Jayanta Mahapatra needs little introduction. There are many features
which make him distinct from his contemporaries like: the most prolific
poet in the history India English Poetry, belongs to poor and middle
class family, a scholar from science background, first poet to receive
Sahitya Akademi Award in the Indian English Poetry, a poet who commands
more respect overseas than at home, and profundity of images and
symbols in his poetry.
It was the morning of 15Th Nov 09; I have an opportunity to visit the residence of Jayanta Mahapatra. Jayanta Mahapatra is in his nineties and he has chronic asthma and recurrent migraine. Because of chest heaviness and breathlessness he doesn’t prefer, at all, to talk in the morning hour. So I returned empty handed in the morning but in the evening I have a talk with him in cordial and friendly atmosphere.
After passing of his wife,Runu Mahapatra, last year, he is internally shaken and weakened, as they were an ideal and exemplerary couple.
After meeting with him when I came out of his room I spoke to his maidservant who has been serving them for years regarding how Jayanta Mahapatra feels the absence of his wife. She said he wept bitterly when his wife died and even now he brusts into tears occasionaly in her loving memory.
Let me share excerpts of our conversation:
V Jha: In the book, “Door of Paper: Essays and memoirs”, all the essays and articles written by you are available.
J Mahapatra: Not all, but most of them are available.
V Jha: Your theme of poetry is oriented on that only.
J Mahapatra: Yah, all my childhood.
V Jha: Who is the contemporary you like the most?
J Mahapatra: Can’t say like that.
V Jha: You have somewhere talked about A K Ramanujan.
J Mahapatra: Yes, he was idealistic and very good writer.
V Jha: It is he whom you like most!
J Mahapatra: Yes.
V Jha: In the book, “History of Indian English Literature” authored by M. K. Naik, he mentions that contemporary Indian poets, who made name in the Indian and world English poetry, have got his first book published by P. Lal only. Is it true?
J. Mahapatra: It is true because all these people were published by P. Lal. He also has done a very good job, very good humanitarian job. We can’t deny it. Giving encouragement to new writers is something not many people have done. The poet like Ezekiel, even this man who made a name, Vikram Seth, he was also published by P. Lal. Kamala Das, all these people were published.
V Jha: Sir you express your dissatisfaction over the absence of constructive criticism on your poetry especially in India. They include only ugly aspects of your poetry. What kind of criticism you want to have on your poetry?
J Mahapatra: I don’t read criticism. I haven’t seen those books. I don’t want to see criticism because that doesn’t help me much. Unless it is positive criticism but one writes for one write. One doesn’t write because the critic tells to write like this.
V Jha: The very title of your book of poetry bears significance of bleakness and barrenness. Is there vested interest in doing that?
J Mahapatra: No, It came own its own.
V Jha: What are the works you are at present busy with?
J Mahapatra: At present I am writing my autobiography in Oriya. At least one part I want to publish latest by June, if I am living (smilingly). After I finish it, I will publish a new book of English poems. So let me see what happens.
V Jha: Have you decided the title of your new book of poetry?
J Mahapatra: No, no, not yet.
V Jha: How many poems will be there?
J Mahapatra: I don’t know. I have still not decided.
V Jha: Your autobiography is available up to 1989. Are you planning to write or have written about yourself after that?
J. Mahapatra: I have written small portion of my autobiography because an American Encyclopedia wanted it for living contemporary writers but now I am writing autobiography in Oriya. It’s being serialized in a magazine.
V Jha: It is after 1989.
J Mahapatra: No, no, no, it’s about my childhood and early days.
V Jha: Has it been published?
J Mahapatra: I am just writing it now. Only three has come out. Next will come out soon, one by one in series. I am trying to write. I don’t know I will pull on. I can’t tell of tomorrow (Kal ki baat to ham nahin bol sakate). But I am trying to do whatever I can. It’s all about my childhood, my youth and my days at Patna.
V Jha: What would be your advice to the budding poet?
