Bengali writer Manoranjan Byapari was announced this morning as the winner of the 2022 Shakti Bhatt Foundation. The prize, which was first announced in 2008 as the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, now recognises a writer for their body of work.
The 72-year-old Byapari, “is a refugee and a migrant, who paid his dues as a rickshaw-puller and sweeper. A member of the oppressed Namasudra caste, he was jailed for his politics – before he joined politics," notes the Foundation's Facebook announcement. As the winner, Byapari receives a sum of Rs. 2 lakhs, along with 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," says Mridula Koshy, writer and the winner of the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. "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,” adds Koshy, who is currently a trustee of the Shakti Bhatt Foundation.
An MLA from the Trinamool Congress Party in West Bengal since 2021, Byapari is the author of several works including the Sahitya Akademi Prize-winning autobiography, Itibritte Chandal Jibon. This was translated into English from Bengali by Sipra Mukherjee as Interrogating my Chandal Life. This year, How I Became a Writer, another part of his autobiography, too came out in English, translated by Arunima Chanda.
In it, Byapari talks about his encounter with the writer Mahasweta Devi, and how this started him off with writing. This journey has been dotted with various other literary recognitions. Among these are the Suprabha Majumdar prize in 2014, the Sharmila Ghosh Smriti Literary prize in 2015, and in 2019, The Hindu Literary Prize for non fiction.
Earlier this month, the English translation of one of Byapari's novels, Imaan, by Arunava Sinha made it to the 2022 JCB Prize long list. In 2019, another of his books, There's Gunpowder in the Air, also translated by Sinha into English, made it to the JCB Prize shortlist.