There’s Gunpowder in the Air: Manoranjan Byapari translated by Arunava Sinha

‘Dripping from Rajat’s bullet-riddled chest the blood took on the shape of India’s map as it flowed down the wall’

Set against the backdrop of  Bengal’s Naxalite movement in the ’70s, There’s Gunpowder in the Air is a daunting description of the activities within the four walls of a correctional home.  What laymen understand to be a place for robbers, murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and those who have gone against the law; the jails, are a world on their own. The daily happenings within the precincts are elaborately described in the novel.

It all begins with the imprisonment of five Naxal revolutionaries. Young educated men, who stay away from regular jail gossips but definitely have a philosophy and determination of their own to fight against the injustices brought upon them by feudalism. When a petty thief Bhagoban is sent in as a spy by the jailor to be amongst them, and to take note of their vicious plans, does the story pick up pace. However, what happens when Bhagoban starts having a change of heart upon meeting the young comrades?

The novel is complete with all the small nuances of prison life. The story of a bandaged ghost called Bandiswala keeps everyone on their feet, especially on full moon nights. In fact, the poor ghost was found easier to blame for anything that went awry rather than suspecting living men. His story has often been reiterated and discussed along with the lack of ritualistic initiatives to cordon off the evil spirit. If a wicked ghost wasn’t enough, stories of pilferages with the common rations and smuggling substances of abuse were not far behind. Gossips always pointed a finger towards ‘abc’ or ‘xyz’ including both jail guards and prisoners.  But hardly could anyone ever be caught in the act; and even if one was, there were ways to move out of trouble.

Amidst all the comic and witty turns, what Byapari explores the best throughout the novel is human emotions.  Hunger and poverty were always common reasons leading to one becoming a petty thief or a rogue. Outside the disciplined walls, each had their own families. Though they were allowed to meet them, many were disowned and many were shameful of their children being called ‘children of the criminal’. These pent up emotions along with severe ideological affiliations often led them to act on chance. Sometimes leading to their success and at other times, brutally crippling their will, for the rest of their lives or worse, curbing their lives itself.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air is just not the name of the novel, but holds much significance as a symbol of revolt, freedom, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, sacrifice and duty. Gunpowder is usually used for rifles, guns and the likes which are used for various illegal purposes upfront; but to me, it signifies rebellion – an act put together by many. Every individual taking part in the rebellion or its trial suffers from extreme emotional upheaval but their decision to take part in it or not; and to live up to the expectations of other comrades is their decision alone. Freedom, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, sacrifice; and duty are the results of the actions that one performs during a rebellion. Each individual holds great significance and their contributions can never be compared to one another.

Byapari weaves a lucid tale of Naxal prisoners in erstwhile Bengal fighting for their Rights and Motherland by radical means. But Rebellions owe as much to Fate as to the individuals who take part in it; and their success or failures are divided between both. Only time will tell the story of the Naxal prisoners and their Fate during their imprisonment.

Definitely a must-read whether in Bangla- Batashe Baruder Gandha-or in English to understand the psyche of the perceived rebels. The book is bound to raise questions about the pre-conceived notions about the Naxalities and make you revisit the era and re-interpret the ideologies in a new light.

No. of pages: 162

Publisher: Eka, Westland

Available on:Amazon/ Flipkart

Translated from: (Bengali) Batashe Baruder Gandha

Calcutta Nights: Hemendra Kumar Roy translated by Rajat Chaudhuri

Calcutta is beautiful. Wherever you place a camera, you get a vision. – Pradeep Sarkar

While Kolkata has long transformed into the city of Coloured stills; one cannot dismiss that Calcutta Nights still has a large part of it residing in the Black and White era of the past. Written originally by Hemendra Kumar Roy under the pseudonym of Meghnad Gupta, and translated by Rajat Chaudhuri decades later, Calcutta Nights explores the dark underbelly of the city which existed time immemorial untouched by the development of the society. ‘From Chitpur bordellos to Chinese opium dens, the darkest secrets of the city of palaces’ have been exposed by the writer-translator.

From the lives of prostitutes to the trafficking rackets as depicted by modern-day Crime Shows all find a mention in the pages of the book. It is interesting to note that the book was written way back in 1923, however, incidents, instances, and mindsets of the people have hardly changed from back then. Women have been acutely objectified with the use of words like ‘dish’, ‘merchandise’, ‘goods’  with a recurring usage of the phrase ‘fallen women’ to denote sex-workers. Standing on the other side of the journey many have accepted this profession as fate, many rebel day and night to leave the web of sexual abuse, and many enter willingly and have a zeal to thrive. But most often than not ‘Her laughter is the veil for sorrow’.

Chinatown today is quite well-known for Chinese restaurants, Chinese New Year celebrations, Dragon Dance, Chinese Temples; but do people remember the once-thriving opium dens of the Chinese neighbourhood -an addiction bred by many gentlemen to relieve themselves of their burdens through opium and more.

The narrative takes the readers through the Nimtala Ghats, the famous burial grounds in the city known for its sacredness and ritualistic importance. But do the residents of the ghats acknowledge it thus? Or is it a monotonous job that they have long stopped to care about except smiling profusely and telling the history of the place to tourists to earn a few extra notes?  These and much more seemingly ‘normal’ and ‘historic’ places are dwelling houses of the sins. Stories and instances narrated by the author tell the readers how intriguing the underbelly of the city actually is and how this whole new world has been created by the people of the city themselves – or rather their desires!

A chapter on the playhouses – theatre- of Calcutta truly illustrates how theatres played with the emotions of the people. Whether it be the start of an illicit affair; or keeping a mistress; whether it be a man or a woman running away with the actors; or starting a lustful relation; these became the natural backstage nuances at a playhouse. Remember Tagore’s Manbhanjan? Not everything is fiction!

Calcutta Nights takes the readers on a journey through the seasons, the festivities, the social hierarchy, and the economic classes keeping in mind always the psyche of the situation or the person in question. The description of every chapter is like a scene unfolding in front of one’s eyes; similar to the old photographs/hand-drawn scenes one sees in a museum. From the baijis singing in the goondas den to the silent sneaking away of preys to a dark corner on a moonless night; to the loud glamour of the deprived to find a prey and earn a penny, to the unraised brows of the workers on seeing women in places of significance, alone and searching . . . . . . . Calcutta Nights is a collection and depiction of the emotions of the night. But what was written decades ago holds true for society even today. The narrow lanes of the sex-workers’ gully or the plush hotels outside which one would find ladies waiting till midnight; the modern Babus in suits visiting opium dens or ghats to relieve their stress; the entwined web of  willingness, unwillingness, fate and above all the emerging crime from the darkest nights of all times.  . . . . . the story of Calcutta Nights that is here to remain . . . . . . .

Publisher: Paper Missile, Niyogi Books

No. of pages: 131

Available on: Flipkart/ Amazon