Much high quality Indian English poetry was produced in the mid-1970s. R Parthasarathy’s Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets published in 1976 is the best representative anthology of that period. All the poets included (except perhaps for Gieve Patel) went on to forge their own distinctive styles: Nissim Ezekiel, A K Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Kamala Das, who are no more. No other anthologist has been so accurate in identifying poets who would thrive. Jayanta Mahapatra, one of the poets included in that earlier collection, is one poet who has flourished. He began writing poetry quite late, at the age of 40, but he has more than made up for lost time. Land, a collection of his poems published this year, is his 19th book.
Mahapatra began to be noticed as an emerging poet in the 1970s through his publications in international journals such as Poetry, The Hudson Review, and The Sewanee Review, and continues to be published in such places today. More recently he has been published in The New Yorker. His magazine publications in the UK, US and Australia brought him recognition there, and consequently he found a publisher for his books, as well as invitations to read poetry. International anthologies like The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry have included his work. In this regard, Mahapatra is a lone ranger who looks first to be published in magazines and journals before collecting his poems into book format. In 2009, seven poems published in The Sewanee Review won him the Allen Tate Poetry Prize. He had won prizes much earlier, too. His career as a published poet began with the publication of the same number of poems in Critical Quarterly. In 1975 he received the Jacob Glatstein Memorial Prize for his eleven poems from Poetry magazine.
Puri over a lifetime
Land retains Mahapatra’s career-long preoccupation with his land – both Odisha and India – in many forms. Puri has been a driving force in Mahapatra’s poetry since the beginning of his career. In his essay ‘An Orissa Journal’ that featured in The Queen’s Quarterly, Mahapatra meditates on the religious atmosphere of that city:
“Puri opens like a maw in the mind. You seem somewhat afraid to be there, yet one time or another something drags you without your knowing. All the time you feel its large heart pounding on, beyond you, in the immediate darkness – not beating for its own, but for those millions who come here every year, once at least before present lives end.”
Lord Jagannath, residing in the Puri temple, is the centre of Odia consciousness. Mahapatra first gained critical attention through his powerful poems about the city, such as ‘Dawn at Puri’ and ‘Main Temple Street, Puri’. The precision of these poems made them memorable:
At Puri, the crows. The one wide street Lolls out like a giant tongue.
Especially intense are Mahapatra’s poems written in the mid-1970s, depicting Puri the Jagannath temple and Lord Jagannath, collected in such volumes as A Rain of Rites and Waiting. Readers and critics in the US were alerted to the making of an Indian poet in English, someone trying to speak of his locale and milieu in a tongue other than his own.
Most Odias, irrespective of religion, find themselves magnetically drawn towards Lord Jagannath at Puri. Perhaps a factor behind the rise and prevalence of this consciousness is the role of a Muslim devotee of Lord Jagannath, Salabega, who is said to have been born in 1607 to a Muslim father and a Brahmin mother, and whose bhajans to the Lord are still familiar to many Odias. There may be an element of crisis of belief in Mahapatra’s poetry as he was born into a Christian family, but some critics dwell inordinately long on this fact. There is a poem called ‘Grandfather’ in Life Signs which includes a note: “Starving, on the point of death, Chintamani Mahapatra embraced Christianity during the terrible famine that struck Orissa in 1866.” But culture is more important to Mahapatra than religion. He has imbibed the cultural practices of the predominantly Hindu society he grew up in. Biography-hunting scholars read too much religious crisis into isolated poems like ‘Grandfather’. poems. In order to dispel misconceptions about the supposed conflict in his mind, the poet emphatically stated to a curious interviewer in The Hindu: “Christianity is something I learnt at my mother’s footsteps… But Hinduism is a part of me too… That’s my inner self, and my inner self may be totally Hindu.”
Arranging the house
Every poet has a preferred way of organising a collection. Mahapatra had divided his earlier collection The Lie of Dawnsinto four catchily-titled sections, which deal with social, political, personal and ageing. In Land there is no such categorisation. They are ordered to create a pensive mood among readers, who will be confronted with the tragic reality of the poet’s land.
