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'Lucky if They Don't Shoot You in Jail': Dalit Rickshaw-Puller Turned Writer Manoranjan Byapari

Manoranjan Byapari (Credit: Facebook)

Manoranjan Byapari (Credit: Facebook)

Apart from being a writer, Byapari has also been a socio-political activist and have time and again raised his voice in support of the underclass.

Simantini Dey
  • Last Updated: February 21, 2019, 4:28 PM IST
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A Dalit rickshaw-puller, an ex-Naxalite, a Bangladeshi refugee - Manoranjan Byapari wears all the tags of his many identities like amulets on his arm. Because these are the identities that have shaped him as an author and deeply impacted his socio-political ideologies.

Byapari, who is now a popular Bengali writer and a social activist, recently won the Hindu Prize for his autobiography, Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit (Itibritte Chandal Jivan). Life has changed radically for Byapari ever since he began to write. Today, he is not only one of the most revered voices of Dalit Literature but also a toast of literary festivals.

Byapari recently spoke to about being a working-class novelist, the changing face of Naxal movement in India - of which he had been an active part of in the 1960s - and discussed how the oppressive forces have and will continue to stifle the voices of dissent in public discourse.

A working-class novelist

Byapari has written about a hundred short stories, and over a dozen novels in his relatively short career as a writer. Talking to the author said, "My stories are neither fun nor funny. I do not have sweet love stories to tell either."

"Whenever I have tried to write something different, like a light-hearted story, a travelogue or a romance, I have found myself going back to the stories of hunger, and struggles of the working class. But, I am a happy and humorous guy," he added with a burst of animated laughter.

At the age of 69, Byapari is full of enthusiasm and fire. He tells many new and old tales with lively expressions and hand gestures. His fierce passion for literature can only be matched by his indomitable impulse to tell the tales of 'his people.' Byapari, during his rickshaw pulling days, would often wrap a gamcha (tradition cotton towel) around his neck to wipe his sweat. While those days are far behind him, the writer still sports a gamcha 'so that he can never forget that he belongs to the gamcha-wearing class of people.'

"I always remind myself that I do not belong to the Babu class. Of course, there are many from the intellectual section of the society who have given me love and support. But, I want to always write, fight, and speak for the working class. I have reached here by talking about them. If I didn't belong to their class, I wouldn't have become an author" added Byapari.

From being a convict to a rickshaw-wallah to a writer

Byapari's early life can make for an apt script of a tragic Satyajit Ray film. The writer's sister died of starvation, he didn't have money to provide his father with medical treatment, because of which he too passed away. The author spent his childhood in refugee camps, never went to school, and didn't even know how to read and write, until he was imprisoned in the Alipur jail, Kolkata on charges of alleged murder and rioting during the Naxalbari agitation, of which he was a part of.

In jail, Byapari found a mentor — a kind teacher — who educated him. After Byapari was released on bail, he took the job of a rickshaw-puller, but by then he was already a bona fide bookworm. He devoured Bengali Literature regularly as he waited to ferry people from one destination to another.

As luck would have it, one day, he ferried renowned author, Mahasweta Devi, from her home to Jadavpur University on his rickshaw. During the trip, Byapari asked Devi the meaning of a difficult Bengali word jijibisha (a craving for being alive), and Devi inquired how he had come across this word. When Byapari confessed his love for reading to Devi, she immediately asked him to write a column for her.

The first column that Byapari ever wrote for the author of Mother of 1084, Mahasweta Devi, was about his life as a rickshaw-puller. "When Mahasweta Devi first published my article, various newspapers did stories on me." said the author.

"University professors came to see me. They would be amazed that I could write. Editors came with writing requests. When I said I had lived in a refugee camp, I was asked to write about them. When I told them I was part of a revolution, they asked me to write about it. Slowly, people began to know me. I thought it was amazing, it means I can write. But, to write, one must read first. As I began to read more, I realised that my perception of the world around us is slightly different from other authors. So, I decided to show my readers the world through my eyes." he added.

Devi not only gave Byapari his first break but also inspired him through her writings. "I love Mahasweta Devi's anger. Like the sun, it's the inextinguishable fire that she carried in her chest. I also want that fire of anger in me. And, that kind of anger can only grow in your heart if you love the hardworking working class people." said Byapari.

