On his creative Process

Interview by Prof. P Raja

What would you say makes the writer different from other people?

That he can write.

What made you think of becoming a writer?

I do not remember having ever thought of becoming a writer. By the time any thought about it came, I was already writing. Somehow, in my childhood I took it for granted that I must write. The feeling was as natural as a child’s feeling of his right to everybody’s love.

Do you, like Hemingway, follow any strict schedule in writing?

If you mean creative writing, no. I follow a schedule in doing a lot of commissioned writing. The creative writing has often to wait. The reverse ought to be the ideal condition though.

How many words of writing do you consider a good day’s work?

Again, if you mean creative writing, say a thousand words. But I should be satisfied even if I could write 500 words.

How much of your writing is based on personal experience?

Much depends on what one understands by personal experience. There are different planes of experience. A writer, I believe, is gifted with subtle receptivity. An insignificant incident, a gesture, a frown, might communicate to him a lot while they might not mean much to another. A writer won’t have to live with a courtesan in order to portray her character; a mere smile of hers might be revealing enough for him. So, it is gathering experience in a symbolic manner. It is intuition and imaginativeness on which the writer banks. If he were to go through the experience of everything he narrates, a whole life won’t be sufficient to gather experience enough for a single novel.

Who inspired you most?

The great storytellers of ancient India…like Somadeva and Vishnu Sharma and the unknown lot who built the vast heritage of Indian folklore. I lived in villages till I was fourteen allowing myths and folklore to cast their spell on me. In my mother-tongue, Fakir Mohan Senapathy, the Father of Modern Oriya fiction was perhaps the greatest single factor of influence on me.

What would like to say about the direct and indirect influences on your style?

There must be numerous influences. It is difficult to pinpoint them. While my style in all my stories must be showing some distinct common trait, I hope, they are also marked by difference. As you know, I have a number of stories belonging to the genre of fantasies. They surely differ in their style from those worked out within a realistic frame.

An influence may be very subtle. I have a short story called ‘The Story of A Strange Lost Journey’. The setting is a forest and the characters are animals. Their activities have some resemblance with those of the politicians. I had not read George Orwell’s Animal Farm when I wrote that. The resemblance between the styles of my story and the Animal Farm could be traced to some earlier writing of the same genre, may be to the experiments of the good old Aesop. Sometimes I am afraid of reading much lest I am discouraged to execute an inspiration at coming across a similar execution done by someone else. Luckily or otherwise, I am a poor reader.

Evelyn Waugh once declared, Many writers think in terms of pictures, some in ideas and a few in words”. To which category of writers do you belong? Why?

I believe, there are also others in whom creative inspiration must be getting formulated in a combination of all these terms. I might be taken as belonging to that category. But all this – pictures or words – belong to the plane of thought. Often the origin of the creative urge is to be traced to the plane different from the plane of thought.

Film makers, it is said, are of two types. One makes commercially successful movies for filling up their coffers. The other makes art movies to fill up their reception halls with awards. What is said of film makers is true of writers too. What do you write for?

Writing for me had been one of my very normal functions in life. And certainly when I write with a social commitment so far as my newspaper columns were concerned, there is no question of expecting any kind of commercial gain out of them. It is a social commitment, because I am a member of the society. As you know flowers bloom on their own. Some flowers are sold in the market. They bring money. And so far as my creative writing is concerned, apart from my basic inspiration which I believe comes from Providence, some flowers go to deities. I offer them to our heritage…I offer them to the Indian tradition, to the people of India who deserve much better writing because they have been lucky to be fed by the loftiest literary tradition. So I write because I must write. And when awards come or when commercially I get something gross in terms of financial benefit they are welcome and that’s all.

You believe in Mysticism. Will not this belief curb your creativity?

It ought to be the other way round. Mysticism is expected to give you a touch of inner freedom, a touch that snaps many a bond to taboos and limitations. But do I bring mysticism into my stories at the cost of natural demands of fiction? Never.

