and working as a munshi under a thikadar to organize the workers there. The police, however, were still looking for him and one day, when he went to the thikadar in Bhlai to receive the payment for the labourers, he was spotted by the police. They slapped a charge of MISA against him and jailed him. Neogiji had, by then, won over the people of Chhattisgarh. He had passed the tests of honesty and courage and all Chhattisgarh now

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knew him. He was visited at the jail by representatives from the labouring classes who requested him to lead their movement from Dalli. There were still six months left for Neogiji’s prison term to end. And on the day it did, there were eight thousand labourers at the gate waiting to embrace him with their sixteen thousand hands, and carry him to Dalli. And then followed a continuous litany of battles and triumphs for the next fourteen years. A story of humanity shaking off the gloom of defeat and lifting their laughing faces to the sun. The labourer who used to receive 7 rupees after hours of back-breaking labour now received 80 rupees as the rightful sum he should be paid. The combined earnings of husband and wife brought stability to the homes. Children now had access to higher education. Determination, strength of mind and immense courage had been their weapons in this war. And the commander-in-chief of that indomitable army had been Shankar Guha Neogi who had channelized their energies along planned and well thought-out paths. Much-loved and much-respected by all, he was known as Neogi Bhaiya. When I arrived here last night, it was already dark and I had been unable to see much. Today, when I stepped out onto the roads, I was taken aback. Red and green flags fluttered from every street, shop and market. The men wore red shirts and green shorts, the women red blouses and green sarees. Men, boys, girls, women, all were awash in red and green. The flags fluttered on the speeding trucks, the moving bicycles and jeeps. Even the mountains, where twenty-five thousand labourers toiled, was clothed in red and green, lal hara, the colours of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the colours of their beloved leader Shankar Guha Neogi. I visited the quarry to find groups of healthy, confident men and women working. They embraced me upon learning that I was from Bastar. Chhattisgarh comprised of seven districts and six out of those seven were with the Mukti Morcha. Bastar was as yet unrepresented. I saw the memorial that had been built to the eleven martyrs of 1977.

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Neogiji had been asleep with some of his fellow companions of the Mukti Morcha when the police, arriving in two vans, made a sudden attack. Before the others could understand what was happening, they had dragged Neogiji into one van and sped away. The police officer had possibly been instructed to ‘encounter’ him, that is, kill him in a staged encounter. When the van had entered the dense Balod forests, the police officer spoke to Neogi in a smooth voice, ‘I hold you in much respect and I do not want to push you into jail. So I request you to escape to Bengal. Go, and never return to Dalli again.’ Neogiji knew he would be shot in the back as soon as he got down from the jeep. The news would read: Naxalite leader shot dead in attempted escape. So he told the officer, ‘If you have to kill me, you will have to do it inside your van. I am not going to give you an opportunity to kill me in any other way.’ That was difficult for the officer to do. His complications increased when a voice came crackling over the wireless walkietalkie in the other police van. Though Neogiji’s companions had been too stunned to prevent his kidnapping, they had managed to stop the other police van and they were now holding these other twelve policemen as hostages. If Neogiji was harmed, then not one of those would live. Helpless, the officer placed Neogiji in the police lock-up and returned to free his colleagues. They opened fire on the workers, killing seven. But the workers would not yield. They remained sitting with their dead friends and the police men. The police returned in the morning with more men. Four more died from police firing. The police freed the hostages and went back. Eleven dead. Among them the twelve-year-old boy Sudam and the woman Ahalya Bai. After the first round of firing, the workers had been beside themselves with grief, but not so far beside themselves as to be driven to murder their hostages. Even in the heat of the moment, amidst intense agony, they had remained aware that the police were not their real enemies. The real enemies lived in plush luxurious mansions and were out of the workers’ reach, protected as they were by the ministers, police and the government.

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From the day after, the workers struck demanding the release of Neogiji and demanding that the government and the owners sit to talk with them. When the strike stretched to eighteen days, and the Bhilai Steel Plant was threatened with closure for the lack of iron ore, the industrialists and the government caved in, releasing Neogiji and accepting the workers’ demands. I visited the Shaheed Hospital, built to the eleven martyrs. This hospital, that tended to thousands of patients here, had been built after the death of Kusumi Bai, a resilient fighter, who died in childbirth for lack of a doctor. Neogiji and Dr. Binayak Sen worked tirelessly and, with the donations and hard work of the workers, established this hospital. Dr. Jana, in charge of the hospital, was supported by a group of committed, selfless volunteers schooled in the tradition of physicians like Dr. Norman Bethune, Dr. Kotnis and Dr. Binayak Sen. Medicines were measured out, but the doctors, nurses and helpers here gave their care without measure. One patient informed me that the behaviour of the staff here cured half the illness. After moving around the place for four days, I went and stood before Neogiji. ‘I have to go back now,’ I said. He smiled meaningfully, ‘Will you be able to go back?’ I too had realized by then that no matter where I went in this life, I would not be able to leave Dalli. I sipped on the tea that Ashadidi had given me. Neogiji said, ‘You are a believer in the ideology of the Left. So am I. We are inhabitants of the same place. I believe whatever work you do, it will be for the good of the common man. So we have decided to give you some help. Whatever we may do, two full meals are required every day by all of us. So how do you think we can help you?’ All that I had planned to tell Neogiji would go clean out of my mind the moment I met him. It was as if his very presence answered all my questions before they were uttered. His ascetic life style, the smiling face with which he lived his life of sacrifice, all amazed me. Such a great and famous leader but living in such poverty, on a mere seven hundred rupees! Seven hundred rupees!

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That amounted to twenty-three rupees and thirty-three paise for each day. Why! My earnings on some days would be higher than this! After much thought, I replied, ‘My axe is rather blunt. If you could make a good axe, that would help me very much.’ Neogiji smiled on hearing my words. Had I said something wrong? My father used to tell me, when you are invited to a dinner, do not eat in such a way that the host is plagued with worry when he wants to invite you again. I had asked for a very reasonable fifty rupees worth of help. Anything below this would really not be of much help to me. Neogiji said, ‘You will go to the forest, cut down wood, bring the wood to the market, sell the wood. Your entire day will be spent in this. When will you work for the people?’ I say. ‘But there is a night after the day. I will work at night. If I can buy a rupee’s worth of kerosene, then I will have no problems working into the early hours of the dawn.’ ‘Suppose we let this go?’ said Neogiji. ‘Suppose we take the responsibility for your family? When will you go to Kapashi? Meet Dr. Jana once before you leave.’ He paused for some time. ‘The quarries at Dalli will not last for long now. A maximum of another ten years. Then they will start on the quarries at Raoghat in order to keep the Steel Plant running. The ore at Raoghat is of a superior quality and possibly the best in the continent of Asia. The government is planning to build a fully mechanized plant at Raoghat with expensive machines imported from abroad. About four to five hundred operators will also be brought in to run these machines. Unfortunately, I see no benefit accruing out of all this to the people of the area—no progress in their lives. The tribals will lose their land, their forests, their water—their way of life will be threatened and they will lose their identity and culture. Though they will lose all of this, I see no gain that they will receive in return. We will therefore try for, not mechanized, but manual mines at Raoghat. Dalli too was planned as a fully automated plant, but we

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halted that with our protests, and succeeded in making this a semiautomated plant. If the same can be done at Raoghat, there will be employment for at least thirty thousand people. Iron is at the core of the march of human civilization and we cannot do without it, but it need not be mined at the expense of many human beings. I think you should begin discussing these issues with the people and making them aware. If possible, I would request you to begin from today.’ I met Dr. Jana before I left for Kapashi. He handed me five hundred rupees, an amount beyond my imagination. ‘Your month’s expenses,’ he said. Neogiji’s family had one member more than mine, and his children were in higher classes, and that justified the two hundred rupees more that he received. Why would I need anything more than five hundred rupees? The two people I had drawn closest to over these four days were Delhi’s Jogenda and Dalli’s Dr. Jana. Before leaving, I pointed to the fluttering lal-hara flag and said, laughing, ‘So the green for the farmer and red for the worker. Now which of these is for me?’ Dr. Jana had heard snippets of my life’s experiences from me. So he laughed and said, pointing to the stick on which the flag fluttered, ‘Oh, for you that danda on which the jhanda is tied!’ About a month and a half after this arrived the Vidhan Sabha elections and a call from Neogiji. I arrived at Dalli to find two others already there before me. One was the social organization Chetana Mandal’s Suresh More, who was from Maharashtra, but now lived in north Bastar. He worked with the tribal people, organizing them into small movements. More was known for his hatred of Bengalis whom he considered outsiders who were taking over the land, the jobs, the forests of this area. This placed him on friendly terms with the Congress leader Arvind Netam who shared More’s hatred for the Bengalis because they refused to vote for him. The other person was a professor of the Ravi Shankar University, Prafulla Kumar Jha who had begun to work for the Morcha after his retirement. Neogiji wanted the three of us to put

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our heads together and come up with the name of a candidate who could be fielded from Narayanpur, one among the thirteen centres from where the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) had decided to contest elections. Compared to the other two, I was an insignificant, minor person, and Neogiji’s entrusting me with such a responsibility amazed me. The Narayanpur Vidhan Sabha seat was one that was reserved for the tribal population. Prafulla Jha and Suresh More suggested the name of a Chetana Mandal leader, Surja Ram Nareti. While Surja was a good man and popular among the tribals, he was perceived as being close to Arvind Netam. I had seen him gracing the dais when Arvind came to Paralkot for meetings. I was afraid that if he was chosen as the CMM face, it may destroy the tentative support that I had built up for the CMM among the Bengalis, because they would see Surja as sharing Arvind’s hatred for Bengalis. I expressed my views and Neogiji accepted them. Surja’s name was rejected. This surprised me again for I was an illiterate wood-seller whose views had never been given such importance before. The man finally chosen was a school master of Narayanpur, Murharam Dehari. Dr. Jana, Jogenda, the Kanoria Jute Mill leader who came from Bengal, Prafulla Chakraborty, Kushal Debnath, Purnendu Bose and a few others joined us in our canvassing. Yet Murharam Dehari lost. As did the other eleven of the Morcha candidates. The only one who won was Janaklal Thakur from Dondi Lohara. After this, Jogenda returned to Delhi and the Calcutta people to Bengal. Some days after this, I met Prafulla Jha at a tea-shop where, with an obvious desire to get me angry, he said, ‘Bengalis are traitors. When they fall ill, they rush to the Shaheed Hospital. But when it comes to voting, they vote for the communal BJP. I think we should join up with Suresh More and chase them out with a “Bangali khedao” movement.’ He said this to get me angry. And I did get angry. I got so angry that I shot off a letter to Delhi with a copy to Calcutta. My question was, if the Morcha begins to chase the Bengalis out, why should the Bengali stay loyal to that group? Prafulla Chakraborty and the others sent that letter to Neogiji.

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And so, Neogiji called me. Any other leader would have dealt with me severely. He did not. In a calm voice, he said, ‘If there is any mistake we are making, then you have to tell us. If you write letters to Delhi and Calcutta, how will we rectify those mistakes? Why did you do this?’ I said, ‘I will need to return to Calcutta some day or the other. As long as I was caught up in the illusion of the Morcha, I did not think of this. But now I do. And when I go back, everybody there who knows you, will blame me for leaving you. They will conclude that if I could not work with you, I must be the problem. So I am trying to let them know the true state of affairs here.’ He heard me out with patience and then said, ‘Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha is not a tightly built political party in that sense. This is more of a social organization that aims to improve the lives of the workers in all ways. We have, therefore, many different projects running at the same time and many of these are only indirectly connected with politics. Projects for education, anti-alcohol movements, cultural movements, health programmes. In these many different projects, we have at different times requested different organizations or different people to come and work with us. But this give and take has not meant an ideological correspond­ence in every aspect. When we began the anti-liquor movement, Gandhiji’s doctor Sushila Nayyar came and joined us in our work.1 In the same way, Medha Patkar of the Gandhian Baba Amte’s Narmada Bachao Andolon, Rajendra Sayal of the PUCL, Dr. Brahmadeo Sharma of the Bharat Jan Andolon, Swami Agnivesh of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha. The same is the case with Prafulla Jha. His views are therefore entirely his personal views, and did not reflect that of the Morcha’s. We will, of course, request him to withdraw this statement or else, he will have to leave Dalli.’ I do not know what happened after this, but Jha returned to Delhi where he took up the editorship of the paper Nava Bhaskar. ‘So what are your plans now? Return to Calcutta?’ asked Neogiji. ‘No,’ I said firmly.