The first poem in Land, ‘Under the Drift of Mild Moons’, introduces us to his world of “brooding valleys”… “with featureless dungcakes dry[ing] in the drowsy air” where “hunger and stars go past to taste our sleep”, and where “silent gods cast handfuls of light/to net the shadows of our nonchalant lives”. But these are the same gods, as he later puts it in ‘Village Mythology’, who “could betray life with small embraces”. The poet disapproves of a godhood that fails to mitigate human suffering, a recurring theme of his poetry.
The poet engages with his land most lucidly in ‘Uneven Mercies’, which forms the pivot of the book. Had it not been for Mahapatra’s deft handling of the conflicting worlds, a poem of such political nature could have ended up as propaganda. There is a baffling mixture of empathy and irony in the poet’s apologetic refrain, “I am afraid this is my land”. By the end of the poem, this oratorical line is embedded in our psyche. The poet knows that he sounds “unkind to be talking like this”: “blood of the unjustly killed/never cries out”, daughters are given to “rape”, “infants are killed before they are born” and “people are obsessed with religion and power”. Mahapatra has long since shifted his focus from a closed self to the public domain. With age, he is becoming more and more public in his poetry. All these signs of his “land” portend an ominous future where he can only:
feel the pleasures of men, men who write the story of India with the feet of epics smeared with blood.
With such people inhabiting his world the poet hesitates to claim it as his own. Yet there are moments when he secretly lays claim to it, with the kind of claim that only the landless can have to the land they cultivate.
There is celebration of life in Mahapatra’s poetry, but not much joy. Beauty exists in sadness, with Mahapatra portraying a kind of Job’s world where suffering is rewarded. This tone runs throughout Land, the poems in which deal with an engulfing sadness, human hurt, and the helplessness of people who feel disowned and are left to fend for themselves in an apathetic political system. Women, especially, are doomed: “At times I am like a desperate mother/who has to sell her child/because I can’t see her die of hunger”. Throughout the volume runs a pain that the poet finds hard to allay. This pain makes the heart heavy, and out of that heaviness comes a sweetness that is soothingly limned in his poetry.
A poem from earlier in his career, and one that Mahapatra considers his best representative verse, ‘Hunger’, is a painful narrative in which sexual hunger and poverty are juxtaposed to resolve a daunting tension lying dormant in our subconscious. The poetic persona in this poem is driven as much by desire as by guilt. The setting is Gopalpur-on-sea. The fisherman father offers the poetic persona his daughter: “She’s just fifteen. Feel her,” adding “Your bus leaves at nine.” But the protagonist is not so sure: “The sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile.” Fishing, here a symbol of sexuality, is central to the poem. The fisherman’s “nerves” are caught like fishes in the net of a situation which would engender the possible sexual violation of his daughter. The protagonist follows the father to his shack, “with his mind thumping in the flesh’s sling”, “the lean-to” before him “opens like a wound”. What could have been his delight turns out to be a nightmare:
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.
The multi-faceted hunger of his land, India and Odisha, has occupied so much space in the poet’s mind that it is unsurprising he has titled his latest collection just Land: stark as its reality, stinging, rooted yet floating:
I realized how malignant was this space
between us, a space of pathetic secrets
that could resurrect a grief again and again,
the terrible geometry of blood and fire;
of hunger and the red rag of Puri,
this part of that groped with the moaning of roots.
Themes like hunger, poverty, human relationships (or the failure of them) are best articulated in the last poem of Land, ‘Ten Years, Past 9/11’. Except for the title, nowhere in the poem does the poet talk about the events of 9/11. This is the poetry of suggestion at its peak. The outer world is so powerful that it overpowers the inner world which used to be Mahapatra’s forte, constituting the bulk of his poetic oeuvre. Dwelling on events in the external world dictates the shapes his poetry takes. Elsewhere he admits: “Here, the half-starved mongrels/which bark fretfully at the gate are not mine,/yet they are in a way, ordering my life.” “Half-starved mongrels” could be nothing but the starving population of the country. That is why one finds frequent mention of hunger, starvation and death. The impact of 9/11 on the poet figures obliquely: “It never lets me forget it,/no matter how much chaos/goes into the moment that’s not mine.” And here “there is the morning paper unleash(ing) on us/the mud off the Prime Minister’s feet”. Naturally, “This is not a poem”, he thinks, “I would write”, for who needs to see sad faces? Instead, what he would do is “to write a poem/that would be a compelling memory/of a moment that was never there.” If he speaks of a moment that was not there, then how does he encapsulate it in words? It is that absence, filled with pain, that demands to be named, mentioned.
