(2008) is a novel by Indian author and poet Sunil Gangopadhyay, first published in Bengali as Moner Manush
(literally “Ideal Person”) and translated into English by Monabi Mitra. It tells the life story of the 19th-century saint, songwriter, and social radical Lalan Fakir, born Lal Mohan Kar. The narrative draws extensively on Lalan’s songs and remains faithful to the few documented facts about his life. Gangopadhyay’s novel is the basis for director Goutam Ghose’s 2010 Bengali-language movie Moner Manush.
The novel opens as a poor young man named Lal—and affectionately known to his neighbors as Lalu—is caught in the process of untying a horse belonging to the local zamindar
(nobleman) Kabirajmoshai. Accused of theft, Lalu is dragged before the zamindar
, where he protests that he wasn’t stealing the horse, but just borrowing it. Under questioning, it emerges that the young man is in the habit of taking Kabirajmoshai’s horse for occasional jaunts.
Intrigued by Lalu’s naivety and apparent honesty, Kabirajmoshai sets Lalu the task of chopping firewood from a jarul,
a particularly hardy tree; he is impressed when the young man continues to work away at the task long into the night. Kabirajmoshai inquires into Lalu’s background and finds that although he is poor, Lalu is from a high-caste family, albeit one which has fallen on hard times. He also learns that Lalu is known for his beautiful singing voice and prodigious memory for folk songs. From time to time he has even been known to compose original songs.
Kabirajmoshai appoints Lalu as a member of his household and soon becomes very fond of the young man. When the zamindar
decides to make a pilgrimage to the bathing site of Behrampore on the banks of the Ganges, he specifically requests the company of his young minstrel.
On the road, however, Lalu contracts smallpox and goes into a rapid decline. He becomes unconscious, and his vital signs become so minimal that the zamindar
’s attendants believe he has died. After a funeral service, his body is set afloat on the Ganges, and Kabirajmoshai continues his journey.
Lalu regains consciousness, but he is pitifully weak and has lost his memory entirely. He is found by an elderly Muslim woman who takes him into her home and nurses him back to health. Unable to recall his former identity, he decides to remain with his rescuer, who adopts him as her own son.
While living in this Muslim community, Lalu learns about the Islamic faith. He also meets an itinerant holy man who will leave a profound mark on him. Raised as a Muslim, the holy man has since refused all religious names and labels. He wanders from place to place, advocating for a direct spirituality that eschews religious, ethnic and social distinctions. The identity-less Lalu is drawn to this philosophy.
One day, visitors arrive from Lalu’s native village. Recognizing Lalu, they persuade him to return to his home by informing him that he has an elderly mother and a young wife waiting for him there.
However, when his community discovers that he has been living under the roof of a Muslim and eating food prepared by Muslim hands, they expel him for violating the rules of faith and caste. Kabirajmoshai announces that Lalu is indeed dead, as he had thought, and his wife and mother won’t let him into their home.
Heartbroken by this rejection, Lalu also fears that his Muslim community will not take him back, now that his Hindu past is known to them. Remembering the wandering holy man, he decides to abandon settled life to become an itinerant seeker for the truth.
As he is illiterate, he cannot consult the scriptures of either Hindus or Muslims. Instead, he is led by his own reflections, and by the conversation of the poor and outcast people he encounters on the road. He comes to the realization that not only are religious labels an obstacle to true spirituality, but they are also part of the machinery that keeps the poor in their place, by sowing division and enforcing hierarchies.
Lalu—now going by the name Lalan—desires to found society anew, from scratch, and when he finds an area of forest which no-one seems to own or live in, he sets about doing just that. He takes in outcasts of every creed and social position, building a religious community based on mutual respect. The community takes in women who have been abused by their husbands and fathers, poor tenants abused by their landlords, and low-caste villagers ground down by the oppression of their social “betters.”
Lalan offers religious teaching only in the form of songs and poems—many are quoted in the text—that reject traditional ideas of religious identity in favor of universal spirituality. Although the community takes up his teaching and his simple lifestyle, he refuses to position himself as a leader. Instead, he insists that the community holds its scanty property in common, distributing resources according to need.
One day, the armed agents of a local landowner appear among the community’s simple huts. The agents announce that the forest’s owner wishes them to vacate. Lalan refuses, explaining that the forest belongs to everyone. He is marched in front of the landlord, who demands an explanation of Lalan’s conduct. Lalan responds with a song so beautiful that the landlord’s heart is changed. He becomes Lalan’s patron and allows the community Lalan has built to remain in the forest.