Dr. Bhagabat Nayak
THE FICTIONAL WORLD OF MANOJ DAS
A STUDY OF MAGIC AND MYSTRY
Dr. Bhagabat Nayak
Head, Department of English, Kujang College, Kujang, Jagatsinghpur-754141, Odisha
From a card carrying communist to a votary of Sri Aurobihdo’s mystical teaching and student of Integral Yoga, Manoj Das has a quaint progress in the field of fiction writing both in Oriya and English. As a bilingual writer, critic, columnist, educationist he has filled a gap when Indian short story writing in English was in shortage of a writer in English was in shortage of a writer like Mulk Raj Anand, R,K. Narayan and Raja Rao who had popularized Indian short stories in English. Das never writes bed time stories but they are the ‘lorries’ which narrate the character and condition of every contemporary individual of his time. Gone are the days when the Indian short story writers were drawing inspiration from ancient Indian fables and tales from the Panchatantra, the Jataka Tales and the Kathasaritsagara. Story telling for Manoj Das is a charming form of art to create a world of unity and impression. Unlike Ruskin Bond he writes his stories differently on regional set ups with a pan-Indian and universal touch.
Indian English short story had its beginning with Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s Realities of Indian life; Stories Collected from the Criminal Reports of India (1885), grown in the hands of Shankar Ram, A.S.P. Ayyar, S.K. Chettur, Manjeri Isvaran, and the great trios-Anand, Narayan and Raja Rao; and development in the hands of Bhabani Bhattacharya, Khushwant Singh, Manohar Malgonkar, Chaman Nahal, Ruskin Bond, Manoj Das, R.P. Jhabvala and Anita Desai. Although its dimension is extended from regional to continental subject matters in the hands of a few writers like Kamala Das, Anita Desai, Dina Mehta, Shashi Deshpande, Vikram Chandra, Shiv K. Kumar in the regional level writers like Ruskin Bond and Manoj Das still continue their writing and consistently attempt to make the local into global in their stories.
In early Indian English short stories mostly mythological tales are retold. The story collections of Cornelia Sorabji in her “ Love and life Behind the Purdah” (1901)“Sunbabies: Studies in the child Life of India”(1904), “Between the Twilights” (1908) and “Indian Tales of the Great Ones Among Men, Women and Bird-People” (1916) are mostly the studies of Hindu and Parsi life in both princely and plebian circles. They were chiefly on anecdotes and character sketches. During the Gandhian era stories were mostly in artless and sentimental form with conventional motifs. The stories written during this time were mostly on the themes of social reform and plight of woman in traditional Hindu society where young girls were married to old men for money by their parents, abandoned or persecuted wives, victims of the dowry system or on the absence of birth control. Often the stories were written in autobiographical mode or in epistolary method with the imagination accomplishing “a willing suspension of disbelief in the readers’ mind. Manjeri Isvaran theorises short story in his ‘preface’ to “A Madras Admiral” (1959):
A short story can be a fable or a parable, real or fantasy, a true presentation or a parody, sentimental or satirical; serious in intent or a light hearted diversion; it can be any of these, but to be memorable it must catch the eternal in the casual, invest a moment with the immensity of time (qtd. in Naik 179).
Short stories written for more than seven decades from 1930s to the first decade of twenty-first century cover the contemporary environment with the treatment of fantasy and supernatural elements, flowery style, innate sentimentality and touch of human psychology. Although some of the story writers wrote their stories approximating to the technique of the folktale and with the influence of fairy stories they have revealed a wide-ranging mood and tone. In the pre-independence era stories were written with strong social awareness, a touch of inevitable clash between tradition and modernity, experience of universal human plight, tell-tale marks of militant leftism and leftist propaganda. In the post-Independence era stories were chiefly written on striking incidents from Indian history with heavy-handed satire in several aspects of modern Indian life, glimpses of several areas such as army life, espionage, hunting, mining, I smuggling, treasure seeking and amusing anecdotes covering the theme of partition, and its aftermath.
In the post-Independence period Ruskin Bond and Manoj Das have established a long tradition of story writing. Although they have been writing for a long time with a flair their stories never become pale in the post-colonial time. The strange similarity is that both the story writers never create the locales like R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex in their stories but they deliberately draw the fictional canvas of their stories on the contours of Dehradun and North-Orissa. While Bond’s fictional imagination greatly deals with the-great affinity between trees and men’, in Das’s stories his characters oxygenize in North Orissa’s vegetation and socio-political environment.
Manoj Das is one of the doyens of Indian short story writing in English has more than eighty books to his credit. Although his first book is a collection of poems, Shatabdira Artanada in Oriya, published in 1949 while he was a student of class nine he has written a number of novels, collection of poems, travelogues and more than twenty collections of short stories both in Oriya and English. Das’s political life is brief but it is very much demonstrative in his stories. In 1956 he had participated in students’ and peasants’ demonstration for which he had to undergo for a while and was in jail on charges of sedition and attempting to overthrow the government. He was also included in the Indian delegation to the Afro-Asian students’ conference at Bondung in Indonesia. He is a believer in radical Marxism and revolutionary spiritualism. But after the Soviet dictator, Stalin’s fall from grace Das had a mental upheaval. He searched for various causes to believe in and pondered over the nature of suffering. After reading some of the writings of Sri Aurobindo he had his exposition of individual as a transitory and evolving being. His quest for knowing the nature of suffering and the meaning of life drew him to the Mother at the Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, in 1963. Since then he has been mostly living there as a member of teaching faculty. At present he travels outside to give lectures in various universities or to receive doctorates and other honours. He also remains as a member of the general board of the Sahitya Akademi. Besides his creative writings he has written some authoritative treatises on Sri Aurobindo and writes regular columns for several national dailies.
Das’s major writings are stories and novels. His novels-are limited in number but stories are published in several collections. From 1967 to 1977 he has four collections of short stories. They are Song For Sunday and Other Stories (1967), Short Stories (1969), The Crocodile’s Lady (1975) and Fables and Fantasies For Adults (1977). But his later collections like The Submerged Valley and Other Stories (1986), Bulldozers and Fables and Fantasies for Adults (1 990), The Miracle and Other Stories (1993) and Farewell to a Ghost (1994) deal with the various aspects of life and society and the change of human condition due to urbanization and industrialization that result helplessness, agony and loneliness. His themes are wide ranging, his world is warm and palpable. His characters are known by their intensity. His stories have always hints of pathos, humour, subdued irony, gentle mockery, fantasy, dubious nature of individual, satire and contemporary situation with psychological delineations. As an acclaimed novelist and short story writer, and genuine poet he always establishes his spontaneity and impressions of innocence. All his stories are mere edits of his memory and products of his brain and heart. The miracle of his language and the miracle of communication, cadence of the flow of words, and visual images in his writings form a magic world in his fictional imagination.
Magic and mystery are the two major aspects of Das’s fictional imagination. His narrative style is marvelous, startling, wonderful and exciting for the creation of people, places and situations. His art of narration creates wonders, enchantment, and sorcery of producing illusions. He presents the secret or mysterious power of nature over events, human imagination or will. His investing the powers of nature, environment and imagination appears like legerdemain. Similarly the plot and theme of his novels and stories have some hidden meaning from the ordinary readers but they reveal some meaning and purpose to the spiritually enlightened minds. Often his plots are obscure to understand and beyond the common man’s knowledge to explain. His fictional plots are so artistically drawn on fables, fantasy, history, mythology and contemporary incidents that they are difficult and incomprehensible to understand. His characters include prince and princess, kings and queens, ministers and courtiers; supernatural characters like ghosts, apparitions; and common animal characters like crocodile, tiger, turtle, and monkey, Some characters like saints, sadhus, tantriks, astrologers, exorcizers, necromancers and typical human personas play their respective roles. North Orissan landscape, local politics, traditional beliefs, customs of people, human nature in particular and everyday situations in life dominate the theme of his stories. The people he presents get fed up with the upper class, bureaucrats and ministers who advise them to do something but in practice they do something reverse. He presents the attitude of the bureaucrats and ministers in the government that makes the common people frustrated. As a result the common people develop hatred and distrust for upper class hypocrisy. His characters are all types. He has a strong and curious fascination for them. Through his characters he intends to criticize something or someone and makes them patented under the hallmark of his imagination.
There are two Orissas –the traditional and the post modern in Manoj Das’s fictional world. While his traditional world is predominantly marked with the treatment of fables, fantasies, history, mythology, mysticism, superstition, rural scene and rustics; the post modern world projects contemporary society and politics, impact of industrialization and urbanization, the role of bureaucrats and ministers, and government’s attitude to common men. He projects these elements as the magic compound in his narrative technique. At the same time his characters, narration of situations and understanding of human nature are full of mystery. For the portrayal of locales and landscapes he almost appears like an Indian Hardy, forgiving a psychological dimension to his characters he appears to be an Indian Maugham, for speaking philosophy in the mouth of his characters with a touch of didacticism he appears like an Indian Chekov, and for giving a surprise ending he establishes his identity as an Indian 0′ Henry. Above all the incidents and situations he deals with in his stories are local in colour and he carves them on the contours of Orissa with the renderings of truth and realism. While dealing with individual’s basic attitude to life in his stories he maintains universality.
The imagination of plots for his novels and stories is always natural and spontaneous. In novels and short stories “His fond characters are mostly ordinary mortals, village folks much familiar to us. They exchange their pains and pleasures, small griefs and sufferings, convey confessions and conundrums” (Bhattacharjee 2). He has always the tendency to project the shifting, transforming and ever changing native world and its landscape which becomes a symbol of the power of the oppressed and the neglected who act as a revolutionary force to resist and dismantle the static, fixed and conservative force of the upper class and bureaucracy in the government. In a sense his realism exposes the complexities and contradictions of postmodern and post colonial life. Although he appears to be supra-rational in his interaction with the situations, events and individual’s life he makes a more realistic presentation. The shifting patterns of ordinary events, narration of fantastic mysterious and dreamlike elements from myth and fairy tales in his plots are the new experiments in his story writing. His imagination in fiction writing is based on fantastic, mythical, nightmarish serious or trivial, horrible or ludicrous, tragic or comic elements. They are though inventive but highly effective and evocative. In a sense magical realism in found in his fond imagination. When he is asked about it in an interview he says: “I have never felt inclined to classify my fiction or indentify elements in them. I find “magic realism” -what the term conjures up in my vision – abundantly present in the Mahabharata and Homer’s Ulysses” (The Hindu Literary Review. January7,2007:2). But in his fictional imagination he has emphasized the urge to perceive reality in some sense unreal, and the unreal as in some sense embodying the real. His vision and revolutionary social representation are integral to the magical presentation of social realism. In his fiction “Magical realism reflects the shifting, transformative, overcharging native world and even its very tropical landscape, which becomes for him a symbol of power of the colonized and oppressed to act as a revolutionary force and to resist and dismantle the static, fixed and conservative force… (Childs & Fowler 134- 35).
While making an approach to Manoj Das’s fictional world and treatment of magic and mystery in it the paper is aimed at analyzing a few of his novels and selected short stories. Choosing two of his best novels for a brief analysis the paper focuses on his imagination and recollection of past memory in Cyclones (1987) and magical realism in Amrita Phala (1996). In Cyclones he presents nature’s fury during a devastating cyclone in the pre-independence era in 1942 that had caused irreparable loss to North-Orissa. But this had left an indelible impression in his mind. The novel is partly a memoir and partly a surrealistic presentation of the condition of the people in North- Orissa who appear to be the recurrent victims of this natural calamity. About the novel, Cyclones, he says in an interview:
Mine was a charming village on the sea, inhabited by people kind and courteous. A terrible cyclone ruined all, ushering in famine and epidemic. The human misery kindled in me the search for a panacea. I found the answer in Marxism. That was an exciting time. The communist movement was still undivided (The Hindu Literary Review. January 7,2007:2).
This memory of childhood in his native village, Sankhari in the district of Balasore still harkens to his mind to with the recollection of situations after the cyclone in 1942. This enables him to give a picture of so many starving people which still rankles in him. Nilova Roy Chaudhury rightly, remarks:
A devastating cyclone swept through the village when he was eight. Only his house survived. The subsequent misery of hundreds of famine- afflicted people, many collapsing and dying of hunger by the wayside, left him traumatized… Cyclones, recounts in some measure the destruction wrought by the cyclone in 1942, set against the backdrop of pre-partition India, while simultaneously evoking the reactions of intense storms, both internal and external, and their impact on the mind and development of the protagonist of the novel, the idealist scion of a zamindar family, Sandip Chowdhury (3).
The cyclone that had caused devastation in his remote village Sankhari closeto the Orissa- Bengal border is very similar to the destruction of the most recent Super-Cyclone of 1999. The novel portrays the present and prognosticates the future. Daslaments that due to the cyclone the extraordinary beauty of his village was lost. He hasa jolt to his young mind that gradually left him groping for the real truth behind thefacade of reality. –
Amrita Phala is Manoj Das’s one of the best novels ever written in Oriya begged him Saraswati Samman in 2001. The novel is based on history, legend, mystery, magic and realism. Contextualising a legend in history of the first century B.C. Manoj Das postulates King Bhatruhari’s existential suffering with the Amrita Phala, a magic fruit. Amrita Phala provides long life and youth, like mythical Sanjeevani for which the divine, human and demon had a craving. The fruit possesses the power of making the ethereal into eternal and spatial into spiritual. One day while a yogi gives this fruit to Bhatruhari, the King of Ujjaini he presents it to his best loved queen Pingala. The King loves queen Pingaia more than Sindhumati, his first queen. But ironically queen Pingala gives it to a young minister who further gives it to a danseue whom he loves the best. When King Bhatruhari comes to know this it suspends his disbelief with a question – how much one can depend on his own confidence and consciousness. The magic fruit opens now the mystery of human nature for him. He gets disturbed by the magic fruit and the mystery of human nature. It becomes difficult for him to measure the vector of human feelings, emotion and confidence. He is confused with the mystery of life, love, ethic and nature of human sacrifice. In illusion he renounces the world and leaves everything to his younger brother Vikramaditya. Although the legend has different versions in different editions of history the story writer rewrites this version intending to project the past in the analysis of the present by narrating the suffering of human beings quite similar to the legend in his fictional presentation. He presents Amrita Phala as an objective co-relative to deal with man’s existential dilemma that poses the question, how much does modern man differ from his ancestor in his primeval longing for truth, bliss and immortality.
But in his fictional imagination he has emphasized the urge to perceive reality in some sense unreal,and the unreal as in other sense embodying the real. His social vision and revolutionary social representation are integral to the magical presentation of social realism. The magic of Das’s stories lies in his capacity to delineate his characters or to portray the situations with scintillating wit, genial humour and subtle and suggestive power. While writing his stories he presents some stark realism, dreamy fantasy and cryptic mystery with humorous, awesome, droll or pathetic, quiet or stormy situations. Analysing these elements in his stories it is found that “The Misty Hour” narrates about an intriguing lady Roopwati. Making her the central character of the story the story writer makes her a familiar stuff with a picturesque finesse. “The Naked” is a fine story with a mediocre end. It takes us to a time when the British Raj was on its
last legs. The hamlet of a fisher folk is the setting of the story. Rajmata of Sapanpur has asked Bhanu Singh, the scion of the hereditary senapatis to greet a group of august nudists. While discharging his duty Bhanu singh finds himself inadequate to execute the order. He grows nervous and flinched. He is lost in a moral dilemma. Bhanu Singh has an inner turmoil. The scarry atmosphere and the conflict in Bhanu Singh’s mind heighten the dramatic intensity in the story. “The Crocodile’s Lady” presents an unusual relationship of love and affection between the crocodile and crocodile’s lady. As the crocodile’s lady is unhappy and weeps bitterly the crocodile comes to her rescue. He gives her a mantra to recite to get back her human form. The crocodile’s lady seems to have forgotten her parents and is completely immersed in love. They start to swim from river to river in joy and ecstasy. The tragic end comes when the crocodile’s lady escapes from the crocodile’s control. Now crocodile, the true lover climbs the embankment and is killed. The story persuades the reader to suspend temporarily his disbelief. It is an interesting mix of the real and unreal with a flight to beauty, beyond reality.
