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Manoranjan Byapari has lived the kind of life that can be turned into not one but many novels about the human condition set in the Indian context. The man is self-taught, quite literally, and has worked his way to recognition from anonymity and margins like you wouldn't believe. Understandably, Byapari writes about people he has lived next to, but most importantly he writes about people he has survived against. Not in a political sense, mind you, but strictly in an existential sense. In his latest book, titled Imaan, and translated by Arunava Sinha, Byapari returns to his life of struggle and strife, unpeeling, what is perhaps the most intimate he has been about his own past yet. Imaan is not just a book about the low-lifes or the marginalised, it's also about the bafflingly candid cruelties of a harsh Indian life.
Imaan tells the story of a young boy who spends his formative years in prison alongside his incarcerated mother. After his mother dies, Imaan grows up within the structures of the prison system only to be let out after the age of 18. It's an absurdist scenario, a man imprisoned without a crime, let free without an idea of what freedom actually means. After Imaan sets out in the world, in the city of Calcutta, he encounters its various eccentricities almost all punctuated by an unequal world. The boy is finally taken in by a bunch of thugs who live along the Sealdah railside " a motley group of rag-pickers, rickshaw pullers, tea vendors and so on. Thawed by the burden of reality Imaan must interpret this world quickly enough to be able to survive it. His friends in prison have already warned him about the uncertainties of the free world. At least in prison there is food, shelter and the motivational outbursts of the guards to live on for the sake of the collective.
Byapari's writing is always filled with wry rumour. Like his previous popular translation There's Gunpowder in the Air (nominated for the JCB lit prize), Byapari makes the obscene sound so clandestine and effecting it becomes hilarious and poetic at the same time. A prison inmate explains to Imaan how at one point the police incarcerated all of Kolkata's beggars so they wouldn't sully the visit of a foreign dignitary with their poor English. 'Seasonal beggar' and 'Itinerant beggars' Byapari segregates them. An area popular of prostitution is described as a den for such miserly low-lifes, these men must 'risk their lives' to have sex in the bushes, because they can't afford rooms. Corpses are up for sale, a man uses idols of deities to prevent people from pissing in the bushes, a woman meticulously performs her grief for the sake of others, a prostitute is humbled by the pitiable circumstances of a customer. These are just telling images from Byapari's novel that comfortably hones in on the craft of exacting humour out of pity and sympathy.
Caste has always been a part of Byapari's work and here it is ever-present, looming with the naked glow of a moon out in the sunlight. The writer seamlessly talks truth to this age-old system of oppression without making his narrative, overtly, about it. Imaan's infancy, his naivety mean he experiences the hardness of the world first-hand. Incredibly, though Imaan has grown up in the dungeons of the prison system, it's on the outside that he struggles to contemplate the complications of life. On the inside, life may be rigid, but it is also simple. On the outside, it's impossible to tell what people think or want. It's almost as if it is easier to ascertain someone's criminality as compared to ascertaining their humanity, or lack thereof. Even dead bodies are paraded through busy markets so a 'collection' of money can be made in their name. Everything, even the human soul, as Imaan soon learns is transactional " alive until it can be sold.
Byapari's strength has always been the trademark satire with which he chisels the suffering of everyday life in India. In a neighbourhood where 'neither birth nor death was an occasion of great celebration of mourning' there are characters teeming with pride that manifests in the most colourful of ways. "I can make enough money to maintain a bitch and screw a whore on the side", chides one, rather hilariously. Morality needs a moment's calm and belonging to even be considered as a source of one's being. When your next meal, your next hour of sleep, your next sip of water are perpetually on the line, all you can really carve for yourself is a pirouetting idea of life, where the world spins you into things you'd rather not do, or things you'd rather not imagine yourself doing. But as Imaan must learn, life isn't an open-bracketed adventure for those born without the cushion to absorb all falls. In fact , to most it simply offers the burden to live, as opposed to the choice.