On Being  A Bilingual Writer

Interview by Prof. P Raja
You are a bilingual writer. A scene you have witnessed somewhere gives you a plot. To which language – English or Oriya – you would give preference to develop it?

It could be one of the two. There won’t be any difference so far as the inspiration is concerned. But which language I should choose first, depends on considerations of a practical nature. Maybe I have promised to give a story to a publication. The language of the publication will determine whether I execute my inspiration in English or in Oriya.

What are the problems of a bilingual writer?

In poetry, many. In prose there aren’t any. Sometimes I write a story first in English, sometimes first in Oriya. But I do not translate one into another. If the theme continues to inspire me, I try a fresh execution.

Bilingual writers are only a handful. How would you account for this?

Well! I believe it is due to the absence any literary organization in India to promote it. In some of the advanced countries, they trained translators. But we do not have…so what happens is, if somebody wants to write beyond his mother tongue, the only language he can take recourse to is English, unless he is also well versed in another Indian language. And the two idioms are quite different. I mean, we can just translate a work into English but that does not become a part of literature. But I believe that every language has a soul of its own, a presiding aspect of Goddess Saraswati. And once a writer establishes a kind of rapport with the soul of that language, then the language lets itself to be explored by the writer for his expression. Maybe many people have not tried to submit themselves to that kind of discipline. I did it out of provocation. I was writing in my mother tongue, Oriya, but, someday someone brought to my notice a piece of writing in English which was acknowledged abroad as an authentic village scene. I found it to be fake. I felt that injustice was being done to India. And that provoked me to write in English because I knew that born and brought up in a village at an impressionable age I can present an authentic atmosphere of the rural life, the rural air of India. And I wrote in English. Since it has been accepted by the people I have been writing.

It is an interesting fact that while you seem to be a household name in Orissa, a living legend as several people put it, for the readership outside Orissa you are known as one of our most serious Indo-Anglian writers. How do you afford to pour so much into Oriya literature despite your preoccupation with your writing in English, particularly your weekly and fortnightly columns in national dailies like The Hindu, The Hindustan times and The Statesman?

I don’t really pour into Oriya Literature. The people of Orissa pour their love on me.

There must be strong reasons for that.

One of the reasons could be staying far away from Orissa for practically the last four decades. A family remembers a distant child fondly.

I am not sure the Oriya’s would agree with your observation. For them you are a writer with a strong commitment to your inspiration – and your inspiration is genuine. They can read your stories, novels, essays and travelogues with the confidence that you will never give them anything adulterated or detrimental.

Yours is a tribute to the Oriya readership. I am proud of it. I have a conscientious readership in Orissa.

But you are no less popular in English.

Sorry. I beg to differ. No doubt, I have a solid readership in English. But how big is that when compared to several other writers? Popularity is a relative term. Yes, if you ask any discerning Oriya, he or she would say that I am among the most popular writers in Oriya. But would a reader of Indo-Anglian literature say so? So many of them would not have even heard of me. I am afraid, I cannot gloss over the fact that Indian writing in English is in danger of being enticed with a crop of spurious stiff stuff that titillates, behind which stands a huge machinery of professionals, capable of stimulating curiosity in the readership and influencing them. A caricature of one of our epics can pass on as a great novel. A concoction of 60% social realism and 40% erotica can bag a coveted award.

Prof Manoj Das for April Conference 2016

About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.