Pulling a rickshaw in the chaotic streets of Kolkata decades ago, Manoranjan Byapari had seen his life transform overnight after he asked a passenger for the meaning of a Bengali word. The passenger was the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi and the word was jijibisha (the will to live). Impressed by his interest in literature—Byapari had found the word in one of the books he was reading—the celebrated author of such books as Hajar Churashir Maa and Rudali encouraged him to write, paving the path for Byapari’s spectacular literary career.
Decades later, it is a message that has changed Byapari’s life dramatically-again. As the election fever gripped West Bengal earlier this year, the writer was surprised to receive a message from chief minister Mamata Banerjee. “Didi sent me a message, saying you have to contest the elections,” says Byapari, referring to the leader of the ruling Trinamool Congress and the state chief minister. “I couldn’t say no.”
Byapari, who was then the chairperson of West Bengal Dalit Sahitya Akademi, resigned from the post and entered the election field. When the results were declared last month in the state elections conducted in eight phases during March-April, Byapari won from the Balaghar constituency in Hooghly district, about 75 km from Kolkata, becoming a first-time MLA in the 230-member West Bengal assembly.
“In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) led by 36,000 votes in Balagarh assembly segment of Hooghly seat. I entered the contest aiming to take these votes back from the BJP,” says Byapari, who polled 45.63% of the votes to emerge the winner. He defeated the nearest rival, Subhas Chandra Haldar of the BJP, by nearly 6,000 votes.
A well-known writer and a strong Dalit voice against casteism, Byapari was a safe bet for the Trinamool Congress, which was facing tough competition from the BJP to remain in power. The campaign became intense after Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath came to address a rally in Balagarh. “Ordinary people and students were behind me. Didi came to address the election campaign in Balagarh and several Trinamool leaders and party intellectuals, too, sought votes in my name,” he says.
Situated on the banks of the river Ganga, Balagarh has a big farming community and a famous boat-building yard as well. “Balagarh is the home of the BJP because it was in Jirat town here that the family of (Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder) Shyama Prasad Mukherjee lived,” says Byapari, who was born in Barisal district of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) three years after Partition and lived in a refugee camp in West Bengal when his parents migrated to India.
The writer of best-selling books like the Chandal Jibon trilogy about displacement and despair, and Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit, Byapari moved from his home in Kolkata to Balagarh for the election campaign. Today, he has a permanent office in the town. “I live here now. At least 300 people come every day to meet me, most of them for telling me their grievances and others for congratulating me for the election victory,” he adds.
Byapari, who has taken oath as a new member of the state legislature, is waiting for the opportunity to deliver his first speech when the assembly convenes next month. Busy listening to the problems of the people in his constituency every day, he has identified three issues to be given top priority. “First, Balagarh faces a high content of arsenic in the water and it must be solved. Secondly, the people face a lot of problems due to the floods in the Ganga and we have to prevent it. Finally, we will develop the Sabuj Dweep (a picturesque river island) in the constituency as a major tourism spot in the state,” he says, listing his priorities as a lawmaker.
“He (Byapari) is doing a lot of work to solve the problems of people,” says Soman Biswas, a young Trinamool worker in Balagarh, who was involved in the election campaign since the beginning. “We need fresh voices in politics today. People-like Manoranjan Byapari-coming from different professions will give a more empathised point of view of people’s voices. For politics in Bengal, it is a good development,” says Arjunn Dutta, a Kolkata-based filmmaker.
Byapari, who worked in dhabas and washed plates, spent several years in jail for his association with the Naxalite movement in Bengal. A school dropout, he learned to read while serving time in prison. Out of jail, he became a rickshaw puller who always read books, and went to Chhattisgarh in the Eighties to work with labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi. After Niyogi’s assassination in 1991, Byapari returned to Kolkata to continue in his new avatar as a writer. Until recently, along with his colleagues at Khudirabad’s Helen Keller School for the Deaf and the Blind, Byapari cooked food for its 300 students every day.
Byapari says he will still find time to write in the middle of his new busy role as an MLA. “I have to write, but not like before.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer