Manoranjan Byapari, who educated himself while in prison for participating in a tribal movement against feudal landlords, once worked as a rickshaw-puller and as a cook, is today the award-winning author of a dozen books and hundreds of short stories and is a member of the West Bengal Assembly.
One of the most prominent writers of Dalit literature in Bengali, the English translation of his searing exploration of day-to-day living in the Bengali novel “Chhera Chhera Jibon” has just been published by Eka/Westland as “Imaan”.
The protagonist, Imaan, enters Central Jail as an infant — in the arms of Zahura Bibi, his mother, who is charged with the murder of his father. He leaves 20 years later, having spent his time thus far shuttling between a juvenile home and prison. With no home to return to, Imaan ends up at the Jadavpur railway station, becoming a ragpicker on the advice of a consummate pickpocket.
The folk of the railside — rickshaw-pullers, scrap dealers, tea-still owners, those who sell corpses for a little bit of money — welcome him into their fold, but the world of the free still baffles him. Life on the platform is disillusioning, and far more frightening than the jail he knew so well. This free world too is a prison, like the one he came from, only disconcertingly large. But no one went hungry in jail — and everyone had a roof over their heads.
Unable to cope in this odd world, Imaan wishes to return to the security of a prison cell. He is told that while there is only one door out of prison, there are a thousand through which to return. Is Imaan — whose name means honesty and conscience — up to the task?
It’s a novel written in Byapari’s inimitable style, translated by Arunava Sinha, where irony and wry humour are never too far from bitter truths.
Byapari was born in the mid-fifties in Barishal, in the former East Pakistan that is now Bangladesh. His family migrated to West Bengal when he was three. They were resettled in Bankura at the Shiromanipur Refugee Camp and later were forced to shift to the Gholadoltala Refugee Camp in the 24 Parganas, where they lived till 1969.
However, Byapari had to leave home at the age of 14 to do odd jobs. In his early 20s, he came into contact with the Maoists and with the famous labour activist Shankar Guha Niyogi, founder of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha at the Dalli Rajhara Mines, who was leading a revolution to reclaim lands of the tribals from feudal lords who had captured them by unfair means.
Byapari was sent to jail during this time, where he taught himself to read and write. Later, while working as a rickshaw-puller in Kolkata, Byapari had a chance meeting with the renowned Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, who urged him to write for her journal Bartika. He has published 12 novels and over a hundred short stories since. Some of his important works include “Ittibrite Chandal Jibon” (memoir), the “Chandal Jibon” trilogy (novels) and “Motua Ek Mukti Senar Naam”.
Until 2018, he was working as a cook at the Hellen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Blind in West Bengal. In 2014, Byapari was given the Suprabha Majumdar Prize, awarded by the Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi. He also received the Sharmila Ghosh Smriti Literary Prize in 2015. In 2018, the English translation of his memoir, “Ittibrite Chandal Jibon” (Interrogating My Chandal Life), received the Hindu Prize for nonfiction. In 2019, he was awarded the Gateway Lit Fest Writer of the Year Prize.
The English translation of his novel “Batashe Baruder Gandha” (There’s Gunpowder in the Air) was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2019, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2019, the Crossword Book Award for Best Translation 2019 and the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Prize 2020.
He was appointed chairman of the newly-instituted Dalit Sahitya Akademi in Bengal in 2020. Several of his books will be appearing in Bengali, English, Hindi and Malayalam this year. Two of his novels will be published in the US by the independent publisher AntiBooks Club in the spring of 2022. Byapari was elected a member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly on a Trinamool Congress ticket in May 2021.