From the Book
KNIT INDIA THROUGH LITERATURE – Volume II – the EAST
Born in 1934 in a tiny village in Orissa and educated in a local Oriya medium school, Manoj Das is today an acclaimed writer of poetry and fiction in both the English and Oriya languages. The fact that Manoj’s first collection of poems was published when he was just sixteen and that he edited a magazine Diganta when he was seventeen suggests that he had creativity inherent in his very genes. Manoj Das’ works have won him name and fame. The Central Sahitya Akademi award, the Oriya Sahitya Akademi award, the Bharat Nayak and the Sarala Puraskar award are among the many prestigious awards conferred on him. I first met Manoj Das when he presided over the Akshara awards ceremony instituted by the Agni Trust. Of medium height and complexion, with thick spectacles and typical Oriya looks, Manoj Das proved a most interesting conversationalist. It was indeed a pleasure to meet and get to know the man.
Orissa faced a very severe famine in 1816 and the people were put to untold suffering. As if this was not enough, they were subjected to several other hardships in later years, not the least of which was the campaign that ‘the Oriya language was just a dialect of the Bengali language’ according to an essay I read. What gave rise to such false propaganda?
Despite similarities in the manner of speech, the Oriya and Bengali languages have totally different scripts, proving that this propaganda is totally false. Yet it went on successfully for quite some time because the Bengalis became very powerful then. To explain, Orissa was the last state to fall to British rule. Our Khurda fort was the last fort to be captured. In the nineteenth century, several small zamindars were paying taxes to the British. Several Bengalis were appointed as controllers of several small zamins in order to help the innocent zamindars. Under the so-called Sunset law, if the taxes and levies were not paid before sunset on a fixed date, the British had the right to auction the lands belonging to the zamin. The controllers used the ignorance of the zamindars to their advantage and many lands were auctioned away. Since the Bengalis were very powerful during that period, it was possible for such false propaganda to be spread by some. It did not have a statewide effect though. Nor did it take on the dimensions of a movement. Why, even Bengalis living in Orissa did not subscribe to that theory. They were quite upset by it. According to historical data, the Oriya language is older than the Bengali language and that both derive their origin from Charyapadha (Buddhist scriptural work).
Why is it said that Phakirmohan Senapati, considered the father of the modern Oriya novel, was responsible for reviving Oriya literature that had stagnated at a particular point in time? What were his efforts toward reviving Oriya literature?
It is only very rarely that the spirit of an era and the genius of an individual meet and match. The results that ensue from such a match are invaluable. Take the case of Shakespeare. Such a writer was not born in the era preceding or after Shakespeare. That was a time for a renaissance, a revival. Shakespeare’s genius matched the spirit of the time. A similar event took place in our language too with respect to Phakirmohan Senapati. He was a polyglot. He worked as a diwan in a samasthan and had various experiences. Like the tree that has its roots in the soil and its branches in the sky, he had a good knowledge of the life of the poor classes as also that of the intellectuals. He was able to observe life keenly and express it in simple language. Translating epics for the sake of his illiterate wife proved an enriching experience for him. He refused to write novels till he had gained sufficient experience, doing so only from his fiftieth year onwards. When Senapati’s talents reached our people, who were sufficiently prepared and ready, the renaissance or revival—earlier described took place.
Could you introduce me to ‘Rebati’, Senapati’s first Oriya short story?
I would rate ‘Rebati’ as the best short story I have read to date. Reading the last few lines of ‘Riders to the Sea’ written by the Irish writer Synge, we feel ourselves enveloped by the warm seawater. A similar sorrow surrounds us when we read ‘Rebati’. It is the story of Rebati who lives with her grandmother and is consumed by the cholera that afflicts the village. There is not one extra or unnecessary word in it nor does the author attempt to preach. The style is most natural. When we consider the period in which the short story was written, its theme and style are truly astonishing.
Could you tell me about the writers who launched the nationalist Satyabadi movement—in particular about writers like Gopabandhu Das, Godabaris Misra, Godabaris Mohapatra and others?
