Letter From Manoj Das

On an August morning in 2001, my phone rang. As I said “Hello”, a professorial voice came on the line “Swapan babu speaking”?

“Yes please!”

“I’m Manoj Das here, speaking from Sri Aurobindo Ashram opposite Kenilworth Hotel, Kolkata. Your letter addressed to my Pondicherry home has been redirected. I’ll be hem for a few more days attending a con-ference:
“Could I possibly meet you Sir, tomorrow or the day after?”

“Certainly. Just give me a call today evening, so that we can fix up the time and date.”

I had already read his book Selected Fiction (Penguin) published that year and a series of his articles serialized in The Statesman, which later culminated in the book My Little India (NBT). I liked his stories so much that I ended up writing a letter to him expressing my desire to interview him, never expecting to hear back.

What drew me to him was his excep-tionally deep and distilled wisdom about the mystery of human existence, that of the universe, and man’s role in it. No wonder then that, since our first meet on 10 August 2001, I kept conversing with him mostly in Kolkata. I also went once with my family to his retreat opposite Golconda Guest House, which is owned by Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. He was very impressed with the first few articles I did on him. Around this time, I was busy shaping up a book, my first, on Ruskin Bond.

Author Manoj Das with Swapan K Banerjee

As I put finishing touches to it, I had no idea who I would send the manuscript to. I carried it with me whenever I gate-crashed any literary festival in search of a publisher. Having no light from anywhere, I thought of approaching Manoj Sir, a long-time friend of Ruskin, for an intro to my book. I felt I desperately needed a shout-out to my endeavour.

I drafted a short synopsis and mailed it to him as an attachment, while entreating him for an endorsement in the form of a foreword to my book. His reply came a few weeks later: “I am so happy to know that you have written a book on Ruskin Bat… So far as the preface is concerned I can do it provided enough time is given. I have too many works on hand and I may not be able to do justice to the job otherwise…” I expressed my gratitude and emailed him the soft copy of the manuscript.

Several weeks passed. I was wondering whether he, a great bilingual writer, recipient of major literary awards, would ulti-mately lend his hallowed name to a fledging, yet-to-be-author like me. Out of love and admiration for his classic works, I kept writing on him, and every time an article came out, I would give him a gentle nudge!

Months later, as I followed up on another email, he replied: “I have not worked it out so far partly because of my absence from time to time… and also because of the discomfort that my osteoarthritis brings… But I must attend to your work although the introduction may not be long.”

Shortly thereafter, two interview-based articles in the space of a few months were published: one in the Journal of literature & Aesthetics, and the other in Deccan Herald, partly based on his autobiography, Chasing the Rainbow (Oxford). That he was pleased with my efforts became apparent in his next mail: “Indeed I received the clipping from Deccan Herald in time and went through it. You have done a very fine job … At the moment I am awfully tied up to commitments including several obligatory trips to different places. Yes, a manuscript (hard copy) will be more helpful for my reading… I will return it to you with my preface.”

Then one fine morning, the superbly-written six-page long introduction arrived. Subsequently, the book found Rupa as its publisher. When I sent him a copy Manoj Sir wrote again: “Thanks and congratulations for the book. It has come out not only well, but also promptly – so far as the speed of publishing with most of the publishers goes. I hope the publication will be appreciated by the wide world of Ruskin Bond’s fans.”

Manoj Das left us on 27 April this year. His expert introduction is an inalienable part of my maiden book RUSTY & I. It’s now enshrined in the Princeton University Library, our souls intertwined.

First Published in The Statesman

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