Interview: Manoranjan Byapari

Manoranjan Byapari: ‘My journey has just begun’

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Writer Manoranjan Byapari Photo: by special arrangement

Interview with Manoranjan Byapari, rickshaw wallah-turned-writer-turned Trinamool Congress MLA.

HE found his destiny on wheels. Many years ago, he used to haul people through the streets of Kolkata in his hand-pulled rickshaw. His earnings were meagre. Life was tough. There were frequent quarrels with other rickshaw wallahs in the constant struggle to win customers. Often his day’s routine would include a couple of blows from policemen for faults, real or perceived. In the midst of this struggle for survival, there came a tiny ray of hope. Among his regular passengers was the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. Manoranjan Byapari did not know that he was ferrying a world-renowned writer. He would often chat with her during her travel in his rickshaw. One day, he asked her the meaning of the word jijibisha, which he had come across in a book he was reading. Mahasweta Devi was surprised to hear a rarely used Bengali word from a humble rickshaw puller. She was curious to know about his background. She discovered that he could not only read and write but was an avid reader. She invited him to write a story for her journal, Bartika.

Byapari had never dreamt of seeing his name in print. “I was not paid for it, but my write-up was published. It gave me great joy.” This opened a new horizon for him, not immediately though. He got a job as a cook in a school and spent his evenings reading or writing.

In 2018, when he won The Hindu Award for Non-Fiction for his book Interrogating My Chandal Life (Itibritte Chandal Jiban), he had just lost his job and was not sure where his next meal would come from. But the prize changed his life. Byapari became a sought-after name in Bangla literature, a respected Dalit writer.

“People who would not come near a jahil [illiterate] garib aadmi [poor man] started coming to see me and talk to me with aap-janab [respectful address],” he recalls. His books have been widely translated. Byapari’s 26th book, titled Imaan (published by Westland), translated by Arunava Sinha, will adorn the shelves of bookstores in September.

Another chance encounter a few years ago, this time with the Chief Minister of West Bengal, widened his horizon further. Byapari was travelling by air. His co-passenger on the New Delhi-Kolkata flight was Mamata Banerjee. He got introduced to her. The meeting ended well for him: in the run-up to the 2021 Assembly election, Mamata Banerjee offered him the Trinamool Congress ticket to contest from the Balagarh reserved constituency. Byapari won the election and now divides his time between helping the poor at the grass-roots level and writing about them. He took time out to take a few questions from Frontline about his latest book and other matters. Excerpts:

“Imaan” is your 25th book?

This is my 26th book. It was released in Bangla four years ago as Cheera Cheera Jeebon. Now, it is translated as Imaan.

How do you like the English translation by Arunava Sinha?

I cannot read English, but I have great respect for Arunava Sinha’s work. His earlier translations have been widely appreciated. He translated my book There’s Gunpowder in the Air. Everybody liked it. He is a good translator. He understands the ethos of the novel.

Your books were initially only in Bangla. Now thanks to translations, do you think you will have a pan-India readership?

Thanks to Arunava ji and other translators, people know my name and about my writings in other parts of the country. My books have reached everywhere. For me what is important is how much joy people derive from reading my books. I do not know yet about Imaan. As far as the original in Bangla is concerned, by writing this book I got the burden off my chest. I felt very happy that I was able to write this novel. It is close to my heart.

How long did it take you to write this novel?

It did not take me very long. Maybe about a year or so.

You are prolific. Since the time you got The Hindu award, your literary journey seems to have been on the ascendent.

I used to work as a rasoya [cook] in a school. When I got The Hindu award, I had just lost my job. For 17 months, I had no job. Since I had nothing else to do, I was only writing at that time. During that period, many of my books got published one after the other.

The early days of your life were tough. Your parents were refugees from Bangladesh. And you even lost them for a while.

In my childhood, I used to do odds jobs to get two meals a day. I was not only plying a rickshaw, I also worked as a cook and as a sweeper. I was a labourer, a night guard as well. In the 1980s, I came in contact with naxalites and got impressed with their ideology of helping the poor. I even went to jail a few times. Somehow, I survived.

Then you met Mahasweta Devi on the road?

At that time, I used to ply a rickshaw for a living. I met her in Jadavpur in South Kolkata. I asked her the meaning of a word jijibisha. A rickshaw wallah was not expected to ask the meaning of such a word. She asked me from where I had learned this word. I told her I read books but that I had never been to a school. Then she told me about a journal she edited and asked me to write for her.

You got paid for your write-up?

Money? No, I don’t think so. The write-up was published in Bartika. I was happy.

I read in “Imaan” that you learned to read and write when you were in jail. Can you elaborate?

When I was in jail, I had no pen or paper. So, I took a twig and started scrawling on the floor. A fellow prisoner taught me for six months. Then one day he developed chest pain and was taken to hospital. Whether he was released from jail or died in hospital, I have no idea. But he taught me to read and write, that I will always remember.

When and how did you buy your first pen or paper to continue writing?

We had a blood donation camp in the jail. Undertrials would often donate blood. I also donated blood one day and got Rs.20. With that amount, I bought a notebook and a pen.

Which was the first book you held in your hand?

Manoj Basu’s Nishi Kutumba was the first book I ever held in my hand. I was 50 when I got my own first book published in 2000.

‘People’s outlook towards me changed’

Did you ever imagine that your writing would touch so many people, get you so many awards?

No. When my first book came out, I thought that at least now the world will consider the rickshaw wallah a human being. For, whoever wants to, hits a labourer or a rickshaw wallah. After I started writing, I realised that people’s outlook towards me had changed. Students from Jadavpur University started coming to meet me, talk to me. Some even invited me to write for their journals. So, I felt that a respectful life will begin now. I had to pinch myself to believe that educated people were coming to meet an anpadh [unlettered] man like me and asking me to write. The books gave me a chance to mingle with educated people.

You said a rickshaw wallah is not considered a human being in our society. Do you not think it is true in the case of all poor people across the country?

The poor are exploited everywhere all the time. I can talk from personal experience. I bore the exploitation as a rickshaw wallah, as a cook, as a domestic help. I had to tolerate people’s scolding and torments when I worked as a domestic help washing utensils at people’s houses and in tea shops. But I soon realised that if I tolerated the insults and thrashings, people would continue to thrash me. If I hit back, people would be scared. I did that. I hit back.

You hit back, as in a violent way?

Yes, if somebody hit me, I would hit back. Many cases were foisted on me. I had to go to jail five or six times.

How did you meet Mamata Banerjee? I ask because for a long time you were doing odd jobs and were not involved in politics.

I met her for the first time on a flight from New Delhi to Kolkata. It must have been five or six years ago. I also saw her at the residence of Mahasweta Devi on her birthday. I saw her, but I am not sure if she saw me.

Mamata Banerjee’s intervention

Then how did she offer you the Trinamool Congress ticket to contest the 2021 Assembly election?

It is a long story. I was working as a cook. I was suffering from multiple ailments, including high blood pressure, [high blood] sugar, and pain in both my knees. I underwent an operation, too. I wrote to the government seeking help on medical grounds. The officials held a board meeting and concluded that I was not in a position to sit in front of the fire and cook in view of my medical condition. They recommended a less demanding job. However, I did not get such a job. Then I rejected the Bangla Akademi Award given by the State government. I said when I could not feed myself, what was the point of an award. “I don’t need your award,” I wrote to the government, wishing to return my award. Then somebody told the Chief Minister about me. She immediately got me a job in a library. My life changed for the better from then on. After that she made me the Chairman of the Bengal Sahitya Akademi. I could not believe it because the Chairman of the Akademi went around and gave speeches.

In every meeting, I would speak against Manuwadis, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the fascists. I had many detractors, who threatened me. They warned me that I would be turned into Gauri Lankesh’s brother [meaning, he too would be eliminated the way the Bengaluru activist-journalist was killed]. I knew if the BJP came to power in Bengal I would be in trouble, the State would be in trouble. The Chief Minister got to know about my thoughts. One day she called me and asked me to contest the election. I immediately agreed.

After you won the election, did you fear that since you had become an MLA you would not find time to write?

Earlier, I was writing for the cause of the common people. My writing was all about the exploitation of Dalits, how they suffered because of their caste, their poverty, their illiteracy. I wanted to help them. Now that I am an MLA, I have the power, the responsibility, to help the needy, the poor and the marginalised. Now, the poor have faith in me, and I am capable of providing them help. In my constituency, people love me like mad.

The rickshaw wallahs you were associated with must be proud of you.

Not just rickshaw wallahs, vegetable vendors, fish sellers, everybody loves me, takes pride in me. I have one official guard for security; wherever I go, people embrace me. They are very happy. I walk into their huts, I take toto [a local vehicle] to reach them everywhere, even when there is a heavy downpour. I took tarpaulin sheets to those whose houses had collapsed in the rain.

System of exploitation

You talked of Dalits exploitation. On the same lines we see the marginalisation of Muslims in recent years. Do you think Muslims and Dalits should join hands in elections?

Forget the 15 per cent Manuwadi [upper-caste people], we are talking of uniting the other 85 per cent people because those 15 per cent have virtually monopolised everything. The 85 per cent will include Muslims, Rajvanshis and Dalits of various sects and subsects. We are inspiring everybody to fight the system of exploitation. Both Muslims and Dalits should be together. Both have similar problems. If we fight together, we stand to gain.

If you look at the mainstream parties, you will not find Muslims or Dalits in positions of authority. Until we have our own leadership, who will talk of us?

It is to the Chief Minister’s credit that she gave 86 tickets to Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised people. Despite being a Brahmin, she gave me the ticket knowing fully well that I will raise a voice for Dalits, for the exploited. If we all unite beyond party lines against exploitation of Dalits, Adivasis, women and Muslims, change will come.

What are you working on now? When is your next book likely to be published?

I am working on my autobiography, my experiences as an MLA. I will need time for it. I am writing slowly. I will complete the book when I finish my stint as an MLA. So, it will take me five years. My journey has just begun.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor