Fleeting glimpses that never fade
MANOJ DAS : THE SHORT STORY WRITER
Unexpected nuances of life and its vicissitudes - both luminous and dark – and their revelations and interpretations.
“There are only a few good storytellers left in the world today and Manoj Das is one of them,” said Ruskin Bond in Imprint and the statement can hardly be improved upon. Of course, Manoj Das had been bracketed with Tagore and Premchand even before this by no less a person than the doyen of Indo-Anglican writing, Prof. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Yet another celebrated reviewer, M.V. Kamath, (former editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India) highlighted The in a charming way while reviewing one of his collections of short stories for The Week, the significance of Manoj Das, thus: “What is Manoj Das? A social commentator? A psychiatrist? A sly peeper into people’s hearts? Or just a plain storyteller? …Manoj Das is all this and an incorrigible Indian besides.”
There are numerous Ph.D. theses completed on the short stories of Manoj Das, yet a sensitive reader often feels that something inexplicable in his stories remains beyond the critic’s grasp. As the distinguished author and diplomat K.P.S. Menon had observed after reading the first collection of Manoj Das’s stories in English, there is in them more than meets the eye and that one realises how thin the divide between sanity and insanity is.
His stories linger in the reader’s memory for years, but that is not unusual. There are other great short stories in the literature of the world which also create that effect, but Manoj Das’s stories not only linger, they somehow enlighten, soothe and remain as a kind of invisible companion.
Satire had rarely been ennobled as an exposition of helplessness of man in the face of the unexpected, as in a story like “Mystery of the Missing Cap”; the pungency of unexploited love had rarely been so deeply felt by the reader as in “The Bridge in the Moonlit Night”; the magic of human affection had rarely been so beautifully worked out as in “The Submerged Valley”. You remember any story and reflect – or rather meditate – on it. One will invariably be led to a plane of reality that is above the factual reality, yet not divorced from it. One realises that there are planes and planes of reality interspersed with one another. One’s perception life expands.
Of many remarkable qualities of his stories one is the presence of faith even in his most conspicuously tragic stories such as “A Letter from the Last Spring” or “Lakshmi’s Adventure”. One weeps within, yet not without receiving an assurance that man live by something more than what is lost. Reena’s mother might have died, but the love she had invoked in Reena is deathless; it embraces the narrator. Lakshmi might have died; but the awakening she brings in the heart of the priest is a boost to his evolution.
Indeed, this faith in the evolution of the individual in the continuity of life through deaths is probably the invisible base of the author’s faith. This faith remains as an unpronounced vision beneath his novels too.
Manoj Das’s technique changes with remarkable ease to suit his themes. The first person narrator is often a child. That brings an outlook to the episodes that could never have been achieved with third person or omniscient point of view in narration. He also adopts tales from the Jatakas, the Panchatantra and the Kathasaritsagara and adds to them a development bridging the gap between centuries, stressing the indivisible flow of human ideas, ideals and experiences.
It is an irony that this truly great writer is not among such Indian writers who sell widely in the West. But it is also heartening that the sophisticated and the intellectually oriented publications have looked for his stories when they have to represent India.
The late Martha Foley, who annually listed the best short stories published in the United States for many years, included, in perhaps what was her last catalogue of outstanding stories, all the five short stories by Manoj Das published in the year 1975 in some of the prestigious magazines and anthologies of the U.S.A. To cite a few more examples Confrontation, a volume brought out by the Long Island University (1983), was an interesting anthology of the representative writings of Brooklyn, vis-à-vis the representative writings of the current world. The only story from Asia to find a place in the compilation was Manoj Das’s “Lakshmi’s Adventure”, a typical Indian story worth a mystic touch. Similarly, the international Number of New Orleans Review (Loyala University, 1979) chose only one story from Asia and that was Manoj Das’s “A Bridge in the Moonlit Night”. A third example is Hemisphere Annual (1982 -1983), published by the Australian Government Publishing Service for the Commonwealth Department of Education that contained only one piece of short story and that was Manoj Das’s “The Submerged Valley”.
Critic A. Russell, while reviewing The Vengeance and Other Stories, stated, “There is little doubt that Manoj Das is a great story teller of the sub-continent and he has too few peers, no matter what yardstick is applied to measure his ability as an artist… he shows how powerfully all artifices of storytelling can be used to write a story in realistic genre without any attempt at being faithful to the photographic details of facts. His world has the fullness of human psyche, with its dreams and fantasies, its awe and wonder, the height of sublimity can be courted by the depth of the fictive. He proves that the reality is richer than what realists conceived it to be” (Poetry Time1987).
A few gems from his treasure trove of short stories: