Awards and Honours
Once when asked about his response to awards and honours, he candidly quoted some Western wit who, when given an award, said that he did not deserve it, but he had arthritis and he did not deserve that either! ‘I wish,’ said Manoj, ‘There were no awards and prizes at all and the readers’ appreciation were the only recognition. But such wistful thoughts are irrelevant. Awards are a reality. Some writers feel encouraged by it. If one is a good writer, he may feel encouraged to write more and good. If one is not a bad writer he may feel encouraged to write more and bad.
‘There are some awards that are healthy; there are some that are embarrassing. Take the case of Padma Awards. You bestow Padma Shri on a writer. It is an honour; at the same time it is a gradation. What yardstick can be applied to measure the creative talent of one so that a committee can decide whose creativity deserves Padma Shri and whose Padma Bhushan or Padma Bibhushan? I do not know – because I live far from the madding crowd in that sense – but I am told that a fat lot of manipulations take place behind such recognitions. The greatest genius of modern Oriya poetry ended up with Padma Shri, whereas there have been cases of uncanny rapid elevation from Shri to Bhusan and Bibhusan in several languages. I wish there were only one variety of Padma awards, if at all.’
It need hardly be said that the quality and number of the readership of Manoj Das never depended on the awards he received, though they have come to him aplenty. He recounts an unforgettable episode and describes it as the first ‘reward’ in his life as a writer. He was arrested at a crossroads in a morning in the year 1955 and led into a lockup in the Lalbagh Police Station, Cuttack. A magistrate came there and took his statement. The atmosphere was so tense that the Police must wait till nightfall before carrying him to the prison lest the people would attack their jeep and set him free. At noon a suave young officer unlocked his cabin and politely asked him to follow him. In the rear veranda his lunch, consisting of no less than a dozen items, was laid on a well-draped table. The courteous officer sat opposite him.
‘So, you treat your prisoners to such luxury!’ Manoj commented. The items were delicious.
He laughed mildly. ‘No, Manoj Babu, this is for you the writer whom my wife admires. When she heard that you were in our custody, she told the officer in charge of this police station to fetch your lunch from our house and also sent me a message to serve you personally if possible. It is my pleasure that I made it possible.’
‘How much I regret that I did not remember his name. I even doubt if I thanked him adequately,’ says Manoj with a sigh.
The earliest institutional award Manoj received, to his pleasant surprise, was the Dagore Silver Jubilee Award (1962) as one of the two most outstanding short story writers in post-independence Odia literature, the other one being Surendra Mohanty. The two best novelists were Gopinath and Kahnucharan and the two best poets Sochi Routroy and Radhamohan Gadnaik, so on and so forth. The celebration committee under the Chairmanship of the late Sharat Mukherjee of the Sabuj Yug in Odia literature came to these decisions on the basis of opinions obtained from a hundred selected critics and writers under the initiative of Faturananda. The editor of the Dagora, the veteran writer Nityananda Mohapatra, was then a Cabinet Minister.
Manoj, then 27, was the youngest in that galaxy of awardees. It was his collection of stories Aranyaka, that was chiefly responsible for this honour.
And it is this Aranyaka that won for him the Orissa Sahitya Akademi Award for fiction in 1965. (By then he was already in Pondicherry.)
The Sahitya Akademi Award, India’s national recognition for creative writing, came to him in 1972, followed by the Sarala Award in 1980, the Prajatantra Visubh Grand Award in 1986, Orissa Sahitya Akademi (for the second time and for Essays) in 1989. The Sahitya Bharati Samman, by now Odisha’s most prestigious Award, began with him in 1994 and the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad (Kolkata) Puraskar was bestowed on him in 1995. He was the first author to receive the Annual Sri Aurobindo Puraskar (English) instituted by the Sri Aurobindo Bhavan (The Birthplace of Sri Aurobindo, supported by the West Bengal Government) to mark the 125th Birth Anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, for his pioneering research in the British archives bringing to light several little-known facts regarding India’s freedom struggle led by Sri Aurobindo in the 1st decade of the 20th century. In 1998 the Book-Sellers and Publishers Association of South India chose him for their BAPASI Award as the best English writer of the year in the South. He was also a recipient of Rotary’s ‘For the Sake oh Honour’.
The Saraswati Samman, India’s most prestigious award for creative writing, came to him in 2000 and the President’s Padma Award came in 2001.
While the Utkal Sahitya Samaj, Odisha’s oldest and hallowed literary organisation decorated him with the title Utkal Ratna, in 2007 the Sahitya Akademi bestowed on him its highest honour, Fellowship, ‘reserved for the immortals in literature.’
The Berhampur University offered him the status of Honorary Professor Emeritus of Culture. He was the only person chosen by the Utkal University of Culture to receive the D.Litt. (Honoris Causa) in its first ever convocation. Next, Odisha’s oldest university, the Utkal University, bestowed D.Litt. (Honoris Causa) on him. That was followed by the Fakir Mohan University (Baleswar) and the North Odisha University (Baripada) in giving him this coveted honour. The latest to do so was Odisha’s first college (where Manoj studied) now elevated to the status of a university, the Ravenshaw University.