Sunshine for the budding souls
That year the theme of the World Book Fair in New Delhi was Children’s Literature. The two stars at the main seminar on the subject were Ruskin Bond who inaugurated it and Manoj Das who was the chief guest. In fact, Bond’s witty inaugural address lasted just five minutes ending with his commending his compatriot Manoj Das to the audience – and Manoj Das kept his audience enthralled for half an hour.
For the younger section of the audience nothing could have been a better combination than this pair. If to many of them Bond’s stories brought refreshing Himalayan air and the colour and smell of the wild birds and animals, Manoj Das’s stories brought wonderful messages from the sunshine and the roar of the sea – his vast creative range breathing new life into the ancient personae left behind by Vishnu Sharma and Somadev as well the Bodhisattva himself.
Manoj Das feels shy when any interviewer congratulates him as a successful Children’s writer for the phenomenal success of two of his books – Stories of Light and Delight (first published in 1970) which has been most probably India’s largest selling children’s story book during the past half century and Books Forever, equally popular though a non-fiction work, introducing to the children the great books making the nation’s heritage.
As Manoj Das once explained to a scholar, he was writing for the famous Shankar’s Weekly, that unique publication of intelligent satire and cartoons as well as excellent literary pieces, which the urban elite longingly awaited every Saturday morning. The legendary Shankar Pillai founded the International Dolls Museum, launched the massive children’s art competition as well as a children’s monthly, The Children’s World. Because of Manoj’s association with the organisation, he began writing for that magazine. His stories drew the attention of the noted writer, K.S. Duggal, who was then the Director of the National Book Trust, India. He published them as Stories of Light and Delight and the book was an instant hit. They commissioned Manoj for the next book.
The third book of Manoj brought out buy the NBT has been no less a success. Entitled The Bride inside a Casket and other Stories, it was originally published by the Times Books International, Singapore. An international edition of the book was published by W.H. Allen & Co, London. The NBT brought the Indian edition in 2001. It has undergone several reprints – including two reprints in 2011 itself, a rare event in children’s literature.
But his debut in children’s literature goes back to pre-NBT days. His first book in this genre was published by India Book House, Mumbai (then Bombay). Entitled Legends of India’s Temples, it was followed by Legends of India’s Rivers, Tales from Many Lands and Persian Tales of Wit and Delight. Each one of them saw several imprints. He also contributed three or four scripts for IBH’s famous Amar Chitra Katha series.
His other story books for children are: The Golden Deer, A Strange Prophecy, Equal to a Thousand, The Magic Tree, Contours of Courage, etc.
But his highly original contributions to Children’s Literature are his two novelettes, The Fourth Friend and The Legend of the Golden Valley. The first is a story with a village marooned by flood and changed into an island for its backdrop when three boys find a strange friend – tiger which during the turmoil had got separated from a touring circus. It is at once realistic yet hilarious, human and full of suspense. The second one is an original fairytale that makes absorbing reading and what is more, has an allegorical undertone.
For many years Manoj Das helped the international English edition of that famous children’s monthly Chandamama and at a latter phase of the magazine’s life Manoj and Ruskin Bond were its Editorial Advisers. They withdrew when the publication passed into different hands.
‘Your popularity with the sophisticated readership is unique; your popularity with young readers is wide. How would you like to be known – as a writer for the grown-up or a writer for the young?’ this significant writer – one who has been bestowed D.Litt. (Honoris Causa) by five universities (we do not know how many creative writers have merited such honour) and had received India’s highest accolades like the Fellowship of the Akademi, ‘reserved for immortals in literature’, the Saraswati Samman apart from Sahitya Akademi Award was once asked.
‘Remembered?’ he kept silent for a minute. ‘For how long and by whom? And where is the question of or relevance of my liking something when I am no more? These are questions beyond me. However, you may consider remembering me just as a writer!’
Love and laughter for the young