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Manoj Das (1934-2021): Master storyteller

Print edition : May 21, 2021

Manoj Das (1934-2021) Photo: Suhani Gupta

Writer and educator Manoj Das (1934-2021) will be remembered, most of all, as a narrator and storyteller par excellence who belonged to, and reclaimed, the traditions of Panchatantra, the Jataka tales and Katha Sarita Sagar for contemporary needs.

In the passing away of Manoj Das, one of the finest bilingual writers of post-independence India, the nation has lost an original mind and creative voice in the world of literature, literary journalism, public culture and spirituality. Indeed, it would be hard to faithfully chronicle the diverse domains where Das excelled with equal ease and felicity. He acquired a magisterial stature in the course of more than six decades of active creative life. He was a novelist, short story writer, educator, editor, literary journalist, exponent of Indian culture and spirituality, a staunch believer in Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga and the future evolution of the human species. He was, most of all, a narrator and storyteller par excellence who belonged to, and reclaimed, the traditions of Panchatantra, the Jataka tales and Katha Sarita Sagar for contemporary needs. He saw no contradictions in creative self-expression in English and his mother tongue Odia, anchored to the rich repertoire of India’s bhasha traditions. He integrated the secular and spiritual traditions, the world of fantasy and realism through the magic prism of stories, legends and novels. For his creative writing, he chose essentially the form of the novel and short stories in English and Odia.

Manoj Das came from a remote hamlet of coastal Odisha. And yet, at the time of his demise, he was mourned widely by the world of literature and culture, politics and public service. He was given a State funeral thanks to his universal appeal and acceptability. Such was the reach of his writings, commemorated by novelist icons such as Graham Greene, R.K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond and critics such as K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar. His personality and public presence contributed to his public acclaim. Modest and affable, gracious and self-effacing, articulate and a believer in the culture of dialogue and civility in discourse, he spearheaded with a missionary zeal the value systems that have underpinned Indian civilisation over the millennia. These he saw manifest in the matrix of tales, legends and folklore, from the Puranas to the Jataka tales, from Vishnu Sharma to the village storytellers, all seamlessly woven together, all creating in the process the web of Indian life, effacing differences of all kinds. This, according to Manoj Das, formed the bedrock of Indian culture, diverse and pluralistic, with a set of core values that unified us all.

Also read: Odisha institutes an award for creative writing in English by Odia writers in memory of Manoj Das

Born on February 27, 1934, to Madhusudan Das and Kadambini Devi at Sankhari village in Odisha, Manoj Das grew up in Nature’s bounty (and devastations, too, like floods, famines and cyclones) that often act as the settings of his creative and critical work. After early learning at nearby Jamalpur and Balasore, he had higher education in English Literature and Law at Cuttack. While at high school, he wrote Samudrara Khyuda (“The Hunger of the Sea”) that attracted critical attention.

Attracted to radical causes, he became the president of the University Law College Union, Cuttack, general secretary of the Students Federation of India, Cuttack, and played an active role in the Afro-Asian Students Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1956.

Turning point

The radical turning point in his life came when after four years of teaching at the Christ College, Cuttack, in response to an inner call and inspired by the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, he and his wife, Pratijna Devi, joined the Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry (now Puducherry) in 1963, which became their place of work and spiritual life. At Pondicherry, under the care of the Mother, Das continued to write creatively in Odia and in English. He wrote regular columns on literature and culture in The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and The Hindu. He was invited to be an author-consultant to the Ministry of Education, Government of Singapore (1981-1985). He edited The Heritage (1985-1989) of Chandamama Publications and earned a name for himself and the magazine in discerning circles.

Manoj Das wrote prolifically; his works in Odia received wide recognition for the manner in which he combined fantasy with newer forms of social/magical realism hitherto unknown in the field of Odia literature. He began with poetry, and his first collection of poems, Shatabdira Arthwanadha, was well received. Other works in fiction and non-fiction followed: Amruta Phala, Laxmira Abhisara, Sesha Basantara Chithi, Godhulira Bagha, Kanaka Upatyakara Kahini, Samudra Kulara Eka Grama, Abolakara Kahani, Shesha Tantrikara Sandhane and Aranya Ullasa. Many of these were translated/transcreated into English, some by the author himself.

Some of his best-known works in English are A Tiger at Twilight, The Submerged Valley, The Bridge in the Moonlit Night, Cyclones, Mystery of the Missing Cap and Myths, Legends, Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India.

Chasing the Rainbow: Growing Up in an Indian Village (2004), a collection of memoirs, records the author’s childhood experiences in his remote village where the child protagonist “could run across a green meadow studded with palm trees, dreaming of catching the end of a huge rainbow spanning the sky”. He wrote: “Even the ghosts are not frightening in this place, and the journey to the alien world across the river filled with the possibility of romance more than terror”. Similarly, his novel Cyclones (1987) captures a world in a state of transition from the colonial days to freedom, showing “the feudal system crumbling at the advent of a new politics and a typical village suddenly changing into a hick town—seen through the trials and tribulations of its young protagonist”.

