Remembering Manoj Das, One of India's Most Treasured Bilingual Writers

The author, who won multiple awards, had equal command over English and Odia.

Bhubaneswar: Manoj Das, who breathed his last at a nursing home in Puducherry on Tuesday at the age of 87, was one of the best storytellers of our time.

Among the few bilingual writers of the country Das, who was predeceased by his wife Pratigyan Devi, also an author, had equal command over English and Odia. His large body of work comprising short stories and novels reflect his deep humanism and blend human emotions with spiritual and psychic elements with dexterity.

No wonder his work impressed writers like Graham Greene who once said that Das’s books would certainly find a place on his bookshelves besides those by R.K. Narayan. “I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery,” remarked the great English novelist in a tribute to both Das and R.K. Narayan.

Honoured with Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan and bestowed with several awards including the Saraswati Samman and Sahitya Academy Award fellowship for his literary achievements, Das’s writings were marked by lucid style that captivated his readers.

Born in 1934 in the small coastal village of Shankari in Balasore district, Das’s writings focused mainly on human sufferings but they also offered enlightenment and joy. Often layered with fantasy and satire they left a deep impression on the minds of his readers. Apart from novels and short stories he also wrote poems and essays. He started writing early and his first collection of poems Satavdira Artanada was published in 1949 when he was in high school. He launched a literary magazine Diganta in 1950.

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Well known for his significant contribution to post-Independence Odia literature with outstanding works such as Tandralokara Prahari, Aakashra Isara, and Amruta Phala, Das began writing in English in 1968. Some of his best known works in English include A Tiger at Twilight, The Submerged Valley, The Bridge in the Moonlit Night, Cyclones, Mystery of the Missing Cap and Myths, Legends, Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India. In 2004, he wrote his memoir Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village.

Though a native of Odisha, Das had made Puducherry his home since 1963 as he was drawn by the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. He had moved into the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and taught English literature and philosophy at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. His literary skills were sharpened in the Ashram which remained his home till his death.

Das was also an eminent columnist who wrote for several well-known publications of the country including the Times of India. He edited the cultural magazine, The Heritage, published from Chennai between 1985 and 1989. But story telling was his forte and he has been compared with Pandit Vishnu Sharma of the Panchatantra fame for his sheer wizardry with words. He wielded his pen like the wand of a magician transporting his readers into the land of wonder. The works of Das, who is often hailed as the master of dramatic expression, have been the subject of research by scholars over the years. Eminent writer P. Raja is one of the scholars who has delved deep into his literary creations.

Das’s scholarship was complemented by his wife Pratigyan Devi who passed away in 2018 at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Puducherry at the age of 80. Daughter of eminent freedom fighter Narayan Birabara Samant and Ratnamali Jema of Kujang in Jagatsighpur district, she taught psychology and Odia literature at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. A prolific writer, she had authored several books and also translated several works of Sri Aurobindo and Maa.

There is no denying that the death of Das, who inspired a generation of writers, has created a void that the world of literature will find hard to fill. Condoling his death, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said, “Shri Das has left an indelible mark in the field of literature with his vast variety of immortal works and left a void which can never be filled.”

Governor professor Ganeshi Lal paid his tribute to the greater writer through a tweet that said, “Das would continue to inspire generations through his timeless literary works.”

Tributes have also poured in from the world of literature with eminent writer Pratibha Ray describing his death as a great loss to the literary world. She said Das was an iconic and probably the most loved author in Odia and English who will continue to live through his works.

Poet and lyricist Devdas Chhotray described Das as an unparalleled writer who had a great understanding of human nature. He said the celebrated author, in fact, elevated human experiences through his writings, something few others have been able to achieve.