The Government of India has taken a very, very appropriate step to confer its third highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan, to a literary genius that Manoj Das is.
I take this occasion to write my reminiscences of him.
Way back in 1974, Naresh, my dormitory mate in one of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s guest houses, New Sweet Home, was his typist. I still recall a simply-dressed Manoj Das coming one afternoon on his bicycle looking for him. Once, with a sense of something good, desirable and important happening, Naresh told me during those days that Manoj Das was writing Sri Aurobindo’s biography.
I developed admiration for Manoj Das after reading some of his short stories in 1990s. His understanding of the of the nuanced traits of human nature, his humour, his skill of crafting the characters of his stories, his narration of the rural environment of Odisha in which he grew up – all came out in a flawless, brilliant English prose. In fact, in the introduction to one of his books of short stories, the British reviewer has regarded Manoj Das as among the greatest short story writers of English literature of all times. His command of the English language, especially the treasure of vocabulary, was so rich that after reading a few of his short stories I told a friend in course of a conversation that Sri Aurobindo’s English seems much easier while reading Manoj Das’ short stories!
Manoj Das’ sense of value and the relevance of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were such that when a new journal “Sri Aurobindo’s Action”, with a special focus on the Indian renaissance, was started during Sri Aurobindo’s birth centenary in 1972, and when the Ashram Press was not in a position to take fresh work, he would personally travel from his home in the Ashram to the Pondicherry bus stand by a rickshaw or even sitting behind the backseat of a bicycle pedalled by a Ashram youth, and from there take the government bus to Chennai, spend the necessary days there, get the new issues printed and bring them back to Pondicherry for mailing to subscribers! Of course, it goes without saying that that was the era before the internet.
About a quarter of century later, around 1997, one late evening while looking for a relative, I incidentally happen to visit the courtyard of the Ashram school opposite the Ashram main building. What I saw there was quite striking. The entire courtyard was full of the Ashram inmates all absorbed in listening to a speech by Manoj Das who, as I understood then, was telling in his amiable style the inspirational stories from the vast spiritual lore of ancient Indian literature. I am reminded of an article by Nirodbaran wherein he states that after the Mother’s withdrawal from the body in 1973, Nolini Kanta Gupta assumed a larger role in the Ashram and became a pillar of psychological and moral support and inspiration to the Ashram inmates. I could surmise that after the passing of Nolini-da and other stalwarts such as M. P. Pandit — whom Anurag Banarjee calls “the old guard”; it was Manoj Das who understood and accepted the onus on his shoulders, and become a pillar of psychological and moral support to the Ashram inmates. This is exactly what the Mother describes in her article about an ideal place on earth titled “A Dream” where “intellectual, moral and spiritual superiority would be expressed in the general organisation not by an increase in the pleasures and powers of life but by increased duties and responsibilities.”
But beyond the Ashram work, Manoj Das always made himself available for Auroville and the wider Aurobindonian world. Once I attended one of his thinly-attended speeches at Bharat Nivas. I remember him telling the anecdote of a spiritual “eccentric” of the bygone times in India who had such a strange inner rapport with the divine mother as depicted in the Indian traditions that he would even quarrel and hurl abuse at Her and then, on receiving a beating, would cry out loud.
On another occasion, Auroville Today interviewed him and the thing that struck me from that interview was his inspiring assertion that Auroville stands for something new and futuristic. Simply the mention of the word ‘Auroville’ in a meeting of people introduces a new vibration…he opined.
I must also mention that it was Manoj Das who, with a rare insight into the lives and work of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, brought to my notice, while concluding a speech at Savitri Bhavan in Auroville, that the day of the Mothers final and permanent return to India and joining Sri Aurobindo, namely the 24th April 1920, was the greatest day in the history of the earth. Anyone who knows the subtler evolutionary truth of things in the light of Sri Aurobindo cannot but agree with this unusual statement. It was with the Mother’s final arrival in Pondicherry that Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary mission of a new creation on earth took off with assured success.
