in a shabby, refugee-dominated corner of Kolkata’s southern fringe, writer Manoranjan Byapari struggles to sit cross-legged on the bed in his two-room home. His knees hurt from years of plying a rickshaw and, it emerges from our conversation, the residual pain from the time Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres tried to break his kneecaps back in the 1970s.
Byapari was an “active” Naxalite in those bloody, turbulent days of Kolkata’s history, at odds with the CPM and its power structures. A teenaged refugee from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Byapari “escaped” the destitution of his shanty in Kolkata and headed to north Bengal’s Siliguri. The agrarian revolt that flared up in nearby Naxalbari in 1967 drew Byapari like a moth to the Naxalite movement’s egalitarian dream. “We were trained in handling pipeguns and minor weapons. Our enemies were small industrialists and businessmen,” he says of the time when he returned to Kolkata in 1970. “One day, a childhood friend, who was a CPM worker, was killed by Naxals. I saw his body and became disillusioned. Instead of reaching the capitalists, we were killing our own poor people and home guards,” he says. The Naxalite phase of his life found gripping literary form in his 2013 novel Batashe Baruder Gondho.
Byapari, 66, is finally comfortable on the bed. The thinly whitewashed walls are marked by misshapen stains of water seepage; a fan hanging from the asbestos-lined ceiling whirrs slowly, doing little to dissipate the late-evening heat. Stacks of books line two shelves, one dedicated to his own books. Byapari lives with his wife and son Manik, named after writer Manik Bandopadhyay, one of his literary heroes.
Since 1981, Byapari has authored a dozen novels and over a hundred short stories, apart from non-fiction essays. One of the books on the shelf is the second volume of The Oxford India Anthology Of Bengali Literature; while Rabindranath Tagore is the first entry, Byapari features as the penultimate entry in Vol. 2 in the compendium of Bengali literature’s elite. “While being a writer in Bengal has been socially edifying, financially I continue to be in the doldrums,” says Byapari.
Golpo Somogro, a collection of 22 short stories, was published this September by Kolkata-based publishers Boiwala, even as Itibritte Chandal Jiban, the autobiographical novel that won him the coveted West Bengal Sahitya Akademi Award , is cited as an exemplary illustration of Bengal’s Dalit and working-class life. “The author of Itibritte Chandal Jiban is an amazing discovery for me,” writer-activist Mahasweta Devi had written in a collection of scholarly writing on Byapari published this March, titled Nana Chokhye Manoranjan Byapari. “Manoranjan is not merely a ‘Dalit’ writer. He is an icon of another generation—alive, dissenting, and a symbol of hope and aspiration of ordinary people,” says Mahasweta Devi in the preface.
For a man whose life is pockmarked with chilling stories of escaping multiple attempts on his life, fleeing the police, violence, destitution, imprisonment, political activism, the partition in the east, encounters with caste and class oppression, the account of his first meeting with Mahasweta Devi is wondrous. Sent to the Alipur Jail in Kolkata as an undertrial facing charges of attempted murder and rioting, a distraught Byapari started coveting the “writer’s” job among prisoners—maintaining daily records could help him evade rigorous labour. Being unlettered, he sought help from a fellow prisoner he affectionately refers to as Mastermoshai (teacher). “A young inmate told me that he had gone insane after reading a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novel. I didn’t know how to read or write and was perplexed. Soon, Mastermoshai started teaching me the first Bengali letters by drawing them on the floor.”
Two years later, he got bail and took to rickshaw-pulling. To feed his mind, he began reading avidly. It was while ferrying a lady professor that the neo-literate, then in his late 20s, asked her the meaning of the Bengali word jijibisha (the yearning for life). She was intrigued. Hearing of the rickshaw-puller’s interest in reading, she invited him to write for her Bengali journal, Bartika. In a city of multiple-million people, it was a sheer stroke of luck—the lady turned out to be Mahasweta Devi and Rickshaw Chalai (I Pull A Rickshaw) became Byapari’s first published piece of writing in 1981. “I slowly lost contact with her since I wanted to write fiction and Bartika accepted non-fiction from marginalized writers,” says Byapari. Today, Byapari’s daughter, Mahasweta, named after the activist, is a constant reminder of the association that set him up as a writer.
The recently published collection of short stories, Golpo Somogro, feeds on the author’s experiences. As his many means of survival, Byapari’s author bio mentions that he was a goat- and cow-herd, teashop help, coolie, lorry helper, cremator of bodies, toilet cleaner, rickshaw puller and night guard—a representative map of the rural and subaltern underclass’ struggle in India.
Golpo Somogro begins with Swadhinota, a short story about a ration-shop coolie who, ironically, can’t provide enough for his family. On a day of desperate hunger, he finds the ration shop closed, for it is India’s Independence Day. Uttoron is about a man who sells blood for money (while in jail, Byapari would sell his for Rs20 to buy paper and pen). Golpo Holeo Sottyi is about a jail inmate looking for the prestigious position of “writer”, while Deenkal climaxes with the refusal of a hired assassin to carry out an assignment that could close down a night school for children, a reflection probably of the writer’s own thirst for knowledge. Possibly culled from Byapari’s experience of working as a security guard at a business establishment, Surjo Othar Mukhye introduces a factory guard of honest upbringing who becomes complicit in his employer’s cement-stealing racket. Unlike other guards before him, he earns nothing from the daily midnight theft, reasoning that he is now a chakor (a servant to orders) and not a chor (thief). The story ends with a nuanced promise—the upcoming factory crashes down on a stormy night, severely injuring the guard at a time when his child is being born.
It is Narayan Seba which provides a stark throwback to his Dalit roots. Of zamindari-era vintage, two rich Brahmin landlords vie with each other to overfeed lower-caste villagers, their game premised on scoring the maximum number of deaths from the bingeing. Growing up, Byapari, a lower-caste animal herder, often faced ostracization at upper-caste homes. The author wears the Dalit-writer label lightly, seemingly more at ease with being the voice of the downtrodden, marginalized working class. “Unlike other states, Dalits in Bengal aren’t an untouchable community,” he explains. “But the class divide works against them. The political and economic power structure is also biased towards upper castes and none of the political parties have Dalit leaders at the very top. Dalits have to struggle constantly.”
His next novel will be biographical fiction based on the 19th century Dalit Namasudra messiah of undivided Bengal, Harichand Thakur. Byapari says it is likely be his last novel. For the past one year, his salary has been withheld at a school for deaf and mute children in Kolkata where he would cook for Rs200 per day. The school administration, he alleges, is run by CPM workers who have been victimizing him since 2000—that is when the cover of pen names like Madan Dutta, Jijibisha and Arun Mitra, which he used to oppose the then Communist government’s policies on Singur and Nandigram, was blown. “They realized that the enemy is within them. I’m struggling to earn a living now and surviving on the patronage of a gentleman supporting me till my next novel comes out,” says Byapari. “Some people will donate and I will buy a toto to ferry passengers again.”
The toto—battery-operated rickshaws that are ubiquitous in Bengal—will take him back to his rickshaw-pulling days, albeit in motorized fashion. The cotton gamcha (towel) that Byapari characteristically wears around his neck is something used often by rickshaw-pullers. “I use it as a towel, a handkerchief and as a bedspread. There is also one other use,” he says, pausing to look around for something solid. He finds his wallet and wraps the gamcha tightly around it till it becomes a sling.
Byapari’s expression contorts, the muscles around his temples flare and he bites his lips tersely while swinging the wallet-wrapped gamcha ferociously over our heads. “Replace the wallet with a brick and my gamcha turns into a deadly weapon,” he tells us as the whirring sling cuts through the humid air.
Suddenly, the writer Manoranjan Byapari becomes a character from his stories.