The writers belonging to the Satyabadi movement were nationalists first and foremost—quite different from true litterateurs like Sanapati and Radhanath Rai. They thought of and wrote for social reform. Gopabandhu Das was instrumental in bringing the Congress movement to Orissa. The founder of the Samaj magazine that is widely circulated even today, he was an outstanding journalist. Some of the members of the Satyabadi movement were true litterateurs. Pandit Godabaris wrote such wonderful poetry. His poem on the woman who was believed to have drowned in the Chilika Lake is a true classic.
How did the Oriya short story develop after Senapati’s first short story?
Although Oriya short stories were satisfactory in terms of quality, the numbers were disappointing. The only writer who could be compared to Senapati thereafter was probably Gopinath Mohanty. He alone of the later writers had unusual talent like Senapati’s though there were sparks in some writers in the period between Senapati and Mohanty. Mohanty’s talent was equal to all of theirs put together.
There were two dominant trends visible in Oriya literature in the thirties—Marxism and Freudism…
Marxism had a significant impact on many writers. The same cannot be said about Freudism. So, it is not quite right to talk of two trends. Some of the works of Bhagavati Charan Panigrahi, Anand Patnaik and Sachidananda Rautroy, who is still writing wonderful poetry, were deeply influenced by Marxist thought and added glitter to Oriya literature. Bhagavati Charan’s ‘Shikar’ is considered a milestone among Oriya short stories even today.
The sixties saw the trend of ‘plotless’ or sketchy stories…
The literary experiments worldwide have had their impact on our younger generation too. When theatre of the absurd of the West was adapted by our writers, their style was branded as ‘plotless’ or sketchy. When absurdism faded away in the West, it disappeared here too. Such experimental efforts died a slow death when they failed to reach the people.
I have read that Oriya magazines contributed significantly to the growth of Oriya novels and short stories. But this is true of most languages, isn’t it?
You are absolutely right. In every language, magazines contribute significantly to literary growth. Yet, I believe that most Oriya magazines were launched solely for the purpose of publishing Oriya novels. Every time period has seen the advent of magazines suited to the needs of the period. I regard Utkala Sahitya, published very many years ago, as an ideal magazine. This magazine contributed significantly to a revival in literary interest among the people by publishing a series of short stories, serialised works, essays and poetry. Later, there were the literary magazines launched by different movements. We can cite the Sahakar magazine as an example. In my time, there were two wonderful literary magazines Sanga and Chaduranga. Today, while there is no real literary magazine in English there are almost twenty-five literary magazines in circulation in Oriya. There are literary magazines devoted to poetry, drama and short stories. What saddens me is the commercial failure of these magazines for want of readership.
In an interview you mentioned that poets excel when they compose in their own native tongue and cited those like Sri Aurobindo as exceptions to the rule. Radhanath Roy, who is considered the father of modern Oriya poetry, is a Bengali, isn’t he? I have also read that the famous poet Madhusudan Rao is a Maharashtrian. How can you explain this?
My opinion remains unchanged. I refer to the language in which a child first learns to speak, read and write, as the native or mother tongue. Radhanath Roy grew up and did his schooling in Orissa. Similarly, Madhusudan Rao’s family had been living for generations on this soil. Though they belonged to other states by birth, these two lived as the sons of this soil and hence their ability to excel in the Oriya language.
Why did you attempt to write in English and not in your mother tongue?
As a young boy I lived in a village that had seen neither bus nor rail transport. I was tutored in the Oriya language alone. One day, when my elder sisters, reading a Bengali book, were stumped by a word for which they did not know the meaning, I explained it to them. One of the sisters was astonished and asked me how I knew this; the other replied that I knew everything. You must believe me, that day I proceeded to teach myself how to read the Bengali language. If you ask me to explain how, I cannot. Similarly when I happened to read what an Indian writer had written in English about India, I was shocked. Such a negative portrayal. Compelled by an inner force, I decided to write positively about my country thereafter. I prepared myself in a couple of years to write in English.
