Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Manoranjan Byapari is about the author documenting his life from life in East Pakistan to moving to India. When he arrived in India with his family he lived in Shiromanipur refugee camp. They try and make a life for themselves in Bengal but they lived in abject poverty and unable to feed themselves regularly. They were also at a social disadvantage for being Dalits. To escape these straitened circumstances Manoranjan Byapari ran away from home as a teenager in search of work. He got caught in the 1970s Naxalite movement in Calcutta. He was imprisoned. It was while in prison as a twenty four year old that he learned to how to read and write.
Here is an extract from the book describing the time he made a bomb. This is being published with the permission of the publishers.
Next morning, after our breakfast of parched rice, onions and chillies, Ahbali looked at me and said, ‘It’s your responsibility now. The powder is ready for the bombs. Tie up as many as you can.’
I stared at Ahbali in amazement. How had he known that I could tie bombs? Had I told Meghnad at some time? And then he had told Ahbali? I looked at the raw materials brought in and, making a quick calculation, I said, ‘This should make about twenty, I think. But how will I make so many alone?’
‘There is nobody else here who can do this,’ he said in a pleading voice. ‘You must try and do it. This is a job that will need bombs. We could have two thousand flies buzzing around us. The sound of the bombs will help to keep them away.’
I said, ‘But you told me the man was a scoundrel. Why should others come to help him?’
‘He is a scoundrel,’ replied Ahbali. ‘And they will not come to help. But we have seen, the richer the person, the more powerful the person, the more the people who surround them. Once we reach there, though, all of these people will vanish. They will stand at a distance and shout. At the most they will throw a few stones. We have seen this time and again. But it will not do to be too confident and go unprepared. We have to be careful. I have brought about fifty cartridges. With these twenty bombs, we can handle five thousand people.’ He paused for some time and said, ‘I have made a recce of the place. If we can just collect the jewellery worn by the women, it will add up to about a kilo.’
Bhuto’s sister had prepared the powder and Bhuto had sieved it through a piece torn from a mosquito net. Bhuto’s wife had neatly laid out a seat for me in a corner of the stable. Not just Bhuto’s family, but the whole village was now pushing towards a single yearned for goal. They had just had dedicated their minds, their hearts, their bodies to a dream. None of them knew anything about politics. Political philosophy and political theory about villages surrounding the city and the need to destroy class enemies were unknown to them. But they did know that they wanted to kill those who had stripped their women and brutalized them. In some sense, their desire appeared to me to be similar to that of the Naxals.
No hesitation or indecision clouded my mind any longer. If it were a sin to help so many people concretize their dream of revenge, so be it. I was willing to commit this sin again and again. I sat down to the job with a crowd of villagers standing or perched on the haystack as my audience, mixing the seemingly harmless reddish and white powders to construct a deadly instrument, one that when hurled at the enemy, would tear their bodies apart with a thunderous sound. In a large enamelled plate, I mixed the powders together with shards of glass, tiny sticks from fishing nets and iron ball bearings. As they watched me at my job, I could sense their intoxication mounting. Will kill them all. They have a lot to answer for. All I had taken was a bunch of bananas, and they beat me for a whole day. And then threw me in jail. I rotted there for two years. My wife ran away unable to bear the hunger. Will get them now.
Livid with anger, he struck a match to light a bidi. He did not get to the bidi. A spark flew onto the plate before me. There was an ear-splitting sound, and a huge ball of fire went up in billowing white smoke. The thatched roof of the stable was engulfed in blazing flames and splinters flew. Some who had been sitting on the haystack watching me were hurt. Their hurt was slight but people panicked and tried to rush out. The bomb that I had been holding in my hand fell to the ground and exploded. If the seven prepared bombs lined up at a distance caught fire, the blast would destroy all. There was complete pandemonium.
I managed to run out with difficulty and collapsed outside the stable. My right side which had been near the plate was charred. Burnt skin hung from my face and my hands and, peeping through the burnt skin, white as egg in colour, was my flesh. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder hit my nostrils.
Hearing the sound of the explosion and the shouts, Bhuto, Meghnad and Ahbali rushed out of the house. I was thrashing about on the ground, screaming in pain. But they had no time to tend to me right then. They rushed for water with whatever they could lay their hands on. Thankfully, the pond was right next to the stable. The fire was controlled before it spread any further. They picked me up then and lay me on a mat inside the house. Someone shouted for alcohol to be brought. They held it to my lips, ‘Drink. The pain will subside.’ I gulped down a large mugful of country liquor. The pain did subside, for within ten minutes, I lost consciousness.
Manoranjan Byapari Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit (Translated by Sipra Mukherjee) SAGE Samya, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 550
Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit is about the author documenting his life from life in East Pakistan to moving to India. When he arrived in India with his family he lived in Shiromanipur refugee camp. They try and make a life for themselves in Bengal but they lived in abject poverty and unable to feed themselves regularly. They were also at a social disadvantage for being Dalits. To escape these straitened circumstances Manoranjan Byapari ran away from home as a teenager in search of work. He got caught in the 1970s Naxalite movement in Calcutta. He was imprisoned. It was while in prison as a twenty four year old that he learned to how to read and write.
