His name is Manoranjan Byapari but he has little to do with entertainment or trade. His life, too, is a lengthy chronicle of opposites. He is possibly the only convict-turned-rickshawpuller in the world who has more than 10 books and 100 essays published.
Mr. Byapari’s tale of 63 years transports the listener to a Dickensian world. He spent his initial years in refugee camps after Partition. His sister died of starvation, while he worked as a cattle boy during the Sino-Indian War. His father developed a nasty ulcer, and his mother didn’t have enough to even cover herself. He remained illiterate. At 16, he fled his impoverished Dalit family to become a vagabond and petty criminal on the streets of different cities in West Bengal.
When Mr. Byapari spoke of his frequent visits to jail at a seminar on caste at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on Tuesday, his narrative was interspersed with humour and pathos. “I was a brawler and rioter. I was even charged with arson and attempt to murder. This was when naxalism was at its peak,” Mr. Byapari told a packed hall. “I was in and out of jail but when I was 24, I was sentenced to 10-year imprisonment. My life behind those walls seemed bleak. A fellow inmate pointed to a plant growing outside the window, and I wondered how such a beautiful plant could survive in hostile conditions. That’s when I decided to redeem myself.”
The fellow inmate started teaching Mr. Byapari the Bangla alphabet. “In jail, I started going to the library. We won the case and my jail term was brought down. In the two years I spent in jail, I managed to read only two books because I was very slow. So when I got out, I had an insatiable appetite for more. I got a job as rickshawpuller and started reading anything that came my way. If I found a piece of paper on the street with words on it, I would pick it up to read.”
Reading became his source of empowerment. But one coincidence changed the course of his life. “I came across a word whose meaning I couldn’t find. One day, a woman got into my rickshaw and I asked her what jijibisha meant. The woman answered: ‘a will to live.’ Grateful, I showed her the book I was reading: Agnigarbha , a collection of short stories by Mahasweta Devi,” he said. The word appeared like a leitmotif in the book.
The woman then asked him to write a story for a magazine she was bringing out. He told her that he knew only how to read. “She told me to come back to her with the story. She scribbled her name on a piece of paper: Mahasweta Devi.” The rest, as they say, is history.
He continued writing on various issues, and without his knowing, he became credited with being the first ever Dalit writer of West Bengal. This year, he was honoured with the highest literary prize in the State: Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi Award. He is working on a book on the life of labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi.