What do you expect the future of a boy who had a pathetic childhood, no schooling, a painful adulthood with petty jobs, who was in and out of prisons for petty crimes? The odds are very high of such a person amounting to anything significant in life.
His parents were migrant labourers from erstwhile East Pakistan who migrated to West Bengal during partition. He was a toddler at a refugee camp in south 24 Parganas then. His sister died of starvation and father was ruined by gastric ulcer.
He worked as a dishwasher in a tea stall, pulling cycle rickshaw, daily wage worker and a caretaker in a Chhatisgarh crematorium. Last 20 years he has worked as a cook in a ramshackle hostel in Kolkata for the hearing impaired.
In the early 70s when the Naxalbari movement was at its peak, he used to take part in protests and quite often he was beaten, tortured and put behind bars. He used to be frequently arrested under the charges of arson, looting, bombing and attempt to murder. He was sent to Alipore and Presidency Jails a number of times.
Manoranjan Byapari is no trader of entertainment but a personification of pain.
All these years, the only thing that was simmering in him was anger against the unjust establishment. One day while in jail one of the inmates said to him,” Getting angry at others may not solve your problem. From this window can you see the sapling on the rooftop of National Library? If it can survive in concrete, you too can find something worth living in this prison. Find a purpose in life.” That day Manoranjan started learning Bangla alphabets on the walls and floor of the prison; first with dust and stones and then with chalk. Two years in prison, he was able to read and write Bangla fluently. When he came out, he started reading voraciously whatever he laid his hands on.
Throughout the day he used to pull a cycle rickshaw sometimes as long as 16 hours. The spare time while waiting for the passengers was devoted for his new passion of reading. A word called jijibisha from a story caught his attention. He could not decipher the meaning He asked a number of passengers but no one could answer him properly. One day a passenger, an old lady answered his query saying the word jijibisha meant a will to live. Finding something exceptional in the rickshaw puller, the lady scribbled her name and her home address on a piece of paper and asked Manoranjan to meet her later. After the lady alighted, he took out the novel underneath the seat. It was Agnigarbha by Mahasweta Devi, ( Jnanpith Award winner, Political activist and writer of books – Hazar Chaurashir Maa, Rudali etc.) the same lady who was in the rickshaw a few minutes before.
His first piece of writing, Rickshaw Chalai (I pull a rickshaw ) was published in Mahasweta Devi’s journal Bartika.
His autobiography Ittibrittey Chandal Jibon when translated into English, spread his fame beyond West Bengal and he was invited to Jaipur Lit Festival. He has to his credit 17 books over the last 40 years of his toil and has received number of awards which include West Bengal Sahitya Academy, Ravindra Smriti Puraskar, Gateway Litfest Writer of the year, Hindu Award for Non-Fiction among others. His writing focusses on the marginalized sections of the society be it the sex workers, daily wage labourers, beggars etc with whom he has one-one interactions. His writing is authentic as he is able to empathise with his protagonists. In one of his interviews he says:
I too have worked very hard to progress step-by-step. I would labour throughout the day and then sit down with pen and paper at night. My body would droop with fatigue. My guts would twist like burnt cobra in hunger, but I would keep writing page after page ignoring all the pain.
Ray Bradbury in his book Zen in the Art of Writing says, If you have to write with passion you need to have something original, something authentic to say. His philosophy is, “Every morning I jump out of bed and hit a landmine, that landmine is me; it explodes. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”
Manoranjan Byapari was born a Chandal, considered as among the lowest in Shudra caste and he says that you just cannot get out of what your birth has assigned you irrespective of your achievements. His autobiography Interrogating a Chandal Life – Autobiography of a Dalit won him a number of accolades. However the elite Bhadralok literati still shuns him. Even after being a writer for 20 years he was struggling to get a decent job and had to work as a cook in a shanty hostel. It speaks volumes about the Hindu caste-based hierarchy. He says, “I write because I cannot kill.”