Author Manoranjan Byapari is the winner of the 2022 Shakti Bhatt Book Prize. A chance encounter with renowned Bengali author Mahasweta Devi, while he was on his rickshaw-pulling duty, started Byapari on his writing journey. Devi, who became Byapari’s mentor, published his first essay Rickshaw Chalai (I Pull a Rickshaw) in her magazine Bartika in 1981.
The Shakti Bhatt Book Prize, which came into being in 2008 as the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, honours the winner with a cash prize of Rs 2 lakh and a trophy.
“His writing bears witness to the violence meted out to refugees, to Dalits, to the working class, often with reference to the unbearable reality of hunger. Starvation as it occurs on the first day and as it occurs days later and as it occurs without reprieve is a recurrent theme in his work. The empty belly resides not only in a body but also in a caste and a class and in a land otherwise marked by plenty. Byapari’s writing isn’t only about the harrowing loneliness of the human experience, but also of the particular quality of loneliness suffered by a class or caste expelled from society as punishment for merely existing,” says Mridula Koshy, winner of the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize for If It Is Sweet, and a current trustee of the Shakti Bhatt Foundation.
Following the announcement, Byapari wrote on Facebook, “This is big news for me and those who love me.” In a follow-up Facebook post, Byapari said that the prize money will be used to buy an e-rickshaw for a poor driver whom he knows.
Byapari is the author of more than a dozen books in the Bengali language, including his autobiography Itibritte Chandal Jeeban. Five of his books have been translated into English, including two volumes of his autobiography – Interrogating My Chandal Life and How I Became a Writer; and three novels – There’s Gunpowder in the Air, The Runaway Child, and Imaan.
Apart from this year’s Shakti Bhatt Book Prize, Byapari has also been honoured with several literary awards. In 2014, he won the Suprabha Majumdar prize awarded by Paschimbanga Bangla Academy. He received the Sharmila Ghosh Smriti Literary prize in 2015. The translation of his autobiography Interrogating My Chandal Life won the 2019 The Hindu Literary Prize in the nonfiction category. Arunava Sinha’s translation of Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature in 2019 and this year, Imaan (also translated by Arunava Sinha), has been longlisted for the same.
Byapari who is hailed as West Bengal’s first Dalit writer was elected as the MLA from Balagarh constituency in 2021. He represents the All India Trinamool Congress in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.
Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is the editor of Books and Ideas section of Scroll.in.