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‘He’ll fight … but under no circumstances will he run away’

  • Published at 03:50 pm October 2nd, 2021
Manoranjan bayapari

In conversation with Manoranjan Byapri

Rifat Munim

In the second episode of Adda: All about Books, a new platform launched by Dhaka Tribune, acclaimed Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari talks about his most recently published book in English, The Runaway Boy, translated by V Ramaswamy, as well as different aspects of literature. Excerpt from a slightly abridged and edited version of the original transcript translated into English:

Rifat Munim: Your novel is mainly about the life experiences of a boy named Jibon. We also meet Jibon’s father Garib Das in Barishal, erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). One of Garib Das’s cousins who, while on a business trip to Assam, fell sick on the way and was abandoned by his own people. A Muslim man takes him home and nurses him back to life. When this was revealed, a communal riot broke out and as a result, Garib Das, along with many other Namashudras, has to migrate to India where they become refugees. In the second part of the novel, we see Jibon facing riots and how he feels that the rioters, whether Muslims or Hindus, behave like beasts as opposed to humans. It would be nice to know how these riots, together with your own experience as a Dalit boy, have contributed to shaping your literary perspective?

Manoranjan Byapari: First I want to say, I am not educated in the customary sense. I never went to a school. Nor did I ever learn how to write fiction. So what I really intended to do was to describe a few events and experiences from my own life. People from all walks of life and different social upheavals, in the process, found a place naturally. Now I am not sure how much literary value my writing contains. In fact, there are some disagreements and debates about this among readers. But there are harsh truths in it. Some of those truths I have revealed through my father’s eyes. During the riots that happened in East Pakistan, I was just a kid. So I heard about those from my father and others. Whether by hearing from others or witnessing it myself, my realisation is that such riots never benefit ordinary people; they rather become the biggest victims. So people like us should always stay away from communal violence because in the end it will harm us the most. 

RM: When you came to Bangladesh to attend the Dhaka Lit Fest in 2019, a session was dedicated to your book, There is Gunpowder in the Air, translated by Arunava Sinha. In the session, you were interviewed by eminent Bangladeshi poet Kaiser Haq. In an answer to a question, you said, “Truth has a power of its own. So when a writer writes about the truth, they don’t have to think a lot about stylistic or rhetorical aspects.” Would you care to elaborate on this?

MB: Those who want to learn how to write should read the fictional works written by renowned authors. While reading, they should try to understand how they write and why this writer has become famous. So the grammar of writing they should learn from such authors. But that’s not how I learnt about writing. I had no idea that I’d become a writer. Walking through life, I had to endure one shocking experience after another. My body was bloodied and battered in the process so many times. I traversed certain paths to arrive here and I have some failures and some successes. So I won’t be able to give aspiring writers useful tips. To them I have just one thing to say: if you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader first. If they spend four hours over writing, they will have to spend eight hours over reading. If they combine their own life experiences with the lessons from their readings, they can become good writers.

My story is different entirely. I could become neither a good reader nor a good writer because I never got the time one needs to become a good reader. Waking up every morning I had to rush to the place where I worked from early morning till 9pm or midnight, to earn a living. 

RM: The Marxist literary tradition in Bengali is very strong. In this tradition, writers usually bring out the lives and perspectives of lower-class and lower-caste people, such as fisherfolk, labourers, wage earners etc. What we see happening usually is that educated writers from middle- or higher-class backgrounds write about the lives of poor, destitute people. The lone exception is perhaps Adwaita Malla Barman who himself was from a fisherman’s family. It is only recently that we see a different trend emerging on a small scale. So this is something of a new phenomenon for us that we’re getting fiction in which the experiences of Namashudra communities are being written about by someone belonging to that very community.

MB: In Bangladesh there is a writer who has also come from a fisherman’s family.

RM: Harishankar Jaldas.

MB: Yes, Harishankar Jaldas. He’s written an excellent novel about fishermen’s struggles. 

