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Manoj Das—Marxist Odia writer who became Aurobindo’s disciple and hated ‘modernity’

Manoj Das was widely admired by his readers for his strong depiction of the lives of people in traditional Indian society. His works were known in particular for their fusion of realism and fantasy. This made him the most popular writer of Odia origin.

“Manoj Das was an interpreter of ancient lore, who, in his works, not only brought together the time periods but also the literary trends, from antiquity to modernity” Professor Rudra Thulasidoss aka Ilambharathi, a nonagenarian multilingual writer-translator who happened to translate Das’s novel Amruta Phala (The Divine Fruit) into Tamil for Sahitya Akademi, told ThePrint.

The bilingual writer

In historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, “There are those who are functionally bilingual; and others who are intellectually and emotionally bilingual.” Manoj Das belonged to the latter.

A few decades ago, when Das was writing in Odia, his mother tongue, he felt that Indo-Anglian fiction that claimed to portray Indian life was not doing justice to it. In his words, “It was an anxiety to project Indian life that motivated me to write in English.” His attachment to rural life was more natural, and memories of childhood from the villages of Odisha made him ‘present an authentic atmosphere of the rural life of India.’ This shows much more prominently in his memoir Chasing the Rainbow: Growing Up In An Indian Village, published in 2004.

Das made his debut as an English writer in 1967 through his short story collection titled A Song for Sunday and Other Stories. As an Indo-Anglian writer, he had won accolades from his peers such as Mulk Raj Anand and Ruskin Bond among others. He is celebrated for his works that include The Escapist, Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India, The Submerged Valley and Other Stories, The Bridge in the Moonlit Night, Cyclones, Mystery of the Missing Cap, Myths, The Crocodile Lady, Farewell to the Ghost, A Tiger at Twilight and Legends among others.

In fact, Das did not translate his works to another language. If at all he found the particular theme exciting, he would ‘try a fresh execution’ in another language. In an interview, he said “If I translated, I cannot be called a bilingual writer. By its very definition, a bilingual writer is one who writes in two languages. They remain basically the same, but since I am the writer, I can take liberty in changing them or reconstructing or elaborating a certain situation while rewriting it in the second language.”

Das has also written extensively for children. In an interesting encounter, he said that he did not have any idea about the Harry Potter series and its popularity among Indian children. It was in 2001 when children in the Indian English-speaking homes had become ‘Potterheads.’

Das was prolific. On top of these literary works, his columns appeared regularly in almost all newspapers—The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman. Between the 1970s and 1980s, he also contributed his stories to The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Imprint. He served as the editor of The Heritage, a cultural magazine published by Chandamama from 1985 to 1989.

“.. Written out of creative inspiration; some are written out of joy; some are out of a commitment to the society. The columns I wrote for the newspapers were motivated by the last,” he had said in an interview with Mother India in 1998.

The Western world had identified Manoj Das early in the 1970s. His works of literary fiction were published in Ascent, The Carleton Miscellany, and The New York Journal-American among others. Publisher Alan Maclean picked Manoj Das for editing an anthology for Macmillan in 1971.

Das was the first Odia writer to have won the Sahitya Akademi award for his short stories Manoj Dasanka Katha o Kahani in 1972, alongside Jayakanthan for Tamil. He was the only writer to have been awarded twice with Odisha Sahitya Akademi Award in 1965 and1989 for his works Aranyak and Kete Diganta (Part -I & II) respectively. He was the second writer to receive the Sarala Puraskar in 1980 after Surendra Mohanty. His Odia novel Amrita Phala won him the Saraswathi Samman award in 2000.

His major works in Odia include Sesa Basantara Chithi, Dhumabha Diganta O Anyana Kahani, Manoj Panchabinsati, and Tuma Gaan O Anyanya Kavita among others. Today, his works are available across multiple languages. Das had also served as a member of Sahitya Akademi’s general council between 1998 and 2002. The Government of India honoured him with the Padma Shri in 2001. He was also bestowed with one of the highest literary honours – the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship, reserved for ‘the immortals of literature’ in 2006.

Early life

Born in the coastal village of Sankhari in the Balasore district of Odisha in 1934, Manoj Das was a witness to the cyclone devastations, famines and plunders of the century. He spent his childhood in the villages, ‘allowing myths and folklore to cast a spell on him.’ His pen articulated his encounters, and thus, his first anthology of poems, Satavdira Artanada came out when he was just 14. In the following year, his short stories got published. Das is reported to have had an early influence from the works of Fakir Mohan Senapathy, the father of modern Odia literature. He had also said in an interview that he was inspired by Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara and Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra.

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Stalin’s follower to Aurobindo’s disciple

In school and college, Manoj Das was inclined towards the idea of Marxism. As a student leader, he led demonstrations and was jailed for provocative speeches in 1955. Following this, he was sent to Bandung in Indonesia to participate in an Afro-Asian students conference in 1956, where he escaped an attack by an anti-communist group. When he came back, he wrote Indonesia Anubhuti, a travelogue of this journey. Das was upset when he came to know about the ruthless actions of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Much later, when he remembered this, Das apparently had questioned “What if a believer in Stalin had died before the report (de-Stalinization report of Kruschev)? He would have died without knowing the truth, with the belief that Stalin was the embodiment of all that was good.”

He taught English at Christ College, Cuttack, for four years. It was during that time when he wrote A Trip to the Jungle (later made into a movie Aranyaka in 1994 by A.K. Bir) at a transitional point when he had lost his convictions on all political and philosophical beliefs. He married Pratijna Devi of Kujang royal scion. It has been recorded that a child was born to them who did not survive even a few weeks. Das had mentioned that it was at this juncture that his quest for the meaning of life led him to Sri Aurobindo. Following that, he and his wife arrived in Pondicherry in 1963. They taught English and Psychology respectively at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education here.

Manoj Das was critical of modernism and observed that the ‘pleasure-seeking’ attitude has defeated the true purpose of life. In an interview published in 2001, he laments “Human consciousness is dulled today by vulgarisation, consumerism, brutalisation of politics and values.” He also, on one occasion, mentioned that he did not like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. “Forty per cent of it is eroticism, it commits violence against the English language and is calculated to sell,” he had said.

Manoj Das lived and wrote from Pondicherry for more than five decades. The ailing writer passed away in the union territory in April 2021.

(Edited by Sukriti Vats)

Source: The Print

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