For Jayanta Mahapatra (October 22, 1928-August 27, 2023), who wrote both in Odia and English, poetry was his lifeblood, his raison d’être
“To Orissa, where my roots lie, where lies my past, and where lies my beginning and my end,” Jayanta Mahapatra, the first Indian English poet to have received the Sahitya Akademi award (1981), had said while dedicating the literary honour for 'Relationship', a long poem in 12 sections, to his homeland. An exploration into self-identity, the deeply personal poem for which he drew on his family history as a third-generation Christian, as well as his dreams and memories, heralded the arrival of a poet who had become one with the state he was born in; with its history and mythology, its culture and tradition, its architecture and ecology. From the deity of Jagannath at Puri to The Sun temple at Konark — its beauty as well as its ruins. From the waters of the Mahanadi to the seashores.
Mahapatra (October 22, 1928-August 27, 2023) laid the foundations of modern Indian English Poetry, along with his fellow post-colonial poets like Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993), Kamala Das (1934-2009), Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004), Dom Moraes (1938-2004), R. Parthasarathy (89), Keki N. Daruwalla (86), Adil Jussawalla (83) and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (76). In his enviable oeuvre — more than 30 volumes, in both English and Odia, written over a period of five-and-a-half decades — not only did he create a voice and idiom of his own, he also made the colours, textures, and soul of Odisha, as the state is now known, breathe through his poetry. The Orissa of Mahapatra’s imagination, as Jeet Thayil writes in The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, is “a crowded place, corroded by monsoon rains and violence, where God’s silence is ‘deep and famous’ and interrupted only by His laughter.”
The doyen, who breathed his last at 95 on Sunday night, was writing poetry even on his deathbed. He had started writing Odia poems lately. Poet-translator-publisher Manu Dash, who had been working with him to bring out a bilingual collection of his poems, had met him last week to show him the proof. His only regret: he would never get around to presenting a copy to Mahapatra. “No poet in the last 70 years have had as much of an influence in Odisha as him. He published his first English volume at the age of 41, but he surpassed many poets of his time. Personal tragedies like the deaths of his wife, only son and longtime caretaker could not deter him from the path of writing poetry,” says Dash. For Mahapatra, who taught physics at different colleges in Odisha till he retired in 1986, poetry was his lifeblood, his raison d’être.
‘Troubled tombs of blood’
A recipient of Padma Shri award (2009), Mahapatra had famously returned it in 2015 to register his protest against the “rising intolerance in India”. A year later, he published Hesitant Light, which talks about the ‘indifference when we let our unseen poor / pass the night chanting prayers in the starvation-light / where laughter rests in parliamentarians’ mouths.’ He writes about an India where rape and murder become commonplace, and the ‘scent of womanly jasmines / rises in the air.’ In ‘Wish’, one of the recent poems in the collection, he seeks to disassociate himself from the culture of violence: ‘The land some love to call holy / is not the one I want to live in. / Today the land of shrines and temples / offers its troubled tombs of blood.’
He further declares: ‘I don’t wish to write my poem, when a mob watches and cheers in wild delight the sight of Fara’s rape and mutilation.’ He wishes to distinguish himself from the complicit and passive spectators of violence: ‘I don’t want to be a beggar unwillingly caught up in the middle of a crowd.’ He desires for a shift in society and governance. He envisions a government that resembles a butterfly, a symbol of grace and gentleness, and ‘not be, as it is, like a wasp or snake.’ As the poem progresses, the poet’s wish becomes entwined with his hope for broader social change. He yearns for a land that operates without ulterior motives, a prayer ground that doesn’t hold cries of despair, and a night where a young girl’s stifled scream doesn’t pierce the silence. ‘I merely want to renew myself like a new morning/ which has conquered a hundred layers of religion/ of our own making,’ he writes.
‘A whiff of earthy zeitgeist’
To Rochelle Potkar (44), fiction writer and poet, whose collections include Four Degrees of Separation (2016) and Paper Asylum (2018), Mahapatra’s poems always held ‘a rare whiff of earthy zeitgeist even as they parsed the quotidian’. She says: “Each poem of his feels like a forever line extending the z-axis of unpredictable thought. He wrote in a similar vein of incisive simplicity, discerning through both farce and rigour of life. Not simply was he an internationally recognised poet much before the age of the Internet during a painstakingly snail-mail-submission and correspondence era. His work jumped time and technology to make a home in the minds of worldwide readers of poetry.” It is the way Mahapatra lived and breathed that made his writings so accessible and admirable, Potkar underlines, adding that he possessed the most astute, wise and sharp mind that constantly defied an aging frail body.
Though he had several age-related health issues, he had emerged a fighter and warrior each time, always making it back home: despite his advanced age, he’d even conquered Covid. More recently, however, he had been in and out of the hospital frequently. “It’s hard to process Jayanta da’s loss. His passing has left a vacuum in the literary world,” says poet-editor-curator Vinita Agrawal (58), author of four books of poetry and the editor of an anthology on climate change. To her and her family, the loss feels personal. “Jayanta da used to visit our home in Mumbai frequently, until his health no longer allowed him to travel. We have precious memories of him from his every visit. While most of us respect and admire his poetry, only a few realise the infinite compassion and astuteness Jayanta da had to gauge the realities of life. He was a master of understanding human emotions. He knew how the human mind works. He could assess people just by looking into their eyes or by speaking to them briefly. No wonder his poetry uncovers the deepest truths of the human condition,” says Agrawal.
