The Hindu Non-Fiction Prize 2018 Lit for Life

‘I do not give up easily’: Manoranjan Byapari

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History may forget but I will not, says Manoranjan Byapari, the pioneer of Dalit writing from Bengal

Manoranjan Byapari is the first Dalit writer of Bengal, whose book Interrogating My Chandal Life — An Autobiography of a Dalit, won The Hindu Prize 2018 in the non-fiction category, an award he shared with his translator, Sipra Mukherjee, Professor of English in West Bengal State University. His is an unusual life story of a convict turned rickshaw-wala turned cook turned novelist, whose life changed because of a chance meeting with Mahasweta Devi. A stint with Naxals in Chhattisgarh had landed him in jail in the 70s, where he learned to read and write from a fellow inmate. Today, he has 15 novels, 35 essays and 150 short stories to his credit. Excerpts from an interview during the lit fest:

You were in tears while receiving the award. What did the moment mean?

I never imagined that an illiterate like me would ever get an opportunity to share the stage with influential and high-profile littérateurs and my book would beat theirs to bag a prestigious award.

The Hindu created history and proved itself to be the true voice of the voiceless. The jury’s neutral decision is my success and emotional victory. The joy is not mine alone, but that of all those who are hated and discriminated against. The respect I received here made me cry.

How tough was it to write Itibrittey Chandal Jibon?

Writing comes naturally to me and I was telling my own story. So in a way it was easy. I never attended school but am a keen learner. I believe reading is an important tool of empowerment. Only my being Dalit by birth makes my relationships with many others untenable. I may have been recognised as a writer but I’ve not yet experienced honour in my everyday life.

After this award, I will return to my primary job of cooking food in the Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Kolkata, where I wash, peel, cut vegetables, prepare and serve food to 150 children. I’ve always had to work very hard to complete my books.

You lost your sister to starvation, you have faced criminal charges and imprisonment. How do you retain your sanity?

I am stubborn and a fighter. I make use of every opportunity that comes my way no matter how much people taunt me and try to crush me. My self-esteem is my pride. And I will continue to march on. I do not give up easily.

What was the turning point in your life?

My accidental meeting with Mahasweta Devi, who sat as a passenger in my cycle-rickshaw. I asked her the meaning of the Bengali word jjibisha (‘thewill to live’). She was surprised by my interest and my life-story and asked me to write for her journal Bartika. She published only one article by me, but she launched me as a writer and made me realise the power of the pen.

Meenakshi Mukherjee translated one of my essays, ‘Is there a Dalit writing in Bangla?’ for Economic and Political Weekly and that too shot me into prominence. After my autobiography was translated into English by Dr. Sipra Mukherjee, I came into the spotlight. But where I live and work, I am still namashudra (lower caste) and achchhut (untouchable).

What is your next project?

The second part of my memoir has also been translated into English and is awaiting release. The two volumes touch upon everything I have undergone in life — hunger and deprivation, humiliation, and struggle — and through it all, the determination to live on and work. My next novel will be about the families of displaced people from East Pakistan who were housed in refugee camps in the hostile Dandakaranya region and later made their way to Marichjhapi island of the Sunderbans in West Bengal. Being a Dalit is central to my writings. As are the hardships of the marginalised, whom history may forget but I will not.

Excerpts from an email interview with Sipra Mukherjee.

How and why did you decide to translate Byapari’s book?

When we introduced the ‘Literature from the Margins’ course in our university, my colleague Jayati Gupta and I had to literally hunt through the lanes and bylanes of Kolkata to get to the Bangla Dalit publishing houses. Nothing was available in English. So we had to start from scratch: translate a work, get it published in a journal, and then include it in the corpus of pan-Indian Dalit literature. And that is how I came upon Byapari’s book, which was one that deserved a far larger audience than it was getting.

How challenging was the translation?

Apart from the length of the book, which had to be edited and shortened, the book did not have many of the translation-difficulties usually associated with Dalit lit. The language was urban and therefore largely without dialect. The parts with the East Bengali and Chhattisgarhi dialects were the only few difficult sections. Otherwise, the book is one that drives the translator on with its force.

The English translation mainstreamed Byapari’s autobiography and brought him to the limelight. How do you feel about it?

I think this book reveals the very different world we are getting into — the former divisions between the margins and the mainstream are getting blurred, at least in the urban-suburban contexts, and hitherto distant worlds are moving closer. The earlier ‘comfortable’ scenario of living only with one’s own community is a thing of the past — and this book brings that to the fore. We live in a more plural world now (our joint achievement, I think), and we only have to look around us to see that.

What are your views on translated works?

Translations are the lifeblood of our bhasha literatures — it is the only way we can come together and appreciate our many literatures.

soma.basu@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 6:37:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/lit-for-life/i-do-not-give-up-easily-manoranjan-byapari/article26025165.ece

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