Artists are silent now on social issues, which is of grave concern, says author Manoranjan Byapari

Bengali author Manoranjan Byapari’s literary career began from a chance meeting with celebrated writer and activist Mahasweta Devi. A former Naxalite, prisoner, rickshaw puller and cook, Byapari has written several novels, short stories, poems and essays in the past four decades. He would pour out the stories of his aggrieved heart on paper for the […]

Artists are silent now on social issues, which is of grave concern, says author Manoranjan Byapari
He would pour out the stories of his aggrieved heart on paper for the people who were yet to be born, hoping it would generate a wave of change one day.

Bengali author Manoranjan Byapari’s literary career began from a chance meeting with celebrated writer and activist Mahasweta Devi. A former Naxalite, prisoner, rickshaw puller and cook, Byapari has written several novels, short stories, poems and essays in the past four decades. He would pour out the stories of his aggrieved heart on paper for the people who were yet to be born, hoping it would generate a wave of change one day. Byapari, who won the West Bengal assembly elections last year from Balagarh constituency on a Trinamool Congress ticket, talks with Faizal Khan about How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, the English translation of his 2016 Bengali novel Itibritte Chandal Jivan. Edited excerpts:

Your life and works have been aimed at questioning injustice in society and giving a voice to the poor. What has changed after winning the West Bengal assembly election and becoming an MLA?
As a writer, I used to listen to the struggles of Dalits and the poor and write about them in my novels, short stories and poems. I hoped to see their lives get better. Now, as a legislator I am able to do something to change their lives. Many Dalits and poor people come to meet me everyday. Sometimes I go with them to meet officials, sometimes I write to the administration about their problems. (West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress leader) Mamata Banerjee gave me the ticket to contest the assembly election because she knew I understood the problems of the common people.

Your 2016 novel, Itibritte Chandal Jivan, now translated into English as How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, spans a decade (2001-2011) of your life in Kolkata after you started working as a cook at the Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and the Blind in Khudirabad. That was a job you carried on for more than 20 years despite several adversities.
Ittibrite Chandal Jivan was my own life story. The first part (Interrogating My Chandal Life) began with my birth and traced my long journey through various incidents and ended at the point where I was about to join the Helen Keller school. The second part, How I became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, begins from my life at the school. I worked at the Helen Keller school as a cook for 22 years. I resigned last year to contest the assembly election. I wrote several books while working at the school. If there were more challenges, there were more writings. I still visit the school and meet my former colleagues. Those who rain blows on you forget about them, but those who receive the blows don’t.

Several of your novels are set for release this year as translations. How does your work as a politician compare with your life as a writer?
There are many in India who are writing about the sufferings of the poor. I dream of a day when the marginalised get a better life. Earlier I used to write everyday, but I am not able to do so after becoming a candidate and winning the election. This is a new life. Earlier I was outside the system, now I am inside and I see a lot of injustice. Being an MLA is not important; the work is important. I can also work as an ordinary party worker if required. In the assembly, I am a member of three standing committees, including on culture.

You first wrote in 1981 in the Bengali magazine, Bartika, edited by famous author and activist Mahasweta Devi, following a chance meeting with her when she was a passenger on your rickshaw. What has been the influence of Mahasweta Devi on your life and works?
Mahasweta Devi then taught at the Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri Law College and lived in a rented flat at Ballygunge in south Kolkata. Bartika had already received writings by people who worked as labourers on farms and as bricklayers and vendors. The lives of these people are filled with a lot of problems. She wanted to publish an article by a rickshaw puller and asked me to contribute. Nobody had asked me earlier to write. I hadn’t been to school. I started to write for Bartika and never looked back. Mahasweta Devi was able to recognise my inner strength. If she hadn’t met me and asked me to write, I would not have become a writer.

The caste system in India comes for a lot of criticism in your books.
I am a Dalit and I had to struggle throughout my life against oppression in the name of caste. When a temple is made, I am not allowed to enter. We are considered ‘untouchables’ in our own country. I had to stand up against this all my life. That is why I had to write against the caste system. And I will write again.

You don’t hold back against the Communists either.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) abandoned Communism when they came to power in West Bengal. Their biggest job was to bring revolution—change—which they didn’t do. Initially they said the big corporations were bad for society. After coming to power they promoted the big corporations. It is the same situation in the country today with a different party in power at the Centre which is more dangerous than the Communist party. At one time, artists undertook an important job to wake up the people. Now they are all silent. It is a matter of grave concern.

What are you writing now?
I have completed the last part of my autobiography in Bengali. It will be released during the Kolkata Book Fair in January next year. A collection of my poems in Bengali, called Manoranjan Byapari Ka 25 Bachai Kavita, will be published later this month. These are poems I had written earlier about aspiring for change in society.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

How I Became a Writer
Manoranjan Byapari
SAGE Publications
Pp 341, Rs 650

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.

Photos