On 27 April 2021, Manoj Das said farewell to the material world. One of the most celebrated and gifted authors of modern times, the favourite of generations of Odia readers, finally breathed his last after a prolonged illness due to old age. He was 88 and for most of that 88 years, he has created magic, absolute magic with his pen.
Manoj Das was born in a small coastal village named Sankhari in the Balasore district of Odisha. The village, the Talasari beach, the Subarnarekha river and the Chandaneswar Temple nearby all played a crucial part in his formative years, and they all feature multiple times in his stories and memoirs. He was born on 27 February 1934 and after his higher education, he had worked briefly as a lecturer in Cuttack before joining the Aurobindo Ashram where he spent most of his life as a lifelong disciple of Shri Aurobindo’s philosophy and as a lecturer of English at the Puducherry University. He had many honours before his name, Sahitya Academy Award, The Saraswati Samman, Padmashri and Padma Bhushan.
None of the above actually matters, not to his readers. For he is one of the rare authors who transcend time, position, awards and recognition. He was a creator of extraordinary magic. He has woven tales of human emotions, experience, sorrows and joys with such finesse that for his readers, it doesn’t matter whether he is at Puducherry or in heaven because he is always there in the pure happiness of a brilliant, perfect story that brings fond memories. For me, and for many like me, Manoj Das will always be in the winds of the beach, in the trees around the villages, in the berry bushes of his childhood, in the old buildings of his stories, and in the countless stories that continue to enthral us with their impeccable word flow, mesmerizing plots and simple, clean humour.
Leagues ahead of his contemporaries
Manoj Das’ stories were perhaps best described by Ruskin Bond. Speaking at a literary festival in Bhubaneswar once, Bond had told that Manoj Das is the best storyteller in India when it comes to describing Indian village life, even better than RK Narayan.
We use the term ‘blessed by Maa Saraswati’ for extraordinary writers and artists. But I think many Odias readers will agree that in Manoj Das’ case, it was not just blessings. It is as if Maa Saraswati herself wrote with his pen. The purity of language, the freshness of his plots, the simplicity of his characters, the extensive shades of human nature, and myriad experiences of life not only delight the reader, they transport them back through the pages to the very set up, to feel every bit of the emotions felt by the characters and to live every moment immortalised in those stories.
Simples lives, extraordinary stories
Manoj Das wrote dozens of novels, short stories, travelogues, essays, and memoirs. In all his writing, the one thing that is common is the purity of language and the narration that just makes it all….. ‘alive’. Though he is more recognised for his English writings, we Odias don’t see him as an English writer. Odias are fortunate because we get to read the real Manoj Das, the stories, the words and the sentences where he poured down his heart, leaving a magic trail of his extraordinary gift for generations to come.
No English translation can absorb how the protagonist Bhanu Singh felt in the story ‘Bibastra’ (naked). In that story, the protagonist, the simple caretaker of an old palace owned by an erstwhile royal family suddenly gets a letter from his employer, informing him that he must prepare for a good welcome and comfortable stay for some of the old queen’s “foreign” friends, who are apparently “nudists’. The poor man undergoes a near-nervous breakdown, going through all the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, to finally come to terms with the fact that to ‘properly’ welcome the ‘nudists’, he must be naked himself.
Just when he was about to slip into despair, Bhanu Singh has an epiphany, an encounter with the local deity in the beach side temple that was recently looted by vandals. In a cool night on that coastal village, Singh realises that everything in god’s creation is, in fact, “bibastra”. From the blue sky to the endless sea, to the temple deity whose clothes were stolen, when all of them are ‘Bibastra’, why would he, a mere mortal, be afraid of sheding his garments.
In ‘Bhutuni: Eka Bidaya’ (The she-ghost: A farewell), there is an entire village that loves and cares for the ghost of a young girl that is said to live in an old bungalow. As if she was one of their own daughters. The villagers have ‘adopted’ the she-ghost and have come to empathise with her, for the pain and violence she had to endure in her life, and for the ‘kindness’, she had shown to them. So much is the love of the villagers for the ghost that they even oppose the government when the authorities plan to demolish the old bungalow. The authorities do not budge, and finally, the villagers decide to find a new home for the ghost, a tree. On the day of her scheduled ‘departure’ with the guidance of a famous Tantrik, the entire village weeps, as if their own daughter is being driven away harshly.
In countless such characters, situations, and setups, Manoj Das transports the readers into his own wonderland, where his words are woven into intricate fabrics of folklore, beliefs, hopes and ambitions, losses and victories, achievements, and heartbreaks. Tales where his flawless sentences work like notes of a heavenly melody, taking the reader with them in a reading journey that is, inside the minds of the writer and reader both, as colorful as the beautiful landscapes he describes.
Contrasts, characters and tropes
The stories of Manoj Das are remarkable not just for the vastness of the types of characters he chooses, but for the sheer courage of him as a storyteller. His stories are not bound by the usual tropes of love, loss, romance, and revenge that most writers dabble in. He tells stories of an old woman who was believed to have been taken by a giant crocodile, who, as per folklore, had made her his wife (Kimbhirini). He tells the story of Lakshmi, a little girl who speaks with the god (Lakshmi Ra Abhisara). He tells the story of a reluctant young man who, due to unavoidable circumstances, is forced to become a revered Guru or Godman, though in reality he possesses no spiritual powers. (Akasha Ra Isara). There is a fearful, timid history teacher who eventually comes to believe that he was the mighty horse that took emperor Prithviraj Chouhan to countless battles, and gains enough confidence to scare off a gigantic bodybuilder twice his own size (Pruthvirajanka Ghoda). These are just a handful of examples of the hundreds of worlds he created for us.
Manoj Das’ writings often also feature the theme of contrasts, where seemingly opposite characters and circumstances are flawlessly blended into a picture of brilliant shades. In his stories, a brave, selfless patriot who withstood the rigors of the cellular jail in Andamans is found belittled and ridiculed by post-independence Gandhian ‘Netas’ (Ota). An old man in his last moments learns that the love of his youth was not one-sided after all, as the girl he had loved had written him a reply, affirming her feelings for him. The poor old man’s ghost is then seen searching for that torn-away letter that was thrown away decades ago by an intermediary near a bridge (Janharatira Setu).
He is the storyteller who has never shied away from bringing together the material world with the spiritual, the natural with the supernatural, reality with the lore, and living with the spirits.
This article is not an obituary. Before I sat down to write it, I had a long discussion with fellow reader and friend Sambit, and we talked about how ‘timeless’ Manoj Das’ stories are. I was introduced to them by my father, when he brought home the ‘Sachitra Bijaya’ magazine. A large part of my childhood and adolescence has been about Manoj Das’ stories.
As Sambit and I discussed, one thing was certain in my mind. It is impossible to write an article about Manoj Das’ stories and do them justice. It is never going to be complete, it is never going to be enough. How do you hold the sea storm inside your palms? How can one contain the sunlight in a little lamp? How can mere mortals write down and list the immortal infinity of countless creations inside the finite restrictions of an article? How does something as insignificant, and as regular as death binds a writer who is alive in a thousand stories?
There indeed is no need for an obituary. A writer of Manoj Das’s stature can only be celebrated for the genius of his creations, not mourned. Never. It does not really matter whether he lived in Sankhari, or in Aurobindo Ashram. It does not matter where his material body took its last breath. Manoj Das will be alive in a million smiles, and a million memories.