| Door of Paper: Essays and memoirs
by Jayanta Mahapatra
The English-language poet Jayanta Mahapatra did not begin writing poetry until rather late in life, around the age of 40. At that time, English-language poetry in India read very haltingly – more or less like a series of statements. In the hands of the Orissa-born Mahapatra, however, Indian English poetry acquired a deep sense of introspection – an exploration of the self and a new look at the country’s cultural context. Mahapatra’s poetry did not state, but rather suggested; he was one of the first Indian poets to be able to manipulate the language of the coloniser to suit his own needs. His poetry is now being emulated by a body of young poets from Kerala to the Indian Northeast.
Mahapatra first received recognition abroad. In 1971, editors from the premier British literary journal Critical Quarterly, upon accepting seven of the then unknown poet’s works, told Mahapatra that they were publishing poems from an Indian for the first time in the magazine’s 15 years of publication. Five years later, in the US, Mahapatra received a major award from Poetry magazine, which was followed by the publication of his collection A Rain of Rites by the University of Georgia Press. That same year, he was invited back to the US to attend the prestigious Iowa International Writing Program. His magnum opus, Relationship, a long poem that deals with the rich cultural heritage of Orissa, was also eventually published in the US in 1980.
Mahapatra has published 16 volumes of poems, but over the past three decades he has also written copious prose pieces. Those works are now collected in the long-awaited Door of Paper. These essays deal with a broad spectrum of themes, from hunger in Orissa, to the creative process, socio-cultural conflicts, his responses to the works of others, and meditations on the poetic use of mystery, silence and time. Whatever his theme, Mahapatra’s essays bear the indelible imprint of a poet.
Since that first success in the early 1970s, Mahapatra has regularly published poetry in Western magazines, including the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review and Poetry. But one particular journal, London Magazine, would never touch his poems. His reflection on this in Door of Paper is revealing, as to why and how Mahapatra’s poems are the way they are:
I remember Alan Ross, the [London Magazine] editor, having written me on a 5 cm by 10 cm rejection slip, when he had returned my poems, that my work was unsuitable for publication because it tended to be philosophic. My own writing has always reflected an Oriya sensibility and I have felt myself to be an Oriya poet who happened to write in English. I suppose our sensibility, the Indian sensibility, is different from the Western one and this stands in the way of the Western reader.
Moulding the language
What Mahapatra had previously said of the Spanish writer Camilo Jose Cela’s prose is also true of his own: “Cela ably demonstrates a prose … that reads like a poem”. Nearly every piece collected in Door of Paper also bears ample testimony to this sentiment. Many of these essays try to explain what he has left unsaid in his poetry. Mahapatra, who pioneered the type of English-language poetry that is dominant in India today, has been described as waging an undeclared war against the ‘poetry of statement’ that was being widely practised in the 1970s.
In the works collated here, Mahapatra undertakes to fill in some of the gaps inherent to that process – exploring his own unconscious, and sorting through the disparate elements that determined the character of his art. Mahapatra says that he “never realised the implications of what [he] was doing … But I ask myself: what use is a poem if it is easily understood, if there is a straightforward working of the words of the poem, more in the manner of statement? True poetry, perhaps, has always lent itself to an indirect approach and where one returns to an overwhelming absence.” This “true poetry” ultimately “liberates” the poet (and hopefully the reader), giving him an inner “freedom.”
In order to express a heightened feeling, a poet uses a heightened language, a sublimated one. If need be, Mahapatra says, he also “moulds” that language to suit his need to forge a new direction, and he himself did so using a language that “came naturally” to him. Mahapatra has previously noted that he started writing in English simply because he was educated in an English-medium school. He now suggests that, in the beginning, he wrote his poetry in English because of a fascination for the language, and that his vocabulary came from being a voracious reader of fiction.
A lifelong college physics professor in Orissa, Mahapatra indeed acquired a stupendous appetite for reading early in life. Preliminary influences included H Rider Haggard and R M Ballantyne, as well as the French novelist Roger Martin du Gard’s Jean Barois, which he recalls “showed me how to be true to myself more than any dogmatic teaching of religion can … I could go on to question the existence of God, whom my parents had taught me scrupulously to believe in.”
Although long recognised as a writer in English, Mahapatra did not become a bilingual poet until well into the 1980s. As with Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre, however, that evolution was not unappreciated, and his five volumes of poetry in Oriya have subsequently won him many followers among young Oriya-language poets. When Mahapatra first turned to the language, however, he was treated by his fellow Oriya poets as an outsider. This was uncomfortably similar to how he had long been sidelined for “the criminal act of writing in the colonial language.” After long years of writing English-language poems – that too, successful ones – he found that he still was not reckoned as a poet among his own people, who largely did not know what he was doing in his English poetry. At that time, whatever readership was there for this type of work was mainly confined to academics.
As such, he decided to try his hand at Oriya. After writing a few poems, he discovered that what he was doing in Oriya – speaking of the common people, the marginalised, in a language intelligible to them – he could not have managed in English. Even if he had succeeded in doing so, he now admits, it would not have been communicable through English.
When Mahapatra deals with this experience in a piece titled “The Absence of the Absolutes”, his stance is one of both self-defence and apology. In an attempt to understand his own turn from one language to another, from the acquired to that of the mother tongue, he finds a lot that he could not have seen at that time: “I could now talk to the man in the street … I used simple, colloquial words because my vocabulary in Oriya is severely limited … But I spoke with a literal nakedness.” He admits that his Oriya poems “did not have the sophistication of the English ones. They were different, complementary. Maybe these were the poems that revealed the naked truth in naked language, stripped of all exaggerated aestheticism … But my writing in Oriya was a blow in self-defence. I had dropped my masks.”
On these and other matters, Mahapatra’s sense of humility is great. Though he began as a poet by writing relatively self-indulgent pieces, Mahapatra soon began to deal increasingly with social issues. In Door of Paper, we find several essays that tell of “the sadness of his land”. Indeed, Mahapatra always obeyed the callings of his heart, which made his poetry subjective. He says, “As a writer I do not pretend righteousness. Only this I am aware of – that a writer should, first of all, be honest to himself and to his readers.”
~ Rabindra K Swain works with the government of Orissa. His fourth book of poems, Sussurus in the skull, will be out soon.