In an interview you had said that you were not a good student. How did you master the English language so well – so much so that even the prestigious Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes has given acknowledgement to you by using a quote from you to illustrate a word and its sense. Of course, you can say that even Shakespeare or for that matter any number of great writers has nothing to do with academic education. But they wrote in their mother-tongues.

So far as the Oxford Dictionary’s gesture is concerned it is a tribute to the plasticity and receptivity of the English language – one of the secrets of its wide acceptance. So far as my writing in English is concerned, one’s intimacy with a language does not depend on one’s interest in classroom lessons. I believe that there is a spirit, a divine genius, behind every language, a belief quite close to that of goddess Saraswati presiding over the spirits of literature – and, with humility and love, one can approach that spirit and gain a certain personal access to the glorious citadel of a language.

Way back in 1971 when Mr.Alan Maclean of Macmillan, London, chose one of your stories for an anthology he edited, most of the contributors to which were, or are by now well known writers in Britain, he is said to have observed that after a long search he had at last found a story which was genuinely Indian by both its theme and language, even though the language was English. How did you achieve that kind of idiom which retained its very natural Indianness without sounding artificial in a foreign tongue?

Several factors must have contributed to it. You struggle to achieve felicity in expression when you have some intense feeling for what you wish to say. I was born in a typical village and grew up through an avalanche of rapid experiences, memorable ones – like a great cyclone, a terrible famine, our ancient household and the treasures of my ancestors being looted by bandits not once but twice before my blinking eyes, reducing us to penury. These experiences must have aroused a long range of emotions in me. Loving and innocent rural characters of the day, noble even in their distress, left an indelible impression on me. My initiation into feeling the spirit of Mother India, mostly through the anguish, compassion, patience and spiritual leanings of my own mother, apart from the sorrows and joys of the multitudes around us, was unmistakable. Then there remained the issue of its expression. Well, I never thought that expression – I mean literary expression – was something extraneous. I somehow took it for granted that it was one of natural functions. Hence I wrote, without being conscious that I was doing anything special, from a very early age. But that was in Oriya. I resolved to write in English, when a student, under a certain provocation. Someone praised a work as representative of Indian life, but it was a grotesque misrepresentation of Indian characters as well as situations. It was then that I decided to present the India I knew to be true. Of course, some years passed between my resolution and its execution.

I understand that in Oriya you were well known as a poet before taking to short story writing. Why don’t you write poetry in English?

As I told you, it was an anxiety to project Indian life that motivated me to write in English. What I meant by Indian life could best be portrayed through prose. My purpose was rather limited. Poetry, I mean true poetry, is born of a vaster inspiration. Secondly, I believe that genuine poetry can be written only in one’s mother-tongue, the language in which ideas and objects found their first formulation and definition in one’s mind, the language in which the poet, as a child, first blabbered out his emotions, struggled to express himself, the language in which he first described his dreams and reveries. This is the general rule to which exceptions are there, but rare.

While preparing my Ph.D. thesis on your fiction, I came across numerous passages which, I felt, could pass on as excellent poems if they were printed in uneven lines, the sentence broken, what about them?

What about them? Do they disprove what I said? After all, both creative prose and poetry are literature. There cannot be an inviolable wall between them. They may be like day and night but always meeting at twilight. The more prolonged the twilight the better!

In some of your best creations, such as the novelette ‘Dusky Horizon’ included in FAREWELL TO A GHOST (Penguin Books) the narrative magic is so enchanting that even when readers shed tears because of its overwhelming tragic sequence, they cannot pause until they finish the piece. Some people have traced this charm to your poetic handling of the narration.

The setting of the novelette is rural India which abounds with poetry.

Is that enough?

No. The rest is the art, as mysterious as poetry.

Do you believe that art is mysterious?

