Engrossed in reading, I suddenly awoke to the fact that my turn at the rickshaw line had come. The familiar figure of a teacher whom we all knew by sight stepped out of the college and approached us. She was not alone. There was a young man of about twenty-five with her. I flipped the pages and, seeing that only about six or seven pages were left, asked the man behind me to take this passenger. I would take the next one.
“Oh, get off your high horse,” he answered angrily. “Trying to be clever and shirk the load of two passengers! You take what fate has given to you. I will take what comes to me! We are all suffering the heat. Put your book aside and work!”
What fate has given to me? That is true. Otherwise why should she come to be my passenger today?
I got up and unwillingly pushed the book under the seat. Though the sun was dipping westwards, the heat was tremendous. My body was drenched in sweat.
The streets were more crowded than usual. It was a Saturday and the schools and colleges had just got over, and the homebound students filled the roads. The elderly woman who came and stood before me now had greying hair, spectacles, and a bag at her side. Her face was serious and she looked the teacher that she was.
She would go to Jadavpur. It was midway through the journey that I remembered this difficult word I had come across in a book by Chanakya Sen some days back: jijibisha. Nobody had been able to tell me the meaning. So I asked her.
“Didi, if you don’t mind, can you tell me the meaning of jijibisha?”
She must have been surprised at the question. For she said:
“Jijibisha means the will to live. But where did you get this word?”
“In a book,” I answered.
A silence followed. There was no way I could see her face as she sat behind me on the passenger seat.
Then she asked, “How far have you studied?”
“I have not been able to go to any school.”
“Then how did you learn to read?”
“I learnt a little on my own,” I said.
The wheels turned and we moved closer to our destination.
But which wheels were really turning? The rickshaw wheels or the wheels of my destiny? Which moved forward? Was it just my rickshaw or was it me? Moving from a nameless life of darkness and humiliation to one of dignity and respect?
Then she said, “I publish a journal where working people like you write. Will you write for me? If you do, I will publish it.”
I had believed that those whose names illuminated the cover pages of books, those whose voices we heard on the radio, those whose faces floated on the television screens were all people of a different planet. They did not eat, sleep, go to the market, or walk down the streets like us. They did not, most definitely, drive rickshaws. And here was this lady promising me such a reality?
“You will print my writing?”
“Yes, that’s what I said. Will you write?”
“But what will I write about?” I said.
“Your life as a rickshaw-wallah,” she answered. “How you came to this job, how much you earn in a day, whether that is enough for your family. Will you?”
“I have never written before,” I replied nervously. “But I will try. If I find I can, I will bring it to you. Will you give me your address?”
We had reached Jadavpur by now. She got out a pen and paper, scribbled some words onto it, and handed it to me.
“Here,” she said.
My world began to sway when I read what was written on the slip of paper.
“You?!” I exclaimed in surprise.
“Do you know me?”
I know you very well, O great writer! That knowledge is born out of the blood and sweat of struggle, protest, resistance and fury. It is the fury with which your pen flashes like a sword for the exploited and defenceless people. Your story Draupadi drove me to hunt for her rapists so I could kill them. If not them, then somebody like them. Of course, all this remained unuttered. I said, “I have read your books. Your Agnigarba is right here.”
And I pushed aside the seat to draw out the book.
I do not know what thoughts went through her mind as she stood with the book. But I seemed to read a rare satisfaction on her face. It had possibly brought her happiness to find that the labouring masses for whom she wrote her books acknowledged and read her writing with devotion.
As for me, I was by then beside myself with excitement. My heart beat wildly, my body trembled, my mind trembled, my life trembled. I was having difficulty in holding myself upright on my two legs. I could not hold my head up high. It bowed of its own accord towards this woman and I prostrated myself at her feet. We get many chances in life to hold our heads up. It is the opportunity to bow our heads that comes but rarely in our lives. The child who had sated his thirst on a mother’s breast milk many summers ago in a makeshift schoolroom, was now in front of that swan-borne deity. Was not Mahasweta another name for Saraswati?
She asked me to come to her the next morning and to have lunch with her. Her bus had arrived and as she boarded the bus, she waved to me, a gesture of divine assurance.
The next day, I reached her house before seven. Her home was on Ballygunje Road. I climbed up the winding stairs, rooted in the soil where was nature’s plenty: flowers, fruits, also weeds, reptiles and insects. But whose other end stretched up into the promise of an endless space, immeasurable, where lay hidden the yet unknown future. The stairs creaked and welcomed me in their own language. By the time I had reached her door on the first floor, I felt I had reached my life’s pinnacle. Her voice answered my timid knocks.
“The door’s open. Come in and sit, Madan.”
She had not seen me, but she knew it was me. The mad man yesterday, who would not be able to sleep a wink at night, and would come rushing the moment morning broke. This was the room where she wrote. A table and a chair, with her pens and paper on the table. She arrived in ten or twelve minutes. Today was Sunday. A holiday. Many others began to drop in and she introduced me to everybody as a writer.
“This is my new writer, Madan.” Writer.
And then began the most difficult period of my life. A battle far more difficult than fighting with pipe guns and bombs. A struggle worse than I had ever known.
One line snaked up onto the other line. I found words spelt differently in different places. How was I to know which was the right one? Which word set where in the sentence made the sentence both comprehensible and grammatically correct? I wrote on the pages. And then I tore them up. I ran through some reams of paper and some litres of kerosene, and bunked my work for some days before I was more or less satisfied with what I had written. Entitled I Drive Rickshaws, it was published in the January-March 1981 issue of Bartika.
Mahasweta Devi was not just a writer. The poet Manish Ghatak’s daughter, the film director Ritwik Ghatak’s niece, dramatist Bijan Bhattacharya’s ex-wife, she was a personality established as a significant form of resistance. After my name appeared in the journal edited by her, a reviewer for the Jugantar newspaper put in two lines of praise for my writing. Then in her weekly column “So near yet so far”, Mahasweta Devi wrote, “Madan is a great fellow. He drives a rickshaw, he writes...” This made my name known and many periodicals from the city and the suburbs began asking for my writings. I became famous as the rickshaw-wallah-writer. All this stoked my enthusiasm and gave me confidence.
Yes, I could write.
Excerpted with permission from Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit, Manoranjan Byapari, translated by Sipra Mukherjee, SAGE Samya.