Aesop, faith and Manoj Das

Interview by Minu Tharoor,Published in The Straits Times(Singapore), December 5,1981

Aesop, faith and Manoj Das

This write-up-cum interview was published in the premier newspaper of South-East Asia, “The Straits Times” of Singapore in its issue of 5 December 1981.

Prof. Manoj Das first visited Singapore in 1956 on his way back from Afro-Asian Students’ Conference at Bandung, when the city-state was a British colony. It was not an easy entry for him because the colonial administration feared that he could influence the students of the local university with his radical ideas.

Much water had flowed in the Ganga by the time he visited the free Singapore for the second time in 1979 when he delivered a series of talks at the Sri Aurobindo Centre (its founder-President Devan Nair later became the President of the Republic of Singapore) and at the Departments of Philosophy and English of the National University of Singapore and the Sri Ramakrishna Mission. It was then that the foremost publishing house of the region, Times Books International,   commissioned him to write a book for children. The book entitled “ A Bride inside a Casket and Other Tales” was launched during his nest visit to the island-nation in 1981.This interview was published on the eve of the autograph sessions organised by two major bookshops.

An international edition of “The Bride inside a Casket and Other Tales” was later brought out by W.H.Allen, London. Subsequently its Indian edition was brought out by the National Book Trust, India. It is a best-selling book.


He is an author, published many times over. He writers for newspapers although he sees himself as a creative writer. And it is his short stories for children, fables to some, fairy tales to others, that capture the imagination writers MINU THAROOR.

‘I started writing children’s stories out of my love for children. I do not feel happy about the stuff that they are fed. Of course many of the fables depict a very down-to-earth view of the world. But I try to avoid stores that show the darker side of life. There is no harm in children learning that it pays to be prudent and circumspect!’ 
-Manoj Das

What impresses one immediately about Manoj Das is his innate graciousness.

A man of considerable importance and influence in India’s literary and journalistic world, a winner of India’s most prestigious literary honour-the Sahitya Akademi Award-he is in Singapore for a week’s visit.

Despite a busy programme of lectures and autographing his book at several book-stores, Manoj Das is unfailingly courteous and cordial.

The local Sri Aurobindo Society invited him to deliver a series of lectures and talks, including a discourse to students of the National University of Singapore.

Manoj Das is a follower of Sri Aurobindo, a visionary philosopher and mystic who, in the early part of this century, formed his beliefs in the future of mankind in highly-charged prose and poetry.

Mr. Das is a Professor of English Literature at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education at Pondicherry, in South-eastern India.

Perhaps there was just the hint of the learned professor about him as we talked.

He was perfectly relaxed, holding his black-rimmed spectacles in hand, smiling and willing to talk about his writing, his teaching, and the source of his inspiration-Sri Aurobindo.

Manoj Das is best known in India as a prolific writer of short stories and newspaper articles in English on a variety of subjects.

He explains: “I am essentially a creative writer, though I do feature for newspapers. I started writing very early as a child. My first story was published when I was 14, in Oriya (a language of Eastern India).

"Though," he says, “that should not be taken as any certificate of merit.”

Since then he has published innumerable stories in magazines. Journals and anthologies, both in India and abroad.

Martha Foley's annual list of best stories published in the USA and Canada in 1975 includes the five stories that Manoj Das published that year.

His highly acclaimed Fables and Fantasies for Adults is a charming, sometimes whimsical, collection of contemporary satire and ancient legends retold with a fresh, thought-provoking perspective. I ask him about his penchant for fables and the slightly fantastic.

“I make fantasy a medium of comment on current problems and realistic issues. For example in Sharma and the Wonderful Lump, which is about a man who becomes a celebrity becomes a celebrity because he has the largest growth in the world on his head, my satire is directed through this fantastic situation at the sensationalistic media.”

Many of his stories revolve around princes and princesses in magical fairytale lands; doves and tigers act out very "human" scenes in moonlit forests.

Despite the ambience of fantasy, a hard core of realistic predicaments and problems underlines the stories.

This is particularly true of the intriguing little fables, ideas for which are derived from ancient Indian tales.

In fact, Manoj Das dedicates one of his stories to "the unknown yarn-spinners of yore, threads from whom have been spun into this stuff". Many of them, like Aesop’s Fables, show how the shrewd and cautious survive at the expense of those who possess far nobler virtues.

This is all very well for adults, but what about the fables that Manoj Das retells for children with enormous success?

His story, A Bride Inside a Casket and Other Tales, was published in June by Times Books International.

  He says: "I started writing children's stories out of my love for children, I do not feet happy about the stuff that they are fed.

"Of course many of fables depict a very down-to-earth view of the world. But I try to avoid stories that show the darker side of life. There is no harm in children learning that it pays to be prudent and circumspect!”

In   fact   many   of   his earlier stories have elements of the "darker side of life".

These were mainly written when, as he admits "I was a Marxist, and i was very concerned about the suffering I saw around me.”

"Among the pessimistic, cynical stories I wrote then is A Trip Into the Jungle, which illustrates the bestial aspect of man. My approach changed when I recovered my faith in humanity and its future.”

This transformation came 18 years ago when this erstwhile politically active student leader, "an undiluted materialist” came into the contact with Sri Aurobindo's vision of man's destiny.

Aurobindo too, had been a passionate revolutionary in his youth, but had eventually realised that the “only viable change comes through inner, spiritual regeneration".

Manoj   Das   explains that Sri Aurobindo’s beliefs “transcend religious or sectarian differences; in fact he did not subscribe to institutionalized religion.

“The essence of his revelation is that the evolutionary process by which man has attained the present level of material and intellectual progress will continue until man reaches a level of spiritual perfection and total harmony.

“He will then be a traveller not from darkness to light, but from light to light.”

This faith in the spiritual perfectability of man mellows the tone of Manoj Das’s satirical stories, and cynicism is absent from those that end tragically.

“The sustaining element in them is the strength and love one discovers in sorrow,” he explains.

Manoj Das and his colleagues attempt to impart a harmonious lifestyle in their school and college.

It is an extraordinary place, “not in the least career-oriented”.

“We do not award any degree or diplomas, nor do we encourage the best development of each child.”

Apart from teaching responsibilities, he also keeps busy, writing regularly for newspapers in India and abroad.

Articles by him have appeared in Hemisphere, an Australian journal, which in 1979, on the occasion of his second visit to Singapore, commissioned an account from him of Singapore Revisited.

He is back and, as always, takes an avid interest in everything around him, including reading Singapore writers. He finds them “promising”.

readers might well enjoy his writings and enter the enchanting world of wily jackals, wise kings and wistful princesses-old tales, some buried in our consciousness.

Talk by Shri Manoj Das on "The Mother" at Bhubaneswar

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.