MY FIRST MEETING WITH MANOJ DAS
1975 The most unforgettable year in my life. It honoured me with a post-graduate degree in English language and literature, found for me a decent and well-pad job and above all blessed me with the art of wielding the pen.
When I took up job as an English teacher in a government arts college, named after a very famous Tamil Writer-cum-Politician, Arignar Anna, at Karaikal, I had to be away, from home, from my loving parents and affectionate friends. And so my only companions were books and magazines.
Karaikal, though not a tourist spot, inspired me a lot. My first effusion saw the light of day in the Arignar Anna Govt. Arts. College magazine (1975-76). I was really overjoyed to see my first piece of writing titled ‘Laughing Gas Larni’ reproduced, without my permission, of course, in the Aug, 15, 1976 special issue of Youth Age, a literary magazine from my native place, Pondicherry. The gracious act of the editor encouraged and prodded me to write more. And Youth Age regularly published my writing that soon. began to branch out.
I started as a writer of literary articles. Soon I discovered the short story writer, poet, critic and playwright in me.
Every issue of Youth Age carried a few letters in its ‘Letters to the Editor’ column, all in praise of my writings. But what began to haunt me was a small boxed up letter from the editor, Mr. George Moses. The open letter was an invitation for me to meet him at his office-cum residence when I found time to go to Pondicherry.
I was back to my native place to spend my hard earned summer holidays… three full months. I never in the least had thought that it was, going to be a different experience, different from all the other vacations I had enjoyed in my life both as a school boy and later as a college goer.
Mr. George Moses, a retired Superintendent of Police, was perhaps unaware of my nativity when I met him on a very hot morning in his office, walled with books mostly Indian history and fiction, and a big wooden table on which sat a cute little portable Olivetti typewriter. After an hour long chit-chat, he said: “You are my find. Very rarely we come across Tamils who write in English. I think interaction with other writers will help you.”
“Oh God! I’m craving to meet writers. But I don’t know where to find them,” I said betraying my ignorance.
“Go to Sri Aurobindo Ashram. You will find them in plenty. Almost everyone is a writer there,” he said smiling and added after a pause, “For a start I’ll introduce you to the trio I admire most. Then you will get to know more such scribes on you own.”
George Moses kept his word. He introduced me to Mr. K. D. Sethna, editor of cultural monthly, Mother India, and to Shri M.P. Pandit, editor of The Advent and World Union, a quarterly and a monthly respectively.
Not only were they editors but also authors of several books. How they treated me and moulded my career as a writer was an altogether different story. And I have told it elsewhere.
“Who is the third one, Sir? I’m quite curious to know,” I enquired George Moses.
“Well! Sethna and Pandit are non-fiction writers. But the third writer I intend to introduce you to is a well known fiction writer. Let us try our luck on the next Friday. If everything goes on well we will meet Mr. Manoj Das.”
“What ? Manoj Das !” I jumped in joy for the name was quite familiar to me. “Is he in the ashram ?”
George Moses perhaps studied my reaction and asked, “I hope you know him?”
“I know him through his short stories,” I replied. “I have read several of them in Imprint and the Sunday magazine sections of The Hindu. I like them very much.”
“I’m his admirer too,” he said with all seriousness.
“For sheer readability on an Indian theme or situation, there can be few writers as acceptable as Manoj Das,” I commented.
“I agree with you. Manoj Das as a man is as chaining as his stories,” he added.
I reached home dreaming of the coming Friday.
Friday came…. the much expected Friday. I drove my Pushpak scooter to the residence of Mr. George Moses.
We drove to, Easwaran Dharmaraja Koil street, a five km distance. On the way George Moses waxed eloquent about his friendship with Manoj Das and he gave me ample reasons as to why he valued the writer’s friendship.
“Stop here,” said George Moses pressing my shoulders. My vehicle pulled up with a screech. The house was only a stone’s throw from Bharathi Museum, once a house in which the eminent Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi spent a major chunk of his highly creative period.
George Moses pressed the door bell. It was answered by a lady in white sari and blouse. She should be in her early thirties. Later I came to know that she was Mrs. Manoj Das. I mistook her for a Tamil lady for she spoke the regional language like the local people.
“Manoj Das is in the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education, engaging a class. He will be back by 10.30. Please come in.” said Mrs. Das.
George Moses looked at his watch. “Oh! It’s already 10.30.”
“Then he should be on the way,” she said as she ushered us into the reception hall of the house.
I was really amazed to see no walls but only wooden almirahs with glass doors exhibiting the works of the best writers of the world. Books on spirituality, religion, folklore, psychology, philosophy, sociology, coffee table books on several cities of the world, encyclopedias .and several volumes of reference found their respective place.
I knew from my reading of magazines and newspapers that Manoj Das was a prolific’ reviewer of books. I learnt from his collection that he was a wide traveller and lover of books.
“A writer is one who knows something about everything. Manoj Das is a good example,” applauded George Moses.
“His library speaks volumes about his personality,” I added as I feasted my eyes upon his vast collection of books.
Just then we heard someone throw open the heavy main door wide. Manoj Das entered pushing his bicycle in. He parked it one comer of the hall.
George Moses sprang up from his seat as a mark of respect. I was really surprised to see him stand in attention. ‘Surprised’ because he was one man who commanded the entire police force of the Union Territory of Pondicherry. And that set me wondering if it was the writer in him who wanted to respect another writer or was it Manoj Das, the man who commanded respect.
“What a pleasant surprise, Mr. George*1! think it is ages since we met,” said Manoj Das as he hugged him.
I Stood staring at him.
Drooping moustache, flowing beard, grey hair touching the shoulders, a loose white pyjamas and an equally white loose long shirt extending beyond his knees, thick spectacled…
That was Manoj Das of my imagination. But his presence shattered all that to smithereens. Neither his hair-do, nor his dress nor his cheerful and friendly demeanour proclaimed him as a writer. In fact, when my observant eyes noticed his right sleeve coming apart at the seams, I was certain that he never in the least bothered about his appearance. And that impressed me very much.
Snacks and tea arrived. Passing on a bowl of chum-chum to me he asked “Who is this young man?”
“He is Mr. P. Raja, a young professor-cum-writer. He contributes regularly to my monthly. I’m sure he’ll come up. All that he needs is only contact. Interaction with established writers like you will help in the long run. That’s why I brought him here.”
Manoj Das shook hands with me.
“It’s nice to shake the hand that writes,” I sad.
That was the beginning of our long and continuing friendship. Nearly twenty-five years have passed.