'If we write in the language that we know best, we reach people’s hearts'
Tales of passion and grit, purpose and struggle, hope and change - stories that are borne of our motherland India and its people; we wanted to bring these regional stories and their writers into the limelight, spreading cultural diversity and celebrating their genius.
Under the ‘Eka’ imprint, launched as a language publishing program under Westland Publications in 2018, Mr. Manoranjan Byapari - an author of fiction and non-fiction - was one of the first ones to attain popularity for the English translation of his novel, There’s Gunpowder In The Air. The novel takes you back to the seventies and talks about deprivation and isolation in a communist Bengal as Byapari spins a fictional tale based on real-life events. It was shortlisted for some prestigious awards including the JCB Prize for Literature 2019, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2019, and Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Prize 2020, to name a few.
He has published 2 novels so far and will be coming out with his third one in September. In a rare interview, Mr. Byapari delves into his journey as an author, his art of characterization, and how he believes that regional writers are finally getting recognition for being exceptional, authentic storytellers.
How have your life experiences shaped you as a writer?
Well, I have always written what I saw around me; about the people around me, and because it was based on the reality of life, people liked it. The readers appreciated it and I have stayed on the battlefield for forty years.
Who or what was the inspiration for your book, ‘There’s Gun Powder in the Air’? What motivated you to write it?
When I was in jail, I was able to closely observe the youth involved in the Naxalite movement and I heard stories about those who had died during a jailbreak. I felt that those I had met in jail and those who had died a few years ago were all the same. Their names may have been different, but they were all the same. I heard a first-hand account of their efforts to escape from jail, and I could observe how those lodged at the same time as me in the prison spoke and how they behaved. So, I merged the two in my novel.
How did the Westland platform help you through their imprint ‘Eka’ to become a published author? Can you tell us an incident around any book that is very close to you, and has helped breakthrough?
Firstly, as far as Eka is concerned, I would like to convey my gratitude to them. I live in an area, you must come there sometime…though now that I’m an MLA, people have come to know me. But when Eka came to me, even the people in my village did not know that I was a writer. ‘Eka’ came and signed an agreement with me for my novel and then promoted it in the country and abroad. They even managed to get Naseeruddin Shah to interview me and made efforts for me to participate in prestigious seminars and festivals. Their efforts have brought me fame and visibility and I am thankful to them for that.
When Eka came to me, even the people in my village did not know that I was a writer. Their efforts have brought me fame and visibility and I am thankful to them for that.
Secondly, I have written every book straight from my heart. I haven’t written anything to merely pass the time and maybe that is why each book is precious to me. Now everyone is talking about There’s Gunpowder in the Air or my autobiography as it is being called. But one of my more recent novels, Chhera Chhera Jibon, is close to my heart. It will be out in English in September. It’s being translated by Arunava Sinha. I’m sure it will appeal to people who like to read more realistic literature revolving around people from the grassroots level. A famous Bengali poet, who passed away recently, had said about Chhera Chhera Jibon that there was nothing on this subject and in this style in Bengali literature. I am hopeful that the release of its English translation will bring about a shift in Indian literature as well.
Your work has been shortlisted for India’s richest prize, the JCB Prize for Literature 2019, and even the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Prize 2020. How do you think these awards have placed you differently on the map?
I’m grateful to the prestigious institutions like JCB and the Mathrubhumi Group and their juries. It is a big honor to make it to the top five. The previous winners of these awards were all well-educated, wise, and erudite people. It is a huge achievement for my book to be counted amongst theirs and for that reason, I consider myself a winner.
Can you briefly elaborate on your writing process? How do you develop the theme and the characters before you start writing?
The characters are all around me - I know them, see them, and I have lived the lives I write about. I put together four or five people and their stories together to make a novel. It can be four to five or even ten or twenty characters..and sometimes, there is just one character, but it is an amalgamation of many people I have seen around me. My stories are not ready-made, but they are based on real-life and the characters that exist in the world around us.
Mahasweta Devi encouraged me to start writing. But for her, I wouldn’t have become a writer.
Is there any author or person who has inspired you to write in a regional language so that you can reach out to more people?
No, there is nobody like that. Even if somebody had told me to write in a certain way, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I did what I could do. People have done so much better than what I have done, but I did not have the capacity to do better than what I have done. Had someone told me to write in this language or that one, I wouldn’t have been able to. Mahasweta Devi encouraged me to start writing. But for her, I wouldn’t have become a writer. But I could never imbibe her extraordinary writing style. In fact, I didn’t even try because I couldn’t have done it. I only did what I was capable of.
Apart from the importance that English enjoys, regional languages are equally significant. Do you think that local languages are getting the attention they deserve? Is there enough effort being made to get quality regional content out to people?
English is a language that helps you reach an audience worldwide. If your work is translated into English, then your message can reach anywhere. The reach of regional languages is limited to their respective territories. Regional writing can’t go very far on its own. If the content being produced in the languages is strong, then it deserves to reach a wider audience through translation. It will teach us something new, tell us something new, and therefore translating into English and other languages is very important. Translations have helped our regional writers expand their horizons.
What is your opinion on regional content? Of course, English has its own place, but people are interested in reading regional literature too. Do you think enough attention is being paid to promoting local languages?
Regional language writing in India is diverse and strong, and it needs to be promoted and taken across territories through translation.
As a writer, take me for example, I was born and brought up in Bengal and have spoken this language since forever, and therefore it is but natural that the ease and deftness with which I express myself in this language cannot come in another language. I believe if we write or communicate in the language that we know best, then we can reach people’s hearts. Regional language writing in India is diverse and strong, and it needs to be promoted and taken across territories through translation. Although I also feel that translation is a very challenging task and it is often not possible to recreate the source text a hundred percent in another language since some things get lost in transit. As for promotions through other means, I believe publishers are putting a lot of effort into awareness campaigns on print, online and social media platforms. There has been a revival of interest in regional languages.
What advice would you like to give aspiring writers, especially those who wish to write in their local language?
The answer to this question lies in my previous answer. My advice is that they should write in the language that they are comfortable in and that comes naturally to them. And every day, you should try and write better than the previous day. Just keep writing. Don’t think about who is going to publish it, but just concentrate on writing. There will come a time when people will come looking for you. Somebody who came from across the seven seas, from America, managed to find me, notwithstanding the back of the beyond the location of my home. If you write, and if you write well, then you will find your space. Push yourself to be better each day.
Having lived so many lives in one and then getting the opportunity to pen it all down, Manoranjan Byapari finally found his calling and the world, a brilliant Indian author with the gumption to tell real-life stories from rural India. Discover his books - The Runaway Boy and Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit - on Amazon.in. Available in English and various regional Indian languages; in Paperback, Hardcover, and Kindle editions.