The first part of Byapari’s extraordinary trilogy of novels begins in East Pakistan. It tells the story of little Jibon, who arrives at a refugee camp in West Bengal as an infant in the arms of his Dalit parents escaping from the Muslim-majority nation.
Deprived of the customary sweetness of a few drops of honey at birth, he grows up perpetually hungry for hot rice in the camp where the treatment meted out to dispossessed families like his is deplorable.
Jibon runs away when he’s barely thirteen to Calcutta because he’s heard that money flies in the air in the big city. His wildly innocent imagination makes him believe that he can go out into the world, find work and bring back food for his starving siblings and clothes for his mother whose only sari is in tatters. And once he leaves home, through the travels of this starving, bewildered but gritty boy, we witness a newly independent India as it grapples with communalism and grave disparities of all kinds.
We have seen boys like Jibon hanging from the open doors of train carriages, loafing about on station platforms, washing dishes at roadside dhabas, peering at you through your car windows at traffic signals. In this deeply affecting novel, you see a Chandal, Namasudra boy in all these places. You are exposed to his fears, his grit, his spirit for survival—all through Byapari’s inimitable gaze. This is a work of great brilliance and beauty.