“I have been loved by people from all over India, but the bhadralok in Bengal didn’t read my books”: Manoranjan Byapari, whose book has been shortlisted in the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature this year

Your book There’s Gunpowder in the Air (translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha) has been shortlisted in the $25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which is an international award to writers of any ethnicity or nationality writing about South Asia. It does not limit itself to books published in India, or authors who are Indian citizens, and a number of authors in the list of eligible submissions are not even citizens of a South Asian country. What does this recognition mean to you?

What I will say may be misconstrued as “pride”… you see, the family I was born into and the struggle I have gone through – going without food for days, snatching food from street dogs, faced with insult, humiliation – and now the honour that is being bestowed upon me… I would say that to be shortlisted for such an award is itself such a great honour! One can even call me an outsider here, an infiltrator among great writers… My books have been published in Bengali, however, they were never read by the bhadralok [gentleman, usually referring to the upper caste elite of Hindu Bengali society] because I am a chhotolok [referring to the working class, the subaltern]. They see me with a gamchha (towel) wrapped around my neck, and wonder how I can write books! The bhadra society here never noticed me… I would have been happy even if they had offered me a consolation prize. There are so many awards in West Bengal, but the bhadroloks didn’t want to offer the chhotolok opportunities for him to do well.

What has been the most significant turning point in your life? A lot of people know about your chance meeting with author Mahasweta Devi when you were a rickshaw-puller, and how you started writing. But you’ve continued to struggle even after that. Is the translation of your work into English and the recognition that is coming now, a far more significant turning point for you (considering you could finally quit your job as a cook earlier this year and started writing full time)?

I didn’t quit my job. The matter is pending before a medical board now. In the government-aided school where I work, I have to prepare food for 150 persons twice daily. I have appealed for many years to allow me to do work that is less strenuous at my age. I have diabetes, I have undergone knee replacement surgery twice… all this, and I am still alive! After such gruelling work every day in the heat, can anyone be left with strength or the drive to write? Still, I find no sympathy.

There can be many turning points in a person’s life. Had the chance meeting with Mahasweta Devi not taken place, had she not offered me the opportunity to write, I may not have written at all. After the first chance, I felt a push from inside that has given me strength to go on writing.

I read somewhere that you were hurt that after the first story, Mahasweta Devi didn’t publish any more of your works, and that you wanted her to help you get a job… but I don’t know if it’s true…

I submitted many more stories to her, but she didn’t publish them any more. She told me, “Manoranjan, I am not publishing fiction in ‘Bartika’ anymore…” But I noticed that she had published fiction by other writers. I was hurt. Bit by bit, I lost touch with her.

I started sending my stories to other publishers under a pseudonym, because I didn’t want them to know my real name and about my association with Mahasweta Devi because I feared they might agree to publish my story because of my association with her, and not due to the merit of the stories.

After many such stories had been published, and people knew about me, she called me one day and asked me to visit her place. Since then, I was in touch with her till the very end. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was very fond of her. And I requested her (Mahasweta Devi) to find me a slightly better job by recommending my name to the chief minister. I didn’t want a big job, I had only asked for work that could help me move away from the heat of the kitchen fire. But she didn’t do it for me. I know that she had helped many others, but she didn’t talk to the chief minister about a job for me.

Do you think a Dalit writer has the “responsibility” of being a voice of others like himself? Do you ever consciously think of your own writing being a representation of millions of voices that have never been heard?

I write about the working class and about those who refuse to bow down before social injustice – whether or not they are Dalits. When I write about Shankar Guha Neogi [founder of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, a labour union run in Dalli Rajhara Mines in Chhattisgarh] I am not writing about a Dalit person, but I feel an urge, a responsibility to tell his story and about his protests. Again, when I am writing on Guruchand Thakur [who worked in a campaign to have the “Chandal”s re-categorised as Namasudra, and under his leadership, the Matua sect was organised well and was associated with the Namasudra social protest movement] it is about a Dalit who has suffered due to class marginalisation. I am myself a Dalit. And do remember that there are divisions among Dalits too – there are boroloks (tie-wearing) and chhotoloks (gamchha-wearing) among Dalits: their problems are not the same.

The gamchha-wearing Dalits need food, clothes, education, home, medical facilities… and only after these have been met with, they can talk about respect. On the other hand, the tie-clad Dalits have got all of these, so they talk more about respect and equality with Brahmins and other upper castes.

But I believe that in order to fight a battle, you need food; a soldier cannot fight a battle on an empty stomach…

In Itibritye Chandal Jibon (translated to Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Sipra Mukherjee), you mention how the protestors used to be taken to a deserted area in a truck and left there, so they’d have to walk for hours in an empty stomach and wouldn’t plan another protest…

Right. I have always said (and written) that one cannot fight when one is hungry. Moreover, the opponent is stronger and devises cunning ways to break the resolve of angry protestors… The tie-wearing babus however, mention courts, changing the Constitution and laws in order to get more “respect” – and we differ from them on this basic premise.

I am a Dalit and poor. Moreover, I don’t know about the babu life, how can I write about it? It is not that I consciously write about Dalit life out of responsibility. I write about them because I know them. I know the rickshaw pullers – I know their sorrows and pains, I know about insults they face… I know about the lives of coolies, therefore these come into my writing naturally. I don’t have to go around looking for my protagonists and subjects.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air is set in Bengal under the backdrop of the Naxalite movement of mid-1970s. You build up an alternative world of a jail, a metaphor of state oppression. But though it is technically fiction, there is a blurring of genres (this is true for all your writing, it is part autobiography, part fiction, like an account). Do you intend to move away from this or is this what makes your work stand out? 

I haven’t gone through a conventional education system. I read somewhere that one shouldn’t attempt to be an author before reaching 40. For 25-30 years a person should absorb and assimilate knowledge and prepare to be an author… However, I never got the opportunity to do that. I don’t follow grammar in my writing. What I write sometimes becomes a story, if I make it longer it becomes a novella or a novel, and if I write as “myself”, it becomes autobiographical. My works don’t reflect influences of other authors because I haven’t read a lot. I have known Mahasweta Devi, but my writing is devoid of her influences.

I write what comes to me naturally. And if people still love it that way, why should I change myself? I don’t even want to read a lot because it might influence/change my style. But I will continue to learn about the lives of others… I talk to people, listen to them, and I write about it in my own simple way. I don’t want to unnecessarily burden my work with elaborate phrases and artificial style.


What are you writing now?

It is about some events between 2012 to 2019/20. I am writing it in fiction form but it is about the story of my own life, it is about a person moving from pillar to post looking for a different kind of work…

I have received awards, been loved by so many people, I have travelled throughout the country, but the people of Bengal haven’t cared about me. This is what I am writing in fiction form. The story ends when the protagonist goes to the house of the chief minister and returns the book for which he received an award given by the state government [Manoranjan Byapari received the Suprabha Majumdar prize awarded by the Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi in 2014. The Akademi is under the West Bengal government’s department of information and cultural affairs]. He tells the chief minister that if your plan had been to make me do the backbreaking work of a cook, why did you give me this award meant for authors? He refuses to carry the burden of the award…

Would you like to write for children? Don’t you think children and young adults who can read need to understand how privileged they are and how horrific some children’s lives can be?

I did try to write for children, but during the process of writing, it turned into something that only adults could find the courage to read. I think readers need maturity to be able to confront and endure the sorrow of the events of my childhood – where a child has nothing to eat, he has to work hard to earn, he snatches food from the mouth of a dog, he is made to work hard but cheated, tricked and abused. It would make a child immensely sad to imagine that such a childhood can exist for anybody… they should read it only when they grow up a bit.

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