You once said, “Every language has a life force and divine power to it”…
There certainly is such a force. If we repose faith in such a divine force and maintain our relationships correctly, we are sure to have beneficial results. .
It is your belief that there are five kinds of literary paths, isn’t it?
The first path is where the writing is done out of sheer inspiration alone like the works of Vyasa and Valmiki. Today, even if we write for our personal satisfaction, there are rewards in the shape of cash, fame and awards. It was not the same in those days. The next kind is writing that sets a lofty ideal ahead and inspires us to strive for it. Examples are literary works like the Panchatantra. The third sort reflects life as it is, pragmatic literature, I call it. There is no set goal but rather it reflects good and bad as it is experienced and understood by the writer. The fourth kind is that which has a purely entertainment value. I don’t think there is anything wrong with entertaining literary pieces that contain such elements in the right proportion. The last one that looks at the business aspect alone—writing that is full of violence and vulgarity—is just like poison, to be avoided at all cost.
As I speak to you, I notice that you used the word ‘inspiration’ and ‘motivation’ often. What is the difference between them?
Inspiration is an independent force. In motivation though, inspiration may have a part. Inspiration is anything that you would do without expectation of returns. When the mother lifts and cuddles her child, it is out of sheer inspiration and she expects nothing in return. When you picked up your cat and fondled it sometime ago, did you have any ulterior motive? No. That is what inspiration all about. Motivation on the other hand compels you to act in a particular manner with a predetermined objective in mind.
So, can we assume that when a writer’s work is meant to stimulate a particular action, it is done with a commercial objective?
That is right. Yet all those who are accepted as writers possess a certain inspiration. This is what I meant when I said that many a time motivation is combined with inspiration.
Before we discuss your writings, tell us about your childhood.
Mine was a blessed childhood. I grew up as part of a joint family in a village, eight miles from the nearest bust stand and twenty-two from the nearest railway station, but I lacked neither affection nor comforts. My mother travelled in a palanquin while my father rode on horseback. Ours was the house situated last in that peaceful village called Sangari. Green fields that looked like emerald carpets surrounded the house. Two large ponds, one filled with white lilies and another with red lotuses completed the picture. The scenic beauty all around was truly breathtaking. I have never seen another village as beautiful as mine. When I was four, I saw a rainbow in the sky and ran quite a distance trying to touch its end. When I finally stopped, I found myself in an unfamiliar place—with a beautiful evening sky and the storks flying homeward as a group. I was unable to appreciate the beauty, frightened as I was at finding myself in a new place. Just then, a rustic woman who spotted me lifted me forcibly and carried me home. This is rural life, and such are the rustic people. All the children are the children of the village. They are a common concern.
When did you start to write?
I had thought up my first poem even before I learnt how to read and write. I wrote a number of poems during my school days. My first collection of poems was published when I was in the nineth standard
What was the theme of your first poem?
The poem was titled ‘The story of Two Days’. We got our independence in 1947. In ’48, the Mahatma was killed. Deeply affected by both these days, I wrote a poem about them.
Despite being recognised as a poet quite young, why did you turn to short story writing?
While I was in the tenth standard, I was very much attracted by the Communist philosophy and became a Communist. I had the opportunity to interact with many leaders and intellectuals and to understand people and their problems better. It is then that I realised that the short story was more effective than poetry.
What was it that attracted you to Communist philosophy and what made you give it up later?
I had been deeply affected by the happenings in society even as a boy. When I was young, dacoits attacked and looted my house twice. I have seen people suffer famine, hunger. I have seen starvation deaths, and cholera epidemics. Once during an attack of cholera, I was returning home in the evening from school. Fields and trees surrounded the place. I saw a dead body lying in a bush. Suddenly, I was terrified to see the body’s head moving. I later realised that it was a fox feasting on the body. I ran away terrified then. I was disturbed by the differences prevalent amongst people and poverty. As a result, I was naturally attracted to the Communist philosophy. I was a hard core Communist during my college days and in the years that followed. Because of this involvement, the government levelled several charges against me and I went to prison. That was the time when the cry ‘God does not exist’ was really loud and Stalin was anointed in his place. Soon, all that was shattered. When Khrushchev revealed the atrocities committed by Stalin in the twentieth conference of the Soviet party held in February 1956, many members reportedly fainted in shock. Following that, there were several changes within me.
