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In Search of a Nation’s Self - A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist

In Search of a Nation’s Self - A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist

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Published by: H P on Mar 30, 2009
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In Search of a Nation’s Self: A Reading of Manoj Das’s
The Escapist 
1
Dr. H. P. ShuklaProfessor of EnglishKumaun University Nainital
I
The novels and short stories of Manoj Das carry such a rare blend of seriousness andhumour, are so deceptively cloaked in bright scintillating colours as to belie their quiet depthsthat more often than not critics have foregrounded the minor embellishment of Das’s craft tothe neglect of his major and more serious concerns. Humour is not the burden of his tales, butonly a manner by which he lightens their subtle weight. Das is one of those serious artistswhose right placement in the tradition requires a radical revaluation of reputations andaccepted or acceptable values in literature, more specifically those of Indian Englishliterature. It is only by relating the author to his right tradition can his works be appreciated intheir true light.In the sifting of reputations, the first step is to separate the chaff. According to a popular ‘bestselling’ author, Stephen King, “The ‘serious’ novelist is looking for answers andkeys to the self; the ‘popular’ novelist is looking for an audience” (xii). Many of the mostloved icons of Indian English Writing will make their exit here. Among those who seek theself, not all are seeking the same thing. There is the lower and the higher – self and Self, andin-between an infinity of gradations. The smaller, it seems, is always grounded in the larger and has no separate independent existence. The individual finds its meaning in a larger Self,and the Self (the Existent) its source in the Essence. It is everywhere and nowhere, we aretold, and everywhere is where one is. One sees it therefore in Nature and no less in livingrelations, ideas, superstitions and fears embedded in one’s culture.
1
Published in The Visva-Bharati Quarterly vol. 12 nos. 3&4 and vol. 13 nos. 1&2 (joint issue), December 2005, pp 27-33
 
A Reading of Manoj Das’s
The EscapistIf it be so, then only in the understanding of culture can the self be known and thustranscended. But since culture goes beyond a geographical area into history and beyond theessence of a nation too must be sought beyond its geo-physical and temporal bounds. RajaRao once told Kathleen Raine, “India is not a nation, like France or Italy or Germany: India isa state of being” (Raine 1). It necessarily follows that only in finding such a state of being canthe honour of being called an Indian be bestowed upon one. The necessity of seeking thisstate becomes more of a sacred responsibility in the case of a writer, for speaking on behalf of a people he must speak from the depths of a larger, universal Self. His private, personal self isobviously irrelevant to literature. In a state of culture where, if we are to believe Paranjape,“every Indian is a
 sadhak 
or 
 sadhika
” (94), the writer who aspires for a place in the greatIndian literary tradition must be no less than a
Siddha
, or a sage. Raja Rao’s assertion that“Indian civilization is the making of the Rishis (the sages) and the Western, of heroes and prophets […]” (114) is a clear pointer as to what the Indian writer’s essential
dharma
must be. But how central and relevant is this search in the context of modern India? A hundredyears ago, we saw Tagore’s Gourmohan going into wilderness on a similar quest, and over theyears we have watched Raja Rao from abroad straining his magic wand eastward seeking thesame effulgent Indian light.‘Philosophy as fiction’ is how the renegades have shouted at Rao’s labour. Gora in hisorations and inner whirlpools went through analogous labour pains. Why do Indians talk somuch philosophy? Even a villager in some nondescript corner here is more puzzled about
maya
and
moksha
than about earning his meagre livelihood. Philosophy – known to us as
darshanam,
a seeing vision – is as central to the Indian thought as is the sex and man-womanrelationship to the West. If it be hard to find a western novel, either pulp or classic, without aman-woman drama, why shouldn’t the best of Indian fiction be a serious and passionateengagement with its culture’s deep philosophical concerns? If the Indian mind could call its22
 
A Reading of Manoj Das’s
The Escapistreligion
 sanatan dharma
, shouldn’t it demand a
 sanatan sahitya
, a literature of eternity?Poets are hearers of Truth, proclaim the Vedas. Those who do not have an ear for truth are theones who trade in lies and lead us to the realm of sorrow and death. The ancient prayer,
asatoma sadgamaya
… remains yet the most potent formulation of Indian aspiration. And inwhatsoever measure, an authentic Indian writing must lead us towards that. These are hintsand suggestions for unravelling the ineffable core of Indianness. For a more authenticdiscovery we must turn to our creative talents, and Manoj Das is certainly one of these.
II
Manoj Das is not a ‘modern’ novelist, for there is nothing modish about him. His isthe ancient Indian art of storytelling that speaks of eternal issues in a timeless voice. Hecomes from the land of 
 Panchatantra
and
 Jataka
with a bagful of tales about “all themonkeys around me masquerading as men” (
The Escapist 
4).
2
His fiction creates a vision of reality which demands of its readers that they reconstruct their notions of realism. Perhaps theauthor himself best defined his art when he called one of his collections
 Fables and  Fantasies for Adults
(1978). All his works are fantasies of a heightened imagination and readlike fables for thoughtful adults. Those that still suck on country pleasures will not find hereanything to titillate their brainwaves or senses.
The Escapist 
(2001), the author’s English rendering of his Oriya original,
 Akashara Isara
(1997), is the third of his novels in English. In its style and treatment of subject it isclearly in the same vein as his earlier works,
Cyclones
(1987) and
The Tiger at Twilight 
(1991) which originally appeared in English. All the three are about India and all have adeceptively contemporary canvas. While
Cyclones
unleashes the upheavals of the Partitionand
The Tiger at Twilight 
laments the passing away of an age,
The Escapist 
showcases thechiaroscuro of a very contemporary postcolonial India. But behind the changing appearancescan be seen the slow but sure emergence of a nation’s Soul wearing as ever an enigmatic
2
Further references to
The Escapist 
are shown by only page numbers.
33

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