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‘Then please do not write any more such letters,’ he replied. A small pond had gone stagnant. A monsoon cloud flew in from somewhere and fed it with its generous rains. The rains travelled along the veins and arteries of the dry barren land to reach the small pond. The half-dead creatures of the pond, gasping for life, were rejuvenated. I had feared that I would suffocate in the jungles of Bastar. Instead, the jungles came up and breathed life into me. I did not go to Bastar for many days after that. The five hundred rupees that I had received was quite some months ago. The Vidhan Sabha elections had arrived soon after and then, all the people of the Mukti Morcha who worked at Bastar would stay and have their meals at our house. There would be more than enough for me and my family in those days. Then occurred this small incident about the letter-writing, which dampened me a little. I found it difficult to go to Dalli and make my claim. But whether I went there or not, people here knew me as a Mukti Morcha man. So did Kanker’s L. I. B. Srivastav who would come to me to enquire about the Morcha’s next plans. I had, at that time, taken up the agency of a paper called the Amrit Sandesh. These small newspapers have no reporters working for them. It is the agent who also collects and makes the reports. As a result, I was compelled to burn the midnight oil and learn Hindi. There used to be thirty subscribers to the paper in my area, which fetched me a commission of fifteen rupees. This would take care of our monthly rice and potatoes expenses. Moreover, this allowed me some time free to work for the organization. It is while working for this paper that I was informed of large supplies of medicines lying undistributed at the Kapashi Hospital. These had been given by the government on prescriptions written out for the naïve adivasis, but had never reached them. All these would soon be smuggled out and sold. There was a bifurcation on the road leading out of the hospital, with one road going towards Pakhanjur and the other to Bhanupratappur. So I sat some boys down near this fork to keep watch on any car or jeep that came out of the hospital. But word had got out to the hospital staff, and no medicine came out of the hospital. We then lodged FIRs at

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the local police station, wrote letters to the Block Development Officer and the District Administration Officer to come check the registers of the hospital to ascertain what medicines had been brought in and what had been distributed. Sensing trouble, the guilty staff carried the medicines out of the hospital and buried them in the nearby field, from where, after provoking the curiosity of the locals as a strange, freshly dug up area, they were unearthed again, by now damaged and spoilt and therefore useless to patients. Anger had been brewing in the locality against the corruption of the hospital staff for many days, and this incident acted like a spark on a powder keg. They fell on the hospital staff and beat them up. The police were called and, since I had been somewhat responsible for the affair, I got arrested. This was my first trip to the Bastar jail, a place which I visited a few more times after that. But every time I got arrested, Vishnu Prasad Chakrabarty and Bhanupratappur’s Murli Manohar Upreti, both of whom practised in the Kanker Court and who were followers of Neogiji, would begin efforts to get me out of jail as soon as they could. And the day I would finally be released, they would always treat me to a good meal and then send me home with the required fare. This time, it took me three days to get out of jail. By then, I had become a famous man in Chhattisgarh, with my photo and the news printed in the Amrit Sandesh newspaper. Some time after this, I led a small struggle to extricate the rightful pay for the tendu leaf workers. Along with about two hundred people from the tribal villages of Harangarh and Dondi, and the Bengali village of PV56, I gheraoed the belligerent officer Johnson Crack in his office for two hours. We lifted the gherao after he promised to pay the dues within two days with the warning, ‘If the workers did not receive the money within two days, we would be back, and on that day we may not be as non-violent as we had been today.’ A few days later, there was a fracas with Jiten Banerjee’s family. The Banerjees were a joint family of six brothers, with a dozen and more sons in all, and also the cronies of Netam and

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the Congress. They were thus much feared in the Kapashi locality. But when Jiten Banerjee’s brother Sambhu slapped me, I felled him to the ground and beat him up. He filed a case against me and a policeman dutifully arrived to arrest me. In his desire to please the Banerjees, the policeman loudly proclaimed his desire to beat and break my bones once I was in the police station. To add some weight to his words, he also called me a motherfucker. Now, we were in the Kapashi marketplace and, that being the day of the weekly haat, the bazar was crowded. Most knew me here as a Mukti Morcha worker. I knew I would have to act immediately if the fear of the Banerjees armed with the police would have to be broken in the minds of the Kapashi locals. They would never be able to muster up courage to join in our protests if I appeared intimidated now. So I accosted him in a brave voice, ‘Look, Saab, don’t you curse me. The next time you get my mother into this, I’ll pull out your tongue. That uniform doesn’t let you curse my mother. We’ll see what you do when I’m behind bars. But you do anything here, and I’ll get two witnesses and haul you all the way up to court.’ Taken aback that such language could be used against him in Paralkot, the policeman shut up. After many days, I received a call from Dalli. Dr. Jana had sent a message through Ganesh Mandal of the village when Ganesh went to the Shaheed Hospital for treatment. Nowadays, when I moved out of Kapashi, Anu distributed the paper. Our subscribers had dropped to fifteen from thirty now, and so the earnings were less. How was I to manage the up and down fare to Dalli? But I did not have to wait long. A young boy of the PV56 village fell ill. His mother requested me to take him to the hospital and, since I was on good terms with the people there, to see to it that he got ‘good’ medical treatment. I repeated the same to Dr. Punyabrata Gun who was at the hospital there, only to be roundly rebuked by him. ‘Eh? Good treatment? What is the meaning of that? Will I give someone else a “bad” treatment then? He will get the medicines needed for his illness. So will a beggar’s son. And so will a billionaire’s son. What do you mean by ‘good’ treatment?’

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Never had I been so scolded for saying something that I had thought was quite acceptable. But truly, there was no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ treatment here. Everyone was treated equally. Which is why I had once seen Neogiji sitting in line with his younger daughter Mukti when she had fallen ill. The doctor would surely have visited him at his home if he had called. But he had not. When I met Dr. Jana to enquire about why he had called for me, he told me that they wanted me to set up a fair price shop at our locality. The year’s exams were over and the results would be out soon. The children will need to buy new books. But all the shops in our locality charged a rupee or two more for each book and copy. He handed me two thousand rupees and asked me to go to Nazeeb Qureshi who had a shop in Kanker. Nazeeb would give me all that I needed to open a shop. They had already informed him. Nazeeb Qureshi, a supporter of the Mukti Morcha, gave me books, copies, pens and other stuff worth about ten thousand. I located a room on rent, and opened up my shop, ‘Kabi Sukanta Pustakalay’. I partitioned off a part of the shop to set up the Paralkot Study Circle. I wrote letters to my friends in Calcutta asking them to donate their books for the Study Circle. I wrote to Mahasweta Devi too. She put up a note in the Bartaman newspaper, asking for books, and made a sizeable collection. It is only when I went to collect the books that lined her room that she recognized me as the rickshaw-wallah she had once known, and had known then as Madan. And that my real name was Manoranjan. The state of my economic affairs was better now, so I could give more time to the work of the organization. Anu would take charge of the shop, and I would tie a water bottle, some dry food and a thick blanket behind my bicycle and set out for the tribal villages. I had already found companionship with Punoyu of Dondi and Nohuru of Harangarh. Now I came to know Gawar’s Ravi Taylor Moor, Dongri’s Pritam and many others. With them, the work of the Morcha spread to more and more of the villages. I repeatedly visited Dalli during these days, ostensibly to submit my progress reports. In reality I went there because it was beyond me

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to deny the attraction of that place. I went to see their happiness with the successes of the Morcha. Shankar Guha Neogi was a different man to different people. Many, including the police, considered him a Naxalite. His Mukti Morcha headed the list of the 13 mass organizations in Chhattisgarh that the government believed to be in league with the Naxalites. But Gandhians like Baba Amte, Medha Patkar, Brahmdeo Sharma believed him to be a Gandhian. Many even referred to him as Chhattisgarh’s Gandhi. During a conversation, Neogiji had told me that he was a Marxist. But the CPM would, of course, not agree with that because he had often raised his voice in complaints against the Bhilai Steel Plant, a joint venture of the Indian and the Russian governments. Now how could a man who accused Russia of exploiting workers be a Marxist? I, however, believed that Neogiji could not be pigeon-holed into any single ideology. That would be a difficult—no, an impossible endeavour. He was beyond all isms. He was a great humanist. The only person in history I can compare him with is Gautam Buddha who left the palace to come and stand with the poor and the suffering. Or with the great revolutionary Che Guevara. I remember once when I had visited Dalli, I found him deep in conversation with an old man who would be about seventy-five to eighty years of age. The man had come here from some very distant village, having heard much of a doctor called Neogiji who could bring the dead back to life. The old man had come here with much hope that the doctor would be able to do something for his infirm and crumbling body. I do not know what any other doctor would have done, for age is not a disease medical science can cure. But Neogiji sat talking with the man for long, listening to his tale of suffering with sympathy, comforting him with, ‘Sab thik ho jayega. It will all be okay. Rest now for the night. Tomorrow we will take you to the hospital.’ The old man did not have money for food, or any bedding to sleep on. Nor had he brought anybody with him. Neogiji called Janaklal Thakur’s younger brother and said, ‘Bring him food from

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the mess. Also get him two blankets from the hospital and give him a good place to sleep in.’ He then moved to discussions with the Morcha workers who had come in from various places with their reports. That ended at two in the night. But he had not forgotten the old man. After finishing with us, he headed to where he heard the old man was sleeping. The old man, unable to get a blanket, had wrapped himself in a torn carpet that he had found and was lying huddled up. I will never forget the fury that I saw on the always calm and smiling Neogiji’s face then. Seeing the old man in that state, his face grew dark and stony, before he exploded in rage. ‘Bulao usko. Call him.’ ‘What did I tell you to do?’ he told Janaklal’s brother who soon arrived there with a nervous face. ‘If you cannot do this small thing, how will you serve the masses?!’ ‘There are no extra blankets at the hospital,’ he muttered. ‘Too many patients have arrived at the hospital.’ This was hardly an excuse. And understandably, it did nothing to pacify Neogiji. Two blankets were fetched from Janaklal Thakur’s home which was near the Union Office. Neogiji went to sleep only after making certain that the old man had been put to sleep comfortably. An old man, a helpless and orphaned stranger, a man who had nothing to give the world any more. And yet the gentleness and kindness with which Neogiji could treat him. It was not for nothing that this man had become Neogi Bhaiya. And given a place in the hearts of lakhs of strangers. I am Shankar Guha Neogi’s man. I bow in gratitude to him for all that he has given me. If he had not reached out to me then when I was at my most vulnerable with my family, I would possibly have been swept into the darkness. Thousands like me had discovered in him their saviour and guardian, and he had repeatedly put himself into danger to go and stand by them in their hour of need. To the people of Chhattisgarh he was as great as an epic hero. ‘Come, Byaparida, come with me to go see a patient,’ said Dr. Jana to me one morning. The Shaheed Hospital followed the

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tradition set by Norman Bethune who had worked in China so many years ago. For any patient who was seriously ill, the patient would not have to come to the hospital. The doctors would go to him and for this reason the hospital had health-vans which would also tour remote villages, making people conscious of hygiene and health. That day, though, we went on foot to visit this patient. An old man, bedridden, in a workers’ slum about two miles from the hospital. He struggled up into a sitting position on seeing us. Dr. Jana checked his pulse and tongue and informed him, ‘You are perfectly fit now.’ There was no other person in the hut and the old man made black tea for us. As we sipped on the tea, Dr. Jana said, ‘Dokra [old man], this friend of mine has come from Kapashi. I have told him that you are a fantastic story-teller. Do tell him one.’ The old man’s eyes lit up. He sat up straight, happy to narrate a story to a willing listener. It was the story of the Ramayana. The man had been an ordinary labourer in Dalli and had witnessed at first-hand the workers’ movement that had taken place in the year 1977. Today, as he began his story of the Ramayana, the memories of that struggle led by Shankar Guha Neogi returned and blended with this story. The story moved on to the part where Ravana calls upon his son Mahiravana for help and Mahiravana abducts Rama and Lakshmana. A fierce battle between Rama and Ravana—between the labourers and the industrialists. So what does Ravana do? Ravana summons his son, Mahiravana, who was the Lord of the Netherworld. And Ravana tells Mahiravana, ‘Go, son, go fight Rama. Defeat him in battle and save the kingdom of Lanka. Did you not see how the industrialists called upon the police for help? They said, Save us from Neogiji. Save our business of loot and plunder. Didn’t they say that? They did. And so the police came. And shot the workers. And as Mahiravana wove a web of illusion, so did the police. And they arrested Neogiji.’ And in this way, in the story narrated by an old man, the gulf between an epic hero and a live man was bridged so that

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one could not tell where one ended and the other began. I had read in Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Choti Munda and His Arrow’, how a human being can become eternal, and live on with the mountains, the rivers, the legends. Immortal. Only a human being can be immortal. After finishing our work, my friend Ravi Taylor and I went to meet Ashadidi before we left Dalli. Though not directly involved with our Morcha work, our work at Dalli was incomplete without meeting Ashadidi. It was this tribal girl who would bring food, water and medicines to Shankar Guha Neogi when he was being chased by the police, and in hiding in the forests and mountain caves. She did all the housework herself, with no help from anyone. We had gone to meet Ashadidi, but Neogiji’s daughter, Mukti, did not know that. She went in and hauled up her father from sleep. Neogiji had been up at meetings till two in the morning, but he came out uncomplainingly, without the least sign of any annoyance. It is only when he said he was not feeling too well and I, unthinkingly and instinctively, reached out to touch his hand, that we realized he had high fever. He was not feeling well, was running a temperature, had not had enough sleep, and yet there was no trace of impatience or irritation as he got pulled out of bed to meet two rather ordinary people. Such was Neogiji. Nobody was too ordinary for him. Every person was important to him, every person was significant. Some months after this, in 1990, he got the call from the thousands of Bhilai Steel Plant workers. Come to us, we are exploited, we are broken, we need your leadership to help us fight. Where there was injustice, there would Shankar Guha Neogi be. How could he refuse? In the same way that he had arrived at Dalli from Dani Tola, Neogiji left for Bhilai. This was the same Bhilai which he had fled, hunted by the many Trade Unions who pledged their loyalties to the capitalist-political parties and by the police. Today when he returned, after twenty long years, there were lakhs who lined the streets and greeted him with the raised fist salute, Welcome, Comrade!

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The Bhilai Steel Plant was Asia’s largest steel plant set up in 1958 by the Indian government with support from the Soviet Union. There were about 150 ancillary industries set up around this plant. And the ownership of the majority of those lay with five industrialist families. For the past three decades, these families had piled up their wealth fed by the tireless toil of the labourers. No laws of employment, labour or wage were followed in these small industries. A nominal pay and dismissal at the whim of the owners. Feudal in mentality, each of these families had a small army of mercenaries. Any protest would be met with violence because the trade union and political leaders were, corrupted by fear and lured by wealth, in league with the owners of the industries. Neogiji’s entry set these people trembling. Now what? The political party in power in Madhya Pradesh was BJP and the Chief Minister was Sundar Lal Patwa who was seized with the fear that the lakhs of rupees coming through the donations of these ­Ram-bhakt-crorepati industrialists would now stop. Neogiji called for a meeting of all workers of the Bhilai Steel Plant on 2 October 1990. This would be the first step to building up a strong, powerful, unified mass movement against labour exploitation. Now, whenever Neogiji called meetings that threatened the powers-that-be, the police and authorities would jump in with their batons and bullets. This time promised to be no exception for 24 hours prior to the meeting, the BJP government announced the area to be under Section 144, thus effectively banning the meeting. But Neogiji was not to be so easily defeated. He shifted the meeting from Bhilai to Raipur. There were between thirty to forty thousand people expected to gather and all the arrangements for their food, drinking water, medical facilities in case of sudden illness, all that were needed for a successful mass meeting, were duly shifted to Raipur. It was a fitting reply to the government’s devious attempts to kill the movement. The meeting was, in fact, such a success that Neogiji’s tremendous organizational capabilities drew praise from all newspapers and intellectuals. Yes, they agreed, Neogi was an extraordinary leader. Not for nothing did people call him Neogi Bhaiya.

