Surviving in My World As an Autobiography – Manohar Mouli Biswas
Autobiography as a genre is a representation of the self. It is an extremely powerful genre through which one can depict the world of his own. In case of Dalit literature, the emergence of Dalit autobiography gives the Dalit writers a platform to portray the true world of the people who have historically been tortured, exploited, marginalized, and humiliated by the upper caste. It delineates how society remains unjust to them from times immemorial and stands as a strategy for survival of the Dalits to challenge marginality, oppression, and social exclusion. Manohar Mouli Biswas, a Bengali Dalit activist and writer renders his sufferings as a Dalit in his autobiography ‘Surviving in My World’. He originally wrote and published it as ‘ Amar Bhubane Ami Benche Thaki’ in Bengali in 2013. Later it was translated and edited into English by Angana Dutta and Jaydeep Sarangi as ‘Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal’ in 2015. He portrays how he and his community (namasudra) was subjected to exploitation and marginalization in the society. He also criticizes how caste discrimination is still prevalent in today’s India and stand as a resistance.
Biswas begins his autobiography with his childhood memory when he lived in Khulna in Bangladesh in 1940s and 1950s. He describes his father’s firm belief that “the children must get educated”. His father, uncle and grandfather were very concerned about his education and his life. They would think that whether education would really be able to change his life or he would have to follow the labour life like his ancestors. His Jetha believed that even if he get educated he will not be able to become a babu. Their children will end up holding the butt of the plough. But his thakurda had enough. He said:
” I am illiterate, you are also illiterate. You want to make your children illiterate too? Go ahead… But remember this, times are changing, not like what they were like. I can see so much of transformation earlier people used to abuse me as charal-chandal so often. But now no one calls you charal-chandal, no calls you tui disrespectfully referring to your caste. They are showing a little respect, remember this!” (Surviving 5).
But not everyone of his community was concerned about education. As we can see in the Moolghar village where they had a school, and a library was provided and electricity was also there. But the urge for education among them was missing.
Biswas ruminates his childhood days when he and his sister with the other children of their community would go to the dunkar jungle. There they would pluck and eat dunkar fruits to quell their hunger. While returning from the jungle they would carry the surplus for the little kids back home. The children even did not have clothes to cover their bodies. He remembers how the naked bodies of the children would be wounded by the thorns of dunkar trees. Though his father stressed on his education but for him working on the field was more important to save the family from starvation.
In Surviving in My World he remembers when he was a child, he had a fascination about fishing. He would often go to catch fishes and observed their movements and behaviours. He later explained that even in the world of fishes, he could understand the racial hierarchy that goes on, the small fishes like chuno, puti, koi, magur etc were the lower borns and they seem just fine thanking for being alive. The larger fishes, the aristocrats are mismatched and looks odd beside those small low borns. He observed the great similarities between his own people and the fishes and realised that education is the way to change these stigma.
Biswas explains the poverty ridden life they led and how miserable it was. They were half-fed, wore rags for clothes and lived in a very non sanitized condition which was full of diseases. He remembers how his jetha jethima and father died of cholera. There was no proper medical treatment and enough doctor to serve. The Dalits had to come up with something to cope with the lack of medical care, so they turned to all natural home remedies to stay alive.
Due to lack of education the people of his community were sank in the darkness of superstitious beliefs. The morol, head of their community would make them believe that the children should get married when they reach the age of marriage otherwise they will be possessed by ghosts. Only marriage can make them released.
In terms of practices of Hindu religion, he explains that to dominate these Dalits the literate upper caste people would always mention the scriptures to preserve their superiority. But hardly any of them had actually read the scriptures. The Dalits were forced to believe “in the unwritten rules coming down from eternity to be the scriptures”. Though they were Hindus but they were not considered as. Socially, culturally, economically they were just “a massive heap of garbage at the bottom”. The upper caste people never let them grow up. With grief stricken heart Biswas says in his autobiography “it was all a matter of adjustment learning to live with tolerance. We never thought along the lines that we are unwanted beings of this world, that our griefs have no end or that it is meaningless to live like this. We never needed to” (Surviving 12).
Talking about caste discrimination in Surviving in My World he remembers the upper caste Hindus in order to save themselves from being polluted by Shudras they would usually travel by a Muslim’s boat. He had witnessed how the people of his community failed to become the owner of boats just because they belong to the lower caste. He also says that in case of any religious occasion there were separate priests for them who came to worship in the Shudra neighbourhoods. And they were considered as the ‘bauns’ of the ‘charals’. In most of the Dalit autobiographies it is shown how they suffer police atrocities and inhuman torture for no offence. And when they were in dire need the police never attended them.
Biswas as a child saw the partition of Bengal and divisions on religion. And the way he had to give up the scholarship he had received as a college student. He also cites how he was tremendously attracted towards Marxism, and influenced by people like Jyotiba Phule, Guruchand Thakur, Sree Narayan Guru, Thakur Panchanan Barman, Arundhati Roy and especially B.R Ambedkar.
In the final episode of his autobiography he describes that the mother of Rushita, the girl he used to love explained the impossibility of their marriage because of the caste difference between them. “The words with which Rushita’s mother had bade farewell remained alive as a deep wound and time could not heal it”.
In Surviving in My World Biswas describes that the Dalits have fought for long to unburden themselves from the man made shackles of caste discrimination for time immemorial. He says that the present generation no nothing about the experience they had gone through. He feels that it is his responsibility towards his community and their past. Therefore he faithfully excavates the past to bring out the real condition of the Dalits before the present generation – before his wife, his sons, and daughters-in-law,and before his grandsons. And he explains how his autobiography can be taken as a document of history that exposes the struggle and growth of the Dalits in Bengal: “This autobiography is my autobiography, my fathers autobiography, my grandfathers autobiography, my great grandfathers autobiography. This is the autobiography of remembering the bygone memories of my community….It is a document of almost losing in life; touching the margins and then again stepping back among humans”. (Surviving 78-79)
He concludes with a heavy heart that in spite of the development of government policies for Dalit empowerment untouchability, marginalization, caste discrimination is still dominant in India. Even though we have reached the moon, touched the zenith of technology we still haven’t overcome the caste ridden mentality. He regrets and unburden his heart and ends his autobiography saying: “So what I am trying to say is that hurt by the load of my memories, I remain the traveller of a lonely path. Just as many things surface from my memories, many remain hidden below (surviving 82). He adds, “Innumerable things remain pent up in the store of life’s experiences. I have not been able to express everything” (Surviving 84).
Surviving in My World as an autobiography it is of course different from the mainstream autobiographies in terms of language, style and expression of thoughts. We do not come across any heavy literary language. It is written in a sober and lucid manner. He brings forth the religious, cultural and social background of the namasudra community as well. We also witness beautiful descriptions of natural flora and fauna. But more importantly it delineates the then Dalit life in Bengal in a realistic mode. Thus Manohar Mouli Biswas through his autobiography presents the hardships of a whole community and also shows individual perseverance and struggle.