In between peeling vegetables, Anu Byapari peeps out of her kitchen to ask her husband in the next room whether he wants tea. “I like pampering him when he is home because he toils the whole day,” he says. Her husband, Manoranjan Byapari, cooks midday meals in a government school, and is a celebrated Dalit writer in Bengal. He has published more than 10 books and 100 essays and this year, was awarded the highest literary prize in West Bengal: Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi Award.
The tag, “Dalit writer”, irks Byapari. “I wasn’t known as a Dalit writer all this while. It’s only when I wrote my autobiography, Itibritte Chandal Jibon (loosely translated as “Inside the life of an untouchable”), a few years ago, that people started talking about my identity and the politics involved with it. I would rather be called a writer of the impoverished,” says Byapari, the 60-something, seated in the study of his small house in Mukundpur, south Kolkata. The walls are stacked with books, including his own and that of Mahasweta Devi, whom Byapari considers his mentor. His chance encounter with the writer way back in the 1980s is well-known in the literary circles of Bengal. While reading one of her books, Byapari didn’t understand the word jijibisha. An erudite-looking lady, who had got into his rickshaw one day finally told him the meaning. “She explained that it meant ‘the will to live’. When she was getting off, she introduced herself as Mahasweta Devi,” says Byapari.
Byapari has lived many lives. He was a local gunda before he became a rickshaw-puller (long before he started working as cook in 1997). “I have been in jail a number of times. I was the quintessential small-time gunda that Bengal was so famous for in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Byapari.
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Manoranjan comes from an impoverished family. “I ran away from home when I was 16, and travelled far and wide in search of work. I went to Siliguri in 1967 when the Naxal movement was at its peak,” says Byapari. When he came back, he lied to his friends that he had been to Naxalbari and had met rebel leaders like Kanu Sanyal. “We were sitting in a south Kolkata locality next to a graffiti of the CPI(M). Inspired by my story, one of my friends added an L to CPI(M) (the L meaning Leninist). This angered the local CPI(M) leaders, who tied me to a lamp post and beat me black and blue,” says Byapari.
It was a jail inmate, who introduced the illiterate Byapari to the Bengali alphabet in mid-1970s, but life was his most compelling teacher. “While ferrying customers in my rickshaw, I got glimpses of their life. Being in a servile position gives you a great vantage point,” says Byapari. His innate understanding of the human psyche is evident in his fictional narrative of the Dhananjoy Chatterjee hanging case (the first execution in India since 1995) in his Amanushik (Inhuman).
That’s when the politics of his identity as a person belonging to the lower caste dawned upon him. “I realised that if you belong to the lower caste, you are most likely to be poor. The Dalit narrative in Bengal is a very silent one. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have active Dalit writers, but Bengal hardly has any. Also, it’s mostly people from the higher caste who talk about us. I was frustrated by our invisibility,” he says. To point out the veiled nature of caste discrimination in Bengal, Byapari narrates a real-life story. “A part of the congested area of Kalighat has a lot of street urchins. Some of them are orphans, and some children of sex workers from the nearby red-light area. They play all day, do drugs and, at times, steal money to buy food. They are frequently rounded up by cops. During one such raid, the officer-in-charge found out that one of the children was a Brahmin like him. He ensured that the boy was sent to a children’s reform home,” says Byapari. However, he also acknowledges the contribution of some high-caste writers.
“Mahasweta Devi, who belongs to a high caste, has been fighting for our rights for decades,” he says.
Byapari has never shied away from any kind of job, but now wants to work in a library. “Is it too much to ask for a modest life of financial security and dignity?” he asks.