Literary achievements of Haraprasad Das are huge. Just like the voluminous books that flow from his pen. The latest from his oeuvre is a book of English poems—Shiva in Manhattan—released in August. The poems traverse a wide range of affinities and concerns with a poetic voice of a urban bilingual Indian.
Das is also giving final touches to Odia Jati ra Jeevana Chinta, a book that looks at modern Odisha history from the beginning of the 19th century to 1936 when Odisha was created as a separate province. It is expected to be out by the year-end.
It is a historical sequel to his Odia Jati ra Jeevana Katha, a mammoth book on Odisha’s ethnic history and hailed as a work nonpareil in the state. Das wrote it over seven years. “I have tried to explore the origin of Odia people. It’s an interpretation of Odisha history from the end of the 18th century,” he says.
In a literary career spanning over four decades, Das has been at the forefront of the avant-garde, while reviving the scale and tenor of Odia literary tradition that goes back a thousand years. He has brought out 13 collections of poems, a compilation of short fiction, four collections of essays, numerous translation and few books of edited works in Odia, all of them in print.
What fetched him the prestigious 26th Moortidevi Award for 2012 recently is Vamsha, a series of poems based on the Mahabharat. It’s a recreation of the Mahabharat in modern contemporary idiom. The distinguishing quality of the work is that the modern idiom has not abandoned the epic scale of the original text.
“Mahabharat as a seminal text of Indian racial memory has multiple ends and openings. What I have done is connect the main story line in a continuity to work out the nature of human destiny. For me, Mahabharat has been a civilisational journey where humankind is in a predicament on account of its own misdoings. I have taken the context beginning with the tussle between the gods and demons for acquiring the means of immortality and the work ends with both humans and Lord Krishna being subjected to vicissitudes of time. In the end, nothing remains and it is entropy,” he says.
Das conceived the idea of Vamsha 20 years ago and began writing it in 2000. It was published in 2008.
He has adopted the heroic style, distant from the contemporary idiom where conversational language is that of poetry. “I adopted the heroic form because I am communicating with a large matter of history involving persons who are held in great respect in Indian mythology,” says Das, the second Odia after Prativa Ray to get Moortidevi.
The award, he says, is precious as it’s a recognition for recreating a racial memory in poetic form.
“While I wrote Vamsha, I hadn’t imagined that it would ever be completed because I felt the book’s structure will collapse under its own weight. Recognition for Vamsha, therefore, is extremely gratifying to me as an Odia writer and most importantly, an Indian poet.”
Another major work of poetry by the former chairman of State Administrative Tribunal is Desh, exploring the loss of home in a borderless world.
His tryst with poetry began at the age of 15; his first poems during school days were published in a widely circulated Odia daily.
What fetched Das the recognition of catalysing the Odia new fiction movement were two books—Lubdhkara Teeni Prahara (Three Hours of Orion) and Alokita Banabas (The Enlightened Exile)—published in 1979 and 1980. The first book of soft fiction was an experimental work with a lot of explicit philosophical discourse and comments on man-woman relationship, fall of man, birth, death, etc. It brought him a lot of response from people then accustomed to conventional story writing. Alokita Banabas, too, set a new form in Odia poetry.
“Both the books became controversial as my seniors were surprised by the brazenness of style, language and content.”
He, however, stopped writing after 1980 for 10 years. “After the criticism, I asked myself if I should continue writing. I stopped writing and did a lot of reading, thinking. Then at a particular point of time in 90s, I got my answer. I felt that others do not see the way I see and did not write the way I did,” he recalls.
Das got back to penning down his thoughts in 90s and his poetry Mantrapatha that released in 1991 fetched him the Odisha Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993. He was honoured with the Central Sahitya Akademi Award in 1999 for Garbha Griha, which has been translated into English as Dark Sanctum. He is also the recipient of Gangadhar Meher National Poetry Award, Sarala Samman and the Bharatiya Bhasa Parishad Award for poetry.
Though primarily a poet, Das also devotes time to write essays and socio-cultural commentaries.