After you developed an interest in the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, you decided to move to Pondicherry. How did your family respond to this decision of yours?
I had been an avid reader of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching for many years and was an ardent follower of his. When I first went to Pondicherry with my family and had a darshan of the ‘Mother’, I experienced something indescribable. It was a wonderful experience. I decided to move to Pondicherry in 1963. I was told that my father was a little unhappy with my decision. When I went to my village to bid goodbye to him, he asked me, “You had asked for money to buy a car. Don’t you want it?” I told him that I did not need it. He asked me if he could donate the money to our local school instead and I gladly agreed. I was a well-known writer at that time, and there was a lot of opposition from within the journalistic community to my decision. In the last thirty-five years, my life in Pondicherry has been very fruitful. After coming here, I have grown and learnt so much as a human being and as a writer.
Isn’t being away from Oriya society difficult for you?
Certainly not. The Oriya language and culture can be seen here in Pondicherry too. Every day, thirty to forty Oriyans come here to the Ashram. I get all the Oriya magazines. I receive all the news here immediately. Besides, the Oriya people have great faith in Sri Aurobindo and the ‘Mother’. Our centres can be found even in the small towns of Orissa. It is quite common for Oriyans to come and stay here. So, why should I long for familiar surroundings?
You have been associated with the literary world for over fifty years now. Would you say that Oriya literature—including your own works—has reflected the time periods over which it has been written?
There are two important bases for every literary creation. The first is inspiration, as I already pointed out. The other is the method by which it is expressed. These are the two things that contribute to a strong foundation for good literature. The method of writing helps to express contemporary thoughts to people by relating them to contemporary events or things. Just because a work is contemporary, it does not cease to become eternal. Many of my stories are about the breakdown of feudal society. When you write about a past event, does it mean that your work ceases to reflect the present? When I write about my past experience and that which has stuck in my memory during my lifetime, is that not contemporary as well? I would say that in Oriya literature, seventy percent of the events of this century have been well reflected.
Has Oriya literature’s growth in the last fifty years satisfied you?
Despite many difficulties, writers have continued to produce quality works. It is a heartening thing that they still attempt experiments, although it is difficult to correlate quality and quantity.
Having lived away from Orissa for a long time, can you offer an objective evaluation of your state?
Many problems that abound in the other states of India are seen in Orissa too. The status of women, the souls of our state, still remains backward. Their problems are numerous. The younger generation is confused. Hypocritical politicians, the double standards that prevail in society, the commercialisation that has pervaded every sphere of life and cable television that has penetrated even the tiny villages, confuse them. On the surface, the state of affairs in Orissa is just as deplorable as it is elsewhere. Yet, India is in a transitional phase. I don’t think the present state of decline is a permanent feature. I have great faith in man’s ability to evolve. I believe that the slumbering man will soon waken to reality. I don’t have an answer as to when and how this state of wakefulness is going to come about but it will come. According to Sri Aurobindo, man is not the final stage of evolution. There is a higher plane. When the supramental, which is more powerful than human intellect, evolves, all the problems will disappear or fade out.
What is the present status of Indo-Anglian literature? How would you evaluate it?
I would say Indo-Anglian literature is yet to find its place or role. It is yet to understand and fulfill its psychic and its eternal role completely. Sri Aurobindo’s writings stand out in this genre. No other literary work can be compared to his Savitri. With the exception of Sri Aurobindo’s works, I don’t think Indo-Anglian literature has fully reflected India’s soul.
What are your future plans?
I used to be a meticulous planner. But now, at 64, it suits me better not to make any plans. When you realise that the blueprint for your life has been drawn elsewhere, planning ceases to be a priority. If you talk of future plans, I should understand the purpose of my creation and try to fulfill it. I should understand the meaning of life clearly both as a writer and as a man—what else can I ask for?
– May 1998