Tete-A-Tete with A Wizard of the Words

Manoj Das really needs no introduction. A poet, novelist, short story writer, columnist, travel writer, children's writer and philosopher, he is a wizard of words who has mesmerized generations of readers with the sheer genius of his writing. In his writing career spanning more than half a century he has bagged almost every major literary award including the Central Sahitya Akademi Award, the Sarala Puraskar and the Saraswati Samman. Manoj Das is one of the few writers to have achieved equal success writing in two languages. He has straddled the world of English and Oriya literature with a felicity that is rare. The lyrical style, imagery, simplicity and the magical charm of his writing has won him admirers in every generation and across all countries and continent.

"Manoj Das will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of Narayan. I imagine Orissa is far removed from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories, with perhaps an added mystery," writes Graham Greene. According to Dr.K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar (The Hindu), "Masters like Tagore, Premchand, Masti, Mulk Raj Anand and Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer have made their mark as exemplars of the art of Story Telling. And Manoj Das is of the same class...his stories, convincingly autochthonous, have by virtue of their very Indianness won for him a discriminating world audience." I was fortunate to have a cyber t�te-�-t�te with Manoj Das. Here are the excerpts:

Ramendra Kumar (R.K.): Sir, Could you tell us about your first tryst with creativity?

Manoj Das (M.D): My birthplace, a remote hamlet on the sea, was as beautiful as a fairytale land in my childhood, with two natural lakes abounding in lotuses between our house and the sea. Unconsciously, in my rendezvous with the sea and the breeze and the moon, I had probably developed the habit of expressing myself to them in silence. Of course so many must be passing through similar experiences of dreamy times, moments of reverie. In me they left an impact, to manifest in my creative writing. It must have happened to several other writers too.

R.K.: In your early stint with writing what were the forces that shaped your oeuvre?

M.D.: Love and innocence of the folks surrounding me, then the terrible misery they went through in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone, my own affluent house being plundered before my eyes by monstrous gangs of bandits not once but twice - such were the contrasting experiences inspiring in me a wide range of different emotions.

R.K.: Who are the writers who have had the greatest influence on you?

M.D.: To begin with, stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, recounted to me by my mother stirred my imaginativeness. Hence we can say that Valmiki and Vyasa - particularly the latter - was the earliest influence on me, albeit indirectly. Then, by the time I was capable of reading, there were the works of Fakirmohan Senapati, the grand pioneer of modern Oriya fiction, awaiting me, all collected by my mother. Senapati, undoubtedly, was a consciously felt influence.

R.K.: You have written novels, poetry, stories, fables, travelogues, essays columns et al. How do you choose at any given moment what you want to write?

M.D.: All that I have written, very broadly speaking, falls into two categories: first, creative writing and second, reflective, narrative, newspaper columns etc. So far as the creative writing is concerned, I do not choose the moment, the inspiration chooses it. I then write at the earliest opportunity. Sometimes I miss the moments because of unsuitable situations or preoccupations and sadly, the inspiration take leave of me. So far as the second category of writing is concerned, it is mostly the practical compulsion that obliges me to find time. Once I had a regular weekly column in The Hindustan Times. Also in The Samaj and The Dharitri, in my mother tongue. I had a fortnightly column in The Hindu. They were deadline-oriented. I must not fail in submitting them on time. Whether I was in a train or a plane, I carried a portable typewriter and never failed my editors. Similarly, I had to write editorials for The Heritage. For meeting such demands one should of course have to forgo one's own leisurely or sweet whimsical attitude to the calendar! A discipline and some mastery over one's own mood are indispensable.

R.K.: How have you managed to excel in so many genres with such felicity?

M.D.: Thanks for the compliment involved in your question. Well, if I have been able to write in several streams, it is because I value and love the art of expression. The rest follows.

R.K.: The well-known Oriya poet Shri Ramakanta Rath once told me that the most successful writer of Sweden is a children's writer. In Indian however Children's writers are almost the lowest in the pecking order. Isn't it ironical that in the land of the Panchatantra children's literature is not given its due? What do you feel is the reason and also the remedy?

M.D.: Several factors - not one - are responsible for the neglected state of affairs in regard to Children's literature in India. First, we had such powerful stuff for children - the Jatakas, the Panchatantra, stories from the epics etc. - that we did not consider ourselves capable of continuing that wonderful line. Secondly, the general negligent attitude towards children - taking them for granted - is also responsible for the situation. But the climate is changing. Lately some attention is being given to this field of creativity. The last two World Book Fairs in New Delhi saw two serious seminars on the subject. I had been invited to give keynote addresses in both, while Ruskin Bond inaugurated the first one. I could see the ideas and thoughts, which were developing around the issue of Children's literature. What is vital now is for the writers to create literature worthy of that genre. That brings up several questions. Are we to compete with the Western potboilers flooding the Indian market? Is there a possibility of the Indian Children's writer adhering to his tradition and building up something new on that mighty solid basis?

R.K.: The young generation is slowly losing touch with its roots. As writers what do you think we should do to reverse this phenomenon?

M.D.: What appears, as a loss of roots may probably be a symptom of what can be termed as globalization of ideas. Yes, we are passing through a transitional phase in several areas of life and creativity is no exception. We have to wait and see. Meanwhile, the writer must be honest to his own inspiration; he must not be swept away by lures of publicity, hype and produce stuff that suits such waves. What can be done if some writers are just clever and they use their skill to go with consumerism? You cannot help it. All you can is to be faithful to your own commitment to the spirit of literature.

R.K.: As you look back over an extremely successful and rewarding career what would you rate as your greatest achievement?

M.D.: I have really never thought along that line. I am a writer and that is my identity in the society. Left to my lone self, I am a seeker and I am still chasing the elusive rainbow that is the significance of life.

R.K.: And finally, what are your words of advice to those who want to pursue the art and craft of writing?

M.D.: By all means pursue it - if you feel the inspiration for it. I am willing to change the word 'Inspiration" - if that sounds intriguing - to creative urge. If that is there, you are justified in claiming others' attention to your contribution.

R.K.: Thank you Sir, I am sure our readers would have enjoyed this interaction as much as I did. Your words of advice and encouragement to the budding writers, I am confident, will inspire them in their quest for creative salvation.   


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