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Bhaskar's Corner

Manoj Das – The Master Storyteller

Bhaskar Parichha pays a tribute to one of the greatest storytellers from the state of Odisha, India, Manoj Das( 1934-2021), who lived to be 87 and passed on from normal causes this April

“I have now read the stories of Manoj Das, with very great pleasure. He will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of Narayan (R K Narayan). I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.”

Graham Greene.

“Whenever people praise Paulo Coelho and the like, I always think of Manoj Das. What a great prolific writer we have. He could have easily reached the heights and beyond of the one Coelho reached. But he preferred the silence, simplicity and serenity to fame and glory. In this, he has lived the very values he gave us through his stories.”

— Aravindan Neelakandan, Indian Journalist

With the passing away of Manoj Das, Indian literature has lost a master storyteller who wrote bilingually — in English and his mother tongue Odia — with equal affluence. Novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, columnist and a sadhaka, Manoj Das will be remembered by generations of Odias for his literary outpouring for over half a century. Odisha-born (in a village called Sankhari in Balasore district bordering West Bengal), his fame went far beyond terrestrial limits.

Manoj Das began   writing quite early. His first work — a book of poetry in Odia — Satavdira Artanada (Cries of a Time) was published in 1949 when he was barely in high school. In 1950, he launched a literary magazine, Diganta (Horizon). His first collection of short stories Samudrara Kshudha (Hungry Sea) was published the following year. Manoj Das often cited Vyasa, and Valmiki and Fakir Mohan Senapati, as his early influences.  

He took active interest in student politics while studying for his bachelor’s degree in Cuttack’s prestigious Ravenshaw College. A youth leader with radical views, he even spent a year in jail for his revolutionary undertakings. After graduating from Puri’s SCS (Samanta Chandra Sekhara)

College, he received a postgraduate degree in English literature from Ravenshaw College. He was also a delegate to the Afro-Asian students’ conference at Bandung, Indonesia in 1959.

After a short stint as a lecturer in Cuttack’s Christ College, Manoj Das came away to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1963, where he had been professor of English Literature at the Ashram’s International Center of Education. Pondicherry (modern Puducherry) became his ‘Karma Bhoomi’ and his abode of sadhana. His quest for devoutness motivated him to become an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram of which he was an integral part till his end.

Manoj Das wrote expansively and in various genres. Poetry, novel, short story   travelogue and books on India’s history and culture dominated his works. Shesha Basantara Chithi (Spring’s Last Epistle ),Tuma Gam o Anyanya Kabita (Your Village and Other Poems) Dhumabha Diganta ( Dusky Horizon), Manojpancabimsati (Twenty-five short stories) and the most recent one, Shesha Tantrikara Sandhanare (In Quest of  the Last Tantric), are among the Odia works he is best known for. His writings in Odia have mesmerized readers for decades. 

Manoj Das has often been known as the Vishnu Sharma of modern Odia literature —   for his magnificent style and effective use of words. His   oeuvre displayed many dimensions of human nature. He was a truth-seeker, a thinker-writer whose works are defined ‘as a quest for finding the eternal truth in everyday circumstances’.

He began his English writing in 1967 with the publication of the short story collection A Song for Sunday and Other Stories. It was followed by Short Stories of Manoj Das. Both attracted commendation from literary doyens like Mulk Raj Anand, K P S Menon and K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Some of his other notable works in English are ‘ The Escapist’, ‘A Tiger at Twilight’, ‘The submerged Valley and Other Stories’, ‘The Bridge in the moonlit Night’, ‘Cyclones’, ‘Mystery of the Missing Cap’, ‘Myths’, ‘Legends’, ‘Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India’. He wrote his memoir ‘Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village (2004.) 

After the publication of ‘The Submerged Valley’, Graham Greene, whose appreciation of contemporary Indian fiction was limited to R K Narayan, wrote to Dick Batstone, publisher of the book, expressing happiness at his discovery of Das. “I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.” 