Manoj Das has also penned an extraordinary series of articles – a labour of love – in Mother India magazine on Sri Aurobindo’s pre-Pondicherry life. These were based on his extensive research in various archives, including government archives in London and Edinburgh which had declassified certain files. The story of his visit to England for this purpose is interesting. It runs as follow:
On reading Manoj Das’ articles about a legendary martyr Bagha Jatin in a popular and influential magazine of those days, The Illustrated Weekly of India, the then foremost Indian Industrialist, the late G. D. Birla, contacted Manoj Das and thanked him. During the ensuing correspondence, G.D. Birla wrote that he would be happy to be of help to Manoj Das. Sometime later, when Manoj Das came to know that the British government was declassifying the old files concerning early Indian freedom fighters, including that of Sri Aurobindo, he asked G.D. Birla if his London office could get copies of that declassified material. G.D. Birla replied that he would be glad to sponsor Manoj Das’ personal visit to England so that he could choose firsthand whatever material he required for his research.
One of the startling details I came to know from what Manoj Das obtained as a result of that Birla-sponsored visit to the archives in England (and Scotland) was that the then President of America, Theodore Roosevelt, had requested from the Indian Viceroy Lord Minto, a copy of Bande Mataram in which Sri Aurobindo’s articles were being published. Minto duly supplied a copy. Roosevelt, in his reply, wrote that he found the content “interesting”! Since India was under the British rule, it is probable that Roosevelt may have restrained himself from commenting more on those articles of Sri Aurobindo.
I may mention here that America had a genuine sympathy to the Indian freedom struggle. My assertion is primarily based on what Sri Aurobindo had written in an article in Karmayogin on 31st July 1909 which, by the way, was the last year of Roosevelt’s presidency. Prophetically predicting the rise of America on the world stage, he wrote: “the main flood of the new thought and knowledge has been diverted to America, the giant of the future, which alone of the nations has shown an active and practical sympathy and understanding of our nation.”(Ref: Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 8, p.147)
Manoj Das’ perspective, sobriety and humility can be gauged in his acceptance speech in 2015 when he was awarded the Auro Ratna award by the Overman Foundation. Here are his exact words:
“…well, in one part of me there is a faculty, there is some kind of a skill or whatever you say which is not of my making. I did not create it. It was there. The answer is given! And for that activity of that small parts the whole Manoj Das—why should he be honoured? This Manoj Das has quarreled with people, he has led agitations, he has been jailed also—why should the whole Manoj Das be—I mean—awarded when for a little bit or a part of him has some role to play in a creative wonder.”
I recommend readers to go through entire speech of Manoj Das as well as others during the Auro Ratna Award ceremony in 2015. This is the link. (http://overmanfoundation.org/manoj-das-receives-auro-ratna-award-2015-a-report/) It is very interesting.
Some 4 years ago, I had an honour to nominate Dr. Karan Singh for a specific award and needed reference letters from five individuals who could support my nomination. Manoj Das readily agreed to be one of them. The reference letter that he wrote was succinct and perceptive. I am happy quote from it
“If there is one living person I have known during my not too short span of life who accurately fits into the definition of that wonderful phrase, “Entrepreneur of the Spirit”, he is Dr. Karan Singh. ….
The era of Indian Maharajas is gone. Today many people may not be able to imagine the grandeur the position of the Crown Prince of the legendary Kingdom, Jammu and Kashmir, meant.
It is a miracle that such a prince, in his blossoming youth, should be interested, even if we take for granted that he was intellectual by nature, a topic like the “Prophet of Nationalism”, the turbulent revolutionary life that Sri Aurobindo led in the first decade of the twentieth century, for his Ph.D. thesis.
Miracle indeed – when viewed from the academic or social psychological plane. But from the spiritual psychological plane, it is a brilliant case of an evolved soul, a spontaneous attraction for the most splendid doctrine in the history of spirituality that Sri Aurobindo presented in his post-revolutionary years: Man is an evolving being; his destiny is still in the process of denouement. One day the earth shall be Spirit’s manifest home.”
Personally, I’m glad and grateful that twice Manoj Das has accepted my invitation – once in August 2017 to celebrate at the Hotel Ashok, Pondicherry, Dr. Karan Singh’s 50+ years of service to the cause of Sri Aurobindo and, a year later, when a book “Dear Aurovilians – Inspiration from Karan Singh’s Auroville Collaboration” was being released in Auroville by Puducherry Lt. Governor Kiran Bedi. The book also contains in one of its section Manoj Das’ article written some 20 years ago based on Karan Singh’s autobiography.
The world, the Indian nation, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, the Auroville, the Aurobindonian world – all have been significantly enriched by your life and work, Prof. Manoj Das. Thank you.