“The Owl” is an uncanny tale. With the setting of a village Vishalpur the story writer narrates how the village had an owl in its holy shrine. One day a young desperate zamindar sahib stormed to the scene to kill the bird, the feathery friend of the villagers. The people of the village alerted him of the fear. The fierce storm in the cloudy night was an indication of ominous nature. That night the death of the bird brought a painful death to the Zamindar. The story conveys a message that happiness in order to be perfect must be general and universal in character. “The General” is a hilarious account of a life that narrates about a General named Valia who gladly accepts the proposal made by a group of young artists. Valla accepts the proposal to appear in a small and cardinal role of a commander in their play. While playing his role Valla fails to perform due to his nervousness. The storywriter narrates some ordinary things with unexpected lusture. “The Miracle” is an interesting story of our daily life in which two fake monks -Braja Vaishnav and Bulu Baba conceal their real selves and hoodwink the gullible people. “The Bridge in the Moonlit Night””is an impressive story presents its protagonist’s nostalgic mood. Sudhir recollects the moments which are scribbled in his diary book. It burns into his memory. The memory of treachery haunts him like a phantom even after sixty years. The story writer raises some questions- Is it really a pain he feels, or it a sense of quilt? Is it a story of puzzling love or of sheer stupid jealousy? Of regrets and confessions? “The Tiger at Twilight” appears like an outstanding novella. The story is set in the village Nijanpur and it records the chilling realities of a royal family. The account reveals great warmth and feeling for its gripping historical record that unravels to a crystalline story.
“Mystery of the Missing cap” presents the chaos created after the missing of the minister’s cap. Narrating the experience of the honourable minister of fisheries and fine arts Das presents how the man in the government is infuriated at the loss of his cap. Das unmistakably draws the minister who hails from his native, place and discusses the portfolios of fisheries and fine arts. Introducing two important characters, Moharana a well-to-do villager who nurtured his ambition to be a member of state legislature, and Baba Birakishore who was invited to the village by Moharana to field for latter’s entry to the legislature. The situation takes a different turn when a monkey named Jhando takes away the minister’s cap. Moharana lies before the minister and informs him that an admirer has taken away the cap because he considers it sacred. But Moharana’s hand in the missing of the cap also cannot be falsified. The story presents the treatment of masses to their politicians in the pretext behind the monkey’s taking away the cap and role of flattery that they do to please the minister. The story also reveals the hideous nature of politicians who, though good at speech, they are opposite in action in their private lives.
“The Vengeance” is a story on human relationship. In the story the protagonist pines for taking revenge on his enemy. It is interesting to see him wait and watch and spending much time to pursue him. But in the end when he finds his enemy dead he feels cheated. This makes him taunted as he feels his enemy’s death is a triumph over him. “Encounter” presents the habit of the people of one profession who look down upon the people of another profession. The story presents two classmates-a school teacher and a chauffeur who are sitting in the same canteen after years of their schooling. Now they recognize each other but don’t talk to each other because each one thinks that he is superior to the other. The story writer presents how human beings are guided by false ego and dislike for one another at the cost of their relationship. “The Murderer” is a story on the nature of man. The story has a mysterious atmosphere in which Binu is taken to be a murderer believably for his alleged involvement in killing Dabu Sahukar, a village money lender. Binu is tortured and punished for this. But after some years a Sadhu comes to that village and surprisingly he is recognized none other than Dabu Sahukar. The answer for the questions is left to the readers whether Binu killed Dabu Sahukar or he had disappeared in the forest while reluming with Binu. “The Sage of Tarungiri and Seven old Seekers” is a similar type of story like “The Miracle”. The story presents the falsity and fraud of the saints like Tukan Baba who attracts the innocent people.