J Mahapatra: Write whatever you feel, feel from your heart, from your inside. One thing will also help you. Just you write from the level, tilt a little higher level. If we can go somewhat towards God in the guise of writing (Thora eshawar ke taraph, thora sa, aagar hamlog ja sakate hain likhake). If we can that should be our goal. Don’t you think so? Your conscience and soul search good things. And when you go about writing a poem as a priest offers the God by picking and choosing the flowers so we should do with words. (Jaise Poojari phool chun-chun kar chadhate hain to hamlog Pooja ke tarahshabad ko aik-aik kar ke banana chahiye. Mera to yahin khyal hai)
V Jha: To whom you want to dedicate your success as a poet.
J Mahapatra: It’s my wife. She has been very co-operative. She has been giving me freedom. If your wife doesn’t give you freedom how can you write? Somebody should be there, you take the time also and also worries, no worries from other things, household things and all like that. So if you have time and then she gives you freedom also to live and we want to live to help the people, not to help the people.
V Jha: I would like to know about your reaction on the talk of your being the father of the modern and post-modern Indian English poetry.
J Mahapatra: No, no. I write what I can. I don’t think about it
V Jha: Can you recall the moment and instant which had inspired you to compose maiden verse?
J Mahapatra: Actually I was writing story in the beginning, but this story were not published, they were all rejected. So I didn’t write for long day. I did research I Physics and still photography I also had a interest. Then later on I began writing. I don’t know it happened, very late it happened.
V Jha: Is Chandrabhaga still publishing or not?
J Mahapatra: We are not publishing it know. I didn’t have time. I didn’t have the money involves for publishing. All these sorts of problems to take over. That’s why we stopped it.
V Jha: In a country of more than one billion people, a magazine Chandrabhaga had come to cease the publication. In your view what is the fate and future of Indian English poetry?
J Mahapatra: Graphic magazine, fashion magazine, movie magazine, you can only get funding. Otherwise nobody is purchasing a literary periodical. Not only in India, I think this is the case of every where in the world but especially in India we have too much emphasis on film and fashion.
V Jha: I have read your various interviews, articles and essays and found that you were never mentioned the great name like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, T.S. Eliot, and Y. B. Weats. Does it make you something orthodox and unconventional?
J Mahapatra: I didn’t know. I didn’t study them. I studied science you know. English literature I didn’t read.
V Jha: What was your main source of inspiration?
J Mahapatra: Main source of inspiration: my land, my people, my place, what I see, what social injustice I see, and political injustice. I should like to write about the hunger. I think Orissa is the one of the very, very, very, very poor state, very poor. You go inside the villages you will see they don’t have the place to live in. They don’t have roof over their heads. They don’t have one meal a day. They don’t have rice also to eat. And only politician can find out which things are there. During election time they do visit the villages once and next five years nothing happens. The same poverty, they sell their children to keep their own stomachs. Mothers sell their daughters, fathers sail their daughters. Even today it’s happening. Especially in Orissa and interior of India.
V Jha: In your autobiography you have talked about a beautiful girl.
J Mahapatra: Irene! Irene! It happened just in the class. But this is in Oriya I have talked about other girls also, so that I could enjoy more priority. In English you can’t do that. In your own mother tongue you can talk about those things that you can’t talk about in English. What we have by virtue of our soil and local air that we can’t have any other way. We have with our mother tongue. I have one and only religion that if I couldn’t help anybody why should I harm. (Apani mitti se, apani hawa se jo hoti hai wo bahar ke raste se nahin. Apani maa ke juwan se hoti hai. Mera to ek hin dharma hai ki kisi ka kuchh harm mat karo. Ham to kisi ke liye kuchh kar nahin pate hai to kisi ko dukh kyon pahuchayen). If you can’t help somebody let us not harm somebody. That should be the religion of everybody. Religion has no concern with temple, church or mosque.
V Jha: Is your madam surviving or not?
J Mahapatra: No, she is no more.
V Jha: In which year she expired?
J Mahapatra: Last year.
V Jha: I came to know from your autobiography that you have performed your M. Sc. from Patana.
J Mahapatra: That’s right, from Patna, Patna Science college.
V Jha: As I am from Bihar, I would like to know about your experience of staying there during the course of post graduation at Patna University. What was the positive aspect you had found there?