Manoj Das is best known for his dramatic expression as well as satire. His writings dealt with various social and psychological issues: displacement, natural calamities such as floods, people’s belief in ghosts and spirits, duplicitous politicians, et cetera. While his writings were social commentaries on post-Independence times, the short stories, novels, essays and poems blended physical experiences with fantasy and left an indelible impression on Indian literature.

An exponent of the philosophy of ‘Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’, Manoj Das wrote weekly columns in almost all national dailies: The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman. A whole generation of readers grew up reading his columns, which were contemporaneous and dealt with emergent issues. His newspaper writings — revealing the subterranean truth — are treasured by many.

He wrote for academic journals and periodicals too; and his international appeal grew most in the 1970s and 1980s when The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Imprint published his numerous stories. He also edited a cultural magazine, The Heritage, published by Chennai’s Chandamama group.

Awards came to Manoj Das effortlessly:  the topmost being the Saraswati Samman, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan for his lasting contribution in the field of Literature and Education. Kendriya Sahitya Akademi conferred its highest award on Manoj Das. He was Member, General Council of Sahitya Akademi, and the Author-consultant, Ministry of Education, Government of Singapore in the early eighties besides leading an Indian delegation of writers to China.

In 1971, his research in the archives of London and Edinburgh brought to light some of the little-known facts of India’s freedom struggle in the first decade of the twentieth century led by Sri Aurobindo for which he received the first Sri Aurobindo Puraskar (Kolkata).

Being a bilingual writer, when someone asked about the language he envisaged before writing a piece, he answer back:  “In the language of silence — if I do not sound presumptuous, the creative process ought to be allowed some mystery. Inspiration surely precedes articulation through any language. This is absolutely true in regard to good poetry and substantially true in regard to good fiction. Without this element of inspiration, which is beyond language to begin with, literature can hardly have a throbbing soul.”

From a disenchanted Marxist to an ardent humanist, Manoj Das was an ingenious author. His creative works – running into a thousand and more — dealt with the Indian psyche and were so spontaneous that it impressed both the Indian and the Western reader — for the authenticity and the diversity.

Manoj Das had an uncanny capacity for presenting the serious and the serene in a way that was amusing, often arousing a lasting humor. Elements of fantasy as metaphor have a domineering presence in his fictions.

 P Raja, author of Many Worlds of Manoj Das, has a deeper insight into his works: ‘Mystery in a wide and subtle sense, mystery of life, indeed, is the core of Manoj Das’s appeal. Born before Independence, he has thoroughly used in his fiction. His experiences, gathered at an impressionable age, of the epoch-making transitions through which the country was passing. Thus we meet in his works lively characters caught up in the vortex of India’s passage from the colonial era to freedom, the impact of the end of the princely states and the feudal system, and the mutation of several patches of rural India into clumsy bazaars.’

For thousands of men, women, and children of the past three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of courtesy and bliss. His words have inspired countless readers and have instilled a faith in the purpose of life.

Glossary

Sadhaka – Someone who pursues a certain discipline with devotion.

Sadhana — Meditation

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Musings

Happiness: Heart in a Casket

By Rana Preet Gill

I look up to find the evening sky stretch out like a canvas with a multitude of hues, change like a kaleidoscope of colours. It is the like the work of an artist, our Creator. I have often been startled by the beauty of life amidst my own fake despair.

I do not have many concrete problems in life. Not the ones that could be touched with bare hands, seen with naked eyes. Not the ones that could be described with a flourish. Not as if problems could ever be explained.

The world is a living, breathing cauldron. A little whimper gets turned into a moan, a slight regret gets carried into a lament, an awkward glance becomes a fleeting affair and dissatisfaction with life snowballs into melancholy.  Disclosures of unhappiness are difficult to make. Affability comes with ease. Life is often dictated by societal norms. And the mind is in constant harmony as one amongst them.   

The evening sky beacons for an escape. The birds wielding their wings high up in the sky, pumping the air beneath their wings, soar high, up and up away. I wonder what it takes to be happy, to be alive for them. I wonder if they suffer the throes of existential chaos.  I wonder what life would be like, bereft of any problems, of any conflict, of misery. Why cannot it be a perpetual ride of ease and comfort?

I am not particularly unhappy. I am positive, rearing to go. I can talk endlessly about my dreams. My dreams about my life, my future, security, approval, turning the negatives into positive in times of lockdown and much more.

I have a privileged life. I have the money, enough to satiate the needs of my life. Enough to buy me clothes of myriad shades of colors and designs.

Yes, not the very expensive ones. I know my reach. Salaried middle class. But there have been days I have spent thousands of rupees on things I never cared to wear. The money trapped in my greed for something new had lain in the closet for months and sometimes years. It’s only when the cloth have aged enough, humbled by its disregard that I have picked it up and given it an audience.

My tendency has been only to hoard. I have not felt any concrete need or significance of that particular object in my life. My happiness has been short lived. It has dazzled me with its existence but it only turned out to be a mirage.

Happiness can never be found in what you wear. It gives you a momentary delight to be dressed in the choicest of clothes. But for that prolonged calm and poise clothes are a far cry. The closets are full of clothes new as well as old yet somedays there is nothing to wear.

The stark nakedness of the soul shines on those days. This depravity, the greed for more reflects on me. There are people who have nothing to wear yet brave life with a smile embarrassing us with their unseemly flesh on display. And here I am all covered in swathes of sequined clothes yet I am unhappy, grumbling, complaining about an imaginary chaos in my life. I will only be able to see clearly when the dust settles. But I never stopped spinning like a top around my axis. How will I ever see what my mind tells me to see? It’s the haze that whirrs around me unsettling me with the frivolous.

Food!  I wonder if that provides a semblance of happiness. We eat to live or we live to eat! Making a living to buy the essentials or splurging it all on mindless eating leading to flabs of flesh. How much meat do I need around my bones?

The aroma of food being cooked at home fizzles into my nostrils but when I sit down to eat I am not hungry at all. As if the very thought of food has inundated my palate filling it up to the brim.

I am often enamoured by the colorful paraphernalia of junk present on display in shops. The packet of chips, biscuits and other knick-knacks in iridescent colours; red, blue, green, neon, beckon with delusions. Just one wafer thin chip can bring dollops of pleasure with the crunchiness alone. As long as the packet tempts me I think about the buying it and parting with a few rupees from my wallet.

I keep on putting this momentary satisfaction away, of being able to possess them is madness. What food value does this frivolous entity have?  It is not the worth my money. But the temptation of the color and taste finally leads me to the shop.

The packet unopened, uncared will lie in the drawer for many hours before I decide to open it. I look for the promised happiness displayed on the cover of the packet. A smile of a nondescript man, so profuse, deep, enchanting, carrying assurances unbeknown. And yet the savory did nothing to fulfill the promise of that happiness.  

I grab the packet and give it away to the household help. Her children would be grateful for this treat. Food does not give comfort. When you do not have the means to buy it, it becomes the single motivating factor in your life. When you have the luxury of choice, the comfort of having too much on your plate, you lose the narrative. Enough money can buy enough food but not a healthy appetite.

I live in a big home. Big enough to the eyes of the outsiders who would often throw a casual remark just looking at the façade. There are two floors and a couple of rooms. I often do not have the place to keep my stuff which lies on bed and chairs, crying for my attention. There are not enough cupboards? I rue the lack of storage facilities. I take my home for granted.

While the homeless of the world scourge for a roof above their heads, I pompously shun the comfort of my abode to look for more privacy inside my home.  I need a snug home, like a kennel, something to wrap around myself. Something too close for comfort yet close enough to fill my senses.

Those with bigger houses are oblivious to the luxury of space while those with smaller homes keep on pandering about their desires. Life becomes a never-ending desire to escape from the real.

A mad dash to be somewhere else. In some other country, state, city, village, travelling to far off places — all the while contemplating the comforts of home. Comparing, making notes, concluding that life is best lived in the sanctity of home. And once back, the confined existence of home is repressive. Start another search, home if far away.

There is no comfort and joy to be found living in well-furnished big houses. Home is where heart is! And the heart needs to be molded to fit in a casket to be cared for a life time.

Home is valuable yet not valued enough, heartfelt desires often soar high escaping the restraints of one home. I have multiple homes in a surreal world and I often flit from one to another. Only there is no comfort grand enough to chain me to one amongst them. In the real world, home looks miniscule, a tiny room, a tinier closet, a heart in the casket. Some days I gasp for breath and rush out of my house.

I have often searched for the meaning of being happy. A comfortable home, lots of material comforts, oodles of tasty and expensive food, money in the wallet as having a limitless purchasing power is never a guarantee of bliss. It’s a reason for dissatisfaction for some.

Why we have it all when there are people who do not have anything and yet they are living with an aplomb, a carefree life?  Their remorse at living ill-equipped lives does not reflect on their faces somedays depriving me of the perverse pleasure which I derive while making comparisons. An absence creates a want, fulfillment of that particular need. The alleviation of it becomes the sole purpose of life promulgating happiness. But then what do I know about the needs of those who sleep on the roads with an empty stomach, search for shelters during the rain, garble for morsels of food, for them home is a distant dream.

I wonder if happiness is empathy. Only being sympathetic yet not taking any concrete steps to alleviate the suffering. But then I do not think about the destitute of the world all the time. My mind is crammed with my very own self. My own attempts at navigating my life seems gargantuan. My own attempts to find peace, hope, salvation outwit me into thinking as I assume that my problems are larger than life yet they are not.

As I sit in the verdant lawn in front of my home wondering about life and happiness, a world of silver oak trees, palm spruces, rose bushes, peaches and plums in full bloom, ripe with fruit, fecund, living, breathing reach out to me. The honey bees buzz around collecting nectar of flowers. The butterflies flit from one bloom to another.

For a fleeting moment, one with silken wings alights on my shoulder. It has pink and yellow wings, a combination so strange. It looks hideous and, yet, I wonder if it is blessed with the knowledge to castigate itself.

It is happy. And for a moment, just for that brief moment that happiness is transferred to me. Amidst constant movement the unassuming insect gives stillness to my mind.  Shrouded in the constant chaos of nature, my mind feels at peace. The butterfly on my shoulder with its fluttering motion lends me its momentary joy before making its way towards the evanescent dusk.

A brief snitch of happiness before I start the tireless journey full of recriminations. But I am glad there was a moment to escape. I wonder if the constant fluttering of its wings unsettles the winged one as it seems to be on perpetual move. A life in motion yet in peace. I spread my dormant wings to give myself a push. I make them flutter only to imagine myself taking that giant leap towards the sky.

It is constant work to keep myself above the ground but I guess this is what life is all about. Working, moving, flying, spreading your wings, striving to meet the horizon, dreaming, desiring the beautiful, happiness untamed. As I close my eyes to let myself soar I could see million butterflies let lose in the sky. Living, breathing, jostling to color the evening sky.

To give untamed hopes and dreams, wild desires, unleash the madness yet guide it with a serenity to halt that drive with a serene composure — what is it?

Happiness is above all a search, a thought, a way to live amidst constant contemplation.

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Rana Preet Gill is a Veterinary Officer with the government of Punjab, India. Her articles and short stories have been published in The Tribune, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Statesman, The New Indian Express, Deccan Herald, The Hitavada, Daily Post, Women’s era, Commonwealth writers. org, Himal, Spillwords press, Setu Bilingual, Active Muse and Indian Ruminations. She has compiled some of her published pieces into a book titled Finding Julia. She has also written two novels – Those College Years and The Misadventures of a Vet.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Musings

The Bookshelf And The Lockdown

By K. R. Guruprasad

I have always wondered, when I am not at home, do the inhabitants of my bookshelf come alive like those children’s playthings in Toy Story? Apart from what their titles bind them to narrate, do my books have other stories to tell? Is my bookshelf some sort of a universe in itself with each compartment and the contents – an entity of its own? Are there dimensions to a bookshelf that we, humans, are not aware of – something that is beyond our realm?

For a while now (for me, a year since my last job as a journalist), Monday mornings do not come with blues attached. Moreover, since the lockdown, it hardly registers. However, this time I woke up to a message from a friend. She sent me a picture of her bookshelf. Pristine. Clean. I kept looking at the picture and zoomed in to see if I could read the titles of the books. The low-resolution nature of the photograph offered me a little chance to do so. Some I could read, some covers I was familiar with, and a lot many I could not figure out. 

However, the shelf stood proud. The big brown square with sixteen shelves held its own against a lighter coloured background. The books despite not being arranged in perfect rows -‑ some standing, some lying flat — presented a scenic contrast and appeared orderly on the whole. 

I shifted my gaze to my bookshelf and a quote, I had read a long time ago, came to my mind — “If you do not keep on sorting your books, your books unsort themselves”.

My bookshelf is chaotic. It’s like the city I live in — Mumbai. Each book jostling for space and complaining and, yet, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

But I like it the way it is. I have heard that people who keep pets end up looking like each other after a while,  and behave similarly too. Many dog owners have told me this. I don’t know much about it but I have seen it happen with one of my friends. But that is not the point. Drawing an analogy, there is a thought germinating and it asks, after a while, does a bookshelf reflect the mind of its owner? I look at my bookshelf and I seem to know the answer. I am just not sure if I should put it out here.

Going back to that quote — do the books really want to “… unsort themselves?”  I’m thinking of a counter narrative here.

What if my books want to be sorted. Will they secretly, when I am not home, rearrange themselves in an order that would make a librarian proud? Or, will they rise in rebellion against me to drive home the point? 

Will a book ‘accidentally’ fall on my head and ensure that it drills some sense into me and goad me to impart some sanity to my bookshelf as well. I am relieved that I have kept all the heavy hard cover books on the lowest shelves. Of course, back then I had no inkling of any rebellion by the books. I had done that just to add solidity to the shelf. It is supposed to be a strong foundation.

If the books were to sort themselves, then they must be interacting. I hope they are. For all the disorder that my shelf displays, it aptly houses James Gleick’s Chaos. Does this book try to make sense and explain to others the lack of planning and logic in the way I have maintained the bookshelf? 

Does Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace talk to others about why I am oblivious of their realm? Does Milan Kundera’s Joker still sit sulking in a corner because I have only read about seventy to eighty pages and have kept it back with a bookmark sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb? And does Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations complain, “Why on earth have I been placed next to Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures Of The Damned and what on earth am I supposed to do here?”

I’m quite sure my PG Wodehouse’s Carry On Jeeves treats its neighbour Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence like its own butler and comments on its sartorial sense or rather the lack of it. Despite the crowding, there is, however, one hollow space that makes me well up. The emptiness of the space where I had kept my copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. I gave away Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece to a friend —  a young writer and a book lover himself. I hope to buy another copy soon. I will.

There is no thought behind the way the books are arranged on my bookshelf. Bill Bryson’s The Road To Little Dribbling is shoulder-to shoulder with Peter Carey’s True History of The Kelly Gang. My Kannada books are strewn all over with a couple of them holding their own against Howard Jacobson and John Steinbeck on either side. 

There is Rushdie with Hemmingway, Coetzee and Murakami are neighbours filled with warmth. There is my collection of National Geographic Magazine somewhere deep down there and on top of this stack is a potpourri of books including my sketch book.

That’s not all. There are layers I cannot reach. And I don’t know when I will unravel them. Behind the proud frontline are rows of books I bought but never read. It makes me shudder to even guess what they must be thinking. Would they consult J Krishnamurthy’s The Awakening Of Intelligence to understand and counsel themselves as to why they are the neglected children?

And then there is a book Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. It knows it doesn’t belong here but has somehow been at home among my books for more than a decade. I had borrowed it from a colleague in 2008 and have not returned it so far. I promised him that I would, and I intend to keep that promise. So, this copy knows it is not permanent here. Must be a miserable feeling to be somewhere for that long and yet not belong. 

I have often felt like that in between shifting residences in Mumbai. Most of my contracts have ended in eleven months and sometimes maybe twenty two months. But the current place has been my residence for six years now. Do I feel like this copy of Douglas Adams’s work here? Sometimes, I do. 

It is a studio apartment. And it doesn’t offer me space for another bookshelf. In fact the top left square of my bookshelf is where I have kept all the photos of Gods and holy books, including Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. In the lower squares I have made space for my watches and bottles of cologne. And now in the lockdown, there are bottles of hand sanitisers too. The shelves are so stacked that there is no place for The Shadow Of The Wind, which interestingly (ironically?) is the part one of The Cemetery Of Forgotten Books series, and it finds itself on top of the bookshelf gupshupping with a straw hat. 

It appears that my jostling for space in the apartment is a concurrent and a similar theme to the way my books are stacked. Whenever I am vexed with all this struggle, a walk by the sea rejuvenates me. But what about my books?

It maybe fantastical to think that whenever I step outside, they crib about me. But being privy to the way I live, it wouldn’t take too much imagination to believe that they do. There is an unread copy of Hilary Mantel’s A Place Of Greater Safety and a partially read The Second World War by Antony BeevorAnd I wonder if these books would put the idea of a revolution and war in the minds of the other books. Maybe I should keep these books in good humour. A transparent polythene cover and proper dusting should do the trick. 

I do not want to return to my flat one day and find my books in regimental rows and columns with their guns trained on me. It would break my heart to see my favourite A Farewell To Arms pick up a gun again. 

Perhaps before the lockdown ends, I will dust all the books, the bookshelf and rearrange them in a way they might prefer. Perhaps Hemingway wants to be with Alistair McLean. Maybe all my Kannada books want to be together and even share some space with a few Hindi books. I should also make it a point to read all those books sulking behind the front rows. 

All this was in my top five things-to-do-in-the-lockdown list and I haven’t come around to doing any of them so far. Despite my counter narrative to the quote, I believe in what Georges Perec wrote in his Thoughts Of Sorts.

Deep down at a subconscious level, I’m happy with the way my bookshelf is. I’m beginning to understand as I write this piece that the state of the bookshelf does indeed reflect my state of mind.

My bookshelf, along with its inhabitants, is a thriving ecosystem. A being of its own with its blood lines and nerve centres. Despite its constant state of ‘unsort’, I gravitate to it whenever I’m in need of a friend or solace. Sometimes I wonder if it owns me instead of the other way round. Perhaps in some dimension, of which I’m unaware, my bookshelf and I are a single entity. I sure do hope so.

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K.R. Guruprasad has been associated with the sports pages of several newspapers over the last 16 years, as Sports Editor of DNA and previously the Indian Express and Hindustan Times. Guru has developed a finesse at zooming out of the myopic view of any sport, instead looking at sports as a coming together of the players’ lives and struggles, skills and technique and much more. His book ‘Going Places. India’s Small-Town Cricket Heroes’ by Penguin is a great testament to this approach. While his professional career has been focused on writing about sports, he is an avid reader and writer of varied subjects.  An alumnus of Asian College of Journalism, was born in Bellary, Karnataka and later pursued his education in Mumbai.