In our Bakura, there is a writer from the Baul community; his name is Joydev Baul. He’s written an extraordinary novel about his own community. So when one writes about the lives and experiences one knows so closely about, the writing and description turn out to be appropriate. But when one writes about experiences he has to imagine, chances are many of those details will be inaccurate. Even then, readers who have no real idea about those experiences or realities may like them. But when someone from those downtrodden communities, in course of time, get access to education and eventually read the book, he may ask questions about those inaccuracies and many other details, which may cause unease among the fans of that big writer. 

For example, in different forums and circles, I raise questions about Manik Bandypadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi (The Fisherfolk of the Padma). Upon becoming familiar with some of Marx’s writings, I read this novel and quite liked it. But then the Dalit consciousness gradually developed in me. After that I read the book for a second time and to my utter dismay, I found out that there were no characters who upheld the dignity of the Dalit people. Faced with an allegation of theft, Kuber leaves her sickly wife behind and runs away from home and on his way he takes his sister-in-law along. People in our communities are usually not like this. Even if some people are like this, they should not find a place in literature. In literature, only the representatives of a group should find a place. Illegal or unethical activities are part of a society and those are committed by people from all sections of that society, not just by one particular section or group. 

If I were to write this novel—many may think this as a mark of my arrogance but I’m saying this just for the sake of argument—if I were to redress the wrongs in terms of characterisation, I’d recast Kuber as a character who shall not run away, who shall rather fight back because he’s not committed any crime. Kuber’s situation has taken a turn for the worse, so it is not altogether implausible that he has decided to run away but when the boat is in the middle of the river, he shall tell the boatman to row the boat back to the shore because he’s changed his decision and now he wants to fight against acts of oppression. He’ll fight and he’ll either fall or keep standing but under no circumstances will he run away. 

Then there are books, especially autobiographies, written by Dalit writers, in which the writers are not brave enough to reveal their flaws; they try to portray themselves as flawless heroes, which is why their works are not well received by readers. So one has to portray the accurate picture with absolute honesty, only then readers accept a book.

Also Read: Gunpowder, prison and plot

RM: There was this writer in Bangladesh named Qayes Ahmed who was born in West Bengal, India but who migrated to this part of Bengal after India’s partition. In one of his articles, he, too, has said that the fishermen in Padma Nadir Majhi do not appear to be as lively and plausible as those in Adwaita Malla Barman’s Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (Titas is the Name of a River). 

Moving on to the next subject, there are many ways of writing fiction. Some adopt modernism, some postmodernism while some others make use of magic realism. Except magic realism, almost all of the modernist approaches are based on European models or notions of fiction. But recently we are witnessing a growing tendency to reject European models of fiction writing in favour of non-European ones. Interestingly enough, your fiction is devoid of any notion of European modernism. Is this because you stayed outside the education system? 

MB: As I never went to school, I did not read all the major works by writers such as Bankimchandra, Rabindranath, Sharatchandra, Tarashankar etc. Yes, I read many of their works. At different literary addas and forums, those who want to humiliate me often ask me if I have read this or that writer. When I say I haven’t, they feel satisfied and their conviction that I am an ignorant person is confirmed. I was one of the biggest fans of Mahasweta Devi. I couldn’t even finish all her books because I never got the time. Be that as it may, I was always very conscious that I should not be influenced by any other writer, so that no one could say that I wrote like another writer. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t read as much as I’d have liked to. I read whatever I could lay my hands on: from rail stations and stalls at the foot of banyan trees, I collected newspapers, Swapankumar’s books and also almanacs and booklets on flora etc. That’s how I believe I succeeded in developing a writing style of my own. If my first book was not given a warm reception by readers, I think my writing career would have ended then and there. But it was loved by readers and that’s why I continued writing. 

RM: After you were released from jail, you had a chance meeting with renowned writer Mahasweta Devi while working as a rickshaw-puller. I think it would be great to know once again how she influenced you to become a writer.

MB: She didn’t ask me to write thinking I’d become a writer one day. She edited a literary magazine called Bartika. She had been trying to turn it into a different kind of literary exercise, which was to invite ordinary people like labourers and wage earners to write about their own experiences in their own language. While reading a small, worn-out book, Pita Putroke (Father to Son) written by Chanakya Sen, I encountered an unfamiliar word—‘jijibisha’. I was looking for its meaning but no one could help me out. One day she got on my rickshaw. I thought she was a professor, so she might know. I asked her if she knew the meaning of the word. She asked me back where I had found this word. In a book, I replied. She asked what class I finished in school. I never went to school and I taught myself to read, I explained. After that I mentioned eight to ten books that I had read and four or five of them were written by her. 

