Twin tongues Books

‘I am a man of India as a whole’: Manoj Das

Manoj Das   | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Manoj Das, one of India’s foremost bi-lingual authors, writes in his mother tongue, Odia, and in English. The 2001-Padma Shri recipient who has been living in Puducherry for the past 56 years, was in Bhubaneswar recently to receive the Nilimarani Award at the 16th Kadambini literary festival organised by Kadambini media. Excerpts from an interview:

The latest issue of ‘The Journal of Commonwealth of Literature’ presents you as “one of India’s foremost and distinguished writers.” How popular are your works in the West?

Academic response and popularity are quite different things. Between the 70s and 90s, a number of university publications in the West projected my short stories as representative of Indian fiction in English. Researchers have listed so many of my works in anthologies and magazines abroad. I think editors looked upon Indian writing in English almost with respectful awe, partly due to the impression created by Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao, among others. Even R.K. Narayan with his little ironies amused them in a healthy way.

That reminds me. Narayan’s well-wisher, Graham Greene, was later fascinated by you and found “greater mystery” in your stories.

Indeed, that was a promising period of response to Indian literature in English in the West.

You are speaking in the past tense...

Alas, it is so. The situation deteriorated rapidly, thanks to a few Indian authors who were more after sensationalism. The perception about Indian literature changed. Western readers found a calculated combination of so-called social realism, eroticism and enough elements to make them laugh at and pity India. For the artificial Indian flavour, those works were comparable to pulp fiction published in the West. I’m afraid it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Even the quality of academic publication in the West has changed, bar a few exceptions. Quality Indian writing, even if well-translated, can never compete with titillating works in popularity or sales. Good ones may survive, but as classics cared for only by researchers.

So, we can’t call your English fiction popular in the West.

You can’t. They interest only the elite. Only a couple of collections of my short stories have been published abroad, although several have been anthologised and are studied in universities.

Most of your work is in both Odia and English. You wrote some first in English and then in Odia, and some vice-versa. What is the difference in approach?

Even the most accomplished translator feels restrained at times, wondering if she has been faithful to the original. Spontaneity is hampered from time to time. But for a bilingual writer, the same story in two languages has independent embodiments. He is under no obligation to make both versions exactly alike. That makes the creation more vibrant.

Some years ago, the Book-sellers and Publishers Association of South India honoured you as the best writer in English in the South. Do you consider yourself as a man of the South?

Of course, I am a man of the South as much as I am a man of Odisha and of India as a whole. I wish I could say, like Diogenes, that I am a citizen of the world. But that would be a pompous claim.

The interviewer is an author who writes in Tamil and English.

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 9:11:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/i-am-a-man-of-india-as-a-whole-manoj-das/article26606757.ece

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