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We travelled from North Bastar in six trucks with two hundred of our leaders. It had been raining for three days. Yet, braving the torrential rains, there were people arriving in hordes. The rains in Chhattisgarh are not like Bengal’s rains. Here the rains are like needles of ice that pierce your skin and enter your bones. Drenched in these rains, the people poured in. From the urban educated of Delhi to the primitive illiterate Muria tribal from the dense forests of Bastar. Many who gathered were ignorant of Hindi, ignorant of Chhattisgarhi, knowing only the language of love, which was the language of their beloved Neogi Bhaiya. The town of Raipur was a middle-class city of the babus from which no sympathy or assurance could be expected. Nor were these people in need of sympathy or assurance. They had come to join in the battle at the call of their commander. It was a disciplined army which walked down the roads of Raipur in three parallels rows each six miles long. Neogiji stood on an open stage and addressed his fiery speech to the huge crowd. Everyone was soaked to the bone in the rains, and so was he. I still remember vividly that scene of the meeting. The ground underfoot was thick with mud. There was no dry spot where one could sit. Everyone was standing, when Neogiji’s familiar voice came over the microphone. ‘Brothers, we are all farmers and labourers. It is this earth upon which we live and die. If you find it possible, then please sit down.’ Nobody waited to be told a second time. Neogi Bhaiya had asked them to sit. In complete silence, I saw the thousands of people take their seats on the ground. It was on 26 July 1989 that Neogiji led the first demonstration by workers at the Jamul Cement Factory. In the last thirty years, this was the first time that the workers tasted victory, bringing back hope and confidence to the workers. This scared the industrialists and they swore to make this the last. On 30 September 1990. Neogiji placed a list of demands before each of the five large industrial houses. The main demand was pay that enabled a person to live and, since the industry was permanent, a demand for the employers to end the contract-system

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and initiate permanent employment of its employees. But the owners refused to agree to any of the demands of the ‘lal-hara’ Union. The agitation by the workers began from 16 November 1990. The owners retaliated with violence by the police and by terminating the contracts of four and a half thousand workers. Some hundred were imprisoned on false cases. But none of these appeared to have any impact on the enthusiastic participation of the workers in the movement. Then the industrialists made a disgraceful attempt at discrediting Neogiji. They insured the R. K. Industries for sixty lakhs, set the place on fire, and accused Neogiji of engineering the fire. But Neogiji demanded that the probe be conducted by the CBI, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the foremost investigative agency of India. A few days after this, the courageous editor of Bhilai Times, Devi Das, revealed the truth behind the fire and, supported by evidence, put up the names of the people who had masterminded it. This was followed by a dastardly attempt to knife Neogiji, an attempt that he narrowly escaped. Then they made a series of false charges against the man and imprisoned him on 4 February 1991. The entire nation was up in arms against this atrocity and the Morcha took the case up to the higher courts. The higher courts decreed release of Neogiji on a personal bond, adding that Neogiji was a leader committed to the cause of the poor and oppressed, and that it was completely unjustified to hold such a man in prison. Failing repeatedly in all their attempts to silence Neogiji, they decided to kill him. Contract killers were brought in from Muzaffarpur and Palton Mallah arrived in Chhattisgarh. Not expecting any justice from the state government, Neogiji and five hundred labour leaders went to Delhi armed with a signed memorandum from 50,000 workers. For two days, 11 and 12 September, they sat in front of the Shram Bhavan (Labour Bureau) but the walls of the Shram Bhavan remained impervious to the voices of the shram-putras, the sons of labour. He met the Prime Minister, but since not more than twenty five seconds could be spared for this unscheduled meeting, no progress was made.

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He met the President and the Opposition leader, Lal Krishna Advani. But nobody was unduly worried about a lakh or so of workers in Bhilai. He also informed them of the death threats he was receiving. Nothing came of the trip. On his way back, Neogiji tried to meet the Chief Minister Sundar Lal Patwa, but was refused a meeting. A minister of Patwa’s government told Neogiji that the workers’ demands may be looked into if he joined the Janata Party. But Neogiji was unwilling to move away from his ideology. An answer that was met with hostility. Following this, the murderous mercenary gang got active. Nurtured by the many corrupt industrialists and political leaders, they were on the look out for an opportunity. That opportunity presented itself in the early hours of 28 September 1991. Dawn was yet to break on Bhilai when someone came up to Neogi’s lighted, open window, reached in with a revolver, and shot him dead. Neogiji had been reading a book as he lay in his bed and had fallen asleep while reading. After post mortem, the body was brought from Bhilai to Dalli. He now lay in an open truck that stood on the main road on front of the Shaheed Hospital. I went up to salute him, but as on other days, he did not raise his fist to the skies. He appeared to be sunk in some distant dream, and his lips still wore that familiar smile. The murderer’s bullet had not been able to take away that smile. Just as it would be unsuccessful in taking away the dream that he had begun in our hearts. Water for every farm, health for everybody. Smiles on every face, and happiness in every life. The right to live for all humanity. I wished I could cry out to him, ‘Neogiji, get up from that flowery bed! This untimely sleep is not for you. Wake up, for more than a lakh of your foot soldiers are waiting to be guided by you. It was your eyes that had taught them to awake. It was your eyes that had pointed out to them the pole star. If you sleep now, will they be able to steer their boat to their destination? The battle is not done yet. If you sleep

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now, who will wipe away their tears and teach them the history of ­engendering fire? Who will tell them, Let these tears be hot, let your griefs stoke the fires!’ I looked around me. The entire place seemed to be silenced. The only sounds were intermittent tear-filled slogans of ‘Comrade Shankar Guha Neogi amar rahe!’ I was distracted. But even as the tears came rushing to my eyes, I remembered my leader Neogiji’s words: ‘There have been many attacks upon us and there will be many more. There may be incidents which will freeze your blood and strike fear into your souls. At that moment, stand up. And if you cannot stand up, then shed a few tears remembering our struggle.’ Why was I crying now? Neogiji had not shaped me as a soft, impotent weakling. It was now time for me to stand like Ghatotkoch, facing the enemy like a mountain. If my two hands were busy wiping away tears, how would I hold my weapon? I wiped away my tears. Neogiji was now being carried forward by his huge army of soldiers. It did not appear true that he was no longer with us. But that he had become like the hills, the rivers, the multitude of people, the sky, the wind, a dream that had mingled with the futures and the struggles of the labouring masses, to become an inspiration that had seeped into the soil and water of Chhattisgarh. The one Neogi had now become a million Neogis. A poet of Bengal had written, ‘The pulsating beat of revolution in my blood seems to tell me, I am Lenin.’ Today, my intense anger against the class enemies makes me feel that I am Shankar Guha Neogi. Without realizing it, I had raised my fist to the skies, saluting Neogiji and promising to complete the work he had initiated us into.

CHAPTER 17

After Shankar Guha Neogi

A

fter the death of Neogiji, the efforts in Bhilai took up so much of their time and energy that the Morcha leaders could hardly spare any time for Bastar. The industrialists now tried their utmost to stamp out the labour union, and the Morcha leaders dedicated themselves to the fight. The successful murder of Neogiji and the implicit support of the political powers had strengthened the industrialists. They refused to come to the table to discuss any policies with the Labour leaders. Unable to get the factory owners and the state to cooperate in any way, the Morcha leaders resorted to a Rail Roko move. About twenty thousand people squatted down on the railway tracks in an attempt to force the government to take notice of their demands. The BJP government under the Chief Minister Sundar Lal Bahugana ordered the police to open fire on the demonstrators, killing sixteen and badly wounding about two hundred. They succeeded in their aim of weakening the Morcha, and though the Morcha continued its fight against the injustice of the rich and the powerful, they did not have the strength that they had commanded earlier. Among the three Bengalis who had had some connection with Bengal was Dr. Punyabrata Gun. He returned to Calcutta soon after Neogiji’s death. Then Dr. Saibal Jana left to join the Durbar Mahila Samiti. I, however, did not have anywhere to go to. I admit I felt extremely neglected in the organization. This was largely because the focus had shifted to Bhilai, where the fight had

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got very tough, and the leaders were unable to pay attention to Bastar. But all this had the intended effect upon me. My morale flagged. My economic state too was very bad then. I had never run a shop before this and my lack of experience was aggravated by my lack of business acumen. I was not canny on what books or station­ ery to stock and how much. I had ordered a lot of the books that had sold for the first two weeks after the school session began. The next few weeks did not see as good sales, and then with the state government scrapping the earlier syllabus for a new one, those books never got sold. Earlier Nazeeb Qureishi knew that if I could not pay up, Neogiji would pay him his dues on my behalf. But after Neogiji’s death, Qureishi was understandably hesitant to give me books on credit. The other boys who worked for the Morcha in the Kapashi area also got demoralized and drifted into other parties. I had been rendered quite isolated in the Kapashi area and the Jiten Banerjees took advantage of this situation to try and put me in trouble. Arun Datta, the Sarpanch of the BJP Kapashi panchayat put pressure on me to join up with them. And the police? They too harassed me no end by calling me into the police station, and making me wait for hours on end. The People’s War Group was very active in the area then and since they looked upon the Morcha as a friend of the PWG, I was fair game to the police. One evening when I had returned from Bareygaon after my duty, a Bullet police motorbike came to a halt before my door. ‘Byapariji, you have to come to the Police Station. The Chief Officer has called for you.’ His face appeared to tell me that he had been sent to arrest me, but that he was not spelling that out. The reason for such reticence would be that if he declared that he had come to arrest me, I would ask the reason, and demand to see the warrant. It was easier to take me to the station if he simply said that I had been ‘called’ for. Expecting to spend the night in the police lock-up, I told Anu not to cook dinner for me. It would simply go waste. ‘Keep that for your lunch tomorrow. I don’t expect to be back before tomorrow night,’ I said.

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When we arrived at the Police Station, we were told that the Chief Officer had just left for this place called Bande. They had no idea when he would be back, so I was to wait. I was asked to sit down below the bahera tree in front of the police station, with two sentries on guard. Two and a half hours passed by as we waited. In the meantime, two cases were brought in, one of a fight and another of a bullock-theft. The complaints were lodged, but there was still no sign of the Chief Officer. Finally, one of the guards on duty said, ‘Byapariji, how long will you keep waiting like this? Go on, get yourself some tea and come back after some time. If you were arrested, this would make some sense. But as it is, without any arrest, it does not make sense to keep you sitting here like this.’ As I got up to leave, he reminded me, ‘But don’t go home. Because then we will have to get you arrested and bring you back here.’ This was not how it had been in West Bengal. Here, a kind of sporting trust had come about between me and the local police, a sort of antagonistic camaraderie. And this was not the first time that I had been let off to roam free for some time. At the time of that Jiten Banerjee row, when I had been taken handcuffed to the court, the two constables had let me off to have my meal as they entered a more expensive restaurant to lunch on government money. I had walked about half a mile alone to the Dudh River to eat at the cheap hotel that I frequented when I came to Kanker on work, where one could have rice, dal and vegetables for six rupees. I could have tried running away that day, but the two poor constables would have been in a soup. I had respected their trust. They were waiting for me patiently after their meal. It was for this reason that the guard today could let me off for some time today. By the time the Chief Officer returned, it was about nine in the night. He nodded to me on seeing me. ‘You have come already?’ ‘I haven’t come,’ I replied.’I was brought here.’ ‘Yes, yes, I did ask them to bring you,’ he conceded. ‘So what is your programme tomorrow?’

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‘What programme?’ I asked, surprised. He then told me that there was a protest scheduled by the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha across the police stations of Chhattisgarh. What the officer wanted to know was would the Morcha supporters of Paralkot be taking part in this protest? Now this was something that I had had no news of, and neither where we in a position to do anything at Paralkot. So I replied that we were not. Whereupon he heaved a sigh of relief and said I could then go home. It was very late by then and the last bus had left. So I bought a loaf of bread for my dinner and began walking. I had given Anu the impression that I would be arrested. There was no way she would get a peaceful night’s sleep with that on her mind. The least I could do was get back home and reassure her. The Pakhanjur Police Station was a distance of about eleven miles from my home. The road was lined with forests, sometimes dense and at other times sparse. Some patches had been cleared for cultivation. Moving along the PV56 highway, I would have to cross the mountain that was called after the Number 9 Village which was more than two miles away: the Number 9 Mountain. Beyond that was the adivasi village Harangarh, The night was pleasant and there was a full moon in the sky. I picked my way through the forests of arjun, sal, bamboo, teak and a number of other trees. Exhausted after the long day, there came a time when I walked along like an automaton, senseless both in mind and body. I had neared the mountain and come to a patch of cultivable land, cleared for the fat juicy soya beans, pulses and sesame seeds to be planted after the rains. In front of me, about a hundred and fifty feet from where I was, were these three or four very large boulders standing dark in the night. The tiger had possibly been sleeping in their shadow. Just as I had not realized its presence, the tiger too had not sensed that a man had approached quite near. The first sound that I heard was a peculiar sound. It was not the dreaded roar, but rather a mix of a roar and an irritated ‘Uff!’ Startled, I froze in my tracks, and saw the tiger running across the moonlight-bathed fields into

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the forests. These tigers, smaller in size than the Bengal tigers we knew of, were called tendua in the local tongue. They were not man-eaters and many others had seen them near this mountain. There was possibly a pair of them, till one came under the wheels of a truck and was killed. It was getting difficult for me to survive in Kapashi. Caught as I was between two powerful political parties, harassed intermittently by the police, and unable to secure any regular income, I was finding it impossible to feed my family and myself. The available work here was seasonal: during the three months of the cultivation of the tendu leaves, and a month during the season when the leaves would be plucked. The only job that I could do on my own was to cut wood from the forests and sell it. But my short-lived political career had angered the forest department. If I entered the forests now with an axe, they would arrest me under the forest conservation laws, grab my tools and the bicycle. I would find myself in a situation worse than I was in now. There was no familiar face that I could turn to now for help and the future looked grim. Buying enough rice, dal, oil and salt for my family was growing increasingly challenging and I was driven mad with worry. It was at this time that I got news of a road being built from Pakhanjur to Village Number 108. Work had begun about a fortnight ago and would continue for another two months at the very least. The contractor was from Dalli and on good terms with the Morcha chief Janaklal Thakur. ‘If he puts in a word for you,’ said my neighbour who had brought me the news, ‘you can find employment there as a munshi. This should pull you through the next two months, following which will arrive the season when the tendu leaves will be plucked. I will try to set you up as the in-charge of a unit, and will also show you how you can earn five to seven thousand a month.’ There were about five munshis working from the area, a job which earned one thirty rupees a day. I snatched at the hope and, borrowing fifty rupees for the journey to and from Dalli from my neighbour, I set out to meet Janaklal Thakur. On reaching, I was