Apart from Devi, Byapari also admires Samaresh Basu, Shrilal Shukla and Jajabar. "Samaresh Babu is so much heart, you can feel his characters from the inside, the way he portrays them. He creates his characters with such love and care. Jajabor's way with words is something I aspire for. It's like he weaves a wreath with his carefully picked words. And, I want Shrilal Shukla's eyes. his eyes are like an arrow, precise and to the point." he added.

Old and new Revolutions

Byapari joined the Naxal movement in his youth and was an active part of it until he saw a close friend of his, who wasn't from the upper class, being killed by the Naxals. In his recent book, There's Gunpowder In The Air, the author recreates with imagination and from memory those days of the revolution when Bengal was in a state of upheaval. 'Dark and comic, it is a searing investigation into what deprivation and isolation can do to human idealism'.

While the Naxal movement has died down in most parts of India, the author pointed out that the only place where it is still continuing is Chhattisgarh. "Now if you see, the Naxal movement or the Maoist movement is at its peak in Chhattisgarh. The Naxals from Chhattisgarh have put up a fight and managed to survive for the last 40 years. If you analyze why the Naxal movement slowly vanished from all parts of India except that one place, then I feel we can reach near some truth." said the author.

"If you ask those Adivasis where is Bhopal or Raipur, they won't be able to tell you. Ask them, 'have you ever heard of Mao Tse Tung?' and you will meet with blank stares. Then how can they do a national movement? Any national movement also has a huge political aspect, and it is impossible for a simple adivasi to comprehend that when they don't even know where Delhi is. For someone who has never seen a railway track in his entire life, how will he fight this battle? Therefore, the people who are calling them 'anti-national elements', and addressing them as 'people who have waged a war against the state,' are not telling the truth. "

The author pointed out that those Adivasis are only fighting to protect their water, forest, and lands. If they back out of this fight today, they stand to lose everything they have. So, it is merely their struggle for survival.

"Those people cannot even fathom the strength of the state. They cannot imagine the devastation one bombing device can cause... it can burn many of their villages to the grounds. With their pikes and jungli guns, it is an impossible task to fight against such a powerful state. But, if you think of it, they aren't fighting the state, they don't even understand what the government is! They are only fighting against small players -- like the Tahsildars, the forest department, the local cops who are coming and ruining their lives. They are fighting against the hired goons of rich corporates so that they can protect their water, forests, and land."

The author said that political parties, for their vested interest term them Maoists, call them cop killers, and anti-nationalists. He said that if cops are dying, one should also ask what are cops doing in their area?

"Why is police in their area inflicting atrocities? They do not come to the cities to kill people. They don't come to your area, they stay in their forests, then why do you have to go in their forests and attack them?" asked the author.

"There are many real issues that these Adivasis are facing -- they don't have food, shelter, or healthcare. But, instead of addressing these issues, the political parties want to divert the attention of the public, by calling these Adivasis 'anti-nationalists'. This is just their trick." added Byapari.

The risk of dissent

Apart from being a writer, Byapari has also been a socio-political activist and have time and again raised his voice in support of the underclass.

"Administrators and authorities always want to stifle voices of dissent." observed the writer. Nowadays there is a wide-spread fear of expressing oneself because the consequences have been dire for many -- from intellectuals, writers, lawyers to journalists. Only last year, many intellectuals were arrested for allegedly conspiring against the state, and branded, 'Urban Naxals'. However, Byapari pointed out that this is the risk that everyone who wishes to dissent will have to face.

"Where high-profile journalists, human right activists have been arrested, then common people, who protest on the streets are obviously petrified. It is natural for authorities to want to suppress dissent in order to keep their administration unscathed," said Byapari. The author observed that the writers who write about flowers, moon, stars, birds, rivers, oceans are never pulled up by the government. In fact, chances are, that the government will felicitate them with literary awards. But, if a writer writes about revolt and oppression then rest assure that he will face the consequences.

"One cannot expect sympathy or pity from the state," said Byapari. "You are lucky that if they put you in jail, and don't shoot you. They can do that as well. When you protest against wrongdoings, then whatever atrocities the wrongdoer inflict on you, you'll have to be ready to face that. If you cannot tolerate that, then do not write. You will write against them, and they will show you mercy, that's impossible. One much decide whether or not to raise his/her voice in dissent after fully understanding this fact." he added.

There's Gunpowder In The Air, written by Manoranjan Byapari, and translated by Arunava Sinha has been published by Westland Publication. The hardcover of the book costs Rs 499.

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