One such absence is the poet’s father, who is no more yet continues to stand in his way. In Mahapatra’s recent autobiography, Dawn’s Pair of Pearl Earrings, written in his mother-tongue Odia, the author articulates his fondness for his father thus:
“I have not yet forgotten the deep love my father had for me. I cannot forget what happened seventy five years ago: that warm summer afternoon, as if Father came rushing into the house on a white stallion with fabled wings, and led me away to a safe place far away. Today, I have the same feelings as I had of old; he loved me the most as I was the eldest. I have not yet been able to tell the difference between good and evil, I did not know how I was. Most of my life, I feel, has been spent in a sort of twilight, between darkness and light. Darkness and evil have been synonymous in many ways; evil has always meant not causing any harm to anybody. But my life had only just begun, and I did not know what awaited me, either in darkness or in the light in the years to come.”
Now in Land, Mahapatra feels repentant at not having done enough to fulfill his filial duty. This sense of remorse drives him to address his father as his “enemy”. His father figure waiting “with a leaking old boat to take (him)” could be read as Charon of Greek mythology, who ferried Orpheus across the river Styx. Does the poet imply here a journey to immortality through art, a la Orpheus? This confidence of the poet in the power of art and his aspirations to achieve it, despite a world which runs in opposite directions, is articulated well in the metaphor of “dreams/one would need for the body to fly”. This search for a utopian world, this belief in the power of art emboldens the poet to declare self-righteously at the end of the book “Someday the world/will be worth the poem I write.”
In Mahapatra’s ‘Uneven Mercies’, some of his finest lines of poetry appear, combining matters racial, political and personal:
I pick up the tumbler, almost empty,
on the table, and swallow.
Hiroshima is a myth, I think.
Auschwitz too. And nearer home,
the Kalinganagar dead in police firing,
their severed hands dancing around the ritual fire.
As in the last poem of the book, here too the poet refers to catastrophes elsewhere, which in fact serves as a springboard for him to move closer to his land: Kalinganagar, where around a dozen protesting tribals were shot dead by police as they did not yield to state and corporate pressure. In the last line, the image of severed hands dancing might sound bizarre, but can leave the reader dazed once they realise its inspiration: the palms of those killed were sliced off by the police. In the lines above the magnitude of the horror is seemingly dwarfed, but how else could one have responded to a reality which is too real to be lived with? By refusing to believe it, to push oneself into a state of denial. Mahapatra’s articulation of holocaust and nuclear war can be considered among the best written thus far on these themes.
The poet feels challenged when he is to depict the grim pictures of his land, one such being ‘More in Dreams Than in the Flesh’. In this he comes across the dead bodies of a young couple, the girl is in her late teens:
Her half-open eyes now wander through
the subdued Sunday mornings as though testing
the courage it takes to be a man.
The man in the poem could not be a disembodied being; he has to respond to the call of the time in which he lives. Instead of indulging simply in personal affairs, a meaningful poet seeks to at least raise a finger to point out injustice.
One of the most striking features of this volume is how the poet refrains from talking about old age. There is no gloom, no rooms reeking of stale air, no plea for sympathy. Perhaps the poet thought he had explored this extensively in earlier volumes such as Burden of Wave and Fruits and Bare Face. His poetry is no longer expressive of the darker side of growing old, as it was decades ago. Now, at the age of 85 he refuses to talk about death, for he “knew death is born to us in the same way as when we cast our nets into the night/and draw in the shapes of day”, suggesting the cyclical nature of life, death and rebirth. Self pity and biological suffering are to be kept at bay:
I realized how malignant was this space
between us, a space of pathetic secrets
that could resurrect a grief again and again.
Mahapatra’s Land, thus, amply demonstrates the abundance of occasions in his land that call for celebration in poetry.
~ Rabindra K Swain is a poet and scholar, with four collections of poems to his name, the last being Susurrus in the Skull, and a critical book, The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Critical Study, among others. His poems have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Kenyon Review, Ariel, Westerly and Himal Southasian.