Even as it has been nearly a week to the demise of Manoj Das, considered the tallest man of modern Odia literature, condolences haven’t stopped pouring in.
While young litterateurs continue to grieve on being ‘orphaned’ after losing their guiding light, his contemporaries say the state’s literary scene will never be the same again after this colossal loss.
What was the significance of being Manoj Das? One can connect this query with the epic quote of late MV Kamath, journalist and former chairman of Prasar Bharati which is doing the rounds across media after Manoj’s demise.
Kamath said – “What is Manoj Das? A social commentator? A psychiatrist? A sly peeper into people’s hearts? Or just a plain storyteller? Manoj Das is all these, and an incorrigible Indian besides”.
Echoing the same sentiment, English writer and journalist Graham Greene once said, “I have read the stories of Manoj Das with great pleasure. He will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of RK Narayan. I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.”
Leading playwright and literary essayist Vijay Tendulkar was of the view that Manoj Das, like Graham Greene and RK Narayan, is a deft spinner of yarns. Narrating an Indian experience in a language which is alien or not Indian, without losing the original Indian charm and ethos is a difficult task. Das succeeds in this like Narayan, added Tendulkar.
Known as a ‘Saint’ of modern Odia literature, Manoj Das was indisputably one of the foremost bilingual fiction writers to have ever graced the country’s literary scene. But what made him different from others was his sobriety and humility.
Will you please write your autobiography? His fans had asked him time and again. But he believed that there were far more worthy and eventful lives than his and he would not like to burden the catalogue with his. A bilingual scholar Manoj had been honoured with Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan and myriad other awards including the Saraswati Samman and Sahitya Akademi Award fellowship, to name only a few.
He started writing at the age of 14 and didn’t leave his pen till he was 87. In between he has written several volumes of novels, short stories, fictions, non-fictions, travelogues, poems and essays on Indian history and culture.
His fate brought up through a paradox of experiences in his childhood – sending him into an affluent family with ideal parents and in the most charming milieu imaginable – and at the same time exposing him to the unexpected in life when his house was plundered twice before his eyes; also giving him the experience of witnessing the horrors of an unprecedented famine around him.
Here is a man who in his youth was a fascinating revolutionary leader courting jail and escaping an assassination attempt in a faraway resort in Indonesia. Here is the author who never knew that writing was an activity that was special. For him it was as natural as speaking or humming a tune.
His earliest quest was to trace the cause of human sufferings – a quest that led him to Marxism and finally revealed to him the profundity that was Sri Aurobindo’s vision of human destiny.
He didn’t win a Nobel or a Jnanpitha but his popularity and readership were beyond national boundaries. He could touch the souls of readers by the sheer richness of his language, style, and narration.
Sunday POST lists a few fascinating events from the life of the most adorable Oriya author for our generation
Not many Manoj fans know that he used to play harmonium and give lyrics to the songs written by him. Besides, he was an excellent singer. Once, nationally acclaimed musician Banwarilal along with harmonium player Chhotelal came to Fakir Mohan College for an event. They left the town after the show the same night. Next day, some students were surprised to hear the harmonium sound coming from a classroom. They thought that Chhotelal stayed back and was doing a riyaz. Shyamsundar Mahapatra, who later became a Lok Sabha MP, got the shock of his life to discover that it was Manoj who was playing the harmonium which was at par with Chhotelal. ‘You can make a career in music,’ Mahapatra then told Manoj.
Raising tiger cub
He had a unique experience of keeping a tiger cub as a pet. Young Manoj once visited his elder sister Snehalata’s in-law’s place. A village hunter shot a tigress dead leaving her cub orphaned. The cub was brought to Snehalata’s house. She, however, presented the cub to Manoj and asked him to rear it. An excited Manoj developed a friendship with the cub and started hand-raising it. However, the animal once attacked Manoj when he was putting it inside a cage and fled to the nearby forest. Despite injuries, Manoj badly missed the cub. The next day, the villagers spotted the cub’s carcass. The animal died due to a snakebite. It took a long time for Manoj to overcome the grief of losing his friend.
Fed by cop’s wife
While studying in Cuttack, Manoj was supposed to lead a students’ demonstration. He left out for his destination on a bicycle. However, police managed to arrest him on the way. Many students and the general public started demonstrating before the police station. Fearing a backlash, police planned to send him to jail. After a few hours, Manoj was taken to the verandah of that building. He was surprised to find that delicious food was served for his lunch. He asked the officer whether police treat all the prisoners the same way. ‘My wife is a regular reader of your short stories. She was worried about the arrest. It was she who has arranged the lunch for the pleasure she draws from reading your stories,’ answered the officer in-charge.
‘Spooky’ FM’s building
Manoj Das, on his first visit to Balasore, once mentioned that after arriving at Balasore railway station, he came to know that he would be staying at the old building of Fakir Mohan Senapati which his elder brother Manmath Nath Das had made his home after joining the FM College as a lecturer. One night, he found the cook shivering in fear complaining of a weird sound heard on the terrace. However, Manoj found that the noise was generated by a couple of goats. They were playing on the terrace and enjoying a moon-lit night. During his stay in that building, his articles were published in Prajatantra, Kunkum, Dagar and Sahakar. His first poetry anthology also got released when he stayed there.
Fear of rebirth
Once asked about fear of death, Manoj said, he was not afraid of death in a conscious state. But he was not sure about when he would lose his consciousness. But he was afraid of rebirth and the whole process of human life – from mother’s womb to crawling, to becoming minor to adult, and the time and energy required to grow up. However, he admitted that such thoughts were only the reflection of his ignorance as there is a cosmic power that controls his life and death.
Bijay Mandal, OP