There was a reason why I read so many of her books. When I was in jail, the people I made friends with were Naxals and they loved Mahasweta Devi and discussed her novel, Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084); they recited Nabarun Bhattacharya’s poetry and sang Pratul Mukhopadhyay’s songs. She then invited me to write for her magazine, saying people like me were writing in it. I had never tried writing anything before. I asked her to leave me her address, and said I’d drop the piece off to her place if I could finish it. She wrote her name and address down on a small piece of paper and that’s when I realised the woman I was speaking to was Mahasweta Devi. What was more surprising, leaning against my rickshaw seat just a while ago, I had been reading a book called Agnigorbho (The Womb of Fire), which was written by her. 

When I was at the front of the rickshaw-pullers’ queue, I had 10 or so pages left to finish the book. It was then Mahasweta Devi appeared along with one of her students. It was my turn to get passengers. But I requested the rickshaw-puller who was behind me to take these two passengers. I wanted to finish the book first. He thought I was tricking him into taking two passengers. So he said my ploy wouldn’t work and that one had to take what destiny had in store for him. That rickshaw-puller said it was my destiny to take those passengers. It’s a religious dictum for him. But I also believe that it was my destiny to take her as a passenger. I defy the norms of race, caste and religion; I am kind of an atheist but then that’s how I realised how destiny worked. If Mahasweta di didn’t get on my rickshaw that day, there wouldn’t be the writer named Manoranjan Byapari and you wouldn’t interview me today.

A lot of people like me had written in Bartika. But they hadn’t survived the onslaught of time. The reason why I hadn’t vanished was, after my article in Baritka was published, it was reviewed in a newspaper called the Jugantor. A lot of students and teachers of Jadavpur University came across the review. JU was along the road where I pulled my rickshaw. It so happened that some of the professors started asking after me. Students, too, began to show up; they requested me to write for their little magazines. They asked me to write about different topics: my jail life, partition, refugee camps etc. That’s how I continued writing. I also realised that the lack of dignity that a rickshaw-puller’s life comes with was changing; no one really respects a rickshaw-puller but now people, from other rickshaw-pullers to those regarded as Babu, were treating me with respect. 

RM: Both in Bangladesh and West Bengal, mainstream literature is celebrated and has the biggest market. I think mainstream literature has flourished more successfully in Kolkata. Popular literature, or literature that will sell, has a big market there. You also mentioned just a while ago that there were many in literary circles who tried to expose you as an ignorant person. So, anyone can tell that it was not easy for you to find a footing in the publishing world of Kolkata, and that this journey, too, had a story of its own. If you shared a bit of that story …

MB: You are aware that as a writer I won quite a few big literary awards including the Rabindra Puroskar, the Bangla Academy Award and the Hindu Prize. Even then none of the big newspapers or publishers have asked me to write for them. These are newspapers and publishers that, as you pointed out, bring out articles or books by the majority of writers. I always had to rely on small publishers. Until Amazon had showed interest in my writing, I was sort of excluded from the literary world in Kolkata. Most of the people from this world used to ridicule me, saying the flame of my writing would die down in a couple of days. This prediction that my writer’s zeal would die I have been hearing since the year 1980. The leading literary circles have never tolerated me or bothered to acknowledge me. I heard a prominent university professor who taught at Jadavpur University say to his friends that my writing was too bad to be read. But I didn’t give in to these pressures. I continued fighting through my writing and now I am here.

RM: That many vernacular literatures from the South Asian countries are being translated into English cannot be overemphasised. English translation of your fiction and nonfiction is proving this even more. It was only after these translations were published that you started getting recognition from every corner of India and beyond. 

MB: I’d say, why only in English? Every work of literature should be translated into all the other languages, like English, French, Chinese. In much the same way, works written in those languages should also be translated into Bengali, so that the range of literary exchange is widened.

(Translated  by Rifat Munim. To watch the full conversation, visit:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=HiFKDfCTEq8&feature=youtu.be )















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