Aryadeep S. Acharya
About the Author: Aryadeep S. Acharya was born in Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India) on 5th August 1952 where he also grew up and received his education. His parents gave him the name Jagdish. In 1971, at the age of nineteen, although he was aware of Sri Aurobindo’s foremost idea of the emergence of new species beyond the human in course of evolution – an idea which had led him to regard Sri Aurobindo as “immeasurably great” and, as a student leader, even install during a function Sri Aurobindo’s photograph in the main hall of his college, it was only now, with the help of a devotee of Sri Aurobindo, that he began to take Sri Aurobindo’s booklet The Mother and some of the shorter writings of the Mother seriously. Gradually, a path to a better world, a lasting solution to world’s misery and suffering, the new vistas of human progress dawned upon him. A new journey of life began. It was nothing less than a personal revolution in his life. The old interests and ideas of life and work and future changed drastically. A new enthusiasm and intensity and love for a new goal and its two revealers were born. By then, he was 21 years of age. In 1974 he visited the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and stayed there for four months from July to November. Having spent three years in Ahmedabad he returned to Pondicherry in November 1977 and stayed there for six months. From May 1978 to February 1979 he tried to develop a handicraft business named “Aurosons” in Ahmedabad. For the next few years he was involved in his family business. Towards the end of 1989 he shifted to Auroville with his sister and her two children. For the first three years, Aryadeep took part in various Auroville activities but was inwardly unhappy with the fact that Auroville had only partial ownership of the geographical area meant for the emergence of a unique universal township. The entire future of Auroville was at risk of being overpowered by market forces, he felt at that time.
In 1993, he expressed his views and concerns and solutions on the topic in a paper. Before publishing it, he spend more than a month in a concentrated eccentric search for a word that would encompass in its meaning all that the Mother meant by Auroville. He found that word ‘Earth-Queen’ from an American poem. The paper “Reaching out to the Survival Challenge of the Earth-Queen” was self-published and distributed in Auroville and among Auroville international centers in 1994. The publication and distribution of the paper followed a beautiful experience—an uninterrupted descent of luminous peace for more than a month.
In 1994, Aryadeep wrote and self-published another paper on the subject: “In Quest of the Dawn’s Amplitude – That Breathing Land”. Dr. Karan Singh from New Delhi appreciated the paper and that was the beginning of his 25 years of connection—mostly through email and letters –with him. He also wrote an introductory paper on Auroville in Gujarati at the request of Sri Arvind Karmadhara magazine. In 1998, Aryadeep joined officially in the work related to the harmonious development Auroville and, in that context, fundraising. He helped to form a new section Auroville Land Fund, started its newsletter and wrote a third paper on the subject – “Not just an appeal, AN IMPLORATION”. Since 2014, he is managing a special campaign ‘Acres for Auroville’ in dynamic collaboration with Mandakini Lucien Brun, an American disciple living in France. In 2012, his paper on the relevance of Auroville Township model for India’s urban development was published by a scholarly journal from Germany. His latest paper “Force behind the Indian Renaissance and Crucial Relevance of Auroville Emergence” has been accepted for publication in book on Sri Aurobindo to be published by Bloomsbury USA.
In 2004, when he sent the first part of his book on Auroville’s relevance to India to the then president of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam without consulting any official body in Auroville, the later took a very last minute decision to visit Auroville and promise his friendship while visiting Pondicherry on the occasion of the golden jubilee of its merger with India. Kalam’s visit to Auroville was hailed as a divine grace by the Working Committee of the Auroville Foundation. A few other Indian leaders too have formed and offered their generous moral support to Auroville after reading Aryadeep’s writings on Auroville’s relevance to India.
In 2016, Aryadeep had the honour to nominate Dr. Karan Singh for a specific international award and, as a part of nomination, to secure reference letters from five learned persons. Two years later, in 2018, he had the honour to compile, introduce and edit a book “Dear Aurovilians – Inspiration from Karan Singh’s Auroville Collaboration”, which was released in Auroville by Puducherry Lt Governor Kiran Bedi.
Currently, while continuing to co-manage the campaign Acres for Auroville, Aryadeep is working on his book “For India’s Glorious Future – Relevance of a fully developed Auroville universal township with worldwide alliances and presences for India’s supreme resurgence.”