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told that he had left for Bhopal. I waited for four days there, only to hear that Swami Agnivesh had called him to Delhi from Bhopal on some urgent work. It would be at least a fortnight before he returned to Dalli, so I decided to go back home. After a fortnight, I borrowed money again and went to Dalli. I was told that Janaklal Thakur had returned within a week after I had left and was now at the Narmada Bachao Andolan to support Medha Patkar in her protest. But he would return tonight, no matter how late, because he had scheduled a meeting here tomorrow. I met him the next morning and he promised to speak to a man named Rampal on my behalf. Rampal lived in the same mohalla as Surinder and he would convey Janakji’s message to him. But Rampal was a busy man and meeting him was not easy. We lost a few more days before Janakji could meet Rampal and introduce me to him. It was agreed that Rampal would take me to Surinder. Within a few days, I was sitting behind Rampal on his motorbike as we made our way to Surinder Singh’s house. After trying to meet Surinder a few times at different places and missing him by minutes, Janakji decided that running around after Surinder would take up too much time. He wrote out a letter for Surinder and advised me to go meet him at his work site, where I could be directly put to work. But these visits too proved fruitless, and I would either miss the man by a few hours or he would cancel his visit to the work site and leave for some other job. The man in charge of the site advised me to come on Saturday, the day of the week when the labourers would get their pay. With much hope, I landed up as early as I could, determined not to miss Surinder. Surinder did not come. The next week, he disbursed the payments on Friday, a day ahead of Saturday. After many such innumerable futile attempts, the old man in charge took pity on my patience, perseverance and diligence. ‘Son, if you do not mind, will you tell me what this letter is about? What is it that you want to tell Surinderji?’ Whereupon I narrated to him my hope of securing the job of a munshi for two months. He was silent for some time before he spoke. ‘Beta, you want the job of a munshi and you are running

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around with a letter from the MLA? Why did you not simply tell me? I would have put you on to the job. This MLA-letter business has scared off the boss. He’s been trying his best to avoid you. Son, do you fire a cannon to kill a mosquito?’ A year passed by in this impoverished state, with my family living from hand to mouth and barely managing to survive. Then one day, I received a call from Ratneshwar Nath of Kanker. ‘Byapariji, come as soon as you can. There is work here. I will bear the cost of your journey.’ When I reached Kanker, I heard that the Ekta Parishad would, this year, hold a meeting at the Masjid Maidan on the claim of Jal, jangal, zameen—ho janta ke adheen (The water, land and forests belong to the common man). This was being organized on 2 October, Gandhiji’s birthday, and the communal rights over water, forests and land would be demanded at this meeting. The contribution of Shankar Guha Neogi would be remembered on this day, and P. V. Rajagopalan of the Gandhi Peace Foundation would join us in this from Delhi. The Mukti Morcha’s cooperation was needed to make this day successful. Like many other mass organizations, the Ekta Parishad too was an organization that cooperated with the Morcha in its work for the adivasis. They did much work for the local community and as a result of that commanded the loyalty and respect of the people. This was more than what most political parties with their vote politics could do. They had joined us at Dalli the last 28 September when we held the Shaheed Divas in Shankar Guha Neogi’s name. Our shared feelings of good will and solidarity therefore compelled me to join them. I was no leader. I had told as much to Dr. Saibal Jana one day. I was a good soldier, not a commander-in-chief. I worked well under orders, but the responsibility had to be taken up by someone else. My commander-in-chief had been Shankar Guha Neogi. Without him now, I was like a rudderless boat. I thought of myself as a student of Marxism. Ratneshwar Nath of the Ekta Parishad was a Gandhian. He sat on demonstrations and protests outside the courts and police stations, lectured from the dais, with

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the aim of getting arrested. But when he called, I usually went. I went both because I was more or less the only person left in the area who could be seen as a representative of Neogiji, and also because Ratneshwar Nath worked sincerely for the tribals. So on the night of 1 October, about eight tribal boys and I were going around the town at night, with sheaves of posters in our hands, pasting them up on walls. The town was a small, neat one, full of life and vitality. I have not seen another like it. It did not sleep at night, remaining alive and alert as the many long-distance buses arrived, gathered new passengers, left, and people teemed to and fro at the bus stands, the hotels and restaurants. We began from one end of the town, where the Ekta Parishad office was situated, then moved along the main road, to the Dudh River, across the bridge over it, past the bus stand, past the Masjid Maidan, to the other end where the Punjabi Dhaba was. By the time we had plastered the walls with the news of the coming meeting at 4 o’clock of the next day, it was two in the night. As we neared the bus stand, we saw about eight to ten people sitting on chairs placed on the pavement in front of a decorator’s shop. These were the local Congress workers who had organized a smallish celebration for 2 October in the early morning. Hoisting of the flag, a few slogans. But they were uncertain about waking up in time, and had taken the ‘easier’ way out of staying up through the night into the early hours of the morning. One among them, a man with the physique of an African heavyweight boxer, raised his hand and gestured to me. ‘You! Here!’ His manner of summoning was insolent and insulting. One of the young boys with me, murmured into my ear, ‘Dada, let’s get out of here! This man is the biggest Dada of the town. His name is Ravi Srivastav—he is Arvind Netam’s right-hand man.’ In Chhattisgarh, Dada meant a Don, a gangster, thug. And Arvind Netam was the central minister of agriculture. Indira Gandhi had held in him in much affection when she was alive, and he was now close to her son, Rajiv Gandhi. I had heard of

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Ravi Srivastav before, but this was the first time I was seeing him. Yet this huge-built man, with his large, dark eyes, was a familiar face that had stared at me innumerable times from newspapers and posters. And there was not a man in Chhattisgarh who did not fear him. Sushil Sharma, the journalist who had written about me in Amrit Sandesh, was also sitting beside him. And I suspect it was he who had pointed me out to Srivastav, ‘ There—that one there is the Byapari fellow.’ And hence the summons, ‘You! Here!’ Just as Srivastav was the right hand man of Arvind Netam, Kohliya was the right hand man of Srivastav. Kohliya, whose real name was Jitendra Singh, was the supervisor of Kanker Roadways. In the local vernacular, kohliya meant a fox. With his small car, Kohliya would hide in the forests beside the road, and spring out unexpectedly in front of the buses, bringing the bus to a stop. His men would then carry out a check to see how many passengers were travelling without tickets, and penalise the driver and conductor if found. The laws were a little different here, and it was not the ticketless travellers, but the bus staff who would be fined. Kohliya was in league with Srivastav in many building projects, dams, bridges, roads. Kohliya also had a weakness for women. Any solitary tribal girl alone in the forests could be accosted by him. The simple-minded tribals had little idea whom to complain to and what the laws were. The police anyway did not listen to them. It may not irrelevant here to mention that the problem that led to the landmine explosion by the People’s War Group in Bastar, killing eighteen policemen, had begun with the rape of a tribal woman. The hapless tribal girl had gone to the police to lodge a complaint, looking for justice, only to be turned away with ridicule and insults. So she went to her Dadas. They came and shot dead the rapist. After this, the brother of the rapist lodged a complaint against the murder, following which the police arrived in search of the tribals. But the PWG knew that they would come, and they had set up landmines. My knowledge of all this, though, is sourced from newspapers and magazines, and I cannot vouch for their truth.

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What I do know of from my personal experience is the incident of Damayanti, a girl of class 9 from the Bhanpuri village who was kidnapped by Kohliya and two of his friends on her way home from school. They dragged her into a jeep, drove off into the deep forest, and raped her through the night, leaving her in a half-­conscious state near the village at dawn. They had been doing this for long and, like other times, they did not expect anyone to lift a finger this time either. Damayanti’s father was a schoolteacher and he accompanied his daughter to the police station to lodge a complaint. The police refused to take a complaint against Kohliya, advising them instead to return home and keep silent about the matter. Damayanti’s father then went to Ratneshwar Nath, who promised him justice. He mobilized a mass movement, organizing meetings, campaigns and demonstrations. I too was called in to Kanker to help and I took an active part in the protests. Thanks to the local newspapers, the news received wide coverage, and the police were finally forced to arrest Kohliya. Ravi Srivastav, whose close aide Kohliya was, had not been here then when we were traversing the length and breadth of Kanker with our michhils and dharnas. He had been serving a sentence for physical assault on Varma Lal Khatvani, the famous industrialist of Kanker. It was only recently that his sentence had been completed and he had returned to the city. This was the man who was calling me now and his body language was expressive enough to convey to me that this was not a call to join him for an amiable banter. Who would save me if they beat me up now? But I was not going to run away. I did have a reputation to think of in the Bastar district. I was involved in the politics of the region, and with all the government offices of the region being in this Kanker town, this was where I would have to fight most of our battles. It was possible that they may gang up today and thrash me but what about the roar of anger that would surely arise tomorrow from the Masjid Maidan? The voice of the masses in my defence and against their violence? It was not I who would be the loser. Recently, angry BJP followers had beaten up the leader of another organization that worked with the tribals, the Bharat Jan Andolon. They had caught hold of Dr. Brahmdeo

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Sharma in the Jagaddalpur area, torn off his clothes, poured cowdung over him, and paraded him through the town clothed only in his underwear. The photo got published in the newspapers, leading to a protest in front of the Delhi Parliament by four hundred public intellectuals led by Swami Agnivesh. Atal Behari Vajpayee asked for forgiveness on behalf of his violent party members. Those who had till then remained unaware of Dr. Brahmdeo Sharma’s work, got to know him. The victim, not the perpetrators of the violence, emerged the clear winner of the incident. So up I went to Srivastav. ‘You Manoranjan Byapari?’ ‘Yes, that is my name.’ ‘You stay in Kapashi?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘And what you doing out so late at night?’ he said in a gravelly voice. ‘That you can well see what I am doing.’ I replied. Sushil Varma was smiling with his head lowered. Without a doubt, he was the one who had pointed me out to Srivastav. The other pairs of eyes around Srivastav were watching me as if I was entertainment personified. The more scared I got, the greater would be the fun they derived from the situation. Well, I too was a Bangal from the Barisal district. I did not scare that easy. Then Srivastav says, ‘So? You sent Kohliya to jail?’ I shook my head, ‘No.’ ‘No? Who organized meetings at Bhanpuri? Gave speeches? Sat in protests at the court?’ ‘I did.’ ‘So then who sent him to jail?’ I steadied myself, forcing myself to speak in a calm, controlled voice. ‘Sahib, I do not know any Kohliya-Mohliya. And neither do I wish to. A tribal girl was raped. The rapist deserved punishment, and I fought for that. If such a thing happens again, I will fight again. That is what Neogiji taught me. If I cannot stand by the side of the weak and the vulnerable, why should I be in politics?’

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Then Srivastav offered me a chair, asked someone to get me some tea, and held out his hand with a pack of Wills cigarettes. His voice softened, he relaxed. ‘Tell me one thing, Dada,’ said Srivastav once I had sat down. ‘The Bengalis here were chased out of their homes in Bangladesh. It is the Congress Party that brought them here, gave them land, helped them build them houses. Yet the Bengalis will not vote for the Congress. The BJP, on the other hand, has not lifted a finger to help them, but it is the BJP they will vote for. This is one puzzle I cannot make sense of.’ Jagdish Mishra, seated behind Srivastav, attempted to provoke me. ‘That is the way of the Bengalis,’ he said. ‘They puncture the very plate they eat from.’ I stayed cool, unwilling to rise to the bait. Srivastav’s tone indicated that this was not inconsequential banter to him. So I answered him seriously, choosing my words with deliberation. ‘You will have to understand the situation of the Bengalis to understand this,’ I said. ‘Take yourself, for instance.’ You stay here at Kanker. You have grown up here. You call this place your home, and there are innumerable memories that are associated in your mind with this town of Kanker. Now suppose you are uprooted and forced to leave. You are taken to another place where you are given land, house, cows as compensation. You are given all that the refuges have been given. But this new land is different from the land you are used to. The people of that land are not your people. And there you are ordered to make a life for yourself, within a boundary that is guarded. Would you want to stay there? Would you have not wanted to escape? And this person who has brought you here, and is compelling you to stay on here, would you have looked upon that person with friendly eyes? ‘The Bengalis are in the same situation. They view the Congress with the same anger that they harbour against the Muslims who had demanded a separate nation. If the Congress had not agreed to the Partition, they would not have had to leave their homes. It is for this reason that they will not vote for the Congress. As for the

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BJP, they have become the gainers by the very virtue of not doing anything regarding this turmoil.’ ‘But don’t they see the greater danger they are bringing in by supporting the BJP? This will divide the entire nation. What will they do then?’ ‘I agree, but who will convince the Bengalis of this? The politicians visit them only at the time of the elections. The CPM Party was, in fact, in the best position to do this. But they went and bloodied their hands with the Marichjhapi massacre. The wounds of that history are still raw.’ ‘Are you saying this seat will always remain with the BJP?’ asked Srivastav. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘For only a few years more. The memory of the Partition and Marichjhapi will fade from the minds, and with the coming of the new generations, it will be a level playing ground again.’ ‘It is for this reason that Neogiji, despite living only a hundred miles from Paralkot, did not work from here. He had been here around 1972, but he realized that the socio-economic situation of the Bengalis here was such that involving them in any long-drawn out battle would be difficult. The Bengalis may have been economically rehabilitated, but their mental rehabilitation was still incomplete. They did not think of Bastar as their home. The hills, the rivers, the forests of the region did not tug at their heart strings the way the earth and the water of Bengal did. But Neogiji was determined to succeed in his dream of an exploitationfree Chhattisgarh. A new Chhattisgarh for the new India. Thus no bridge was built between the Bengalis of Paralkot and Neogiji. If it had been built, no BJP would have won any seat. The party that would have won would be the one Neogiji supported.’ I paused. And saw the light of respect in the eyes surrounding me. I had not proved to be as ignorant as my appearance or clothes foreboded. The talk moved to the Naxal problem, the role of the non-governmental organizations. The night dragged on. Then Srivastav turned to me and said, ‘Well, so much for the world and the land. Tell me about yourself. How do you earn?’

