Like Premchand (of ‘Godaan’ fame) in Hindi, the doyen of the bygone era, father of modern Hindi literature, Fakir Mohan Senapati (of ‘Chha Maana Aatha Guntha’ fame) in Odia is the doyen of the bygone era, father of modern Odia literature and the language.
Similarly in the scenario of contemporary Odia literature, it is Manoj Das, probably after Gopinath Mohanty alone.
On the fateful evening of 27th April 2021, earlier last week, Sri Manoj Das breathed his last at the Aurobindo Ashram nursing home in Puducherry. He was 87. The brightest star of Odia literature today vanished forever from our skies – the most sought-after Odia, the most popular, a household name among Odias across the globe.
He is all-in-one, a complete litterateur writing novels, short stories, poetry, travelogue, biographies, essays, philosophical, psychological treatises, fables, fantasies, mythology, folklore, mysticism, and whatnot. He tells stories and anecdotes on the Odia household culture, he does a fresh retelling of myth and history, of social, interpersonal, material, spiritual, factual and perceptual, sensual and extra sensory experiences, disembodied existence, conscious, subconscious, on good, on evil, on all.
He also writes for everyone, across all age groups. He writes for toddlers, children, young, adolescents, adults, middle-aged, and old people, for the living and for the dead alike with equal enthusiasm and creativity.
Again, he is the only known bilingual writer writing both in Odia and English and who is unusually proficient and popular in both his writings.
Another angle to his novelty and uniqueness is that he writes not only about human beings, but he also portrays animals, birds, insects, plants, trees, and creepers as proper characters in his writing.
Manoj Das is the modern Vishnu Sharma (of the Ancient Indian ‘Panchatantra’ fame). He is the R.K. Narayan of Odisha. He is the Ruskin Bond of Odisha. He was a firebrand leftist as a youth and he wrote on injustice, inequality, exploitation, and social misery. As he grew older he was hugely influenced by the ideologies and the spiritual doctrines of Sri Aurobindo and Sri Maa and spent most part of his life in the Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry dedicated to the services of the spirit, like a monk.
A saintly persona, he has been acclaimed and accredited with many honors and awards, none of which he had ever cherished or attempted. Last year he was conferred with the third-highest civilian award in the country, the Padma Bhushan (2020). A few months prior to that he was conferred with the prestigious Satyabadi Saraswati Samman (2020) for his lifelong contribution to literature. Two decades back, in 2001, he was awarded with Padma Shree (2001)as well.
To recount a few other very important and mentioned literary awards, chronologically: KK Birla Foundation Saraswati Samman (in the year 2000 for the Odia philosophical novel ‘Amruta Phala’ meaning ‘Nectar Fruit’), Gangadhar Rath Foundation Sahitya Bharati award (in 1994), his 2nd Odisha Sahitya Academy award (in 1989, for his collection of Odia essays ‘Kete Diganta’ or ‘Numerous Horizons’), Sarala Samman (in 1980 for ‘Dhumraava Diganta’ or ‘Smoky Hazy Horizons’), the Kendriya Sahitya Academy award (in the year 1972 for his collection of short stories ‘Kathaa O Kaahaani). The first big literary award came to him at the youthful age of only thirty-one, the Odisha Sahitya Academy award (in the year 1965, for an anthology of short stories titled ‘Aaranyaka’).
Apart from his creative literary works which adorn the maximum of his aura, he has been a magnificent editor of popular Odia magazines and journals like Diganta, Sachitra Vijaya, Janhamamu, and many such. He was also the editor of the highly acclaimed English magazine ‘The Heritage’ from 1980 to 1989 which covered art, literature, culture, heritage, philosophy, and mysticism.
This blessed soul had descended on earth on the 27th of February, in 1934, in his native village Sankhari (block Bhogarai, district Balasore), Odisha. Many would remember or know his equally illustrious brother Manmath Nath Das, who was ten years older than him, who was a notable historian and professor of history and had been a Vice Chancellor of the Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha.
The demise of Manoj Das leaves an irreparable void in the Odia literary and cultural skies and a haunting memory lingers in the heart and mind of all Odias lost in the far away smoky, hazy horizons or in search of the eternal fruit of nectar. He will always remain the kindly light to lead us through the darkness of the soul and through the uncertainties of the world.