So from 1977 till 1981, my time was spent reading Katha literatures, folk literatures, translated literatures, travelogues, religious books. Some praised my dedication to books, some taunted me. I ‘bypassed’ all. None of their words many impact on me.
Once released he still had to earn his bread and butter, so began pulling a rickshaw. He would inevitably carry a book to read while waiting for passengers. One day he was parked outside the college where Mahashweta Devi taught. She emerged and sought a rickshaw and it happened to be Manoranjan Byapari. He had to quickly put aside the book he was reading — Agnigarba ( The Fire Womb).
A collection of short stories where every character was a known and familiar face to me. Every story had at its centre a protagonist who was a labouring man, who was a representative of the protest of that class, who was unwilling to accept defeat and who fought till death, then rose again to continue the fight. I had a particular affection for this author. Having been once accidentally drawn into the Naxalite movement, I had spent much time with them and heard the story of the martyred Brati, a character in her novel Hajar Chaurasir Ma ( The Mother of 1084). This book had endeared the writer to the Naxalites, who spoke of her as a maternal figure to them. Engrossed in reading, I suddenly awoke to the fact that my turn at the rickshaw line had come. The familiar figure of a teacher whom we all knew by sight stepped out of the college and approached us.
As luck would have it, the passenger was none other than Mahashweta Devi. Manoranjan Byapari still had not a clue but it was during the course of the journey that he asked her the meaning of a word he had read in the book — jijibisha ( the will to live) and struck up a conversation. Mahashweta Devi was impressed at how he had taught himself to read while incarcerated in Presidency Jail under the tutelage of mastermashai. She asked him to contribute to her journal “where working people like you write”. Just as she was leaving she gave him her address, to the shocked amazement of Manoranjan Byapari. He could not believe it that his passenger was the famous writer Mahashweta Devi.
The rest they say is history. Mahashweta Devi gave him his writing break. Since then he has published many novels, short stories, essays, and his autobiography, of two volumes, the first volume which has been translated and published by Sage-Samya. He has won the Anaya Samman given by the television channel 24 Ghanta, 2013, and the Suprabha Majumdar Smarak Puraskar of the Bangla Akademi of West Bengali in 2014.
In January 2018 he was invited to attend the World Book Fair (WBF) held in New Delhi and the Jaipur Literature Festival. At the WBF he was in conversation with Sanjeev Chandan*, journalist, author and social activist, and Anita Bharti**, teacher, writer and Dalit rights activist.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, Manoranjan Byapari was on a panel “Dr. Ambedkar and his Legacy” along with Chintan Chandrachud, Christophe Jaffrelot, and Sukhadeo Thorat. They were in conversation with Pragya Tiwari.
According to the translator, Sipra Mukherjee,
Byapari’s prose is urban and modern. Translating the language used by Byapari, therefore, did nto pose the many problems that are often faced when translating Dalit literature, where the language embodies its marginalization palpably in the earthiness of its dialect which cannot be kept in translation, which tends to be standard English. His prose is often driven more by action than by emotions. . . .
The English translation is shorter than 25,000-30,000 words than the original Bengali version but this has been done with the concurrence of the writer.
Now Manoranjan Byapari is so well-known as a writer that he shares an anecdote that happened in Hyderabad.
Once on an invitation I journeyed to the University of Hyderabad. I boarded an autorickshaw from the station, bound for the University Guest House. The driver of the auto was educated and well-informed. Upon hearing that I was from Calcutta, he wanted to know if I had heard of this writer from my city who drives a rickshaw, has never been to school, but who writes books.
Interrogating my Chandal Life will undoubtedly be a significant book in the landscape of Dalit literature. This despite the storytelling being written with a flourish that can prove to be fairly distracting with its verbosity. It is much like the writer himself who when speaking on a public forum is full of wisdom and fascinating insights but ever the performer— perhaps some of it has seeped into the written word too. Nevertheless read this seminal book for the history of Bengal and the plight of dalits it charts through Manoranjan Byapari’s testimony.
Update ( 3 Sept 2018): Manoranjan Byapari has signed a multi-book deal with Westland, an Amazon company. The figures have not been revealed but one of the translators working on the project is eminent Bengali translator Arunava Sinha. ( “Former rickshaw-puller inks big book deal“, TOI, 2 Sept 2018)
Manoranjan Byapari Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit ( Translated by Sipra Mukherjee) SAGE Samya, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 550
*Sanjeev Chandan is Editor of the leading feminist magazine Streekaal and founder of Marginalised Publications, an independent publisher that publishes Dalit-Bahujan literature and academic works on cultural and political issues. Formerly, Mr. Chandan was Hindi Editor at Forward Press, a bilingual magazine that looks at issues and interests from a Dalit-Bahujan perspective. His collection of stories, 546veen Seat ke Stree, was published recently.
**Anita Bharti is an author, a teacher and a well-known critic of Dalit literature. One of her important contributions is the book Samkaleen Nariwaad aur Dalit Stree ka Pratirodh, which received the ‘Savitribai Phule Vaichariki Samman’ award from Streekaal magazine in 2016. Another important work is the collection of poetry that she has edited – Yathastithi se Takraate Hue Dalit Stree Jeewan se Judi Kavitaayein. Ms. Bharti has been honoured with several awards, which include the Indira Gandhi Shikshak Samman and Delhi Rajya Shikshak Samman.