Personality Bilingual writer Manoj Das believes in the sanctity of authentic expression and commitment to true inspiration. Manjula Kolanu
Bilingual writings, in an age of dubbed films and television serials, may not raise eyebrows, especially since publishing houses are keen on tapping the vast bank of literature of Indian languages. What can intrigue is when an eminent writer who writes in two languages, refuses to translate his own story from one language to another even on a publisher’s request. Noted Oriya writer Manoj Das belongs to that rare breed of creative writers who have not only written extensively in Oriya and English but has also kept them independent.
In Hyderabad to receive the NTR National Literary Award for 2013, instituted by NTR Vignana Trust, Das explains to The Hindu Friday Review that his stand on bilingual writing stems from his scepticism with translation. He elaborates, “It is impossible to capture the nuances of one language in another. Even when I have to write an Oriya story of mine in English at the request of some publication or newspaper, I simply rewrite it, I don’t translate. Translation may seem easier, but the real meaning and regional flavour cannot be recaptured. I can always recreate the story with the same setting and same characters, with an English expression. My stories are centred on the human condition which goes beyond language barriers.”
Das’ concern with human condition and suffering began quite early – long before he penned his first novel at the age of 14 – a concern that took him along ideological, revolutionary and philosophical paths. Born on February 27, 1934, in a small village in Balasore in Orissa, Manoj was the youngest child in an affluent family. Growing up in a rural feudal India gave him fodder for his stories on human suffering, beginning with his first encounter with death, violence, dacoits, famine and exploitation. He recalls, “Starvation was rampant those days. When quite young, on my way to school, I saw an old couple moving slowly, almost crawling, to a relief centre organised by the British government. On my way back home, I saw the couple lying dead on the road – they had never reached the centre and died of starvation. Then later my home was plundered.. twice.. My mother lost all her jewellery; those dacoities were led by two different generations of the same family of dacoits. Such events made me think of the cause for human misery, and what is the solution. One of the explanations was in Marxism, which I espoused until the late 50s.”
Marxism came to him during his years as a student in Puri, Cuttack, turning him into a youth leader with radical views leading him to play an active role in Afro-Asian students’ conference at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1959. Gradually he grew dissatisfied with a Marxist solution to human condition. Again Das explains, “I realised that the problem of human suffering goes beyond economics, it has been going on forever, evoking different reactions at different times. In the same predicament, different people react differently, so the answer has to lie beyond economics.”
A personal tragedy also led him to explore deeper spiritual solutions, leading him to mysticism and Aurobindo, in whose evolutionary philosophy Das found a satisfying answer, “According to Aurobindo, Man is an evolutionary being and his mind hasn’t been fulfilled, he isn’t a perfect complete being, but there is every possibility of divine perfection and a new consciousness, a ‘supra-mental’ state.” The affirmative, life-embracing, evolutionary philosophy saw Das settle at Aurobindo Ashram.
Does his writing reflect his ideology? “I write a lot, so my social writings do reflect my world view, but my creative writing has always been more indirect – they are preoccupied with human beings and not philosophy or ideology.” Throughout his journey as a creative writer, Das has emerged as a master of dramatic expression in his numerous short stories and novels. Inspired by various situations around, Das’ stories have explored predicaments of people living in a nation that going through a transition. “Over the years India has transited from colonialism to freedom, feudalism to democracy, villages to towns, but people’s reactions haven’t changed so fast,” says Das, adding, “I started writing in English when I felt that I could depict India more authentically than the Indians who wrote in English for foreign publications.” Around 40 per cent of his writing is now in English.
His creative output has seen his stories figure among bestsellers in the country, in compilations of best literary works released in the US and earned him several awards, including Padma Shri. The numerous accolades he has received include India’s national award for creative writing – the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Orissa Sahitya Akademi Award (twice), the Sahitya Bharati Award, the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad Award, the Sri Aurobindo Puraskar, the Saraswati Samman.
Commenting on the current Indian writers in English, Das says, “They write a lot, their style and proficiency of language are impressive. Of course they are free to pick their themes; but I find them deficient in one aspect - they are not committed to the truth of their inspiration. Each and every creative act is inspired by something, but now writers are distracted from that inspiration by commerce. If they are faithful to their true inspiration, they would be substantially more creative.
My creative writing has always been more indirect – they are preoccupied with human beings and not philosophy or ideology