Also read: An illuminating life

The opening of his “A Farewell to a Ghost” suggests the characteristic manner in which a conversational tone is deftly used to generate interest in the spectral world, the world of the occult and the world of youthful romance. The narrative voice throughout remains playful, cavalier and humorous, creating a spirit of hilarity and fun at the cost of the unsuspecting characters. Fantasy is used here with a marked success. The result is less of horror in the conventional sense rather than one of ambiguity about the spectral presence in the context of human frailties. Das departs from the social realism of the legendary Fakir Mohan Senapati. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“It was on moonlit nights that the deserted villa looked particularly fascinating. From the river-bank we looked at it in long silences. When the fitful breeze made waves of the tall yellow grass around it, the house looked like a phantom castle floating on an unreal sea. Though pale, desolate and eerie, I must repeat, it was as fascinating as a fairy-tale world.

“Generally, we didn't talk during the night. But the next morning one of us would confide to another and we would all know by evening that he had caught a glimpse of the girl, standing on the broken terrace gazing at the moon or looking down at the river shedding tears which fell like drops of gold.

“It was nothing new, yet we were thrilled every time and would gather on the river-bank again the next evening.

“Any of us village boys would have done anything to help her in some way. But we knew we could do nothing. She was so near, yet she belonged to a faraway world. Besides, we knew only too well that we ought not to be too enamored of her. We had been repeatedly told about the gallant lad of a bygone generation who had fallen in love with her. There was a big banyan tree which stood in its mighty aloneness on the point of the river-bank closest to the villa. The lad had often slipped away from his home and climbed the tree. Settling down on a branch, he would gaze for long hours into a crumbling room on the upper floor of the villa through its weather-beaten window…

“Finally, one summer noon, throwing to the winds all the stern warnings of his well-wishers, the lad had crept into the villa, climbed the decrepit stairs and peeped into the room. Perhaps the girl was asleep, for it was said that she wept the whole night and slept most of the day, sobbing in her sleep.

“He should have behaved more prudently. Even a generation later we boys censored his rashness and pitied him. To be in love was risky enough. And to be in love with a ghost was surely dangerous. How could he ignore this fact?

“He had rushed up and kissed her before she could stop him. She had given out a shriek. Many had heard her sobbing and her mad babbling but that was the only time anyone had heard her shriek.”

It is these qualities, fantasy and humour of everyday life, that endeared Das to a whole generation of celebrity novelists and critics. The Straits Times, Singapore, noted: “Despite this... fantasy, a hardcore of realistic predicaments and problems underline his stories.” John Harvey of The Fantasy Society Bulletin wrote: “Manoj Das is one of these writers who can express in simple language items of considerable importance while entertaining you, while making you laugh and cry, happy or sad. Manoj Das is a rare person in today’s world.” Said The Sunday Times, London: “Pundit pomposity is enjoyably pricked by Manoj Das.” Another critic noted memorably: “Das’s forte is his conversation style married to a knack of reworking the classic ghost story. His favourite setting is the village and the small town; this is his natural element.”

The Ashram & the outside world

While Das continued his literary career, he was conscious and mindful of his twin lifelong commitments, to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and to his home State of Odisha. He continued his creative and critical ties with the world of Odia literature and culture and mentored the younger generation of writers. At Puducherry, he served the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in various capacities. With his life companion Pratijna Devi, he took care of the Home of Progress, a hostel for the children of the Ashram’s Centre of Education.

Also read: A life of commitment

In due course, he became one of the best faces of the Ashram to the outside world. He edited the Ashram journal Mother India for a while as the Assistant Editor and wrote extensively on the Mother and Sri Aurobindo in national and international publications. His research in the archives of London and Edinburgh in 1971 brought to light some of the significant glimpses of India’s struggle for freedom led by Sri Aurobindo in the first decade of the 20th century. He received the first Sri Aurobindo Puraskar for this pioneering work, offered by Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata. Most recently, in 2020, his biography of the Master, based on years of research, entitled Sri Aurobindo: The Life and Times of the Mahayogi was published by the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Puducherry. The Odia translation of Sri Aurobindo’s magnum opus Savitri, no small feat, was completed before his passing. He taught regularly at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Puducherry, and was Visiting Professor at several prestigious institutions of learning.

Accolades & Recognitions

The numerous accolades Das has received include the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Odisha Sahitya Akademi Award (twice), the Sarala Award, the Sahitya Bharati Award and the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad (Kolkata) Award. The Odisha Sahitya Akademi also bestowed on him its highest honour, the Atibadi Jagannath Das Samman. He received the Saraswati Samman, the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. The Sahitya Akademi conferred on him its highest honour, the Fellowship for lifetime.

Lasting legacy

“In our own times,” wrote K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, “the doyen of the Indian Writing in English, masters like Premchand, Masti, Mulk Raj Anand and Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer have made their mark as exemplars of this art. And Manoj Das is of the same class… His stories convincingly autochthonous have by their own Indianness, won for him a discriminating world audience.” One could not agree more.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, and former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.

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