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‘I don’t,’ I replied shortly. ‘Meaning?’ ‘Now what can that mean except that I don’t.’ ‘So what do you live on?’ ‘I live on air, water, and the curses of those who hate me.’ While this was not the whole truth, it was not very far from the truth. At that time, my income from my shop had dropped to the sale from a few pens and exercise books. My wife, Anu, had, on her own initiative, managed a job for herself as an Anganwadi worker. She cycled ten kilometres to Irikbhutta village every morning for this job which got her two hundred and fifty rupees every month. She cycled the ten kilometres back again braving the wrath of the afternoon sun. This was really my family’s main source of income. ‘Shouldn’t you look after your family first, and then work for the people and the nation in the remaining time? Why don’t you take up some work?’ ‘I should. But who will give me work? I have no sources.’ ‘I can. If you agree to work for me. I can get you a job.’ ‘But I have no degrees.’ ‘I don’t want degrees. I want work.’ ‘Let me think a bit,’ I said. ‘Fair enough,’ he replied. ‘let me know once you have thought it over. I will get you a job the very next day after you tell me. But I too have a condition. As long as you work for me, you will not raise slogans of “Inquilab”. If you want to, you will first leave the job and come out onto the streets.’ I was in dire need. And I did need some work badly. I went and discussed the matter with Nazeeb Qureishi, Ratneshwar Nath and Vishnu Prasad Chakravarty. These were the three people closest to me in Kanker. What all three said could be summarized thus, take up the job and then decide whether you want to continue with it or not. So I went to meet Srivastav at his house one day. His palatial house was in front of the Kanker Bus Stop. He wrote out a letter and directed me to go to the Irrigation Department at Bhanupratappur. I was to meet the SDO Varma Sahib there and

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he would put me to work. One of Srivastav’s men put me on the bus, telling the conductor, ‘He is Ravi Bhaiya’s man. Don’t take any fare from him.’ On reading the letter, a frown appeared on Varma Sahib’s forehead. There was a short pause. Then he said, ‘Okay. Come back on the first of the coming month. What Ravi Bhaiya has asked for will be done.’ Ravi Srivastav had said he will put me to work the day after I informed him. But Varma had asked me to return after fifteen days. I had not forgotten my experience at the Pakhanjur Road construction site. The job had been lost to me forever because I was five minutes late in reaching the place. Too much could happen within these fifteen days. Varma could have a heart attack, Srivastav could be murdered, the next World War could begin. At the very least, I may not have the money to pay for my bus fare the next time. Anxiety showed on my face and I pleaded, ‘But Ravi Bhaiya said I would get to work from tomorrow.’ ‘That’s written in the letter,’ said Varma. ‘But how do I make a voucher in the middle of the month? It can’t be done that way. Come back on the first.’ I did not go home. I went to Srivastav’s house and informed him of what Varma had said. Ravi Srivastav wrote out another letter for Varma and asked me to go back to Bhanupratappur. ‘Go tell Varma tomorrow is the first. And the payment sheet will be for all of the thirty days.’ So I went back. Varma sat silently with the letter for some time. Possibly cursing himself. He was a governmental officer and he was being ordered around by a mafia don. He could scarcely meet my eyes. He remained staring at a faraway spot above my head as he said, ‘Go home. You stay in Kapashi, right? Go there. There is no need to go to Kanker. Imagine you have begun work from tomorrow. Come and join work on the first.’ So I went back home. After fifteen days, I came to work and the first thing I did was collect my salary for the last month. This

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was work that I had experience of. A dam was being constructed across the river at a place called Palachur. A reservoir would be built here to meet the needs of the villages nearby that regularly suffered from lack of water. I was to supervise the labourers. My month’s salary was seven hundred and fifty rupees. The papers for the construction of the dam were all in the name of Srivastav, but the responsibility for the work was on Varma. I went to Bhanupratappur to collect the salary payment, and Varma disbursed it to the labourers. What the equation was between Srivastav and Varma I do not know. The road that ran towards Pakhanjur had about four to five buses plying through it daily, and a few jeeps and trucks. About two miles to the east of the dam lay Durgkondal. All habitation was concentrated there. The three other sides were without any sign of humanity for six to seven miles, covered with dense jungles. The forests were inhabited by many wild animals, and by tribes who spoke in a tongue quite incomprehensible to me. I did not understand their language, and did not understand their customs and behaviour. But a greater fear terrorised the region, the Naxalites. The entire Chhattisgarh was in their control and they could attack any part of their jungle kingdom at any time. For the last three decades, there had been a powerful Naxal base in Dandakaranya. According to police reports, there were about 13 dalam, or groups, with at least ten in each dalam. That would make them a total of about one hundred and thirty. This number was nothing compared to the number of dacoits in the Chambal region, who would be possibly a hundred times greater in number. Yet the Naxals were a terror here. The topography of the place was such that if a person armed with a gun entered the thick jungle, it would be impossible for the state government to touch him. A runaway criminal from Bihar or an idealistic revolutionary from Bastar, the jungle would prove a secure refuge for both. And therefore, a group of young rebels of the People’s War Group had taken refuge in the forests here. Despite what Mao Zedong said about this being the age of global revolution, not too

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many were willing to stand by these youth. That was because what was more powerful than the anger against exploitation, injustice was the desire to live in peace. The Naxals had thus found it difficult to make any significant increase in their numbers till then. Unexpectedly, since about a year, the numbers had been rising steadily. They had, in fact, grown so strong that their defensive mode of battle had changed to an offensive one and whereas earlier the police would enter and scour the forests for the Naxals, it was the Naxals who were now storming police stations. Why this sudden change? Ravi Taylor, the young adivasi leader of the tribals explained it thus: Shankar Guha Neogi had been a man much loved by the tribals of Chhattisgarh. As long as he had lived, he had kept alive in the mind of the tribals a belief in the constitutional order. It is for this reason that many had called Neogi the Gandhi of Chhattisgarh. And it is for this reason that he was shot to death. He had not harmed anybody. Yet he was killed. And his murderers were not punished. The justified demands of the labourers were silenced by the guns of the police and industrialist mafia. Now whom were the labourers to go to with their grievances? A colossal darkness had descended after Neogiji’s death. Human beings need a support. With Neogiji’s murder, that support of the tribals had been wiped away, leaving a yawning hole. That vacuum had been filled by the Naxals, who became the support of the vulnerable. It was as if Neogiji’s death had proved irrefutably how a peaceful war was doomed. It was as if the powerful and the rich had explicitly conveyed how inconsequential they believed non-violent methods to be. It was as if they believed only in the language of the guns. What was the use of forbearance? For years the poor had laid bare their backs to be trampled upon and beaten. It was now time to rise and beat them back. Many joined in the violence. Gunpowder and explosions followed. In fact, the first gunpowder explosion occurred after Neogiji’s death, not before. And it may be said that this would not have occurred if he had been alive. Most of the tribal men and women were illiterate. They were unaware of the Madhya Pradesh governmental rules regarding

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basic minimum pay being thirty-three rupees and thirty-three paise a day. They signed the thirty-three rupees and thirty-three paise pay with their thumb imprints but were handed only sixteen rupees. This was recognized as a crime by the Naxalites. They warned the site in-charge, ‘Don’t do this’. When they found him continuing the practice the next time they came there, they tied him to a tree and broke his bones. He remained tied to the tree through the night. The next morning the police found him there but he died on the way to the hospital. Since then work had almost stopped at this site. Nobody was willing to take up this job. And it was at this dead munshi’s post that Srivastav had employed me. I would now have to carry out this deception on the tribal labourers. Srivastav was basically killing many birds with one stone. One, the work at the dam could be begun once again and two, if I did die at the hands of the Naxals like my predecessor, he would not lose much. On the other hand, he may just gain some political mileage by showcasing my deserved death as the nadir to which the tribal-loving Neogiji’s followers had fallen since his death. He would claim that I had collected the full amount of pay from him but had cheated the ignorant tribals. Three, if I did not die and lived, well then, the profits of the construction would dance happily into his pockets. And four, by keeping me occupied and politically inactive here, he was weakening Ratneshwar Nath. He had come for a few minutes to this Palachur Dam after I joined here. None of the officers and contractors tarried for long at this site. They disembarked from their car for a few minutes before rushing off to the more populous Durgkondal area. Any rustle of leaves from the surrounding jungles would set their hearts aflutter in sheer terror. Srivastav had told me on that day, ‘You will hear much here, and you will see much. But don’t lose your head. Handle everything coolly.’ This was a realization I too had come to after arriving here. If I did not keep quiet, I would lose my job and the hungry maw of poverty would draw nearer to my family again. So I suppressed

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the rebellious soul inside me, and busied myself in quietly cheating the labourers of their deserved salary as they placed their thumb imprints beside a figure more than double of what I would hand out to them. In the small town of Durgkondal, a little distance away from the dam, were some small shops, a police station, a few government offices and a school. Among the people who worked here were some who were half-educated, first generation learners, who had slipped through the openings of the reservation system to claim jobs. Not a single book would you find in any of their houses. Lacking any sense of culture and education, these people had little idea of how to spend the money they earned and, taking the easy way out, they spent on gambling, alcohol and women. As the dissolute urban rich throw away money on horse racing in the big cities, the dissolute here gamble on cockfights. The bets go up to a couple of thousands at these cock fights. The simpler, down-to-earth rhythm of life of the tribals was disturbed by these outsiders who would arrive on evenings astride their motorbikes. With wads of notes in their pockets, they would ride their motorbikes along the dam site. There were many women workers at the site and the hunters would accost them as they returned from work. With the lure of money, saree, silver, or plain words, they would persuade the women onto their bikes. Some of the young girls were willing to be lured, others would be forced. I had moved heaven and earth once for the rape of one single Damayanti. Now I remained quiet as every day some Damayanti or the other was preyed upon. The people over here appeared to have accepted this. They did not say a word in protest. I too accepted it. My eyes grew accustomed to these events. The great saint Ramakrishna had said, He who endures, remains. He who cannot endure, gets destroyed. I endured. Throughout the day, the area around the dam teemed with life. Trucks, rollers, labourers, the forests echoed with the sound. As soon as dusk fell, and the work came to a stop, the area became deserted, silent. After work, I got into the little room

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beside the dam that had been given to me as my quarters, and bolted the door. I did not open the door for any reason. If I needed to relieve myself, I stood up on my bed and completed the job through the window. The twelve-hour long nights passed in terrifying dread. What if a snake slithered in? What if a bear broke down the flimsy door? What if the Naxals came for me? What if the adivasis came looking for human sacrifice to offer to their God? Of these, the Naxals scared me the least. They would not shoot the moment they entered, they would say a few words, and I would get the chance to say a few words and explain my position. But as my Destiny would have it, the adivasis did not come in search for me. I went in search of them and their God Anga. One evening saw me and one of my adivasi workers, Jharu Ram, go into the forests to his village in search of more labourers. The monsoons would be here soon, and we would have to complete the work of the dam before the rains came. For this, I needed more people for the work. Most of the villages here are spread over a large space, but the inhabitants are few. Each house is at least a quarter or a half-mile away from the other, and each is surrounded by jungle. After moving from house to house through the entire village, Jharu Ram brought me finally to the last house of the village, set amidst the hills and the jungles, the house of the Pujari. In adivasi society, there is a triumvirate of humans who stand just below their Gods and Goddesses: the Patel of the village, who sits as judge on all complaints, the Bega, that is, the doctor who prescribes cures for illnesses, and the Pujari, who mediates between the tribes and their Gods. It was the Pujari’s wisdom that kept the community safe from the anger of the Gods and Goddesses, the evil eye of the Demons, the fury of Nature. Without the Pujari, where would the adivasis be? It was quite dark by now, and even as I stepped into the recesses of the Pujari’s dark house, I could feel gooseflesh crawling up my arms. The atmosphere of the house was such that the supernatural seemed to be alive here. Unseen spirits who lived here, whose heavy breaths fell on my ears, whispering among

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themselves. And then emerged the Pujari. In the ashy darkness that was fast swallowing up the village, the sight of this man almost felled me. Clad in only a loincloth, at over six feet tall, broad shouldered, with his skin dark as charcoal, he terrified me. He had large eyes, large yellow teeth, and his copper-coloured dreadlocks hung loose over his back. On seeing me with Jharu Ram, he smiled. His eyes seemed to speak to my companion who appeared to grow uneasy and the little bird inside my heart quailed with fear. ‘Bhool. Bhool. I have blundered by coming here,’ were the words that went through my head. But I was the guest and the Pujari invited me into his home. He offered me their alcohol, made from mahua flowers, pouring it out of the tumba, a vessel made out of a hollowed out gourd, into cups made of leaves. A hen was roasted. Every adivasi household has a fire burning continuously through the year. The modern methods of making a fire are still unknown here, and they do not know matches. The Pujari picked up the hen and unceremoniously twisted off its head. Then he plunged it into the fire, plucking off its feathers once the flesh grew soft. This he divided into three portions and placed on three leaves. A little salt and a few chillies were placed beside these. In this entire process, there was no use of water at all. For drinking, we drank mahua, and when the flames fell, this mahua was poured into the fire to make it blaze up again. However desperate I may be to leave the place, Jharu Ram was now loath to leave his drink. He did not respond to my attempts to hurry him. A little out of terror, and a little out of helpless frustration, I joined in. The three of us together finished off two full bottles, a quantity that would have been enough for eight men. The pujaris eyes grew redder and his looks fiercer. He looked at Jharu Ram and said, ‘Abe la je chal.’ Meaning, Now bring him along. ‘Where?’ Jharu Ram’s voice sounded like a frightened whimper. ‘Puja dekhon,’ meaning, Will give the puja. ‘Le chal,’ he said again, standing up.

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With the season for sowing their crops coming soon, the Pujari had taken it for granted that Jharu Ram had brought me over as the sacrifice. An unknown face, an outsider, Jharu Ram must have tricked this man into coming here. This blood could be offered to the God Anga, who would be satisfied. After the puja, the blood would be scattered on the fields which would give good crops. By now, Jharu Ram was swaying drunk on his feet. If he acquiesced with the Pujari’s ‘Le chal’, there was no hope for me. The modern, civilized world of lights was now far, far away—so distant that it seemed to be an entirely separate world. But Jharu Ram had not yet lost his senses. ‘Nahi,’ he said. ‘Ela nahi.’ Not this one. ‘Kabar?’ said the pujari. ‘This is a government man,’ answered Jharu Ram. ‘If he disappears, people will ask me, where is he? He left with you last evening.’ ‘Tell them—What do I know? I brought him back to the dam and left him there!’ The Pujari and Jharu Ram continued arguing with each other. I could feel my whole body going into a freezing numbness. My friend called Arjun Mallick who used to live in Kalighat was the hangman Nata Mallick’s brother, and had accompanied Nata to some hanging once. He had told me, when a man knows he is going to die, his body goes limp. He cannot move or speak. I could feel the same thing happening to me. If I had known the Pujari, or if I could speak their tongue, I would have tried pleading and begging. But this was God’s work. And neither did he know me personally. To him, I was simply the sacrifice. Which devotee, having pledged a goat to his deity for the fulfilment of a wish, has ever been dissuaded by the goat’s tearful bleats? But Jharu Ram, though tottering drunk, was unyielding. ‘Sarkari aadmi… Sarkari aadmi’, I could hear him saying over and over. Like the killing of a cow is forbidden in the Hindu Shastras, the killing of the King’s men is forbidden in the adivasi mind.

