Manu Dash is a renowned Odia poet, editor, translator, publisher and curator of the annual Odisha Art & Literature Festival. He has published 25 books in Odia and English.
He was a part of the ‘Anam Writers Movement’, an anti-establishment movement in Odia literature, which he joined while in college, shortly before the imposition of Emergency in India in 1975. He is also the founder of Dhauli Books, which won the prestigious Publishing Next Industry Award for the Best Printed Book of the Year in Indian Languages in 2018.
In an exclusive interview with Bengaluru Review, Manu Dash discusses his poetry and translations, the Anam Writers Movement, the Odisha Art & Literature Festival, and his publication Dhauli Books, among other things.
‘A Brief History of Silence’ is your first poetry collection in print. How did the poems in this collection come together?
My first poem in Odia was published in January 1975 in a reputed Odia magazine called ‘Asantakali’, six months before the declaration of Emergency in India. But a poetry collection in Odia, Anjule Samudrara Dheu, came out in 2002 after 27 years. Many younger poets were casting aspersions in writers meets– how many poetry collections have I published and so on? Similarly, I’ve been writing poems in English and getting them published since more than 25 years now. But, putting them into a book form was not yet done as I was not deeming to have cut my teeth. Many friends across genres persuaded me to bring out a book for which I am grateful to them. I think I have sloughed off the peer pressure by now.
Your book is named after a poem from the collection. Why did you think ‘A Brief History of Silence’ was an apt title?
Silence has always fascinated me though I stand accused of being garrulous by my friends. Silence is, I presume, humble, spiritual, mother of all creation, wisdom, protest and manifestation of disdain. It defies the contours of any limitation and gently courts sensuality. It is difficult to bear for a longer period by a lesser mortal like me as I don’t categorise myself as a saint, hence its history is bound to be brief. I had tried to publish a collection of poems named ‘Whispering Solitude’, but hard to say why it didn’t materialise.
What inspired your title poem?
The ordinariness of daily life charms me more than the pompous and ostentatious happenings. Rabindranath Tagore aptly comes to mind: The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words which are clear; the great truth has great silence.’
Small is beautiful, we all know. Like Jibanananda Das, I crave to hear the descend of dewdrops on tufts of grass or to listen to the mild heartbeats of a tiny squirrel. These are the flip sides of silence.
I love the cover art; can you tell us more about the concept?
I’m a huge admirer of Aparna Caur, an acclaimed artist of our time, who was very kind to send me the image of the painting on yogini theme. We are living in a strange planet of growing violence over territorial, religious, socio-economic and gender issues. The woman (Shakti) stands like a yogini of peace, silence and contemplation trying to overcome the malaise of this madness. The posture is taken from ancient India’s temple sculptures where as the hunting motifs are inspired by our folk art that we have inherited as rich cultural legacy in our subcontinent.
I have been following the news of Irom Sharmila and I find her story very inspiring. Your poem ‘Iron Chanu Sharmila’ is based on her, how did this poem come to you?
I hope it won’t set the cat among the pigeons if I say Irom Chanu Sharmila influenced our national psyche for more than 16 years before she decided to end her fasting. I’m yet to see a lady with equal passion, grit, selflessness, conviction and commitment for the people and society. Besides, she is also a poet. How does a poem come to others? I still grope for a suitable answer. You are also a poet. You must be aware how a poem comes to you!
I loved these lines from your poem ‘Buddha’.
I’ve cast the web of silence
On the sea of
Loneliness to net
Fishbones of grief.
I have always found stories of people who leave their family in search of enlightenment/spirituality interesting. Was this poem an exploration of this specific theme or was it solely inspired by Buddha’s story?
I have used the theme as allegory. As an author I should refrain from any kind of prognosis and leave the poem to erudite critics and sensible readers to explore these angles.
Your poem ‘Bhopal’ reminded me of the Bhopal gas tragedy. I have seen the film based on it. Can you tell us more about the poem?