J. Mahapatra: Those days were much better than today. And Patna University was one of the best universities of India. I was living in a small mess, small verandah and small rented building. We were about ten students. We are rented small rooms of the professor of engineering college, Prof Ojha. The building in which we were staying was near to the Mahendru Ghat and law college.
V Jha: In which year you have done your M. Sc.?
J Mahapatra: It was in the year 1949-50.
V Jha: For how many years you had been Bihar?
J Mahapatra: I had been there for three years.
V Jha: That time P. G. course was of three years!
J Mahapatra: I didn’t appear in final examination. I came away home. Again I went and appeared in the examination. That time riots were there. I didn’t feel secure. All sorts of things were there.
V Jha: You have talked about some emerging poets from the North-east region.
J Mahapatra: There are some good and young poets specially from Meghalay, Mizoram and also in Arunachal Pradesh.
V Jha: Earlier such talents were not there in that region. How now such things happen to see?
J Mahapatra: See, there is tension there in North-East. If you have no tension you can’t write well. If you have tension you can bring about your feelings well. Unless you have failure, suffering and sorrows in your life how can you write? If you have enough to eat, enough money, a good house and a car, why will you write? What will you write about? You have no problems to write about! If you have got problems, may be racial problems, religious problems, hunger problems and social problems. Problems will lead you to think, unless you think you can’t write, ideas will not come in your mind. For ideas you need the images to supplement your ideas. So all things make a certain cycle that is necessary. It begins only when you have certain problems in your life to start writing poetry. Is it right Vivekanand?
V Jha: You have talked about one poet from Kolkota.
J Mahapatra: You talk about Rudhra Kinshuk.I like this poet. Young boy and he makes good use of new images. I like when you put a new type images in the poem.
V Jha: What do you mean by new images? Innovation should be extracted from the new invention, science and technology.
J Mahapatra: New images mean you try to bring about something that never happened or done by some other poets before you. There was a great Urdu poet from Allahabad side, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, he used to write, “I want to drink through eyes not by lips” ( Lavon se nahin Main peena chahata, main ankhoon se peena chahata hoon). Something new like this.
V Jha: Your son is at Ahmadabad. Isn’t it?
J Mahapatra: No, no. He is at Singapore. He has gone outside.
V Jha: Only writing is your main sort of engagement.
J Mahapatra: I read also a lot. When I can’t read, I write. When I can’t write I read.
V Jha: What is your source of entertainments?
J Mahapatra: I like to watch TV.
V Jha: Which program do you like most?
J Mahapatra: I put it on and just think of other things.
V Jha: Do you like news channels?
J Mahapatra: No, no they are very, very sensational news. Even now cricket also I don’t see. Earlier I used to watch each and every match without fail. Last year I have stopped it. Cricket has degraded now after the rising importance of T- twenty Matches.
Literary Works of Jayanta Mahapatra
List of Poetry in English:
Close the sky, Ten by Ten, Culcutta. Dialogue Publication,1971
Svayamvara and Other Poems, Calcutta. Writers Workshop
A Father’s Hours, Calcutta. Writers Workshop, 1971
A Rain of Rites, Athens (USA). University of Georgia Press, 1976
Waiting, New Delhi. Samkaleen Prakashan, 1979
The False Start, Bombay. Clearing House, 1980
Relationship, Greenfield, New York. Greenfield Review Press, 1980
Life Signs, New Delhi. Oxford University Press, 1983
Dispossessed Nests, 1986
Selected Poems, New Delhi. Oxford University Press, 1987
Burden of Waves and Fruit, Washington, DC. Three Continents Press, 1988
Temple, Sydney/Mundelstrup/Coventry. Dangaroo Press, 1989
A Whiteness of Bone, New Delhi. Viking Penguin, 1992
The Best of Jayanta Mahapatra, Kozhikode. Bodhi Publications, 1995
Shadow Space, Kottayam. D.C.Books, 1997
Bare Face, Kottayam. D.C.Books,2000
Random Descent, Bhubaneswar. Third Eye Communications, 2005
The Lie of Dawns: Poems 1974-2008, New Delhi, Authorspress, 2009
Poetry in Oriya:
Bali (The Victim) Cuttack. Vidyapuri, 1993
Kahibi Gotie Katha (I’II Tell A Story), Cuttack. Arya Prakashan, 1995
Baya Raja (The Mad Emperor), Cuttack. Vidyapuri, 1997
Tikie Chhayee (A Little Shadow), Cuttack. Vidyapuri, 2001
Chali (Walking), Cuttack. Vidyapuri, 2006
adiba Gapatiayy, Cuttack. Friends Publishers, 2009
Translations of Poetry:
Countermeasures: Poems, Calcutta. Dialogue, 1973
Wings of the Past: Poems, Calcutta. Rajasree, 1976
Song of Kubja and Other Poems, New Delhi. Samkaleen, 1981 I Can, But Why Should I Go: Poems, New Delhi. Sahitya Akademi, 1994
Verticals of Life: Poems, New Delhi. Sahitya Akademi, 1996
Tapaswini: a Poem, Bhubaneswar. Orissa Sahitya Akademi, 1998
Discovery and other Poems, Kolkata. Writers Workshop, 2001
A Time of Rising (Poems), New Delhi. Har-Anand, 2003
The Green Gardener, Hyderabad. Orient Longman, 1997
Orissa, New Delhi. Lustre Press, 1973.