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The King has now been replaced by the government. The Pujari appeared to be yielding finally. So I stepped forward and inserted a few words in chaste Hindi, ‘Kaka, I have two small children. I have a wife too. Who will look after them if I die? They will suffer and die of hunger. That will make the Gods angry with you. Gods love children, you know.’ The Gods know what he understood, but the severity of religion evident on his face softened. He laughed. ‘Arre beta, you are a government man. How can I give you for the puja? I was joking. Daro mat!’ He followed up his assurance to me with an invitation to drink some more mohua, ‘Le, dargho pi!’ I swallowed more mahua and left the village, never to walk that way again. The Palachur Dam was completed in about one and a half years. It built a fourth wall around an area that was surrounded by hills on three sides, thus creating a reservoir that could hold in the water. A crore and eighty-six lakh rupees were spent on this dam of sand that got washed away with the first rains of the season. This happened within a month of Arvind Netam inaugurating the dam and dedicating it to the people. The man who had taken the responsibility of building the dam had come to the site but once. Varma, who had been put in charge by the government to oversee the construction, was hauled up for departmental enquiry. With Varma gone, there was no one here to sign my vouchers and pay me my salary, so off I went to Srivastav again. He wrote me another letter and I arrived at the office of yet another SDO Sharma to work on another dam. That had been a dam made of earth, this would be a dam made of cement. This was across the Dudh River, to the east of the Kanker Bus Stand. This work continued for six months. And in the meanwhile, Srivastav won the elections to become the chief of the Kanker municipality. Once this work got over, Srivastav suggested that I leave Sharma’s office, and stay back in Kanker.

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‘Bring your family over,’ he said. ‘I will get your wife a job at some new ICDS centre around here. If you agree, I will give you a job at the municipality here. You will get quarters to stay in, and a confirmed job after eighteen months of probation. A quiet place, and a leisurely job.’ In the past six months, Kanker had become a place I had begun to enjoy living in. Not only were my old friends Qureishi and Vishnu Prasad Chakrabarty present, but I had made some new friends there. Living among people whose language and culture were alien to mine was not pleasurable unless one was building up a movement as we had been doing earlier under Shankar Guha Neogi. But I was not doing that any more, and so I found no happiness in staying in the jungles. My Master would say, whatever brings happiness, is the nectar of life. Whatever gives ananda, is amrit. But there was no ananda now, so I opted to stay in Kanker. Accordingly, I left the job at the Irrigation Department after drawing my salary that month, and signed up for municipality duty. But I was in for a shock on my first day at the job. My job was at the shamshan of Kanker. The crematorium was a carefully created beautiful place. This was at some distance from the main town of Kanker, to the south of the Dudh River as it flowed in from the west, circled Kanker, crossed the newly constructed dam, and flowed in a Z shape towards the east. Muktidham, as the crematorium was called, occupied about twenty-five acres of land. With fruit and flower-bearing trees that took up about about five acres of land, the place had been beautified at a substantial cost. One gate of the Muktidham opened onto the main road, a scarcely traversed road where one jeep at the most may be seen over the course of one day. This was the road that led to Arvind Netam’s hometown. The dead bodies would be brought in through this gate. The other gate opened on to the Dudh River where some families may wish to bathe the body, or to bathe themselves. The Dudh River itself was beautiful, quiet for nine months of the year, like a timid girl whose gentle breathing spread ripples upon its waters. The remaining three months of the

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year it was like a young, untamed and reckless girl, overflowing its banks as it sped along. It is here that my new duty brought me. Work there really was little to speak of. I could watch television on the set that had been provided with the quarters, or read, or write. When a dead body came in, I would meet the family members, make the preparations, and go with them to the store for the wood they required, which I would sell them at fifty rupees a quintal. But more than half of the population of the area were Sindhis, one quarter Muslims, and the Punjabi and Bengali Hindus the remaining quarter. There were no adivasis in the town. There were many good hospitals and several good doctors. As a consequence, deaths were rare and a dead body arriving at Muktidham for cremation would be hardly about one a week. Ravi Srivastav’s objective was to build Muktidham not as a place for the dead, but as one for the living. A place where people came to sit quietly in peace and tranquillity. Then there was bolt from the blue, and Arvind Netam got involved in a hawala scam that broke before the Lok Sabha elections. The Congree Party announced that until Arvind Netam’s name was cleared in the investigations, he would not be given a ticket for the elections. Netam’s family had been loyal to the Congress since independence, so though Arvind Netam would not be given a ticket, his wife Chhabila Netam would be given one. When the war trumpets sounded, thirteen warriors descended onto the battle plains of Kanker: among them the Congress, BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party, Janata Dal, the Independents, and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha with Janaklal Thakur. At that time, I was spending my days at the crematorium and retiring to the dharamshala for the night. My family quarters were almost ready and I expected to be able to bring Anu in within a month. It is here that my old friends turned up one day, Ratneshwar Nath, Nazeeb Qureishi and Janaklal Thakur. ‘Byapariji, it is time you shook the dust off yourself and joined us in work now. Arvind Netam’s corruption has been revealed, nobody will vote for his wife. The BJP has always been a loser here with the support of only a handful of Sindhis and Bengalis. The

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BSP will be hard pressed to find polling agents for every booth, forget finding voters. Janaklal had stood for elections here earlier, people here know him and know his work. If we pitch in with our efforts now, we could get him to win.’ ‘If I canvas for Thakur Sahib now, I will surely lose my job,’ I said. ‘Dada, a social worker like you, a follower of Neogiji, surely you will not remain quiet at such a time, content with a mere job. I cannot imagine this,’ said Nazeeb. ‘Don’t look backwards,’ said Thakur. ‘Look ahead. We can win this time. We will see to the job-wob later. Now let us get to work.’ The Thakur’s jeep with its red and green flag had been left on the main road in front of the dharamshala. That they had come to meet me would not remain a secret. Ratneshwar Nath was a shrewd politician. When fighting for the arrest of Kohliya, Srivastav’s man, he had borrowed the jeep that belonged to Varma Lala Khatbani, the BJP leader. He was on friendly terms with Srivastav too, and now he reached this news to Srivastav’s ear: ‘We are thinking of sending Byapari to Paralkot to take over the North Bastar elections. We have made all the arrangements.’ Within a few days, Srivastav sent for me. ‘Dada, you will agree that I have never asked you to join our party, right? But now we are in dire straits. Arvind Netam is in a bad position. If Chhabilaji does not win the elections this time, we who do our politics with the Netam family at the front, where will we be? And then, where will you be? It is for this reason that we ask that all of us need to get together now. You do one thing—take a jeep tomorrow, fit a microphone and a flag onto it, and get to Paralkot. Let the Banerjees do what they are doing, you stay with us. I will take care of your attendance here. I know the Bengalis do not like Netam. But surely your words will have some impact upon them. At the very least we will win a thousand votes. That will mean a lot for us now.’ ‘That will not be possible for me,’ I answered. I would not be able to stand at Kapashi’s Pakhanjur and canvas for votes for those very people whom I had slammed and blasted a few moons ago.

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The Banerjees would laugh. And the public would say I had sold myself for a hefty amount. What made it even more difficult for me was the thought of the future generations. What would my children say? They would hold my own writings under my nose and say, what is this you have written, and what is this you are doing now? What would be my answer to them? How could I go against everything that I had built up with my own hands? ‘Look, Byapari, we talk straight. We don’t understand the convoluted theories and ideologies. Nor do we make false promises. We stood by you in your hour of difficulty, we want that you stand by us now in ours. If we give something, we do ask for something in return.’ I said, ‘I am grateful to you. But please do not ask me to canvas for you in the elections. Any other job that you ask of me, I will do for you. You pay me a salary and I obey your orders, but my political views are my own.’ He said, ‘If you do not work on our side for the elections, I will then surmise that you are secretly working for Janaklal Thakur. In that case, we may not keep you at our job. Think over it and let me know tomorrow.’ Ravi Srivastav’s behaviour that day was different and I felt insulted. Stung, I said, ‘Why should I work in secret? If I do decide to work, I will do so openly. I will canvas for Janaklal Thakur from tomorrow. I am Shankar Guha Neogi’s man. That is my great pride and my great vanity. I will not let anyone take that away from me.’ That night I moved out of the dharamshala and left for Dalli. The next day I returned to Kapashi. We tried our level best. But the Congress Party, that is, Arvind Netam, won the elections. The hawala scam that created a storm in the country had no impact upon the tribals here. In fact, many more, moved by sympathy, cast their vote for Netam’s wife Chhabila Netam. While the canvassing lasted, my day passed by in enthusiasm and excitement. Rice, dal, nothing was scarce. But after that came an unbroken unbearable silence, with no communication from either Dalli or Kanker. It was as if they had forgotten all about me.

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With my wife Anu’s income of two hundred and fifty rupees as our sole source of earning, my family was limping to a standstill. Finally, I took a bus and went to Dalli. To be greeted with the shocking scenario of a fading, failing town as I descended from the bus. The earlier bustling town, draped with the red and green flags, was now half-dead. As a consequence of a number of steps taken after the death of Neogiji, the industrialists, aided by the government, had made many changes that turned things in their favour and all but rung the death knell on the Dalli mines. About half of the labourers had been declared medically unfit and pushed into voluntary retirement. Those whose demeanour or position within the organization spoke of their leadership skills had been brought directly under the governmental schemes and transferred as supervisors to distant places, away from demonstrations, meetings and michhils. A meagre number of about twelve hundred people remained here, helpless under the arbitrary diktat of the contractors. The labouring town, humming with activity that had grown up around an industrial centre, had disappeared. It was four when I alighted from the bus at Dalli. The labourers had descended from the mines and the process of blasting had begun in the hills. The place was cloaked in a veil of dust. Not too many people were around. The area looked deserted. In the ­distance I could see the bridge, where the police had shot and killed the workers one morning in 1977. There used to be a tea stall on the bridge, and that remained. Like the dinosaurs being wiped out in a catastrophe and the tiny ant continuing to survive. Most of the shops that had lined the road from the station to the hospital appeared to have shut down for lack of customers. I spotted a Mukti Morcha leader at one of the remaining tea stalls. He called out to me enthusiastically. ‘Byaparida! Come, come here! What a pleasure to see you on this good day! Let me treat you to some tea!’ As we sipped on the tea, he said, ‘We are becoming “departmental” staff from tomorrow. We have received our letters!’ What becoming ‘departmental’ meant was that he, along with others, would become governmental employees from tomorrow.

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This also meant that there would be a change in the class they belonged to. From now on, they would no longer be workers, but supervisors or managers of workers. The Labour-in-Charge. His excitement and emotion were plainly audible in his voice. I finished the tea and stood up. ‘Come, let us go to the Morcha office,’ I said. ‘You go on ahead,’ he said. ‘I cannot go there anymore. That was part of the conditions they laid down. No more UnionVunion. I will miss it, I know. Remember the many years we have worked together? But I have no choice. Now that there is going to be some stability in my life, I cannot throw away such an opportunity whimsically.’ I could feel a searing pain going through my chest as I stood there, listening to his words. I had let go of my comfortable municipality job for their ideology, and now they were leaving the party for security and stability. All the blood, sweat, and tears that Neogiji had given to the movement were being rendered futile, irrelevant. Not that I blamed this particular man. Too many fire-breathing Naxals had succumbed to the lure of stability and comfort. I was a fool. With only a few days of Neogiji’s association and a few pages of published writing, I had taken to mouthing tall words—talking of ideology! I had had my head so turned that I was unable to see my bum bared by poverty. I met Janaklal Thakur at the office and told him of the dire straits I was in. That I was hard pressed to buy rice and dal for my family. He handed me five hundred rupees but with the air of a man giving a one-time donation. He said, ‘We too are going through a very bad time here. There is no money to speak of here too.’ I had returned home a broken man that day. Like a soldier defeated, unable to blame anyone but himself. I felt I had not done justice to anyone—and especially not to my family—my wife, my two kids. I had been unfair to all of them. Anu was still working at her Anganwadi job. Cycling ten kilometres up and ten kilometres down. Her first baby had been born through a caesarean operation, the second was a ‘forcep baby’, and then there had been the

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nasbandi operation of sterilization. Only she knew how painful it was cycling over hilly roads after these operations. I could hardly bear to look at her perspiring, exhausted face, burnt copper by the sun when she returned from work. Driven to desperation, I went to Johnson Crack’s office. This was the same man against whom I had led protests demanding just pay for the adivasi labourers. Luckily for me, this much-maligned officer of the Forest Department did not harbour any resentment against me. One reason could be that I had never approached him with the intention of extortion or blackmail. This was a mode frequently used by both journalists and political activists since it was an open secret that officials of the Forest Department were involved in the wood smuggling rackets. This had possibly caused him some surprise for he had once asked me, ‘Everyone arrives at the office with some bill book or the other in hand asking for money. You are the one person I have never seen!’ When I asked him for work now, he said, ‘Your relationship with the Forest Department has been that of the snake and the mongoose! Whatever we propose, your party protests against! How will you work here? I do have need for a watchman now. To catch those who are stealing wood from the forest. Will you be able to do it?’ I replied with alacrity, ‘Yes! This job does not go against my ideology. Neogiji spoke for protecting the natural resources and the environment. Sundarlal Bahuguna was our ideal. Anybody who robs the forest, government or thief, I will gladly work against them.’ ‘There are reasons for the government’s decisions to cut down trees,’ he said, frowning. ‘How would all these refugees have been rehabilitated if we did not make space for them by cutting down trees? And then their needs of fuel? Housing? Anyway, there are still some forest areas left and it is those we need to protect. One is near Paralkot. If you agree, I will put you as a chowkidar on that beat.’ Chowkidari was a dangerous job. It would require walking the forests alone every day. Wood smuggling was rife through the

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entire Paralkot area. There were about one or two saw-groups in every refugee village. They would enter the forests in groups of eight to ten people with their saws and cut down the expensive teak and other trees. These would be made into boards or even into finished furniture and smuggled out. But I was in no situation to choose or reject jobs. So I took up the job, citing all kinds of reasons: ideology, environment, etcetera, etcetera. It was my duty to find out, if necessary from a hiding place, who were cutting down the trees, then to inform the office, who would arrive with security and surround the place. There were the obvious dangers: wild animals, revengeful smugglers, angry adivasis, and above all, the fear of the Naxals. Their hatred for the officials of the Forest Department sprang from two reasons. Some of the Forest Department people would be police informers who would give away their hiding places, and others were known to exploit the poor adivasis. I started the day on my bicycle, cycling the ten kilometres from Kapashi and then the five to seven kilometres into the dense forest. Then I took the curving road towards the north, keeping my ears alert for any unusual sound in the forest. By noon, I reached the small village of Irikbhutta and, settling down under a tree, I had my midday meal. Then I took another path through another part of the forest to arrive at the Kharkheda Dam at about four. The road which till then had been uneven, rough and muddy, would now become a smooth, pucca road. What had been an uphill climb in the morning, was now downhill. I took a bath in the dam, jumped onto the seat, and sailed down on my bicycle. Around evening I arrived at my office, notified them ‘All Okay’, and left for home. It was as I neared the Irikbhutta village one day on my journey through the forest, passing by a few farms, that I was suddenly pulled up short by a loud voice, ‘Stop!’ I froze in my tracks as a gun-toting man stepped out of the shadows of a tree. I had once encountered a group of poachers. They had been possibly chasing some deer or a rabbit and came unexpectedly upon me on the