I’ve not seen the film A Prayer for Rain made on Bhopal gas tragedy. But, many years after the fateful incident, I visited the spot at Union Carbide factory in Bhopal with my younger son where this disastrous human tragedy had taken place. We reached there after sundown and the area was barren and the poor visibility of the place where the leakage of the MIC gas made it surreal and left me shocked. The driver, who accompanied us, was narrating all along the way about his awful experience of confronting death. The photograph taken by Raghu Rai and the untimely death of Dilip Chitre’s son were vivid and heartbreaking in the mind. I had also visited the organisation run by Satinath Sadangi for the gas victims which deeply affected me at the time. I can’t think of a Bhopal without Bharat Bhawan and this awful disaster. I believe the poem has tried to push the envelope.
When did you start writing, and how did you develop an interest in literature? Curious, as you have an HR background?
Before coming to HR discipline, I was a student of Odia literature; before studying Odia literature or Intermediate Science, I was a poet. My grandfather was indirectly responsible for jettisoning me to this unknown space during my adolescent years. In college years, I realised quite late that science discipline does not fascinate me enough to be an engineer or a doctor. So, I decided to take refuge in literature even though my family did not approve of the idea from day one. Being in HR, I got good exposure to the plight of the human condition and behaviour which I would have not got had I been into any other profession.
Can you tell us more about the ‘Anam Writers’ Movement’?
Of course, I will. Anam Writers Movement started in Puri during 1968 under the active leadership of poet Kumar Mohanty. I joined the movement in the fag end of 1974. It was the first writers’ movement which was explicitly vocal against the establishment.
Kumar Mohanty, who was serving as a senior police officer, was suspended from his services for writing the poem against the clamping of Emergency where the freedom of expression and fundamental rights of the citizens as provided by the constitution of India were suspended.
His lyrical but explosive poems were like booby traps targeted against the government machinery. Even after 45 years, the poems still hold good and are relevant today.
‘Kahana Katha Kahana Katha, Kahile Phitiba Adua Suta, Phitile Gumar Sabuta Pita, Bhangiba Tala, Bandhi Neijibe Policewalare policewala.’
(Don’t utter a word, don’t utter a word/The tangled knot will be loosened/All hell will break loose/The lock pad of secrecy would be shattered /And the police would whisk you away in handcuff.)
I don’t remember any other poet in Odia who was so aggressive and vocal against the establishment.
Anam Writers Movement had abided by few disciplines which we called as our commandments: No writer involved with Anam Writers Movement would receive any award from any private or government establishment; there would be no title of any poem and a dot shall be used for this purpose; poems should be deeply rooted with Odisha’s rich socio-cultural milieu; poets would connect with the general mass through their poems.
A few critics were accusing that ‘Anam writers Movement’ was a propaganda and ignoring their poetic oeuvre. Not a single critic has so far thrown light on the movement- on this poetic movement. The movement died its natural death soon after the untimely passing away of Kumar Mohanty in 1996. I was privileged to be an active writer of this group from 1975. It was Kumar Mohanty who had christened my name to ‘Manu Dash’.
Can you share your experience at the Bengaluru Poetry Festival that happened recently?
Before participating in the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, I had participated in Calicut Poetry Festival, Hyderabad Literature Festival, Jaipur Literature Festival, Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters and many festivals in my home state. But I must confess, looking at the line-up of poets, the amazing schedule, awesome hospitality, personal care for writers, brilliant team management, time management, crowd management, managing the book counters; Bengaluru Poetry Festival was superb. I congratulate Subodh Sankar and his awesome team for this wonderful planning.
For a single moment, I didn’t feel alienated. In fact, I would be unhesitant to call it as the kumbha of Indian poets. Though everything looks hunky dory, I have a suggestion to make- The organisers should invite more acclaimed regional language poets to BPF to make it more inclusive.
You have written books in Odia. Can you tell us how do you feel about writing in Odia and English? Which do you prefer?
We are born in a multi-lingual country and come across different languages from our school days: English, Hindi, Sanskrit besides our mother tongue. Having worked near the border of Orissa I have interacted with bilingual people. In Balasore, besides Odia most people speak in Bangla; in Jeypore majority Odia people speak Telugu fluently. You know, all our Indian cities are flooded with multi-lingual people.
