The celebrated Indian poet, Jayanta Mahapatra, talked to Vinita Agrawal about the land, language and rituals that inspire him.
Jayanta Mahapatra was born in Cuttack, India in 1928. He worked as a professor of Physics and started writing poetry when he was in his forties. He has written 27 volumes of poetry, 20 in English and seven in his native language, Oriya. His poetry titles include Relationship, Rain of Rites, Bare Face, Land and Shadow Space. He was conferred with the Padma Shri in 2009 by the President of India – the fourth highest civilian award in the nation and a Sahitya Akademi award in 1981- the highest award for Literature in the country for his long poem Relationship. He has also received the Jacob Glatstein award, conferred by Poetry magazine, Chicago; the Allen Tate Poetry Prize for 2009 from The Sewanee Review, the SAARC Literary Award, New Delhi, 2009 and he was recommended for the Nobel prize in literature in 1994. Besides poetry, he has experimented with myriad forms of prose. His published books include Green Gardener, an anthology of short stories, and Door Of Paper: Essay and Memoirs. He is also a distinguished editor and for many years published a literary magazine, Chandrabhaga. Now 86, he lives in the same 80 year old house in which he has resided most of his life, often settling into an armchair on the verandah that faces his little courtyard with its myriad trees, watching the Sunbirds and Taylor birds hopping in their branches.
Your poetry is renowned for being silent, subtle and intense and distinctly rooted in your land. Critics say you have ‘purified the dialect of a tribe’. How would you respond to that?
JM: I have lived in Cuttack all my life and the land here has spoken to me through its dialect, culture, rites and rituals. All these are reflected in what I write. I cannot write beyond what I do not know, beyond what I have not lived:
And the town of Cuttack where I was born,
Its lanes scarred by ruts from whose clay
The goddesses take their sacred shapes.
For instance, in 1999, when the missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burned alive in my state by fundamentalists, it disturbed me greatly and I had to release that in a poem – Uneven Mercies. Fifty years after my country’s independence, I once met an old woman in the remote mountain region of Orissa. She confessed that she hadn’t had rice for a month! What doe one do then? Sit back and feel sorry? Pick up a pen and write a poem that nobody ever reads? Life us full of struggle and pain. Full of injustice. And somewhere it makes me restless. This is reflected in my poetry.
You titled one of your collections Land. Would you say that the anthology sums up all the give and take between you and your soil?
JM: Land is collection of poems that is honestly rooted in my geography. It deals with its illnesses, terrors, glories and sacredness. Most of all it deals with its burden of history. In that sense, it is a signature book on the soil that fills my poet heart. I cannot disown my heritage. To write anything else would be like turning my back on who I am.
In one of your poems, A Monsoon Day Fable, you once wrote – ‘…even my wife does not look as though she belongs to me…’ You’ve written extensively on loneliness, alienation and emptiness. Have you now come to terms with loneliness at last?
JM: Well…there is a hollowness in the heart that nothing can fill. No awards, no amount of success can fill it. I had a lonely childhood. I was bullied in school. My relationship with my mother was strained, at best. She didn’t understand me. She was suspicious of me. She took away my precious personal diaries which I used to write as a teenager and that wounded me a lot. The truth is, I ran away from home to Mumbai. My father came looking for me and took me back otherwise my life story would have been vastly different from what it is now. Bits of my childhood persist even today. Maybe sometimes this feeling of emptiness is soothed by people around you, whom you hold dear… but no, it doesn’t ever really go away. It has never left me.
Which poets have influenced you the most?
JM: When I began writing, I knew nothing about poetry. I was not even familiar with the great Indian poet and Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Over a period of time, critics said my work was akin to T.S. Eliot. I suppose they had a point. But I really did not know what to do. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by others who were influenced by Eliot! But if I were to name one, then I’d say I’ve admired Pablo Neruda greatly. These days I enjoy reading the works of Federico Garcia Lorea, Salvatore Quasimodo, Alan Ginsberg and Robert Bly. In fiction I appreciate Marquez, J.R. Tolkien, Umberto Ecco and Somerset Maugham.
How do you craft a poem and what does a poem actually do?
JM: A poem should touch the reader and it should flow. That’s all a poem is supposed to do. When I begin a poem, I don’t know how it will turn out, which way it will go. I consider a poem good if it brings a shock of recognition in the person reading it. A successful poem shows you aspects of life you’ve always known, in a new light. To me a good poem is one that ‘explodes’ in the end and by so doing it lingers in the reader’s mind. I used to write mostly in the early hours of morning – in the quiet hours of pre-dawn when all around me was quiet and my thoughts were alive. That said, the craft of writing a poem is an individual thing. The poem should reflect the poet’s personality and individuality.
Though you started writing poems rather late in life, you have an enviable volume of work behind you. Do you write poetry these days?
JM: Yes I do. But the pace is slower now. I write when the mood strikes me. Maybe once in a week…But most of the time, I wish to get away from writing. I am, quite frankly, waiting for death. All I want is to die peacefully in my sleep. I also wish to donate my body organs before I go. If they’re still of any use, that is…
Despite all the glorious awards against your name and despite the literary festivals frantically seeking you out for their events, you seem to be living almost like a recluse. Is that a deliberate choice? JM: My heart is weary and I have lost my enthusiasm for life. After my wife passed away seven years ago, my loneliness is more pronounced. I miss her very much and feel her presence everywhere, especially in this house. My son lives abroad. I converse with him over the phone. He visits me sometimes. Then there are writers and interviewers who drop in now and then. But on the whole life is at a low ebb now. Besides, I’m an old man and have many health problems. You’ll always catch me popping pills. But I like my days – dull as they are.
Tell me something that you’ve never revealed in any interview before.
JM: I use leaves as bookmarks and collect a pebble from every new place I visit. So that way, I have quite a collection of leaves and pebbles!