Book Title: I Named My Sister Silence
Author: Manoj Rupda
Published in Hindi as ‘Kaale Adhyaay’ in 2015 by Bharatiya Jnanpith, this novel by Manoj Rupda, beautifully translated into English by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, is a compelling read. It is indeed about the black chapters of our history, about places and people we may or may not briefly sympathise with when we read a short news report or an opinion piece. The places may have no resonance at all for us, except as forested lands with no facilities, not even worth tourism. As for the people, we believe that they are misled by activists who do not want them to access modernity. So, they become troublemakers who are against their own progress and that of others and the welfare of the larger society. Progress has to reach the Adivasis; that is their only hope, you think. Roads, schools, mobiles, banks, cool clothes, good housing, functioning lavatories, clinics, urban ways of life; progress has to reach them even if by force and they will be thankful forever. I may be exaggerating, but I am certain most of us think like this!
While the novel has a seemingly different focus, fitting into the genre of the bildungsroman, detailing the narrator’s life as he grows up and leaves his village (at the insistence of his sister, who ensures he gets an education), and becomes an engineer, and then sails the high seas till his big cargo ship is scrapped (at Alang port, Gujarat) during the global recession. But the novel accompanies him back to the village and his search for his sister who had brought him up in the hostile environment. The return to the village is significant as he attempts to unravel what his sister was up to, trying to understand why she joined the dada log (Naxalites), where she was, and finally just trying to connect with her.
The novel begins with violence when the narrator as a boy goes into the jungle following an elephant and ends with the narrator wandering off into the jungle to connect with his Naxalite sister. Things haven’t remained the same but they haven’t changed for the better. Villages have been destroyed in this conflict between the state and big business on one side, and the Naxalites on the other. Nothing escapes the writer — not the fact that the paramilitary forces contain other marginalised, oppressed people, other tribals, or that the state celebrates ‘encounters’ or that the Naxalite reprisals can be terrible as well. But he’s pulled by admiration for his sister and the lessons he has learnt on the high seas, including from his conversations with the captain of the ship, Alok Datt, who belongs to a refugee family, one that has experienced loss and discrimination at least twice. Captain Datt has no home but the ship, which almost reflects the state of the narrator.
The book has many interesting characters and quite an engrossing trajectory for one that is so short and so focussed. It begins with the narrator saying that anything large that he is interested in — and he is fascinated by large things — comes to a violent, premature end, like the elephant he had followed when he was young.
I don’t want to reveal more about the book except to say that violence is seen as a fact of life, but nature’s violence is based on need, while man’s violence, as evidenced everywhere, is based on completely other factors.
Kudos to the translator for the fine translation. The book is definitely worth a read.