Having read and being raised in a bilingual environment, I have never felt any such challenge to write in both languages. Besides this, I am an avid reader of Hindi literature. Each language has its own felicity and limitation. Besides, I presume, every writer is bilingual. Each writer imagines first before putting it into the language he or she prefers.
You have translated many books. How did you think of doing translations and how has the experience been?
Every translator would agree with me that he/she first loves the book he/she is going to translate. There’s no second thought about it. I’ve translated from English and Hindi into the Odia; from the Odia to the English; translated from genres like poetry, fiction and plays. Translating any original work is as difficult as writing the original one. A single sentence of the original text may take the wind out of your sails. Finding an accurate word is also no easy task. It needs consultation with various experts and collaboration with the original writer. Unfortunately, we always have a dearth of good translators in each language. After reading the Odia translation of Uday Prakash’s ‘Mohan Das’, acclaimed Odia poet Ramakant Rath once told me he did not feel it was a translated work. It was a great compliment to my work. While translating Mahesh Dattani’s ‘Dance Like a Man’ into the Odia, I did not feel that I am translating it from the English. Dattani had expressed it as the best compliment he ever received.
You have recently published Annie Zaidi’s award winning plays. Can you tell us about Dhauli Books, your publishing house and your vision for it?
Dhauli Books is an independent publishing House. It publishes quality books in English, Hindi and Odia languages. In the span of two years we have published 50 books. Our authors have made an impact on the readers across the languages. Besides poetry books, we also publish fiction, plays, non-fiction and screenplays. We have a good team of editors. Publishing good literature is our prime concern. I often act as the commissioning editor for Dhauli Books; trying every day to apprehend the nitty-gritty of the publishing world. My visions are always bigger than me. Operating from Bhubaneswar, I want to make Dhauli Books one of the finest publishing houses in the country. We’ll certainly spread our wings once we get the right kind of environment.
What is your vision for Dhauli Review, the online magazine you have founded and can you tell us about its inception?
Anyone who has read Dhauli Review would understand its vision. It is about contemporary Indian writing for discerning readers. I do not believe in beating in my own drum.
Dhauli Review’s first issue was released in 2008, by Ashok Vajpeyi and Dilip Chitre. After that, it became an online magazine. The response and the cooperation of the writers’ fraternity was amazing. Each issue carried a full length audio-visual interview, a full-length play, besides fiction and poetry. Only one writer had reprimanded me for this, Ashok Mitran. He wanted me to stop this and focus on my writing. However, the time came when I made it a paid magazine and then could not give it time. Now, some of my writer friends are planning to revive it. It may come with better proposition. Let us wait and watch.
Books (across all genres) that you would recommend and advice for writers?.
I have recently read Arundhathi Subramaniam’s ‘Love Without a Story’ and Sumana Roy’s ‘Out of Syllabus’ poetry collection.In fiction, Abdullah Khan’s ‘Patna Blues’ and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Odia version’ ‘Buddu Gimpel’ by Kamalakanta Mohapatra ; in non-fiction ,TM Krishna’s ‘Reshaping Art’ and Pravat Ranjan’s ‘Paltu Bohemian’(Hindi). I also read the memoir ‘A Life Told Through the Body’ by Shanta Gokhale. Besides, I do not believe in quoting only a few books.
I’ve been watching the growth of Indian writing in English since the 70’s. I’m a huge fan of the poetry and fiction being produced. There is no short-cut route to be a good writer. You have to read a lot and should have the courage to confront and shoo away the failures.
This interview was conducted by Michelle D’costa, a Mangalorean from Bahrain. She blogs regularly, and has her poetry and prose published in various journals. She loves to interview writers and runs the ezine Kaani.
Read more interviews on Bengaluru Review:
‘For young readers, some experiences are timeless’ : Andaleeb Wajid
These poems are little bombs that explode at your face’ : Namrata Pathak
‘Thankfully, Bengalis do have a sense of humour’ : Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury