Manoranjan Byapari: At 70, the rickshaw-wallah turned feted writer and MLA, is looking to the future rather than the past

Manoranjan Byapari, one of the first-time MLAs in the new West Bengal assembly, has led an incredible life. When he was born into a Dalit Namasudra family in erstwhile East Pakistan in 1950 or 1951 — he is not sure when — the Partition was still a work in painful progress. The process of politically-sanctioned ethnic cleansing — Muslims there, Hindus and Sikhs here — was still going on. Efforts by the Dalit leadership of East Bengal led by Pakistan’s first law minister, Jogendra Nath Mandal, to find a place for the community in Pakistan had come unstuck with the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Byapari’s was among the many families that ended up being driven out.

His childhood was spent in a refugee camp in West Bengal. His parents were dirt-poor and illiterate, and the story of his growing-up years is an unrelenting saga of hunger, illness and poverty. He himself was given up as dead one night but survived. After his sister died from starvation, he ran away from the hovel where they lived, and, working odd jobs at roadside tea shops and dhabas, and facing several kinds of exploitation in the process, including sexual, he made his way to Siliguri.

The Naxalite movement was then taking off nearby. Byapari was drawn to it. He had, however, returned to Kolkata, after five years of wanderings, and even found his family at a refugee camp when he was beaten to pulp by CPI(M) cadres who took him for a Naxal. Political violence in West Bengal has a considerable and complex history, and back in those days, it was CPI(M) goons that fought and killed Naxals, and vice versa.

The assault made Byapari a part of the Naxalite movement. His career in revolution, marked by violence, ended when an accident in bomb-making drew the police to his door. He was arrested and jailed. It was while he was in jail that he met a fellow prisoner who taught him how to read and write, using a twig as pencil and the floor of the jail courtyard as blackboard. He bought his first pen and paper with the Rs 20 he got for “donating” a bottle of blood.

Also read: The tour de force that is Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating My Chandal Life

Emerging from jail, he became a cycle-rickshaw puller and an avid reader. He used to ply his rickshaw near Jadavpur University. One day he was ferrying a passenger in his rickshaw and, troubled by a word in the book he was then reading whose meaning he did not know, asked her what is the meaning of ‘jijibisha’? The word, not used in ordinary spoken Bengali, means love of life. Byapari had unknowingly addressed his query to just the right person. His passenger was the great Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. Intrigued by a rickshaw-puller asking her for the meaning of this word, she peppered him with questions, and ended by inviting him to write a piece on himself for her literary journal. Byapari’s life took a turn.

His rise to literary fame has taken decades. During this time his day job, apart from rickshaw-puller, has mainly been that of a cook at a government school. He has written a whole shelf’s worth of books, among which his autobiography, Itibritte Chandal Jibon, published in English translation as Interrogating My Chandal Life, was awarded The Hindu Prize for non-fiction in 2018.

In the recently-held West Bengal assembly polls, Byapari’s remarkable story took another twist. The rickshaw-wallah turned writer entered politics, contesting the polls from Balagarh, a Scheduled Caste reserved constituency, on a Trinamool Congress ticket. He won and is now a Member of the Legislative Assembly. He is, however, done talking about his life’s extraordinary journey, keener now, at the age of 70, to look ahead than behind.

Byapari had not thought he would ever enter politics or become an MLA. “I thought about it when Didi (Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee) said you have to stand in the elections,” he says. “I thought that for so long I have written about people’s sorrows, troubles and pains, but I have not been able to solve any of their problems. Now if I am a part of the governing power, then I may be able to help poor people at least a little bit.”

But why Trinamool? “Did any other party ever trust me?” he retorts. “Did they ever give me any such offer? They never thought me worthy of doing anything better than washing dishes. I have capabilities and skills. Did they ever recognise that? Didi did.”

The assembly segment he stood from had voted strongly in favour of the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and Byapari had his work cut out. He campaigned with a slogan of “rickshaw will go to assembly”. The party’s big win, and his own, against a powerful rival, has however not quite satisfied him yet. “A terrible communal force has been halted, somewhat. Until it is eradicated, reduced to zero, how can we be satisfied?” he says. “It is a poisonous weed. If one root stays somewhere, a poison tree will grow from it again.”

The BJP whose communalism he calls “poisonous weed” has found its most fertile ground in West Bengal in his own community, the Scheduled Castes, and among the Scheduled Tribes. In the recent polls, it was in the reserved constituencies that the party’s performance was best. The reason for this, according to Byapari, who belongs to the Namasudra sub-caste of Dalits, is lack of education. “Among SCs and STs, the proportion of educated, socially aware, politically aware people is lower. Of the few among them who have acquired some literacy, many are cunning, greedy, selfish. They want to fill their own coffers even if it is by selling out Bengal,” he says. He illustrates this with an example from history. “When the Battle of Plassey was fought against Siraj ud-Daulah there were those of his own camp who helped the other side. That tradition of faithless betrayal is still continuing.”

The person he singles out for mention, however, is not a leader from the Dalit community. “This Suvendu Adhikari, could anyone imagine, after getting so much from the Trinamool, he would go and join hands with a force that is out to destroy the society, literature and culture of Bengal? He has attacked Mamata Banerjee in such disgusting language…What he did was betrayal,” says Byapari, of the TMC turncoat who narrowly defeated Banerjee from Nandigram.

Now that he is an MLA, Byapari has work to do. “The first thing I want to do is to get water to every house in Balagarh. Water supply is a serious problem there.” The problem of water shortage on the one hand is ironically accompanied by an opposite problem, that of land being eaten away by the Hooghly, which flows past Balagarh. “I want to do something about it,” he says. He also has a message for the people of Bengal, and all the people of the country’s Dalit samaj: “Unite against the fascist BJP, take a stand, and band together.”

The writer is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx