Though I had read a few stories written by Manoj Das as part of the curriculum in high school, my lifelong affair with the legendary storyteller started in right earnest only in university when I chanced upon “Manoj Dasanka Katha O Kahani”, a collection of 54 stories written by him. It had some of the finest stories penned by the writer, including some of his earliest stories like “Lakshmira Abhisara” and “Samudrara Kshyudha”.
It has been my habit since childhood not to stop till I reach the end when I start reading a book. I remember finishing “Tama Kakanka Kutira”, the voluminous Odia translation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” authored by eminent American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, in just a day and half while I was a student of Class VII. But for reasons that I cannot really put my finger on, I simply could not do the same when I started reading “Manoj Dasanka Katha O Kahani”. I could read no more than two stories a day because each one transported me into another world and left me with plenty to think about. There were days when I could not go beyond one story – “Lakshmira Abhisara” and “Aranyaka” were among such stories – because it had such a profound impact on me that I just could not take my mind off it. I soon realized that Manoj Das’ stories were to be savoured – sip by sip, like high-quality whiskey – and not gulped down in one go – like country liquor – to get its essence. I must confess I went into a state of trance every time I started reading a story from the collection. It was almost a spiritual experience!
In the years that followed, I read up almost all major story collections by Manoj Das and never stopped wondering about the range of worldly experiences narrated by a man living the life of an ascetic at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry. His frequent forays into the mystical and the spiritual only accentuated this feeling of wonderment. What stood out for me in Manoj Das’ writing was his amazingly elegant prose. His choice – and coinage – of words was unlike any I had read in other writers. He truly transcended the limits of the Odia language and lent his writing a highly admirable universal quality. In my early days of reading Manoj Das, I remember wondering at times if the fact that he lived amid a genuinely international gathering at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, far away from his homeland, enabled him to make the transition.
He was, of course, equally adroit in the English language and, therefore, did not have to depend on others to translate his Odia writing. During the five years he edited “The Heritage” in the second half of the 1980s, I did not miss a single issue of this one-of-its-kind magazine. I used to look forward to reading his highly erudite and profound editorial on matters both worldly and spiritual.
But it was only much later that I discovered another quality of him that I did not know about earlier. Writers are seldom great orators. But Manoj Das was an exception. He was a wonderfully engaging speaker and left the audience spell-bound with the story-within-a-story-within-a-story style of elaboration while making a point. I remember one particular occasion when he was speaking at the Soochana Bhavan (now called Jayadev Bhavan) in Bhubaneswar. I did not know about the programme. But when I heard outside that Manoj Das was speaking, I went in out of curiosity, only to find the hall choc-a-bloc with eager listeners. There were scores of people standing on the aisle inside. Such was the crowd that the doors had to be left azar so that the dozens of people could not get inside could listen to him, if not watch him. I found many of them craning their necks to get a glimpse of the remarkable man. So engrossed they were in listening to him it seemed their attention would not waver for a second even if someone were to shove a knife into their flesh! “He could be the envy of politicians,” I remember thinking at the time.
I had strayed into this particular meeting purely by chance. But in the years that followed, I never missed a chance to listen to him speaking whenever he was in town. And every time I listened to him, I realized that he was the quintessential storyteller, who never ceased to amaze his listener with his seemingly infinite collection of stories from diverse source, including the Puranas the ‘Panchatantra’ and the Upanishads.
Manoj Das could be many things to many people: a writer of extraordinary class, an erudite philosopher, a spiritual colossus and so on. But in my book, he will always remain the master storyteller!
Adieu, Storyteller Extraordinaire!!
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
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