From Marxism to Mysticism
To be critical of our times is not being pessimistic says Manoj Das
It was too early for most of the citizens of the city of Cuttack to leave their beds. Some policemen were taking positions in the dark nooks of a lane. A tip-off from an informer had made them alert. The next moment they sprang before a young man cycling along speedily.
The cyclist pressed the brakes, got down and looked around. There was no escape. He had been surrounded. The burly officer took hold of him. "You're under arrest." He informed the young man and led him to the police station opposite the road.
The young man sighed, for he was on his way to lead an agitation against the government of Orissa. Their plan misfired.
Somehow the news of the arrest spread and by the time it was dawn, a crowd gathered in front of the police station, raising slogans demanding the young man's release. The police decided to detain him for the whole day and dispatch him to prison only at the dead of night, in order to avoid any untoward incident.
At noon a suave and smart young officer of somewhat higher rank, opened the lock of the prisoner's custody and politely signalled him to follow him to the veranda behind the building. A sumptuous dinner had been laid out on a table covered with a colourful linen cloth. The officer fanned his prisoner as the latter ate. "Is this how you treat your under-trials ?" the prisoner queried while picking his way through the delicacies. The young officer smiled and answered, "Well, my wife is a fan of yours. When she learnt from the inspector that you're in custody under my jurisdiction, she was bent upon paying her tribute to you in this fashion."
Manoj Das reminisces nostalgically. "That was the first ever tangible proof of any deep admiration from a reader. How boorish it was of me not even to remember the name of that wonderful officer and his kind wife!”
The officer, no doubt, was wonderful, but far more wonderful had been Manoj Das' uncanny ability to strike a balance between his tumultuous life as a youth leader, courting jail or taking an active part in the Afro-Asian Students Conference in Bandung, Indonesia in 1956 on one hand, and continuing to write on the other hand, and continuing to write on the other.
"Striking a balance, you say ? But I never took my interest in writing as anything different from my living! Somehow, I took for granted that writing was as normal an activity as speaking to somebody or experiencing rain or a rainbow," could be how Manoj Das would correct me.
Which were the factors contributing to his developing the art of writing as a natural trait? Was it the charming place-dominated by some of the finest elements of nature like ever-green meadows, lakes teeming with lotuses and the sea-without a whiff of urban air? Was it the influence of his mother Kadambini Devi, a poet by her own right, enriching him with faith in himself? Perhaps all this and something more-some quality inherent in the constitution of one's consciousness.
At the time of going to press-on the 4th of July 2001-the news flashed that Manoj Das had been conferred the title Utkal Ratna given only to rare personages, by the most prestigious and the oldest literary organisation of his home state, Orissa, the Utkal Sahitya Samaj. But this is not the solitary evidence of the love he enjoys among the people of Orissa. In fact, while at the national level he has been a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad (Kolkata) Award, the BAPASI (Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India) Award as the best English writer in the south (1998), the Padma Award from the President (2001) and what is supposed to be the nation's highest award for creative writing, the Saraswati Samman (2001), there is no award or honour which Orissa had in its store which he had not received-the Orissa Sahitya Akademi Award (twice), the Sarala Award, the Sahitya Bharati Award (he was the first to receive this highest Oriya Award), the Governor's Plaque of Honour, so on and so forth.