Yes, but not mystifying. Art is an indication of possibilities beyond the gross existence. A flower or a rainbow is Nature’s art. A charming piece of literature or music or painting is human art.

Your statement, to some extent, explains a significant element in some of your stories, the meeting of the real and the surreal. Let’s take for example, your short story ‘The Bridge in the Moonlit night’. An old man suddenly discovers that his love offered to a girl some sixty years ago had not gone in vain; she had responded to it, but the bearer of her letter had torn it to shreds and let the air carry them into the river under the bridge. He quietly dies in his easy chair while listening to the bearer’s confession, but one of his friends claims to see him from a distance, as if he was searching for something under the bridge at that very moment. You don’t make it clear whether it was the friend’s hallucination or really the old man’s spirit, after its sudden departure from its body, was looking for it. Probably you personally believe in the second possibility. Am I right?


Do you believe in the Supernatural?

I do. You see, supernatural is a relative experience. There are several planes of reality. I think I illustrated this point somewhere earlier through an imagery. Some mountaineers have set up a camp at the base of the mountain, some are in a tent midway and some are spending the night in a tent atop the mountain. At dawn the middle-campers are sending signals to the base-campers asking them to get up. The base-campers are vexed, for according to them it is still dark. Those atop the hill can already see the Sun about to rise, but they dismiss neither the middle-campers’ reading of the situation, nor the base campers’. From their relative points of ascent, all the three perceptions are true.

Is that the reason why you do not impose our beliefs on the reader and leave them to come to their own conclusion, not only in ‘The Bridge in the Moonlit Night’ but also in a story like’ Farewell to a Ghost’ where, despite the whole village sympathising with their solitary ghost residing in the deserted villa, you never show the ghost to the reader?

That’s right. But apart from the matter of beliefs, such restraints are also demanded by the art.

You spoke about the inspiration. Will you explain the idea?

That is a profound subject. I have written an article in the Sunday magazine section of The Hindu (Oct. 6, 1996) showing five streams of literature. I wondered what impelled a Vyasa or Valmiki to write. They had no claim to amenities or rewards as we writers have. They wrote out of their inspiration. Then there are works designed to achieve a worthy goal, like the Panchatantra, or the Jatakas or Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Mulk Raj Anand’s Two Leaves and a Bud. They are inspired works which entertain and project life in its vicissitudes. They too are fine – from the Kathasaritsagara to many classic novels of our time.

But then comes the fourth stream, literature subordinated to pure commercial motive – with pornography for its forte. The fifth stream is hardly literature – literature for utility. Like art being at the service of decorating a drawing room, certainly nothing wrong, literature here is used to glorify advertising, political manifesto, etc.

As you can easily see, in the first three steams inspiration plays a vital role – along with motivation in the second and the third streams. Of course, the quality of inspiration can be different from stream to stream and then from work to work. But so far as the fourth and the fifth streams are concerned, there is nothing but motivation.

Inspiration, needless to say, is much relevant to poetry. And there are planes and planes of inspiration. Let me show a passage in Sri Aurobindo’s epic Savitri:

The genius too receives from some high fount
Concealed in a supernal secrecy
The work that gives him an immortal name.
The word, the form, the charm, the glory and grace
Are missioned sparks from a stupendous fire;
A sample from the laboratory of God
Of which he holds the patent upon earth,
Comes to him wrapped in golden coverings;
He listens for Inspiration’s postman knock
And takes delivery of the priceless gift
A little spoilt by the receiver mind
Or mixed with the manufacture of his brain;
When least defaced, then is it most divine. (p.542)
  What motivates you to write?
My best stories and all my poems (the latter only in Oriya)are written out of creative inspiration; some are written out of simple creative joy; some are out of commitment to society. The columns I wrote for the newspapers were motivated by the last. My books for the young are mostly out of a sense of duty towards and love for the young. But there are also creative works among my books for children like The Fourth Friend, Legend of the Golden Valley.

Prof Manoj Das for April Conference 2016

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.