“Here I am. I know I am not entirely unfamiliar to you. You’ve seen me a hundred times in a hundred ways...Ferrying goods at the railway station, climbing up the bamboo scaffolding to the roofs of the second floor or third floor with a load of bricks on my head, driving the rickshaw, walking nights as a guard, the khalasi on a long-distance truck, the sweeper on the railway platform, the dom at the funeral pyres...”
These words were written by celebrated Bengali Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari in his memoir Ittibritte Chandal Jibon (Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit) to describe himself. Byapari, 70, is not only a writer of worth and voice of the voiceless, but he is also every man on the margin, facing challenges at every step but emerging victorious.
Byapari's life is nothing short of a novel itself. He grew up in refugee camps; during the Partition, his family came to Bengal from Barisal in former East Pakistan (now in Bangladesh). Byapari took up odd jobs as a rickshaw puller, sweeper, watchman and cook — whatever he could get his hands on to survive, including getting embroiled with the Naxalite movement.
Life wasn't easy for him, to say the least. But destiny had its own plans.
At the age of 24, Byapari learned to read and write while serving a two-year sentence in the 1970s. It opened up a whole new world and a chance encounter with Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi led him to writing himself.
Looking back at the time he penned his first novel. Boi Britter Sesh Porbo (The Last Chapter of the Book Episode), Byapari says he started writing because he wanted to put forth a true depiction of society’s outcasts and the voiceless.
“I read a lot of books, and saw that those who are writing about our lives — they aren’t aware of our lives’ truth," he says. "They are peeking into our lives from their home’s terrace, and writing about us. They aren’t capable of seeing the real struggles of our lives. They are merely using their imagination. So, even if it’s closer to the truth, it’s not the truth.”
Byapari borrowed money to self-publish 500 copies of his first novel. He believes most copies weren't sold because of poor binding and paper quality. So, he distributed them. Some liked his book and praised it and he feels that's what motivated him to continue writing. He's now the author of more than 15 novels, about 150 short stories, and several essays. He's also been honoured with numerous literary awards.
Talking about Interrogating my Chandal Life, for which he received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2014, Byapari says, “I penned down the story of my life in this novel. But to make people aware of the historical importance of that time, I also spoke about Partition — the refugee camps we were in, how and why we had to end up there, and so on. So, the book contains 25 percent of my life and 75 percent of the society, or surroundings, I was in. Maybe that’s why it intrigued people; because it wasn’t just a memoir of a person, but also a documentation of a time period.”
Many of his novels draw inspiration from his own life. There are also some others which reflect his ideology and beliefs.
For instance, in Matua Ek Muktisena (Matua: A Liberation Army), he wanted to bring forth the reality about two spiritual leaders, Harichand and Guruchand Thakur, that they were no deities but flesh and blood humans who fought for society’s betterment.
“They started the Matua sect, which was against Brahmanism, idol-worship, scriptures and so on," he says. "But afterwards, some shrude, self-seeking groups puts it under another form of Hinduism, denoting Harichand as an avatar of Vishnu."
In Batashe Baruder Gondho (There’s Gunpowder in the Air), Byapari wove a story of a few prisoners, their ideologies, and their association with the then Naxalite movement, their sacrifices, values and morals.
“During my time in confinement, I came across inmates who inspired me to pen down this novel. Not only prisoners, but also prison guards; they had interesting accounts to share. The time period in the book was much before I was in prison, but I weaved the story around that time, taking cues from the stories of inmates who were there.”
Having penned novels which have been widely appreciated, the author still believes his best work is yet to come.
“Any writer who reaches the point where he is satisfied with his work and feels has given his best, then their pen stops. Then there are some who are trying to create something that surpasses his/her previous work. They have the constant urge to elevate themselves. Those who have this ‘dissatisfaction’ that their best work is yet to come and are constantly attempting to create it — they can go on writing for a long time.”
Byapari has time and again expressed that he doesn’t write for awards. He's unfazed by all the prestigious awards he’s received. For him, the bigger achievements are the kind words and loving gestures he’s been showered with.
“The day I was awarded the Rabindra Smriti Purashkar, economist Abhijeet Banerjee was also present on stage," he remembers. "When I came across him, he said he was looking forward to meet me. I was taken aback. A world-famous person like him wants to meet me? I was moved beyond words."
There was another incident when poet Varavara Rao, while in Yeraweda Central prison, read Byapari’s Interrogating my Chandal Life. “Don’t know how he got his hands on it, but he read it and wrote a two-page long letter from there," Byapari says. "And after long, I received it. It was a big accomplishment for me!”
He recalls his chance encounter with historian Gautam Bhadra at Kolkata’s Coffee House. “When I was introduced to him, I asked him ‘Have you read my book?’ He initially said, ‘No.’ Then after a pause he said ‘...Have learnt it by heart, have read it four times!’”
He also remembers how author Sankha Ghosh once said at an event that every person should keep a copy of Interrogating my Chandal Life and read it. These incidents, he says, are what he considers his biggest takeaways or honours.
Byapari says that without his wife’s support, this journey wouldn’t have been possible. “She had a teaching job at an anganwadi which paid her only Rs 225 per month. She used to cycle 20 miles up and down. At that time, I had no income. Still, she never complained. From that meagre salary, she even bought papers for me to write on. And even today she handles all the household work, taking care of kids, and I don’t have to worry about a single thing at home. I am immensely grateful to her, and I would not have been able to fight this battle if she wasn’t by my side."
But unlike his home, the atmosphere wasn’t always conducive outside. He says that the problem with our society is that it is divided between chotolok (outcast, underprivileged) and bhodrolok (gentlemen). According to him, the latter do not appreciate men like him gaining recognition.
“There’s a distinction in our own Dalit community as well — one section that lives a good life, have a good job, they want to acquire a reputed position in the literary world as well," he explains. "But since the day I have earned honour and recognition, I have faced the wrath of that section itself. Instead of supporting me, being from the same community, they have criticised and opposed me. But there have been few (from the community) who did support me, but the ones who opposed outnumber them."
Byapari voices his angst on how he had to run from pillar to post since 2014, requesting lighter work; his job as a cook was tiresome, affecting his deteriorating health. For more than two decades, he has been working as a cook in a government school of Kolkata. Even after gaining recognition as a writer, he had to continue this work, cooking meals for around 150 children daily.
“From politicians to intellectuals, I met everyone, requesting them to help me. I have been to Vikas Bhavan about 86 times! But at that time people didn’t pay much heed. Finally, I wrote a petition mentioning our chief minister Mamata Banerjee and it did reach her. And she came to know about it and came to my rescue, and have given me work at a library.”
To document this struggle from 2014 till date, Byapari is writing his autobiography, titled Andhakar Ateet, Ajana Bhabishyat (Dark Past, Uncertain Future).
“They (readers) know how my life has been, my struggles, my journey. But how this journey has led me to a destination which is beautiful — that should also be penned down," he says. "I have reached a respectable position from being an outcast. Maybe this will inspire the voiceless and underprivileged of our societies, who are struggling. This might give them the courage to fight back and work hard.”
While the future holds new promise, he speaks of its uncertainty, his voice clouded with despair.
“I have officially joined the library but it is closed due to the pandemic, so work hasn’t started. Who knows? Maybe it won’t, maybe I’ll die before it (pandemic) all ends. Who knows?" he says. "But I am mentally prepared to accept death as well. I have fought all my life, and have given this battle a worthy ending. I have done all what I am capable of, and people might remember me for that. So, I am content."
This piece was first published in Patriot.