By Sujata Shiven | PUBLISHED: 15, Aug 2010, 6:20 am IST | UPDATED: 01, Nov 2017, 12:50 pm IST
Manoj Das grew up amidst Nature's splendour. But he also experienced its fury when a cyclone devastated his area, followed by a famine and an epidemic that killed thousands of people. Added to that, his affluent house was twice plundered by dacoits while Manoj, aged six then, looked on with disbelief. Such ups and downs in life probably enriched his creative mind at its formative stage. And by the time he was in high school, he had already published many works in his mother tongue, Oriya.
He taught English in a college at Cuttack before he came over to Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry in 1963, where he continues to be a professor at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. He started writing in English in the late 1950s and today he can probably be called the foremost bilingual writer in India.
Why did he start writing in English? He said, "... At one stage, I felt inspired to write in English because I was haunted by the feeling that much of the Indian fiction in English that claimed to project the Indian life and situation was not doing justice to its claim. I thought born in a village just before Independence and hence living through the transition at an impressionable age, I could present through English, a chunk of genuine India".
Does he feel at home in Pondicherry? He feels he is an Indian first, wherever he is. He has lived in Pondicherry for more than four decades. He loves its ambience and has great regard for its people. Manoj Das is a formidable influence on contemporary Oriya literature. But outside Orissa, he is better known as an Indo-Anglian writer.
Which of the two aspects of his literary personality would he wish to be remembered for? "That does not depend on my choice," he said and continued, "I have a wide readership in Orissa. In English I have a trusted and serious readership, but numerically smaller. If the quality of my writing matters, both the streams of my contribution should prove lasting in their own rights."
Through his nearly 300 short stories, Manoj Das had brought about an awareness about the rural Indian life. He has been a crusader against the invasion of India's intellectual climate by decadent values. He has stressed the divinity and psychic splendour inherent in man. No wonder, he has among his admirers celebrities such as Graham Greene, Keating, Dr. K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar and so many academics in the Western world.
Staunch Aurobindonian, teacher and author, Manoj Das gave a speech recently in New Delhi, India, on the future of mankind, as envisioned in the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo.
As with every species, man evolves in himself as well. And as he evolves, he acquires new roles and sets new goals. A dacoit turns to write an epic, and a fiery communist such as Professor Manoj Das turns into an Aurobindonian, on the Mother's call. An inspired DAs visited the Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry where he met the Mother who asked the then lecturer of English to start teaching at the ashram's school. Impressed by the Mother, he readily agreed.
But how did Das turn to communism in the first place? "As a child," he recalls, "I saw my birthplace, Balasore in Orissa, India, devastated by a cyclone. The extent of human misery was shocking. I grew up searching for a remedy for human suffering and at that age, my idealistic young mind accepted communism as the final solution. But as I grew up, I realized that economic problems are not the only cause for human suffering."
From here a transformation began. "I realized that suffering is a problem of consciousness. In due course, I started reading Sri Aurobindo's works and finally found answers to the problems that had bothered me from childhood."
Prof Das recently visited Delhi, India, to deliver a lecture on 'Preface To The Future' at Sri Aurobindo Centre. Here are some excerpts from his speech:
"Today's man is so preoccupied with his present that the future remains behind the curtain of his vision. He is not ready to ponder over the future because he feels it is very uncertain, and even a little inward thought digs out memories of a past burdened with agonies and woes.
"The 20th century had begun with a hope that science and technology will establish a paradise on earth, and that the great ideals of democracy and socialism will abolish the enslavement of man. But today we see that most of these hopes have not been fulfilled and man still remains as unhappy as before. In fact, man's search for happiness leads him to newer needs, which are being created by merchants who make money by promoting their goods and eventually by selling dreams.
The old proverb that 'necessity is the mother of invention' has been transformed into 'invention is the mother of needs'. "Sri Aurobindo says in Life Divine: 'All human activities can be grossed under four heads: To know what is God, to realize light (knowledge), to attain freedom and bliss, and to become immortal.' But we see that our craving for knowledge has been reduced to hunger for gathering more information, and our pursuit for bliss has led us into a state of anarchic freedom. So what is it that is sabotaging human aspiration?
"The 20th century has seen more momentous events taking place than all the previous centuries. It witnessed the collapse of imperialism, colonialism, feudalism and monarchy. The 1980s saw a dreaded disease threatening mankind- AIDS, and then came the upsurge of terrorism. Amidst all this, one thing that has grown over the years is freedom. And the growth of freedom of the spirit is what the divine has planned as the next step in evolution.
"The Mother says: 'At one point of human history, the ego was the helper, but now the ego has become the barrier.' So if humanity is to transcend the present limited boundaries, consciousness has to leap beyond the ego. There was a time when humanity was benefited by the ambitions of Alexander, for without him the East and the West could not have met. But now the ego is more obstructing the divine plan than supporting it.
"In these changing times, we have to revise our value systems, as most of us have seen them failing to solve the problems of modern times. But above all, we have to firmly believe that amidst all the apparent chaos and confusion, there lies a divine plan trying to evolve us further into better beings."