If you insist that you do not know me, let me explain myself … you will feel, why, yes, I do know this person. I’ve seen this man.
With these words, Manoranjan Byapari points to the inescapable roles all of us play in an unequal society. Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit is the translation of his remarkable memoir Itibritte Chandal Jivan. It talks about his traumatic life as a child in the refugee camps of West Bengal and Dandakaranya, facing persistent want—an experience that would dominate his life. The book charts his futile flight from home to escape hunger, in search of work as a teenager around the country, only to face further exploitation. In Kolkata in the 1970s, as a young man, he got caught up in the Naxalite movement and took part in gang warfare. His world changed dramatically when he was taught the alphabet in prison at the age of 24—it drew him into a new, enticing world of books. After prison, he worked as a rickshaw-wallah and one day the writer Mahasweta Devi happened to be his passenger. It was she who led him to his first publication.
Today, as Sipra Mukherjee points out, ‘issues of poverty, hunger and violence have exploded the cautiously sewn boundaries of the more affluent world’, rendering archaic the comfortable distances between them. Despite ‘Chandal’ explicitly referring to a Dalit caste, this narrative weaves in and out of the margins.