Gopinath Mohanty

Jnapith Laureate Gopinath Mohanty
(The first writer from Orissa to have received both the Sahitya Akademi and the Jnanpith Awards is interviewed by a noted Oriya writer of the younger generation.)

Over the hills and brooks of Koraput, Orissa, the moon still appears weird and the night eerie, with stange sounds, impassable interiors-not far from the tribal hamlets.Still heard are the drum and the flute and the songs with dew-clear ideas:

On the hill beyond our hill, dear

Sweet winds blow,

On the hill beyond our hill, dear,

Blow your flute slow,

For the flowers are blooming there-

The birds are singing…

But today the dancing feet of the flower-clad women might stop, bewildered at times, with a transistor set suddenly giving out an alien note.

In the forties this region was visited only by money-lenders and landlords-and petty Government officials-whose sole purpose was to exploit the naïve forest dwellers.

Gopinat Mohanty also came here as an “outsider”. But he moved and camped amidst these forsaken people, giving them justice as a magistrate and, as a writer, conquering for Oriya literature horizons till them uncharted, characters till then unknown.

Gopinat was the first recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award for Oriya. That was for his “Amrutar Santan”. Coursing through that thousand-page prose epic on the tribal world, once becomes a participant in the fascinating rituals, one hears the roar of the tigers and the murmur of the brooks and, at an unguarded moment, one might feel provoked to shout a warning at an innocent man falling into the clutches of the money-lender.

But in this genre of his works, his supreme achievement is “Paraja”, a story with convincing drama, ending with a long tormented father and his sons suddenly killing their tormentor, a sahukar, and reporting themselves at the police station.

Gopinath’s ken is not limited to the laughter and tears of the tribals.

In “Mati Matala”-for which Gopinath received the Jnanpith Award-the hero is a young idealist and the heroine grows into one. The idealism is bred in a Gandhian climate, but it transcends the Gandhian climate, but it transcends the Gandhian scope and reaches a point where both philosophy and the hard realities of life are hitched to a dynamic force, an inner freedom, almost spiritual. Within this frame the life of rural Orissa is vividly portrayed. Inspired visionaries are tried by collective pettiness. Then comes a devastating flood. It washes away many things. The vastness of the calamity provides one with the occasion for some lofty dreams, man’s deathless aspirations, and a better dawn is indicated.

Gopinath narrated a series of astounding experiences which could only be categorized as occult or extrasensory. Here is one of them:

Born in 1914, Gopinat entered Government service after obtaining a Master’s degree in English.

It was eveing when I met him amidst his collection of mementos of the tribal world and the pictures of Lord Jagannath, Sri Ramakrishna,Sarda Devi,Christ, Tagore, Lenin and Gandhi.

I remember my first meeting with him, in my college days, in the fifties. I had been picked up by a budding film company to prepare a script for one of his novels. With great enthusiasm I had tried to explain to the author the dramatic potency of his works! (The film was to be produced in Hindi, Oriya and Bengali. I was sent to Bombay where I worked on the screenplay with Nabendu Ghosh. But the ambitious project collapsed.)My respect for him was great them. But two decades later it was even greater-perhaps in keeping with the growth of my literary sensibility-and I was fortunately less enthusiastic to talk. My assignment was to make him talk.

It was the influence of Kahnucharan, his elder brother (another celebrated Oriya novelist), and the nationalist movement which inspired him to take up the pen and the first production was a poem. When he was posted in Koraput District, he was greatly agitated over the inhuman exploitation of the poor tribals. He paid frequent visits into the difficult region to make a study of their plight and was overwhelmed by their philosophy and way of life. They too began to believe him and love him.”They would sit as close o you as possible, would feel happy to light their pikas from your cheroot and their goats would put their mouths into your pocket.”

The Magic Garment

It was a rainy noon when he readied a village one day. The people were anxious to find a leaf-umbrella. But Gopinath Said, “Do not bother. Mine is a waterproof overcoat.” They were amused to observe water slipping off his coat. Soon it became a small festival— their women collecting cups of water and splashing them on his overcoat and giggling, amused at the magic garment.

Can an external event or situation make a writer? Or does it only give a direction to the writer in whom the creative inspiration is already existent?”I asked.

“External events certainly do influence a writer but the basic inspiration cannot be created by them.”

We were interrupted by two gentlemen from a distant town. They had organised a gala reception for the Jnapith Laureate.

“Thank you for the proposed reception. But please allow me to stay away from the function. It is rather awkward to sit before the audience listening to one’s own praise.”

The organizers were no doubt disappointed. But they were too gentle to press. We resumed out talk after they left.

“To many this experience of the inner inspiration sounds vague. Can you give some concrete instance?”

Gopinath said: “I do not write anything until I see a clear vision of the thing. If there is only a vague feeling about the vision, I just wait-or play on my flute. Then it begins to take shape…”

Once, while he was stationed at Puri, there was a big flood in the district. Once morning he took a small boat and with a few lieutenants left for relief work. After a full day’s tiresome journey, their boat got stuck to a hidden mound on the outskirts of a submerged village.

It as a moonlit night. All aboard, except Gopinath, sank into sleep or stupor.

“Where was the need for me take all this trouble? Why did I come at all?” mused Gopinath in his aloneness.

“There was a need, of course!”an inaudible voice assured him. Then, while his own imagination remained completely passive, something went on narrating to him the story of a certain frail and beautiful girl-a daughter of the family of Padhans who, after an unfortunate love-affair, had committed suicide there.

“Now I know why I am here, o my daughter. I invoke the grace of Providence. Let your spirit rest in peace!”Gopinath uttered, as he did the tarpana, offering palmfuls of water to heaven. He continued to do it throughout the night.

“You are speaking about the daughter of the Padhans, I take it!” said Gopinath.

(The Illustrated Weekly of India, November 10, 1974)

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.