On a cold January evening last year, when the shadows were lengthening over the penultimate day of Jaipur’s big-ticket literary festival, an elderly man walked up to writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar and asked him if he would have time for a cup of tea. They had met at a session earlier in the day — a young Santhal doctor-writer from Ghatsila in Jharkhand and a Dalit writer, a former rickshaw-puller, who lives in Mukundapur on the fringes of Kolkata.
Both were pathbreakers for their community, subalterns who have wrested control over their own stories. Shekhar, who had just come out of a ban on his book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance (2015), for purported cultural misrepresentation of his community, did the introductions that evening: It was writer Manoranjan Byapari, the man whose Herculean rise to a life of letters and literature could well be every caste-afflicted Indian’s manifesto of suffering and grit.
Earlier that month, a translation of Byapari’s award-winning autobiography, Itibrittey Chandal Jibon (2012, Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit), by Sipra Mukherjee, had been published by Sage. The invitation to the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival — the first of what would soon be a flurry of invites to other such literary events and award ceremonies across the country — had followed. In the fading twilight, the author whipped out a business card from the pocket of his kurta and handed it to me. When I said I’ll call, his smile was sardonic. “Shotyi korben, naki bhodrota korchhen? Onekei erokom britha ashwash die thaken (Will you really call or are you just being polite? People often give such false assurances),” he said.
The years immediately after Independence had not been kind to Bengal. Even before the scabs had formed over Partition’s deep wounds, the new state had been faced with acute food shortage, an abysmal employment rate and a large influx of refugees from across the border. Byapari’s family was one of many Hindu families who made the journey in 1953 from Barisal in what was then East Pakistan, following the bloody communal riots in the region in the early 1950s. Byapari doesn’t remember the year he was born in; he reckons he was around three years old at the time of the move, give or take a few years. What he does remember is the anguish of his labourer father, who often told him of his helplessness at having been unable to place even a drop of honey, as was the custom, in his firstborn’s mouth at the time of his birth. He remembers, too, the many indignities of their day-to-day living that reiterated his family’s position in society: they were Namasudras, considered the “lowliest” in the caste hierarchy, consigned to a life on the margins.
About 150 refugee camps had been set up around Calcutta to accommodate the newcomers. Byapari’s family, though, wasn’t among them. They were sent to a camp in Shiromanipur in Bankura district, where conditions were more dismal, government aid limited and diseases rampant.
Fighting for food teaches one a thing or two about survival, Byapari realised — that shame and fear are emotions those who have nothing can ill afford; that, sometimes, the only thing one can do when the hunger in one’s belly will not go away is to memorise the way it gnaws at your gut. Later, it moulds into reckless courage. A goatherd, the ubiquitous underage-and-overworked boy in every teashop, a sweeper at the railway station, a khalashi (a dockyard worker), a dom (a caretaker at a cremation ground), a cook, a rickshaw-puller — Byapari’s journey has spanned the wide arc of the underclass’s struggle for survival in the country.
When a peasant uprising began in Naxalbari in 1967, the ideology appealed to him, given that his life under the United Front government and his run-ins with their powerful opponent, the CPI(M), had left him embittered. “Unlike the dregs of the movement today, that was an emotional uprising. People from all walks of life really wanted change and equality. The Naxalites today, you can call them Maowadis if you want — the Adivasis in Dandakaranya who are fighting the war, for instance — don’t know who Mao Tse-Tung was. They don’t know where Delhi is or which party is in power. What they know is oppression and those who perpetrate it — police and tehsildars and the corporates grabbing land. They have no option but to fight,” he says.
In the first flush of the original movement, something was changing in him, too. Years of humiliation at the hands of the upper caste, and the moneyed class had hardened him. He was loathe to take things lying down, tired of being abused and ignored.
“I felt sheer rage and I wanted to hit out at everyone who had made our lives what it was. Not just individuals, but the society that had consigned us to that servility, that wouldn’t let us stand up straight and square our shoulders,” Byapari says.
After the 1971 war with Pakistan, when refugees arrived from the newly-created Bangladesh, his extended family among them, they were assigned a camp in Dandakaranya, in what is now Chhattisgarh. Byapari would move there, too, with his family, working as menial labour, and, in his secret life, as a peripheral revolutionary. When he returned to Calcutta a few years later, still committed to Naxalism’s egalitarian vision even if his faith was waning, proficient in the use of crude bombs and pipe guns and not beyond petty violence, he would be incarcerated for rioting. It was a few months before Emergency was declared by then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Byapari was about 25 then. It was at the Alipur Special Jail that he learnt to read and write from another undertrial, donating blood to earn the Rs 20 he needed to buy pen and paper. Two years later, when he was finally released and began life as a rickshaw-puller, Byapari had transformed himself into the sharpest of all weapons: a reader with a story to tell.
Byapari, 69, tells me all this in bits and pieces. His encounter with writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi, while ferrying her back on his rickshaw from her place of work at Jadavpur University, and his subsequent metamorphosis into a writer at her encouragement — Devi published his first essay ‘Rickshaw Chalai (I Pull a Rickshaw)’ in her non-fiction magazine Bartika in 1981 — had made its way into mainstream news outside West Bengal. His acquaintance with Devi petered off as suddenly as it began, but his reverence for her is evident in his children’s names — his daughter, a nurse in a local hospital, is named after her; his son after the Bengali writer Manik Bandyopadhyay. “We cannot aspire to caste superiority but there’s no harm in dreaming of a future where every child can read them, is there?” he says. He still remembers the first book he read — Nishi Kutumba by Manoj Basu; there has been no looking back since.
In 1989, he moved back to Dandakaranya briefly after he got into a row with CPI(M) cadres over a rickshaw union. There, he met Shankar Guha Niyogi, founder of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, a man who had the greatest impact on his political consciousness. “I had seen all manners of political leaders by then. Everybody eventually wanted something for themselves. He wasn’t like that. An engineer who gave up plum jobs, married an Adivasi woman, lived and worked for backward communities is a rarity in the best of times. The way he worked for the underclass gave me faith. I didn’t have much of it in those days,” he says.
Reading Byapari is a discomfiting look at West Bengal’s socio-cultural history through the eyes of those whose points of view have never found prominence in history books. The jagged edges of his memory — being tied to a lamp post in south Kolkata’s Dhakuria and being beaten up by party cadres on suspicions of being a Naxalite, for instance — is matched only by the anger at how, even after the fall of the United Front and the rise and fall of the Left, not much has changed for those at the bottom of the pile.
In novel after novel, story after story, Byapari has written of caste pariahs and night guards, cooks and lorry drivers — “sharbohara chhotolok (those with nothing more to lose),” as he calls them — and their struggle for relevance and a life of dignity. “There’s a striking honesty and outspokenness in his writing. He is a keen observer and can see through people and situations and write about them with searing honesty. I think that is one reason why he writes so lucidly and easily about politics,” says Shekhar, 36, who too came up against caste prejudice early in his career.
Byapari writes in colloquial Bengali, his words a tidal wave that throws his readers into a world of relentless churn. “His writing has a degree of sophistication when it comes to structuring and finding a narrative voice, which is probably what makes him such a good oral narrator, too. If you have noticed, he never tells his stories in a linear fashion, from beginning to end. He is not brimming with theories, not completely stark. I don’t know if he does it consciously or unconsciously but there’s no doubt that storytelling is his forte,” says Arunava Sinha, whose translation of his 2013 novel, Batashe Baruder Gondho (There’s Gunpowder in the Air, Context, Eka), was published earlier this year.
In a way, Byapari’s stories come from his life: he is all the characters in his body of work. “Life appears to have spread skittish mustard seed under my feet. I have never been able to stand still in any role for more than a few days, always skidding on to another spot. It is the story of that skidding, slipping, fallen-back life that I have sat down to write for you,” he writes in the preface to his autobiography.