Poemas (in Spanish), Mexico. Instituto de Cultura.
Sample poems of Jayanta Mahapatra
It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back.
The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly,
trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words
sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself.
I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.
I followed him across the sprawling sands,
my mind thumping in the flesh's sling.
Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in.
Silence gripped my sleeves; his body clawed at the froth
his old nets had only dragged up from the seas.
In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound.
The wind was I, and the days and nights before.
Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack
an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls.
Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind.
I heard him say: My daughter, she's just turned fifteen...
Feel her. I'll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.
The sky fell on me, and a father's exhausted wile.
Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.
She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside.
At times, as I watch,
it seems as though my country’s body
floats down somewhere on the river.
Left alone, I grow into
a half-disembodied bamboo,
its lower part sunk
into itself on the bank.
Here, old widows and dying men
cherish their freedom,
bowing time after time in obstinate prayers.
While children scream
with this desire for freedom
to transform the world
without even laying hands on it.
In my blindness, at times I fear
I’d wander back to either of them.
In order for me not to lose face,
it is necessary for me to be alone.
Not to meet the woman and her child
in that remote village in the hills
who never had even a little rice
for their one daily meal these fifty years.
And not to see the uncaught, bloodied light
of sunsets cling to the tall white columns
of Parliament House.
In the new temple man has built nearby,
the priest is the one who knows freedom,
while God hides in the dark like an alien.
And each day I keep looking for the light
shadows find excuses to keep.
Trying to find the only freedom I know,
the freedom of the body when it's alone.
The freedom of the silent shale, the moonless coal,
the beds of streams of the sleeping god.
I keep the ashes away,
try not to wear them on my forehead.
The substance that stirs in my palm
could well be a dead man; no need
to show surprise at the dizzy acts of wind.
My old father sitting uncertainly three feet away
is the slow cloud against the sky:
so my heart's beating makes of me a survivor
over here where the sun quietly sets.
The ways of freeing myself:
the glittering flowers, the immensity of rain for example,
which were limited to promises once
have had the lie to themselves. And the wind,
that had made simple revelation in the leaves,
plays upon the ascetic-faced vision of waters;
and without thinking
something makes me keep close to the walls
as though I was afraid of that justice in the shadows.
Now the world passes into my eye:
the birds flutter toward rest around the tree,
the clock jerks each memory towards
the present to become a past, floating away
like ash, over the bank.
My own stirrings like the wind's
keep hoping for the solace that would be me
in my father's eyes
to pour the good years back on my;
the dead man who licks my palms
is more likely to encourage my dark intolerance
rather than turn me
toward some strangely solemn charade:
the dumb order of the myth
lined up in the life-field,
the unconcerned wind perhaps truer than the rest,
rustling the empty, bodiless grains.
The little girl’s hand is made of darkness
How will I hold it?
The streetlamps hang like decapitated heads
Blood opens that terrible door between us
The wide mouth of the country is clamped in pain
while its body writhes on its bed of nails
This little girl has just her raped body
for me to reach her
The weight of my guilt is unable
to overcome my resistance to hug her.