“The Love Letter” is a story on individuals’ sense of propriety. The story is based on the reaction of some people to a supposedly love letter written by Geeta. The letter is actually a scrap blank paper found by a research scholar, Gautam. An interesting situation arises when Goutam pretends that he has discovered the love letter of Geeta. Many people including one, Chaudhury a man of Geeta’s father’s age becomes the claimant to this letter. Unfortunately it is found that all the claimants of the love letter pose themselves to be very close to Geeta and threaten Goutam with dire consequences. The bathos comes at the end when it is revealed that the paper is not a love letter but a blank one. The implicit irony surprises us how people irrespective of their age, position, status forget their sense of proportion and shamelessly claim that they are loved by young and beautiful girls. “The Red Red Twilight” is about the unconsummated love of Pundarik who later confronts the ghost of his beloved Kumudini. Pundarik could not marry Kurnudini because of his father, Raghav Sharrna’s opposition. When Kumudini drowns in a pond it is assumed that her spirit moves around and creates nuisance by entering the body of a young girl, Kuni. The exorcist Raghav Sharma is called for to cure Kuni. As he is not well, his son Pundarik goes to cure the girl. But in confrontation with the spirit in the little girl Pundarik recognizes that it is the spirit of Kumudini. Now Pundarik is terribly frightened of the spirit and runs to his house and hides in his father’s room. Seeing his son’s plight the exorcist father gets frightened with the impression that Pundarik is possessed by the spirit of Kumudini. The story writer presents that Kunudini takes her revenge on the father and son in her death. The story ends with a mark of poetic justice.
Manoj Das’s “The Submerged Valley” is a much appreciated story that presents the theme of postmodern India. The story combines history, psychology, realism, philosophy and basic attitude to human life. The story shows how children appreciate the parents when they find them doing their duty to the best of their ability by helping the poor and the needy. At one level it presents the psychology of a child and his sense of appreciation for his father’s innate goodness, and the impact of the industrial civilization on rural areas of the country. A dam is to be constructed in a particular area. The people of that area approached to an engineer, the narrator’s father to stop the construction of dam at any cost. He is a reasonable man and the people have enough faith in him. As he listens to them he tries to persuade them not to obstruct the construction of dam in the interest of the state. P. Raja rightly remarks:
The story is a good example of character portrayal. We meet an assortment of people visiting a rock and a temple. Once the centre of a village, but since submerged in a dam and temporarily visible as the water level goes down in summer. Among them is Abolkara (literally disobedient), a half crazy egotist who claims that he had been always there, in a mysterious way. Soon all the villagers leave their boats as the water level begins to rise. The narrator’s father, an engineer, had a tough time in persuading Abolkara to leave. He fails and returns with his family in his motor boat into the bungalow on the bank and goes over to attend a meeting (12-13).
The story reminds us about the impact of industrialization on rural people who are displaced due to the construction of dam. They at first protest and want to fight it to the last but when they realize that they are fighting a losing battle they give up. The story writer successfully recreates the village scene in Orissa and demonstrates the anxiety and agony of the native villagers who are made to vacate their places and ancestral habitations in the face of construction of a dam. The characters in the story particularly the Engineer, his wife, their children, Abolkara, the villagers and the narrator are life-like and very convincing. The changing rural scene yielding place to industrialization is a hallmark of post- colonial Indian situation. It also presents how the rustics are deeply touched when they are made to leave their places of birth.
“The irrational” is a psychological story. In the story the minister, Subrat Das visits the village Kakali to inaugurate the charitable dispensary built by Choudhurani (the landlady) in memory of Choudhury with the request of the local people. As he rests there for one night in Choudhury’s bungalow he is reminded of his young age and past days when he was working as a school teacher in Chaudhury’s house. He also takes fancy of imagining the time when Jamindar’s daughter was a fourteen year old girl and was his student.
The brief analysis of two of his novels and select short stories reveals stony writer’s concern for human plight with social realism, human nature, everyday situations, acceptance of traditional beliefs, superstitions, magical realism, mystery, uncanny atmosphere, animals, birds, ordinary creatures and native culture. In each of his fictional presentation he has human predicament and concealed truth which he draws with reason. It is observed that no two stories of Das are singularly alike in theme and they reveal a marked preference for problems confronting ordinary mortals in their day to day life. His stories are essentially studies in human character and existence. Through his characters he tries to present the inner feeling and motive of human life. He encompasses life in its immense fun, simplicity shock and serenity. It appears that either his characters are hollow men or helpless victims in the hand of an inscrutable fate. They are neither fatalists nor gallant heroes but just the common human beings.They are among us not above us, full of follies and foibles, mistakes and miseries, and enjoy life in uncertainties and inadequacies.
Nature appears almost s