An Indian who ferried passengers on his cycle rickshaw on the streets of Calcutta for most of his life to make ends meet has signed a multi-book deal with a premier publishing firm and is being hailed as a big literary find.
Manoranjan Byapari, 66, who is under the spotlight after clinching a staggering14-book contract with Westland Publications, an Amazon company, for an undisclosed sum, is also a former Maoist – or left wing extremist bent upon overthrowing the government through armed rebellion – and a low-paid cook in a shelter for physically handicapped students before luck smiled on him.
There are a few more colorful feathers in Byapari’s cap. He is a Dalit; which literally means the oppressed; or low caste Hindu. He migrated to Calcutta, capital of India’s West Bengal province, from erstwhile East Pakistan to escape grinding poverty, only to be thrown into prison for street fights even before he became a Maoist.
“The contract with Westland for translating 14 of my books into English is definitely a milestone” Byapari told Al Arabiya English in an interview. “But I am not overjoyed because I have failed to change society through my writings which is my primary objective. I have got fame and some money but my efforts of create an exploitation-free, socialist society haven’t been successful at all. So my joy is tinged with sadness”.
He emerged as a Dalit writer-activist in Bengali since the early 1980s, penning more than a dozen novels and over a 100 short stories - even as he toiled day after day to earn a living through manual labor. He recently told an interviewer that most of his fictional characters – “a rickshaw puller, a vagabond, a prostitute, a beggar with a mellifluous voice who sang for alms, a helper in a lorry, a thief called Bhagaban” – were just like him.
He acquired quite a following although established publishers – the preserve of the upper castes – shunned Byapari who fell back on fringe publishing firms and used his imagination to market his own books against great odds. In 2014, he bagged the prestigious West Bengal Sahitya Akademi Award for remarkable portrayal of working class life and struggle.
2018 has turned out to be the best year in Byapari’s mind-boggling career. Two of his autobiographies are being translated into English to give the whole country a taste of his genius. Moreover, he was invited to the World Book Fair in New Delhi and the Jaipur Literary Festival where he was a big hit with readers, publishers and even a Bollywood director culminating in the mega 14-book deal with Westland.
According to Arunava Sinha, who is translating Byapari’s Batashe Baruder Gondho (There is Gunpowder in the Air) for Westland, the Jaipur Literary Festival proved to be the turning point in the former rickshaw-puller’s life.
But even at 66, the fire still burns inside Byapari. Asked to explain why he writes, he told an interviewer: “I write because I can’t kill. When a kid is raped in Kathua or a man is punished for using his village well, I feel like shooting. But I can’t, so I write and kill the villain.”