Tribute to Manoj Das, the celebrated bilingual writer

“Do you have books by Manoj Das,” a young man asked the owner of the oldest book stall in Bhubaneswar some months ago. “Which book are you looking for,” asked the owner. “Pack all those available with you,” replied the young man.

The celebrated writer Manoj Das

The celebrated writer Manoj Das  

“Are you buying these books for a library?” I asked out of curiosity. “No, these are for my sister who lives in America. Our entire family loves Manoj Das’ writing,” he said, leaving with a big bag of books.

This incident is enough to understand what Manoj Das meant to book-lovers across generations and around the globe.

The Puducherry-based celebrated bilingual writer, professor, editor, thinker and orator left Odisha nearly six decades ago. Yet, he was the most beloved and revered writer-speaker across the State. No Odia writer ever enjoyed the incredible popularity that he did. The news of his passing away has left his admirers distraught.

The celebrated writer’s mother Kadambini Devi laid a strong foundation for his literary journey. Even before Manoj had learnt the alphabets, she had narrated to him all the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. And by the time he completed his primary education, his mother had introduced him to the best of Odia literature.

Celebrated writer Manoj Das

Celebrated writer Manoj Das  

If it was his mother who inculcated in him a love for books, the nondescript village of Sankhari on the shores of the Bay of Bengal proved to be his muse. The vastness of the sea, the long stretches of greenery , the family’s fruit orchards and flower gardens, and the two small ponds with pink and white lotus blooms were his greatest attractions in childhood.

However, when he was six, a cyclone devastated his beautiful village and in the famine that followed many villagers died. The family home was plundered twice by burglars. A mute witness to both the beauty and horror of nature and life, Manoj Das expressed his feelings through the pen. His first anthology of poems was published when he was just 14, at 15 he launched a literary magazine, and by the time he entered college, his first collection of short stories was published.

The quest for knowledge

Apart from his mother, his older brother, the well-known historian, Professor Manmath Nath Das, ignited in him a quest for knowledge. While in college, Manoj Das stayed with his brother, who was teaching history in a college in Balasore.

The sufferings of the common people owing to the social injustice of colonial rule that he had seen as a child in his village drew him towards Marxism in his college days. He soon emerged as a revolutionary youth leader, leading agitations and was even arrested. He was elected unopposed as the president of the union of University Law College and later became the general secretary of the Students Federation of India. At the age of 21, he represented India at the Afro-Asian Students Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1956 .

After post-graduation, Manoj Das was appointed as an English lecturer in Cuttack, where he gained a reputation as a young literary genius. He married Pratijna Devi, a scion of the royal family of Kujang, whose parents were renowned freedom fighters. However, when life appeared settled, Manoj Das decided to leave Cuttack in 1963 and relocate to Puducherry, where he settled permanently in Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

What took him to Puducherry? “Certainly, the presence of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. A darshan I had of Mother inspired me. I realised that the problem behind human suffering goes beyond economics, it has been going on forever, evoking different reactions at different times,” he had said in interviews to The Hindu. In Puducherry, Manoj Das taught English literature and philosophy at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education while emerging as an internationally acclaimed bilingual writer.

“There are only a few good storytellers left in the world today and one of them is Manoj Das,” Ruskin Bond has remarked, while Graham Greene said, “I have now read the stories of Manoj Das with great pleasure. He will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of R. K. Narayan. I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories, with perhaps an added mystery.”

The writer was conferred the Atibadi Jagannath Das Samman and made a Fellow of Sahitya Akademi; he was also a recipient of numerous other awards, including the Padma Bhushan and Saraswati Samman.

The best honour, however, has been the incredible love of the people of Odisha, who have explored every possible means to commemorate his legacy. The Odisha government has announced an international literary award, carrying a cash prize of Rs. 10 lakh, in memory of the legend, apart from setting up a museum and library in his ancestral home in Sankhari village. The government also announced the ‘Manoj Kishore Sahitya Pratibha Samman’ for high school students.

The Odisha-based author writes on cultural affairs.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 11:26:38 PM |

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