At Samanvay, the festival of Indian languages, author Manoranjan Byapari’s session “Shabd Badalte Hain Jeevan” did not draw a crowd. They say that the most compelling stories are the ones that nobody hears. The 25-odd people who attended the session at the India Habitat Centre amphitheatre were told a story that sounded stranger than fiction, one of redemption, of a man who shed his shackles to “escape into the good world of knowledge”.
Byapari is perhaps the only rickshaw-puller-turned cook to have his works published by Oxford University Press. So when he says that “learning a little made me hungry for more,” there is a sparkle in his eyes and a conviction in his voice.
An important name in the world of Bengali Dalit literature, Byapari is yet to garner attention from the mainstream literary world. Adulation came after Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee translated his essay in the Economic and Political Weekly. The essay “Is there Dalit Writing in Bangla?” caught the attention of many. This was followed by more than 100 short stories and nine novels.
Growing up in a refugee camp in Bankura’s Shiromanipur, being a published author did not even feature in Byapari’s distant dreams. Post-Partition pain had engulfed his Dalit family. “With no job options, my father became a daily labourer and had to travel far for work. My mother didn’t have enough money to even cover herself properly,” says Byapari, who ran away from home at 16. It was 1966 and Naxalism was at its peak. It wasn’t hard for a young teenager with no dreams to get involved. Byapari became a jouster, getting himself into trouble, which eventually landed him in jail. “I was crying one day when my cell mate showed me a plant growing out of a concrete wall. I wondered how that plant grew in a hostile environment. That’s when I decided to educate myself,” says Byapari, who learnt to write the first letter of his life at 22. The jail library soon became a place of worship fro him. When he left after four years, he was a man who could read and write and was hungry for more.
Byapari became a rickshaw puller. Of the numerous tana rickshaws (hand-pulled rickshaws) in Kolkata, Byapari’s came with books in the back peti. One day, he refused to take a woman to her destination, because he was engrossed reading Agnigarbha, a book of short stories by Mahasweta