“I met Manoranjanda first when I invited him to my university to meet my students who were studying Dalit literature. I remember being struck by his hardened appearance and his very forthright way of speaking. He is now a seasoned speaker, but those were early years for him, too. Yet, his speech was marked by confidence and clarity. There was a raw intelligence in it and his answers to my students’ questions had a startling lucidity,” says Sipra Mukherjee, professor, department of English, West Bengal State University and the translator of his autobiography.
A year later, when Byapari and I finally meet again, this time in Delhi’s Jangpura Extension, he has just stepped off a flight to attend two days of back-to-back events in the city before he goes off to Mumbai for more of the same. The ease that Mukherjee speaks of is evident. Byapari no longer needs to lug around his books to seminars and conferences the way he used to in the early days. The English translation of Interrogating My Chandal Life won the Hindu Prize for 2018; some more translations and two original works are on its way to being published — the culmination of a writing life that began on the margins and found its way on to centrestage.
Rage, though, is where Byapari still feels most at home and his acceptance now in the mainstream intellectual life of the nation has not mitigated it. If anything, it has taught him to own the stage and tell his story the way he wants to. “You only have to look at my life to know that anguish sells,” he says, wiping his face with the tell-tale gamchha, once a necessary part of his attire during his days as a rickshaw puller, and, now, a mark of rebellion.
His rickshaw pulling days are behind him. In the last two decades, he has worked at the Helen Keller Badhir Vidyalaya, Mukundapur as a cook, though writing and travelling across the country take up much time and he has been put out of the roster of wages. His recognition as a writer has not changed his financial circumstances much, even though a recent multi-book deal with publishing house Westland has meant a sizeable medical insurance for the future. “Ekhono kono badha aay nei, lorai aar shesh holo koi? (I still don’t have a fixed source of income. The fight is far from over),” he says.
In Bengal, three decades of Communist rule has made the manifestation of caste, he says, more insidious. It hasn’t changed even after their fall. “Income and education are the new social markers…If you don’t have money and belong to a backward class, your fight is never over. We need food, shelter, primary education and healthcare. Does any Dalit movement across the country address these? Their debates are over reservations in higher education and government jobs. Yet, if you look closely, the reservations go to a handful of people, some of whom have already benefited over generations. Do those people really need it? At the other end, a rickshaw-puller who can’t put his children through school, whose wife works as a help, how does an increase in reservation help him? His family will never get to that stage. If anything, his wife will move from working at a high-caste, moneyed home to a moneyed household of someone from their own caste,” he says.
It’s what has kept him from giving into the temptation of joining politics. “I have seen people like Guha Niyogi, I can’t work with these new class of political leaders. Look at UP. People had elected Mayawati. Why did they turn their backs on her? Because once she assumed power, she didn’t do enough for her people,” he says. He has watched the recent Lok Sabha elections with some trepidation, too. “In Bengal, the schism has been orchestrated and it has become more and more acute in the last few years. It is going to be difficult from here,” he says.
When his radical voice first rang out in Bengal’s literary circle in the late 1990s, the opposition to it had been vehement. “I am a Dalit speaking up against Brahminism and capitalism. It was only natural that people would find me unacceptable,” he says. Even with time and fame, that hasn’t abated. If anything, he says, the resistance to his literature from within his own community has grown stronger. “If I say that the Chavdar Tale Satyagraha (1927) and the Poona Pact (1932) failed in its objective, how am I off the mark when untouchability still thrives and students like Rohith Vemula commit suicide? What was achieved by drinking water from the lake for a day only to have the upper caste come and reclaim it the next day? Or the electoral legitimisation that came with the Poona Pact that didn’t see its benefits percolate down? Manuvaad hasn’t worked only for the Brahmins. It’s created a new class of Brahmins out of the creamy layers of backward classes. I don’t understand why people find that hard to accept, given that caste atrocities around the country has only been going up,” he says.
In the preface to Itibrittey…, Byapari writes: “Here I am. I know I am not entirely unfamiliar to you. You have seen me a hundred times in a hundred ways. Yet, if you insist that you do not recognise me, let me explain myself in a little greater detail, so you will not feel that way anymore. When the darkness of unfamiliarity lifts, you will feel, why, yes, I do know this person. I’ve seen this man.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘ Rage becomes him’