Inspiration Is His Polestar A Tribute to India’s Foremost Bilingual Creative Writer Manoj Das
The year was 1956. The entire state of Orissa was in turmoil because the States Reorganisation Commission rejected its claim on two feudatory states, Saraikela and Kharsawan. Cuttack, the major city of the state was most affected and the agitators tried to paralyse all Central Government institutions.
Among the youth leaders spearheading the agitation was Manoj Das. It was under his leadership that the All India Radio was rendered defunct. The Action Committee chose him to lead the gherao of the Reserve Bank the next day. As he was proceeding to the site in the morning, the police pounced upon him. He was led to the Lalbagh Police Station and locked up. A magistrate came and his arrest was formalised. But the police did not risk leading him to the prison during the day as a mob gathered demanding his release.
At noon a young officer, obviously of the rank of IPS under whose jurisdiction the Police Station was, arrived and greeted him with smiles. “Come for lunch, please,” he said as another officer unlocked the cabin. The prisoner was led to a lonely veranda. On a table was spread out his lunch—superfine rice, half a dozen alluring items and curd and sweet.
“I never imagined that your captives are treated to such delicacies!” softly exclaimed the prisoner.
“No, they are not. But my wife decided to avail of the chance to convey her appreciation of your writing by cooking a meal for you,” explained the jolly officer as he sat down near him and waived a hand fan.
Manoj Das, who has since received numerous accolades including the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Saraswati Samman, the Padma Award, D.Litt. (Honoris Causa) from about half a dozen universities and the status of Professor Emeritus from another, Fellowship of the Akademi which is “reserved for immortals in literature”—the list is long indeed—says that he considers that lunch at the Police Station to be his first and the most memorable reward.
Manoj Das, who had won the rare distinction of being a successful writer in two languages—his mother-tongue Odia and English—is recognised by many as an authentic artiste in depicting the true Indian genius in his fiction, without subscribing to the lure of selling India’s misery or titillating the readership with voyeurism. Regarding one of his novels, The Escapist, observes Dr. HP Shukla, Professor of English, Kumaon University and a distinguished critic, “At a time when there is no dearth of India-baiters, Manoj Das shows an extraordinary courage in making a fake god man his hero. Using a rare insight into the nature of reality he then goes on to tear the veil of appearances and shows how behind the so-called spiritual fakery of which India is accused are seen the sure footsteps of a divine guidance…Here is a full-blooded, all-encompassing exploration of our national self. To determine whether all this is mere fantasy or has its grounding in some solid reality, the reader must refer to Das’s Chasing the Rainbow (2004) which is part memoir, part social history of a vanishing ethos.” Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village (Oxford) is no doubt a unique document of rural India of the thirties and forties of the last century. Das was lucky to be born in a charming coastal hamlet of northern Odisha. Before his house, an affluent one, spread a large tract of green meadow studded with palm trees. They contained two natural lakes, one abounding in red and the other in white lotuses. Beyond them there was the sea. Things changed with a terrible cyclone striking the region in 1942, followed by a famine killing innumerable men and women, many of them familiar faces. Manoj Das had a picturesque life—a radical youth leader who courted incarceration, played a distinct role in the Afro-Asian Students Conference at Bandung (1956) and led several agitations. But by early sixties of the last century he had become an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry.
“How did such a sudden shift in ideology take place? From Marxism to Sri Aurobindo!”
“There was nothing sudden about it. The only ideology I nurtured was that of a seeker. I wished to find a panacea for human suffering. At a tender age Marxism appeared to be that. But as I grew up, I realised that the cause of suffering did not rest on the surface of life, but somewhere deeper. A new phase of my quest began which ultimately brought me to the vision of Sri Aurobindo—his exposition of man’s evolutionary destiny,” he answered.
“Sri Aurobindo’s vision that man will evolve into a new consciousness is a futuristic idea. What about the present?”
“You must try to eradicate the present external causes of human misery in whatever way you can! Sri Aurobindo’s is not an alternative to any theory, political, social or spiritual. He does not dispute the partial truth in every theory. But as I learn from his works, as long as the human consciousness had not gone through a radical change, a dark element lurking beneath it, working through the incorrigible human ego, would corrupt every wonderful ideal. He brings a new faith in humanity, its future.
Working in his light, one finds a touch of fulfilment to every doctrine; Sri Aurobindo contradicts none, and does not replace any.”
“Coming to your literary creativity, I would like to observe that today you occupy a unique place in Odia literature. For innumerable readers, your works are a source of light and delight, of inspiration and confidence. At the same time, you have won a distinctive world audience through your English writings, as critics have stated. Don’t you think if you concentrated only on English, you would have surpassed many others in popularity?”
“Not necessarily; for I do not write with popularity in view. I write guided by my inspiration. Besides, my first commitment is to my mother-tongue.”
“By the way, parents in Odisha lament that their children are growing more and more weak in Odia because of a general fascination for English. Is it not unfortunate?”
“It is. But the parents and guardians are to blame. If they speak with their children in chaste Odia at home, let the children learn English at school. They would grow accomplished in both. The parents underestimate the child’s capacity to learn more than one language. In fact psychologists have established that a child who has adequate knowledge of two languages grow more intelligent and imaginative. It is not a question of fascination for English. It is a necessity. We wasted many years hesitating how to treat this language—as ours or as a colonial relic. There was no reason to feel
guilty about it. As I see it, we have paid the high price of two hundred years of suffering a colonial rule and in exchange got the language and made it our own.”
“On behalf of your thousands of faithful fans, I congratulate you on the occasion of your eightieth birthday. We wish you a purposeful long life.”
“I’ve already lived a long life, not always purposefully though. Let’s leave the matter to Providence. Thanks, nevertheless.”
By Samir Ranjan Das