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road. Seeing me, they dropped their guns in fright and rushed off in fear into the forests. Those awkward, unwieldy guns, made in some blacksmith’s furnace of an adivasi village, had provoked me to laughter. But the sight of this weapon sent my soul flying out of my body in sheer terror. ‘Who are you?’ He was dressed in the army’s camouflage fatigues. ‘Bangali. I stay in Kapashi,’ I replied. ‘What you doing in the jungle?’ ‘Marking trees,’ I replied. ‘To get a count of the number of trees here.’ He then took me to the small hut on the edge of the farms, usually used by the villagers to keep a guard on their crops. I found six others dressed similarly there. Five were resting, one was cooking. They called to some passing goatherds and pointed at me. ‘No,’ they shook their heads. They don’t know me. ‘Call the Patel,’ someone said. The Patel of this village was Surja Ram. I knew him because he had stood for elections and I had worked hard to oppose him in that elections because he was Netam’s man. Today, my fate depended on him. If he chose to deny knowing me, or said I was a police informer, I would be in for trouble. All the young Naxals who had been lying down, were sitting up now. ‘When is Johnson Crack coming?’ they asked. ‘How will a small man like me know when the officers go where?’ I replied, knowing full well that Crack was a man who could come at any moment, anywhere, riding his famous motorbike. ‘The next day he enters the forest will be his last day. Tell him that.’ Surja arrived and, on seeing me, exclaimed, ‘Arre! Who is this you have brought here? He is Neogiji’s man!’ It was now the turn of the Naxals to stare. A Morcha man and employed by the government! I replied, ‘Neogiji used to say that one should never keep any expectation of ideology or principle from a poor man. The poor

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man’s road is too slippery. He slips and falls. I do not have an iota of land here—I am an outsider here and my organization too is unable to help me now. I have to take whatever job I get. A man has to eat.’ Among the seven Naxals, two were women, one of whom was dark-skinned with a broken tooth. Most of them appeared to be from Andhra Pradesh. One or two of the boys may perhaps have been from Bastar. They had finished cooking by then, a meal of lumpy rice and some black dal. That was all. I took out my own lunch of rice, aloo sabzi, onion and chillies. We shared the food. ‘You could not protect Neogiji,’ said one of them as we ate. ‘There was also a rumour that was spread after his murder that he had been killed by the PWG.’ ‘That rumour was not believed either by the Morcha or by the common man,’ I said. ‘What does Janaklal Thakur think of the activities of the PWG now?’ asked another. ‘Neogiji would say that he supported every word, every action of the Naxals. The one thing that he did not support was that gun on your shoulders. Since Janaklal Thakur is his disciple, I am guessing he feels the same way.’ ‘Will we get your support if we ask for it?’ they ask. ‘I am a man tied to a family. I will do whatever can be done without jeopardizing them,’ I answer. They had been packing their bags as they talked, and now they were ready to move. They would be changing camps tonight. This was a dangerous life they had chosen. They could not remain in the same place for too long. ‘Will see you again,’ they said as we parted. I completed the ten kilometres back at a tremendous speed to face my officer and warn him, ‘I met the Dadas today in the jungle, Sir. They have directed me to tell you that they lie in wait for you. Don’t step into the jungle, they have said. The day you go into the jungle will be the last of your life.’

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The man reputed for his reckless daring sat silent as I spoke. Drops of perspiration had formed on his forehead, and his face had gone red. He did not step out of his office for the next few days. Then he took leave and left the town. He got himself a transfer after that, and did not return to this office. I lost my job. Neither was there anyone from whom I could claim the salary for my fourteen days of work. I was to move away from Kanker and from Dalli soon after these events. Over the years, though, from the years 1995–96 to the present there have been many changes. Chhattisgarh is a separate state now. The Bastar district, which comprised an area larger than the state of Kerala, has since been divided into five smaller districts, Dantewara, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Kanker and Bastar. The Naxal movement has grown stronger. And the supremely powerful Bhaiya, Ravi Srivastav, is dead. The Naxals entered his ­fortress-like home and gunned him down. Not too long after this, my fellow Bengali, Kenaram, who had been born here and never seen Bengal, suggested, ‘Dada, let us go back to Calcutta.’ That is what we did. But that is another story.

Epilogue

I

 managed to get a job in this city through the considerate intervention of the very man who had, not so long ago, led me into Kamarpara to be ‘executed’: Tata Dutta. ‘Will you stay back in Calcutta if I get you a job here?’ he asked me when I met him. ‘I had left the city because I could find no way to earn. If that difficulty is solved, why should I leave?’ I answered. ‘Okay, then, come tomorrow,’ he said. But I went tomorrow, then the day after, and then the day after. I went four days in a row. But nothing got done. There was much adda and camaraderie, but nothing fruitful happened. Unemployment was on the rise in Bengal at that time, and there was certain to be a great number of hopefuls who were approaching this particular man Tata Dutta had in mind. Anxious that he would lose face if his promise to me proved hollow, he was hesitant. ‘What if nothing happens?’ he asked. ‘What if he says no?’ ‘So what?’ I replied. ‘Didn’t I tell you that I am ready to leave at a moment’s notice? I’ll just pick up my bundle and go back to Bastar!’ I said, nonchalantly. A smile of relief spread over Tata Dutta’s face. ‘Let’s go then!’ he said. I got the job. The gentleman looked me over, heard about me from Tata, came to know that I had worked as a cook earlier, and found me a job as a cook in a residential school. With so many unemployed youth roaming the streets desperately, how had this job remained vacant? It had not, I found. There had been six who

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had joined before me, and who had left within a week. I was the seventh to join. This was because there would be no salary in this job for the time being. The salary would come only after the institute received its funds. And when would the institute receive funds? No one knew for certain. But that the funds would arrive one day seemed to be more or less assured. So though at first my plan had been that I would leave as soon as I found something better, I stuck on. My job was to cook for the students of the residential school. The people who lived in the area where this school was located were poor people. The men worked as labourers or as drivers of the van rickshaw. The women worked as domestic helps in the middle class houses. Their earnings could scarcely carry a family. I found a place to stay amongst them. Unknown to me, Jogenda of Bastar had meanwhile also returned to Bengal. One day, hearing of some function being organized at Canning in the name of Utsa Manush, a paper that I knew he used to run, I went there with the hope of getting some news about him. I was overjoyed to meet him there and, through Jogenda, I once again made contact with the literary world with which I had lost touch for the past few years. He introduced me to Ashoke Saxeria, who in turn introduced me to the writer Alka Saraogi, who created a character in my name in her later novel Shesh Kadambari.1 Through Jogenda also I met Sekhar who ran a little magazine called Padakshep where I wrote of my experience as a prisoner, ‘ The Caged Bird Also Sings’. I met Debashish for whose journal I wrote my second story, ‘On Returning from the Battlefield’ and Amarda took me to Ramkumar Mukhopadhyay of the Sahitya Akademi who invited me to read my writings at a function there. In those days, I was writing in defiance of my surroundings. I would put the giant karai on the fire, pick up my pen and write two lines. I would take down the karai from the fire and write two lines more. My situation was like the hanged man who could feel the noose digging into his windpipe. I could hardly breathe, yet I struggled and gasped for air. My situation made it impossible for me to follow a life of letters. But I struggled towards it because that

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was my only hope of living. I could no longer join politics—which party would I join? I could not rebel and court imprisonment. My body was no longer strong. I could no longer kill. I had lost the nerve. I had only my pen. So those whom I detested as oppressors of the human spirit and humanity, I waged a war against them through my writing. I killed them off in my pages. So I wrote for Padakkhep, Aanoan, Rabi-shashya, Adal-badal, Bahujan, Nayak. And then one day I found a mention of my work ‘A Cursed Past Present and Future’ by the critic Subharanjan Dasgupta in the Book Review section of Ananda Bazar Patrika. He wrote: The Partition of the East is a history of humanity that is yet to be written… Today, a half-century after the event, haunted by the question ‘Why?’, we may arrive at more than one answer. But the key reason has been given by Manoranjan Byapari, the displaced Namashudra from Barishal. This is how his short memoir ends. The sole reason beyond the Hindu-Muslim riots was revealed to me many years ago when I was a boy. One cannot expect to be treated with respect and love if one’s attitude towards the rest of humanity is that of hatred and contempt. This lesson was brought home to me when, after the Muslim guests had left, the mistress of the house asked me to wash the utensils they had eaten from that very night and return only after taking a bath. It also fell on me to ‘purify’ the spot with cowdung-water. I thank this journal for introducing us to this unerring subaltern analyst.

The editor of the journal Rabi-shashya was a man called Dhiraj Bose. Once on an errand to that area, I decided to drop by at the office and get to know the editor whose door as well as heart, I had heard, was always wide open. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found that Dhiraj Bose was none other than my very own Bablada, my companion of the tumultuous seventies.

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My first attempt at getting a book published was when, rich with my accumulated salary of eight months, I approached the manager who ran the press of the institute where I worked. This was after I had taken a room on rent for four hundred and fifty rupees a month and brought Anu and my children over to Calcutta from Dandakaranya. I had been writing for the past two decades, from 1981 to 1999, but I did not have a single book to my name. The manager was mighty amused. ‘You?! You write?! Really? And what do you write? Stories?’ I steadied myself immediately. ‘Na na. Not me. This is a friend of mine. His name is Madan Datta. He is the one who wants to publish a book.’ ‘Aha!’ said the manager. ‘Say that! But why come to me? Go to Biswas babu. He is the one who oversees the press.’ ‘I did. He asked me to come to you.’ I hesitated. ‘I will not be able to pay the entire amount now. I can pay five thousand now. The rest I will pay you gradually, with the money that the book sales bring in.’ The man guffawed. ‘Money that the book sales bring in? Ha! You must be insane to speak this way. That book will not sell.’ ‘Well okay then, I will pay you back in instalments every month from my salary.’ ‘Sure?’ ‘Yes, sure,’ I replied. ‘And how many do you want in the first run?’ ‘About five hundred should be enough, I guess.’ ‘Okay then, go meet Biswas babu and deposit the five thousand with him. I give you my word, your book will get done.’ I did not know his first name for everybody called him Biswas babu. The word ‘biswas’ meant trust. But why should I have believed that his name entitled him to my biswas? I was stupid enough then to believe that since a person with the title Biswas possibly belonged to my community, he would be on my side. He was of my people and so I could trust him. At this time I had been working very closely with the Ambedkarites in Bengal, trying to build up an organization on the lines of that of the Maharashtra

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groups. Trying to create an organization that would be actively involved with governance and in a position to share power and work with the government. As a Dalit myself, I harboured a weakness for people of my community, believing that whatever ills we may have, we were not like the self-seeking and corrupt upper castes and upper classes. I had forgotten then neither religion nor caste, nor culture, nor language, could really play a role in making human beings humane and sympathetic. If it could, then we would not have had Shia-Sunni conflicts—commonality of faith would have been an insurmountable hurdle; Bengali Hindus would not have been pushed out of East Bengal—commonality of language would have made East Bengalis kinder to them; and the Santhals would have had no conflict with the Lodhas—their shared marginality would have bound them to each other. On similar lines, I have come to understand that neither caste nor class plays a singular role in community-building. The two are, in fact, inextricable. If some hold me in contempt as a Namashudra, others hold me in contempt as an illiterate, impoverished rickshaw-wallah. This is why I have grown suspicious of the leaders of both communities, both those who claim to fight caste, as well as those who claim to fight class. I have been, consequently, marginalized by both groups. My friends are from people who belong to neither. A certain gentleman, nurtured in an ancestral zamindari household, had lived in affluence all his life. Placed in such a niketan of shanti, he had dedicated himself to the Goddess of Poetry throughout his life. Humanity had come to his doorstep, seeking his blessings. He had never had to travel to the doorsteps of others. He could, therefore, sit at his window with the southerly breeze and write, ‘It is a sin to lose faith in humanity’. But if he had had to go as a cook to someone’s house and then be chased away as a thief without being given the earnings due to him, if he had the money gathered painstakingly over days of carrying the milkman’s heavy canisters of milk stolen by those very milkmen, if he had had to pull his rickshaw and, bathed in sweat, been asked to wait a minute by his passenger who then disappeared for good without paying him—it is doubtful if the poet would have found it

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within himself to write so. He would have come to the painful realization that the mother who could beget trust had died long ago. This has been my very own wisdom engendered by my personal experience. Biswas babu, a wizened old man of over seventy, wrinkled his eyes and smiled at me on hearing all that I said. ‘What do I have left to say? You have come with an authentic order. Go get the manuscript and the five thousand rupees advance. Let me begin my work.’ ‘Can you give me some idea of the rate, please?’ I asked hesitantly. ‘How much will a print run of five hundred cost me?’ ‘Do you trust me? Then relax, I will not cheat you of a single rupee. Why should I? This money will not come to my pocket. Besides, you are of my community, isn’t it? So, when can you get the advance and the manuscript?’ I submitted both within the day. Twenty-two stories that I had chosen and put together. The book would be out before the puja holidays, Biswas babu assured me. My hopes were high. The Puja holidays meant a period of freedom for me from school as all the students would go home. I would be able to visit all my friends and well-wishers with my book, and I knew many who would not turn me away. I would be able to sell many, I knew. But after a few days of work, Biswas babu shelved the work on my book and began work on a bigger order. The Pujas went by. As did innumerable promised dates. The manuscript did emerge as a book finally, though I had to get the cover done myself because, as I was told, the amount I had paid was too meagre and would barely cover the cost of the book. This was after I had submitted another seven thousand from my salary of the next five months, and then another three thousand which my well-wishers gave me, totalling a sum of fifteen thousand. And in the course of my wanderings from friend to friend, and from printer to printer for the cover, I realized what an ass my colleagues had made of me. An entire edition of a thousand copies could have been covered with that money, and on far better quality