The poetry of ‘departure into the self’
The poetry of Mahapatra, who began as a poet of love, is also the poetry of ‘departure into the self’, as Nandini Sahu underscores in Re-reading Jayanta Mahapatra (2022); it reveals a self that is ‘secluded and withdrawn’. In ‘Elsewhere,’ another poem in Hesitant Light, for instance, he writes: ‘My room could be a whole world / and I don’t wish to struggle to keep it./ I turn the page; the simple shepherds / still walk the slopes, and I feel / doors open within me, only by one.’ In one of his poems he translated from Odia, ‘Of a Questionable Conviction,’ included in Gulzar’s A Poem A Day: 365 Contemporary Poems 34 Languages 279 Poets (HarperCollins), he writes: ‘This is a man who talks of pain as though it belonged to him alone. /Maybe he has invented it himself and made a virtue of it./Maybe he is a poet./ For hours he waits, in the night. / Towards another night he waits for that is his excuse to live. / The empty window in his lonely wall belongs to him. / For months together / the window has been deceiving him / light comes in, then goes away on its own. / He has been trying / to polish the light on his heart. / They all say he was a poet, his eyes saw the pain in the mirror that occupied him. / They didn’t grudge him that: such a harmless pastime never ruined anybody’s sleep.’
The recognition by Sahitya Akademi in Mahapatra’s halcyon days had come a decade after he had published the first two volumes of poetry in English: Svayamvara and Other Poems and Close the Sky. Many more had followed, including A Rain of Rites and Life Signs, which are regarded as classics in modern Indian English literature. If you wish to delve into his poetic universe, I’d strongly recommend his book of collected poems which Hemant Divate’s Poetrywala published in 2017.
All these books had happened after Mahapatra found his world changed at 38, when most poets have generally finished writing their best works. He had written his first poem. It was followed by another. And another. He owed his interest in the language to an Englishman he had met in his adolescent years: David T. Roberts, the principal of Stewart European School in Cuttack, where he spent his formative years from 1933 to 1941. “I was just 13, my last birthday being on 22nd October, 1941. Thin, hungry perhaps, I entered college (Ravenshaw) the next year, 1942; all the while feeling pushed into a corner by the other students in my class, all of whom were older, stronger than me. Perhaps this sense of being intimidated in various ways has never left me since those early school days,” he writes in Jayanta Mahapatra: A Journey (Ketaki Foundation), a coffee-table book, which was released in April this year.
In the pre-partition India torn by communal riots, as the British were preparing to finally leave the country, he pursued his Master’s degree in Physics at the Science College, Patna. “It was a raw time for me, which I spent almost alone, in the cheap rented lodging beside Mahendru Ghat on the bank of the Ganga. But the three years of my study passed by, a time when I saw Mahatma Gandhi, and was moved by his tenderness and his courage that hung in the torn air of India,” he writes. The first class helped him to become a lecturer in Ravenshaw College when he came back home to Cuttack. It was here that he met his future wife, Jyotsna. Soon after, they were married: at the time, they were just 22. “The stories which I tried hard at writing at that time never got published. Disappointment turned to a sort of despair. I lost direction, I wandered aimless for a time. I tried to be a photographer. I spent long hours doing calculations in the field of Theoretical Physics. But I seemed to lose interest in whatever I did,” he writes. Poetry came to his rescue; it redeemed him, and gave him a new direction.
‘No shutters and no blinkers’
“Mahapatra puts down no shutters and puts on no blinkers. He has an open mind and perhaps a willing ear in choosing the themes for his poetry. In his effort to acclimatise English language to an indigenous tradition, he has chosen for his theme various subjects beginning from the landscape of the country to international problems,” writes Bijay Kumar Das in The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra (1992), arguing that a poet’s response to the landscape of his country, his sense of tradition and culture of the land of his birth and many other factors go together to make him assume an identity of his own. “Before one’s country can become an accepted background against which the poet’s and novelist’s imagination can move unhindered, it must first be observed, understood, described as it were, absorbed. The writer must be at peace with his landscape before he can confidently turn to its human figures,” Australian poet Judith Wright wrote once. Mahapatra had both observed and absorbed the fragments of Odisha he had set eyes on and melded them into the architecture of his poems.
Some of his evocative poems like ‘A Country Festival,’ ‘Dawn at Puri,’ and ‘The Captive Air at Chandipur-on-sea’ not only show his craftsmanship, they also establish his identity as a poet of the land, a native to Odisha. In ‘Bare Face,’ a village woman arrives at a pond to bathe, letting her hair loose before bathing. The mild rain wets the bamboo groves near the place. In another poem, ‘In a Time of Winter Rain,’ he evokes our relation with nature: ‘We learn to smile in a time of winter rain. / Under a wet sky it’s no meagre comfort / To feel the radiance of noon in our palms / The almond-eyed boats clutching time in their fists / In the Mahanadi River, the right shoulders / Of peaceful lotuses floating motionless.’ It is not just the sky or the landscape, but even the dilapidated places of worship that inspire the poet. In ‘Abandoned Temple,’ he writes: ‘A wandering boy / hurls a rock through /The ruined entrance. / Shadows in retreat fly: The serpent-girls, elephant-gods, fiery birds / Mosquitoes slap the Siva-Linga in ignorant stillness / A long shiver running down the shrine.’
Though Mahapatra found himself fascinated by the rituals and temples, he still remained wary of any possible question from a priest, who may suddenly ask him… “Are you a Hindu?” (Selected Poems). Although he identified as a Christian, in his will, he expressed his wish to be cremated upon his death, rather than being buried. His grandfather’s conversion to Christianity had left a painful mark on him. During the early stages of his poetic career, it had come to symbolise a sense of continuous separation from the Hindu tradition, and the people of Odisha, of which he deemed himself to be an integral part. Perhaps his decision to be cremated reflects his desire to reclaim a connection to the cultural and religious heritage of Odisha that he felt distanced from, a posthumous reconciliation of sorts. Perhaps he wanted to be in communion with its landscape. In death as in life.