The doyen of Bangla literature, Mahashweta Devi, once hailed a rickshaw-puller who was engrossed in reading a book. Reluctantly, he agreed to drop Didi home. During the ride, he pleasantly surprised the ‘vidushi’ by asking the meaning of the word जिजीविषा. From that moment began the literary career of Manoranjan Byapari, whom Didi asked to write for her magazine, Bartika. This rickshaw-puller, now seventy years old, is a much published and celebrated Bangla author who writes about the struggles of the downtrodden. He was made the Chairman of the Dalit Sahitya Academy (Bengal) by Mamata Banerjee, and has recently been elected an MLA on the TMC ticket.
Manoranjan Byapari was born in a Namshudra (Matua) family in Barisal in East Bengal in 1950. His family migrated to India, but lived in extreme poverty. Byapari passed his days as a street urchin and saw his family struggle for food, basic necessities and dignity. He ran away from home and found work in Assam, Delhi, Allahabad and Lucknow. Later he returned to Bengal and worked as a rickshaw-puller and flirted with Naxalism. Naxal leadership considered the likes of him (downtrodden Dalits) as lumpen proletariat, good for inflicting mindless violence, but not good enough for leadership positions. He got arrested in mid 70s and spent a couple of years in jail.
Manaoranjan Byopari wrote the novel Batashe Barudher Gondho in 2018. Its English translation is named There’s Gunpowder in the Air. The novel covers the story of an attempted jailbreak in the Panchanantala area of Calcutta by Paritosh Banerjee and his fellow Naxal inmates in early 1970s. The Jailor is about to retire and is afraid of Naxal attempts to break out. The Deputy Jailor is convinced there is a ghost by the name of Bandiswala (Bandage-wala) who roams around the premises. An introverted jail guard’s son turns out to be a Naxal and is found dead. Mysterious graffiti in red paint appears on white walls. There is smell of napalm in the air. There are common convicts- accused of rape, murder, robberies, and Naxals- who are quite respected and held in awe. Naxals enjoyed prestige, support and sympathy among all sections of society, and in jail, like the ‘pagal doctor’ and many convicts. After all, they had been sent behind gallows for slitting the throats of landowners, killing cops, derailing trains, destroying institutions and planting bombs. They were mad men on mission. They were not simple convicts but were supposed to be working for the people and their freedom from exploitation.
Jail-breaking was considered an essential part of the revolutionary struggle. There was no shame in breaking free of bourgeoisie institutions like penitentiaries, in fact it was the avowed aim of the Naxals, both inside and outside, to destroy the system. Jail authorities were class enemies, hence were liable to get hurt or killed during jail-break. The novel is quite well narrated, and binds your interest.
Manoranjan Byapari has written about ‘the Dalit experience’, but prefers to call himself the voice of the downtrodden. He maintains that it is the objective of one and all to be authoritative in one form or another, that is, there is innate human desire to be the master of other humans, if possible. He cites the examples of his mentor (Mahashweta), publisher, benefactors and employers, who have all been Brahmins. He also questions dalit leaders who have risen to the top using their caste’s name, but have turned blind eye towards the dalit upliftment.
During his jail term, Byapari learnt to read and write. After he was released, he went to Dandkaranya and came in touch with the great labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, the founder of Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha who began the Dalli Rajhara agitation for workers’ rights, and for developing Rajhara as a model town. It was through this association that Byapari learnt about the class struggle. After Niyogi was assassinated in 1991, Byapari returned to Kolkata and became a cook in the Hellen Keller Institute, and began writing. He has written a dozen novels, more than short stories and many non-fictional pieces. His autobiography, Interrogating my Chandal Life- An Autobiography of a Dalit is quite popular. A RSTV documentary (link below) takes us through Byapari’s journey in quite some detail.
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