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paper and with far better binding than the extremely cheap and shoddily done book that was handed to me in the year 2000. Yet this was my first book, The Final Turn of the Circle. Armed with copies, I spread a blanket out on the field at the Calcutta Book Fair and sold about two hundred copies over three days. I have continued writing despite my otherwise un-writerly existence. My work as cook begins everyday from about six in the morning as I light up two big and two small stoves placed around me. If the temperature outside is around 42 degrees at the height of summer, the temperature inside my kitchen far exceeds that. My cooking is done by about noon, and then the serving of food to the kids and cleaning up takes till about three in the afternoon. My next shift of work begins again from around six in the evening. This is when I have some time on my hands. But by this time, my body is exhausted and yearning for sleep. I can barely control my eyelids which bear down, heavy with sleep, upon my eyes. Besides, the publication of my book and a subsequent show on television had made my aspirations to be a writer known to my colleagues, and this had turned many against me, making writing more difficult. If I accidentally added extra salt to the food I cooked, they descended upon me with rage as vicious as upon a man who has murdered. Dust was sprinkled into the handi of rice that I had freshly taken down from the fire, and the gas pipe sliced open when I went out of the kitchen, or the rubber tubing of my bicycle tyre slashed. That bearded old man who wrote of the sin of losing faith in humanity had also written differently elsewhere: ‘Let your fury blaze and burn both him who commits and him who tolerates evil.’ I held these words close to my heart and refused to be cowed down. I told myself that this too was a battle. All battles were not fought on battle plains. Battles were fought everywhere, and I would have to win them all. There were opponents who saw me as hurling weapons against them. I could not expect sympathy from opponents. It was natural for them to make my life difficult, to criticize my work, and fiercely endeavour to tie me down to

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my limited identity. There was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ here too, and ‘they’ resented my straining at the limits they had set upon my community. They resented my stepping into ‘their’ domain of letters. This was the same land where Bhagwan Ram killed Shambuk for daring to yearn for knowledge, and where Guru Dronacharya asked Ekalavya to sacrifice his thumb for daring to aspire to the vocation of the Kshatriya. All these battles I would have to fight and win. In a contradictory way, therefore, my opponents were doing me a favour. For what I cannot do out of love, I can do out of anger. And they have kept my anger alive. My books are born out of my anger. Even today, when I shut my eyes, I can see the young child without books to learn from, or marbles to play with, with his shamed hands held behind him, attempting to cover what his torn pants cannot. He pulls up the tender green grass and chews on it in an attempt to stave off the pangs of hunger. He grazes the goats in desolate fields beside the jungle, his eyes anxiously scanning the forest for hungry jackals. Weighed down by the heavy burdens that have been slung upon his shoulders as he ferried goods endlessly, he cannot grow tall, but is like the bonsai plant in stature. He snatches the bread from the jaws of the hungry dogs as they rummage through the dustbins together. And as these images rise before my eyes, I cannot find it in me to tell him to be gentle and speak of love and forgiveness. I find myself telling him to rebel. To break, to destroy. The fire inside can be assuaged in two ways: either by pouring more kerosene to set it aflame and burn it to ashes. Or by dousing it in water and covering it in ashes. You go ahead and use whichever you have access to, I tell that child. Out of the ashes will arise a new life.

Notes

Chapter 1. East Bengal, Partition and West Bengal 1. Month falling mid-April to mid-May, when nor’westers bring violent storms. 2. Translated by the translator. 3. Literally, ‘genteel people’; made up of generally upper castes who have shared the same kind of western education; those who have not are not part of this class, that is, an uneducated Brahmin, is not part of the bhadralok. 4. Pejorative term, ‘small or a low kind of people’ without education and thus ‘uncultured’.

Chapter 2. Dandakaranya Rehabilitation Project, Food Riots and Calcutta 1. Triguna Sen was union minister for education and the first vice chancellor of Jadavpur University; Sarojini Naidu was a poet and a famous Congress politician, close friendship with Jinnah; she served as the first governor of the United Provinces after independence. 2. Many desperate refuges from East Pakistan, mostly Dalits, settled in this island in the Sundarbans. In January 1979, they were forcibly and violently evicted by the Left Front government. It was like a massacre conducted by the government on a helpless and poverty-stricken population. See also Chapter 14.

Chapter 3. I Run Away from Home 1. A colloquial form of Brahmin-Kayasthas, the upper castes in Bengal. 2. Brought out by the CPI(M).

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Chapter 4. My Lone Travels across East and North India 1. Payes is sweet creamed rice and panta is rice soaked in water and salt. 2. Kartik runs from mid-October to mid-November; Baishakh from mid-April to mid-May. 3. Traders from Kabul, Afghanistan, frequented Bengal in the nineteenth century with their wares of nuts and raisins. They also lent out money at high rates of interest to locals and were famed to be ruthless in extracting the returns from errant borrowers.

Chapter 6. Return to Calcutta 1. Annaprasan, when the child is fed the first rice.

Chapter 8. To Dandakaranya and Back to a Changed Calcutta 1. A ritual requiring human sacrifice; or a metaphor of dedicating life to a cause.

Chapter 11. Into Jail and the World of Letters 1. A sage in Hindu mythology known for his ferocious temper.

Chapter 14. Marichjhapi 1. A measurement of land, varies from place to place in India: 1 acre+ is approximately 3 bighas. 2. On his way to heaven, the Pandavas are accompanied by a dog. Yudhisthira, the last of the Pandavas to survive, is told at the entrance to abandon the dog if he wishes to enter, but he refuses, and the dog is then transformed to Dharma, who had taken the guise of a dog to test him for right conduct. 3. Surya Sen (22 March 1894–12 January 1934) was a revolutionary against British rule whose daring caught the imagination of the Indians. A schoolteacher, hence called ‘Masterda’, he led the 18 April 1930 Chittagong Armoury Raid to seize the armoury from the British army; partially successful

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as they got the weapons and raised the Indian flag for a significant amount of time. Masterda was captured and hanged.

Chapter 15. To Dandakaranya, Dalli and Bastar 1. Author meant A. O. Hume (6 June 1829–31 July 1912); he was a distinguished member of the Imperial Civil Service (later the Indian Civil Service), a political reformer, ornithologist and botanist who worked in British India. He was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress.

Chapter 16.  Chhattisgarh, Mukti Morcha and Shankar Guha Neogi 1. Sushila Nayyar (1914–2000) was Mahatma Gandhi’s personal physician. Her brother was his secretary, Pyarelal. She served as union minister for health 1952–55 and 1962–67.

Epilogue 1. Alka Saraogi, Shesh Kadambari (New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2002).

Index

Ambedkar, B. R., 10, 286, 345 Anandabazar Patrika, 262, 344 Assam, 57–58, 73, 81, 107. See also journeys, teenager, alone Bangladesh, War of Liberation, x, 130 Bastar, xvi. See also Chhattisgarh after Guha Neogi’s death, 309 Arvind Netam, 272, 279, 283, 293, 315, 330, 332–34. See also inter-party violence, Congress Banerjee brothers, 279, 296–97 Byapari’s arrest, 296 new districts, 341 Peoples’ War Group, 274, 279, 309, 316, 323, 338–40. See also Naxals Ravi Srivastav, 315, 322, 325, 330–34, 341 refugees, 133–34 Bengal, Left. See inter-party violence Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), 308, 317–18. See also inter-party relations Bhattacharya, Nabarun, 212, 225–26 Bhilai Steel Plant, 303–06, 308. See also Guha Neogi, Shankar

Byapari, Anita, wife, 230–31, 321, 336. See also Byapari, Manoranjan Byapari, Bipin, father, 3–5, 35–36, 38, 45, 106, 108, 117–18, 131, 236. See also Dandakaranya; Marichjhapi Byapari, Chitta, brother, 107, 117–20, 135, 235, 266–67. See also Dandakaranya; Marichjhapi Byapari, Manoranjan abuse, 53–56, 88, 96–97, 99. See also journeys, teenager, alone Barddhaman, bombs, 181–88 birth, 1–2, 4 caste, 42–43 childhood, xvi, 31, 38–39, 40–47, 93, 349 grandmother, 2–3, 38–39, 106 human sacrifice, escape, 268 hunger, 29–31, 57, 76–77, 91, 103, 104, 173–74, 268 as Jeeban, 56–65, 74–70, 90–91, 104 literacy. See literacy; Presidency Jail, mastermashai marriage, 227, 234. See also Byapari, Anita

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Byapari, Manoranjan (cont.) mother, 33, 36–37, 107–08, 265 name, 3–4 Naresh Thakur, benefactor. See Thakur, Naresh in politics. See Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha; inter-party violence; Marichjhapi relationships, 167–68, 193, 225 as rickshaw-wallah and union, 259–62. See also work and Shankar Guha Neogi. See Guha Neogi, Shankar teenage journeys. See journeys, teenager, alone and violence. See violence and work. See work as writer. See Mahasweta Devi; writer Byapari, Niru, brother, 119–20, 263–66 caste, xvii–xviii, 4, 6–7, 9, 11, 119. See also Namashudras Bagdis, 174–75 Bamun-Kayeth, 42 Brahmin landowners, 175, 176 Caste Hindus’ animus, 13–14, 42, 110, 113–16, 264 Census 1872, 10 Chandals/Charals, 5, 10, 42 in Dandakaranya, 134 discrimination post-Partition, 20, 34–35, 263. See also refugees Kahers, 115, 169 Kayastha, 125, 175 Muslims, 13–14 myths, 5–7 refugee camps, 20–21, 35 Shastras’ penalties, 8–9, 11

Chhattisgarh, 137, 285–87, 323. See also Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha; Dandakaranya; Naxals Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, 298, 311 Byapari’s speech, 273–79 Chetana Mandal, 281, 293 leaders, 281 Binayak Sen, xvii, 290 Janaklal Thakur, 272, 296, 298–99, 300, 312–14, 331–36, 340–41 Jogen, 281–82, 284, 343 Punyabrata Gun, 306, 308 Saibal Jana, 281–83, 290, 297, 300–01, 308, 314 Shankar Guha Neogi’s death, 312–14. See also Guha Neogi, Shankar class, xvi–xvi, 20, 32–33, 119. See also Dandakaranya; refugees Communist Party of India (CPI), 21. See also inter-party violence refugee policy, 22, 25, 26–29, 238. See also Dandakaranya; Marichjhapi United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), 236–37 Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM/CPM) anti-rickshaw-wallah union, 261 Kamarpara, 142–150, 151, 157, 160, 190, 191 and Manoranjan Byapari, 124–25, 128, 137, 151 and refugees, 236, 238, 239, 264 Congress Party, 69–70, 139, 142, 143, 151, 191, 236, 272. See also inter-party violence Dalli, 265, 271, 284–85. See also Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha

Index

Byapari’s speech, 274–78 elections, 272–74, 283, 293 after Guha Neogi’s death, 335–36 Shaheed Hospital, 281, 290, 296–98, 310–11 Dandakaranya. See also refugee camps Bangladesh, 131 Bengalis, 272–73 and communist policy. See CPM; Forward Bloc Dandakaranya Development Project, 236, 238 Byapari’s family, 131–32, 264–71. See also CPM; Guha Neogi, Shankar as inhospitable, 134–36 for lower castes, 134 Forward Bloc, 236, 238. See also refugees Guha Neogi, Shankar, xvi, xxi, 136, 173, 265, 271, 281, 283, 314 and Bengalis, 320 at Bhilai, 286–87, 290, 302–05, 308–09 Byapari letter, 293–94 differences with CPI(ML), 286–87 election candidates, 293 family, 285, 290, 302 ideologies, 299–300, 324 as leader, 288, 291–92 murdered, 306 police, 289 programme, 285–86, 291–92, 297–98, 299 and trade unions, 286, 302 inter-party violence. See also Naxalite movement; Naxals

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gangs, 124, 126, 128, 139–40, 151, 191, 246–50 Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), 129 Itibritte Chandal Jivan, xvii, xx journeys, teenager, alone, 56–65, 74 Assam, 61, 75, 79–80, 84 Darjeeling, 75, 84–89 Kanpur, 102–03 Lucknow, 89–102 Siliguri, 68, 81, 85 literacy, 201, 208–10, 213, 215–17, 219. See also Presidency Jail, mastermashai Mahasweta Devi, 220–223, 225, 244 Mao Zedong, 194, 206, 323 Marichjhapi, 35, 235, 239. See also CPM Byapari family, 242 communists, 236, 237, 238 refugees’ massacre, 240–243 Matua cult, 10. See also Namashudras Muslims, 13, 14, 30, 41, 43–44 Namashudras, 5–6, 9, 110, 116, 346. See also caste C. S. Mead, 10 caste animus, 41, 176 reformers, 10 Narmada Bachao Andolan, 282, 294, 313 Naxalbari, 103, 105 Naxals/Naxalites, 151, 172, 202, 204, 211–12, 282, 322–25 Byapari’s admiration of, 25–52, 339–40 Peoples’ War Group. See Bastar

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Interrogating My Chandal Life

Naxalite movement, xvi–xvii, 70, 103, 105, 124. See also inter-party violence Ashu Majumdar, 128, 139, 187 Garfa, 130–31, 139 Presidency Jail, 193–94, 214 Bhuvan Sepoy, 209, 211 blood donation, 210 literacy, 206–11 mastermashai, 195–98, 202, 213 Naresh Thakur, 213–14 routine, 200–202 refugee camps and communists. See CPI; CPM; UCRC Dandakaranya, 23–23 Ghola Doltala, 32–33, 104 government policy on, 21, 27–28, 32 jabardakhal colonies, 34–35 Shiromanipur, 15–20 refugees, 15, 28–29, 41, 292–93, 319–20. See also Bastar; Marichjhapi Saraogi, Alka, xi, 172, 194, 343 Thakur, Naresh, 111–13, 190–92, 213–14

violence, 118–19, 122–23, 138–39, 152–56, 188–89 personal, 218–19, 225, 243–49, 264 work as child labour Brahmins’ servant, 42–44 cook, 95–100 coolie, 56, 100–03 goatherd, 30–31 in kitchen, 54–56, 110, 346 milk delivery, 83–84 tea stall, 45–50, 71–72 as adult construction, 243–44, 323 cook, 113–16, 342–43 coolie, 109 at crematorium, 331–12 forest department, chowkidar, 337–40 night guard, 261 rickshaw-wallah, 120–21, 151–54, 215 trucker, 163–66 wood gatherer, 267–71, 274 as writer, 223, 224, 256–62, 271, 295, 343–44, 348

About the Author and the Translator

Manoranjan Byapari has worked at many kinds of jobs and also been writer-in residence at Alumnus Software, Calcutta. He never went to school or university. He is a popular writer in the literary magazines and in 2014 received the Suprabha Majumdar prize awarded by the Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi. He was awarded the 24 Ghanta Ananya Samman in 2013. He and his writings are well known as he speaks about Dalit issues in Hindi, becoming proficient in the language while he was with the Mukti Morcha of the late Shankar Guha Neogi in Chhattisgarh. Sipra Mukherjee is Professor, Department of English, West Bengal State University. Her research interests are religion, caste and power. Her interest in literatures of the margins began with research into early missionary journals of Northeast India. She has since worked on small religious sects and is presently trying to archive the local cultures of North 24-Parganas at her university. She has published with Brill, Oxford University Press, McGillQueen’s University Press, SAGE, Sahitya Akademi, Ravi Dayal, Routledge and Permanent Black.