60 Minutes: With Manoranjan Byapari Society

‘I write because I can’t kill’: an interview with Manoranjan Byapari

Last month, Byapari resigned, after 21 years of being a cook. Ashok Nath Dey

Last month, Byapari resigned, after 21 years of being a cook. Ashok Nath Dey  


A chance encounter with Mahasweta Devi turned this former rickshaw-puller’s life around

To meet Manoranjan Byapari, who lives on the extreme eastern fringe of the city, one needs to traverse from one Kolkata to another. One peppered with mansions and double-column porticos tucked between gaudy buildings, and the other filled with squalor in the backyard of neoteric highrises.

Muddy roads lead to a single-storeyed brick house with a low asbestos ceiling. The temperature inside shoots up a few degrees on this May afternoon. On a bed there, Byapari, in his 50s or 60s perhaps, reclines on a stack of pillows, wiping the sweat off his forehead. Byapari, who writes about men and women on the margins of cities and villages, lives on the margins himself.

“I am one of them, so I write about them — a rickshaw puller, a vagabond, a prostitute, a helper in a lorry, a thief called Bhagaban (god), a futureless assailant with a knife.” Byapari has written incessantly over the past three decades, but that is not the reason why he appears on Bengali television each week or is invited to speak at literature festivals. He was, and largely still is, very much an outsider in West Bengal’s world of letters and literature; an intruder in Kolkata’s society of cultural aggression and hegemony. His home in the rough low-income neighbourhood, the ever-present wad of tobacco tucked away inside his lower lip, his acute angst, these are all signs of how far away he is from the other Kolkata, visible from his backyard, which has kept Byapari firmly out of its small and powerful culture cliques.

Byapari spots conspiracy in such cliques. “Everyone, all the time, has worked against my writing. If, after all that resistance, I worked hard enough to complete a book and got called for an interview, they still ensure that I get into trouble,” he says, but refuses to say who “they” are.

Stuffy rooms, stinky walls

About a month before this interview, on an airless, humid morning, Byapari and I drove to a school for the hearing impaired. It had a kind of hostel, where about 150 students, mostly Dalit and Muslim, live in stuffy rooms where the corridors and walls stink. They hang around, said Tarikul Islam, one of the students, using sign language, hoping to finish secondary school and get a job. Until March, when we visited, Byapari was the main cook in this school.

Last month, Byapari resigned, after 21 years of being a cook, a radhuni-chakor or cook-servant, as he says. And he started working full-time as a writer. This was a major move and it’s come in a year that has already become quite eventful for him as a writer.

In January, the English translation of his acclaimed autobiography, Itibrittey Chandal Jibon Itibritte Chandal Jibon (2012), Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit, hit the shelves. He was instantly invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival the same month; other lit fests and book fairs followed, and has already made many television appearances. Last month, well-known Bengali littérateur V. Ramaswamy, completed the translation of the first part of another of Byapari’s books, Chandal Jibon. And all of a sudden it looks as if the city-centric class that Byapari despises has suddenly woken up to the writer.

“Here is my book on Dhananjoy,” says Byapari, throwing it on the bed, which occupies two-thirds of the tiny room. The book, called Omanushik (Inhuman), is about Dhananjoy Chatterjee, a security guard in Kolkata who was hanged for raping and killing a young woman in 2004. Byapari, who too has worked as a security guard, thinks that Chatterjee was framed as he could not afford a lawyer. “The judicial system is such that if you don’t engage an expensive lawyer, your case will be distorted,” he says.

Working class heroes

Byapari picks up his books, written from 1980s onwards, one by one — “This one is on the lives of Naxals in the Kolkata of the 70s; this one is on Shankar Guha Niyogi, murdered trade union leader from Chhattishgarh; this one is on the Matua sect in North 24 Parganas...” Most of his characters are people with a working class background, people “who beg, borrow or steal” to survive.

He says he also handles sales for his books. “If you invite me to speak at a seminar, I will bring my books and sell them, before and after my presentation. I always ask the publishers — if at all they pay — to give me copies of my books for the amount they are willing to pay instead of cash.”

Byapari leaves the room to spit out the tobacco he’s been chewing, a habit he picked up when he was a rickshaw-puller. Before that, he had worked variously as a dishwasher in a tea stall, a daily wage worker, and as a caretaker in a Chhattisgarh crematorium.

In some ways, Byapari reminds me of rootless Italian immigrants, like the ones who grew up to become mobsters in 1930s’ Chicago. Only, Byapari, who came over as a refugee from East Pakistan in the early 50s, picked up a pen rather than a gun. “I write because I can’t kill. When a kid is raped in Kathua or a man is punished for using his village well, I feel like shooting. But I can’t, so I write and kill the villain.” As his translator Ramaswamy says, Byapari’s characters are built on the “triple axis of hate against Brahmins, zamindars and police.”

Byapari nudges the cup and saucer aside, changes his seat to come closer, and says: “I did go to jail for small street fights.” He remembers the charges: “Sections 148 (rioting with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly) and 307 (attempt to murder).” In all, Byapari went to jail five times and spent about five years behind bars. “But that changed my life,” he says. It was in jail that he learnt to read and write.

Then, a chance encounter with writer and activist Mahasweta Devi proved a turning point. It was 1980, a few years after his release from Alipore jail, and Byapari had just begun to ply his rickshaw. Between fares, he read voraciously. “I was like a child with new teeth, biting everything,” he says, reading anything and everything he could lay his hands on.

Will to live

Around this time Devi had received the Sahitya Akademi Award for Aranyer Adhikar. . One afternoon, she happened to board Byapari’s rickshaw while returning home from college in South Kolkata. “On the way, I asked her the meaning of the word jijibisha.” He had encountered the word in a book by Devi, a word that means ‘the will to live’.

Devi called him to her house the next day. “She asked me to write a piece in her journal Bartika. She literally launched me as a writer.”

In turn, Mahasweta Devi, who passed away in 2016, also remembered Byapari fondly. “The author of Chandal Jibon is an extraordinary discovery for me,” she wrote.

The long relationship between Devi and Byapari was often troubled. “She never called me again to write a story; she never made even one call to find me a better job,” he complains.

In the silence that falls, I realise it is time for me to leave. Byapari has to start writing; he has several characters “who need some fleshing out” for his three upcoming novels. His life should be filmed, I suggest. “It is there on YouTube,” he says, sounding happy for a second, “but then the makers did not pay me a penny.” Byapari comes to the door to see me off. “I think I am turning into a subject from an individual,” he muses.

He looks pensive for a second, then turns around and vanishes into his room. Ready to carve out the story of another marginal man.


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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 4:39:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/i-write-because-i-cant-kill-an-interview-with-manoranjan-byapari/article23926466.ece

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