About forty kilometres from the railway station and twelve kilometres from the nearest seasonal bus stop, the small village Sankhari in the northern Balasore of Orissa was an enchanting realm for the author in the thirties of the twentieth century. Between his houses – a spacious building to which his parents had shifted just before his birth – and the sea, there were two natural lakes, one abounding in red lotuses and the other in white ones and a vast ever-green meadow studded with palm trees. The huge sand dunes against which the tidal waves of the sea splashed were draped in intricate creepers bearing varieties of luscious berries. Even bullock carts had no access to the village because of its sandy environment.
Manoj was born on the 27th of February 1934, the fifth and the last child of Madhusudan Das and Kadambini Devi. His mother, herself a gifted but silent poet, would lead the boy to the fabulous world of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, reciting them to him and his two elder sisters, even before he had learnt the alphabet. They had a second house in the Sundabans of Bengal, the abode of the fearful and fascinating Royal Bengal tiger. Manoj was treated to incidents and legends of that region by his father as well as their employees.
Most reluctantly he went to the lower primary school in the village and then to the upper primary school two kilometres away. But he learnt much more from the violent events affecting his region and his family. A cyclone devastated the region and the bordering areas of Bengal. A famine followed and worse, epidemics of cholera and small pox. Absence of communicational facility and the total apathy of the colonial administration resulted in the disappearance of one after another of the faces with which the child Manoj was familiar. If a servant did not report in time to fetch him from the upper primary school, he would cross the desolate path alone on his way back home. Here is what happened one day, to quote from the author’s reminiscences of his childhood, Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village (Oxford University Press):
“My village was to the west of the school. It was sundown and the sky was spattered with an uncanny red when I set out. There was not a soul anywhere on the vast stretches of the sand with clumps of bushes. I walked as fast as I could and was turning slightly left to enter the second half of the road when, under a bush on my right, I noticed a corpse, lying upside down. I shifted my eyes hurriedly, but not before it appeared to have nodded. Next I saw a jackal shooting out of the bush. But fear had struck me at the speed of lightning before I could rationalize the nod – that it was the result of a living creature tugging at the dead one’s legs. I ran, sweating and gasping. My body developed high temperature at night. Soon we knew that I had caught smallpox.”
This was the melancholic situation when his house was invaded by two organised gangs of dacoits. The first gang plundered the house, decamping with invaluable heirlooms and solid gold; as its three-generation old base was busted and all its members were arrested, it commissioned the fraternal second gang to murder Manoj’s mother who alone could identify in the court the looted items the major part of which consisted of her jewellery. It was simply Providential that the dacoits stopped storming the door which would have collapsed at one or two more assaults by them, and placed both the sick Manoj and his mother who was by his side at the would-be killers’ mercy. They retreated suddenly, growing nervous all of a sudden as the villagers collected to confront them in darkness.
At the age of ten Manoj was sent to Jamalpur near Jaleswar and was admitted to Class V of Biswanath Academy, a school founded by a big landlord, a relative of theirs, and resided in a hostel. After three years he came over to a newly founded school at Jaleswarpur, nearer their home. The school and the hostel were situated on a stretch of sand with no locality in its proximity. That was the middle of the year 1947. The students celebrated the dawn of freedom with a procession led by Manoj playing a harmonium that hung from the shoulders of two boys who walked flanking him through a deserted road up to market place two and half kilometers away.
The news of Gandhiji’s assassination reached the hostellers three days after its occurrence. That was the law of time and space prevailing then.
But after a year Manoj’s elder brother, Manmath Nath Das, later renowned as a historian, educationist and Parliamentarian, received his first posting as a lecturer in history at Balasore Government College. Manoj was transferred to Balasore Zilla School. He was admitted to Class IX.
It was joy nonpareil for Manoj when he realised that the house his brother had rented was none other than the one built by Fakirmohan Senapati in which the doyen of modern Oriya prose lived and where he wrote most of his epoch-making fiction.