Remembering Jayanta Mahapatra | A poet of depth and humanity

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Remembering Jayanta Mahapatra | A poet of depth and humanity

Sunday, 01 October 2023 | KK SRIVASTAVA

Remembering Jayanta Mahapatra | A poet of depth and humanity

Jayanta Mahapatra, revered Indian poet, delved into human psyche with poignant verses. His works, spanning social disparity and existential reflection, resonate beyond accolades. His legacy is one of profound introspection and empathetic insight, leaving an enduring impact

All the poetry there is in the world/appears to rise out of the ashes.

Jayanta Mahapatra in “All The Poetry There is”

Poetry and poetic experiences are strange phenomena. That was the precise reason Plato banned poets from entering his ideal Republic. Athenian society, at the zenith of rationality, offered poison to Socrates. Socrates’s fault was his belief in the power of scrutiny, of judgement. He found “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Genuine poets pierce through the layers “an unexamined life” is made of and then let gathered clouds in their minds get scattered by the sunlight of their musings.

Jayanta Mahapatra, such a poet, was one of the most revered doyens of English poetry in India who delved into deep, unexplored human psyche wherein he slipped into pseudo-realistic visions: more real than real. We lost him.

I knew him since 2005 when the then Sahitya Akademi's Secretary Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee introduced me to him. Since then we cherished a relationship words can hardly describe. Many handwritten letters, a few telephonic conversations and his FOREWORD to my book of poems SHADOWS OF THE REAL are the aftermath. I went to meet him once at Jaipur Airport but briefly, when he was returning from Ajmer after attending a literary programme. He was old but far from serious illnesses. The warmth of his embrace is still a treasure with me.

During the course of more than fifteen years of association, I chanced upon reading many of his poetry books including Relationship that fetched him Sahitya Akademi Award in 1981. He sent me a number of issues of the prestigious literary journal Chandrabhaga. He wanted me to read The Hudson Review from the USA that I subscribed to and was immensely pleased to read Mahapatra’s long letter to its Editor (one of the features of the magazine was to feature each issue a long letter from world’s top litterateurs across the world.)

If I were to summarise Mahapatra’s poetry, I find it in one of the issues of Chandrabhaga, where he pens in “First Page”, “It is a small life I live. Perhaps in the way I am, doing small things, like plucking a half-ripe guava from the tree in our yard, the green cozying up to my senses, the mesmerising aroma waking me up…….Perhaps one should not be one of those who suffer because the world is a wreck, it’s hard to say. Does it matter?”

But look at concluding lines that amaze:

It’s my job to love people again and again. To feel flowers blossoming in the sun, butterflies dipping into the pollen.

He was certainly not the poet of the great and prosperous. He evolved over a number of years through his penetrating observations and interactions. He developed a tender fellow feeling for the men, women and children on the margin.

“Hope lay perhaps in burning the home I lived in.”

He writes in HUNGER. Readers can interpret the way they wish.

Always there was the question in his lips, the bewilderment in his eyes, the rebellion of his soul. He spent his last days in extreme loneliness tackling the tyranny of his memories and dreams. He writes in SPRING, “Somehow it seems the light/has spent its night in another’s arms/But it’s here with me now/with a story of a million words.” He had faith in the power of words. He transferred his own fluid moment into the frozen store of memory and surveyed his dreams through a pragmatic eye. 

His poetry is about truth, justice, deprivation, self-delusion, anxiety, self-pacification and solace. His poetry is indispensable irrespective of time and space. His poetry oscillates between the virility and verisimilitude. As in Mask of Longing—

A time when even oxygen seems to hiss cruelly

In those crumpled eyes of hers the light of death goes on gathering shadows. And I feel I’m late with my life.

At times lucidly, at times surreptitiously, his poetry harps on the essential harmony in the diversity of things: latent or apparent. He observed everything of the universe as a common heritage for all: poor or affluent. Readers observe in the depth and magnitude of the feelings/sentiments making his poems, the rising storms in Mahapatra’s mind. He kept on exploring the social power of the plebeians through his poetry.

His poems endeavour to trace different facets of human life and existence: love, lust, revenge, sufferings, fears and deprivations. His voice is melancholic, sharp, intimate and scans the movement of time and human beings’ silence. Many of Mahapatra’s collections are kaleidoscopic collections of poems written with diverse thought processes underway. These engage readers with preoccupation of human beings with fleeting time and man’s questionable existence in the universe. His poems weave a quagmire of wonton thought that invades poet’s psyche very incisively. Nostalgia aches,

There was something I did not like: his returning Padma Shri in November 2015. I conveyed it to him. Though nothing was heard from him, I got Mahapatra’s last letter to me on August 5, 2019. He wrote of the sad demise of his wife, son and son’s family, and summarising his concluding days by quoting from my poem DEPRESSION from my book of poetry Shadows of the Real, “the same known fire burns me from inside” and then added, “a fire unknown and nameless still goes on burning through the nights.” His greatness lay in making small, unknown writers like me happy and joyous through his words.

His concluding life reminded me of a line from his poem A STILL WINTER MORNING, “standing like a lost sheep/huddled away from death.” Or as Brazilian poet, Izacyl Guimarães Ferreira confronts us with what he thinks of life in his poem — A WAR WITH NO NAME, “There is too much and there is too little/there is warmth and there’s a chill.” Life links; it delinks too.

In Indian Summer, Mahapatra in his characteristic way, bemoans loneliness of a woman:

The good wife lies in my bed throughout the long afternoon, dreaming still, unexhausted by the deep roar of funeral pyres.

In this poem there are all disconnected pictures, with none of them being in any way inter-related to the others. “funeral fires” convey the deepest amount of mental agony of “a good wife”.

Truth is either the most simple or the trickiest of the phenomenon a man has to deal with. It brings awakened enlightenment thought amidst suffocating pains for those who keep truth on the highest pedestal.  Look at following lines:

The worn-out face of India/ holds the weak eyes of dumb,/ solitary poets who die alone.

For truth seekers, there are no engrossing dilemmas; no consequences. He clarifies doubts; he clears doubts as far as yearning for truths is concerned.

WH Auden pointed out three attributes in a poet to deserve him a classification of being a great poet, “Firstly a gift of a very high order for memorable language, secondly a profound understanding of the age in which he lives, and thirdly a working knowledge of and sympathetic attitude towards the most progressive thought of his time.”

Mahaptra met all these stringent conditions based on which we remember him as a great poet. His deathless poems enabled him to pave his way into the mists of eternity. Imagist simplicity with dense connotations, oscillating rhythms of ebbs and flows are a few scintillating characteristics of his poetry.

Poets who believe, to use writer, critic and Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, Mark Jarman’s words, in “poetry with an edge”, poetry has lasting impact on the world, for every poet contributes his little bit to keep the edges of poetry sharp. The moot question is: how capably each and every poet contributes to that edge. Poets have to determine poetry’s strength and future. They possess their own ultimate destiny, which Mahapatra summarises in his poem, Twilight —

Newly-lit lamps in the houses across the street make me look out at the wet August evening that holds up the vast unknown in such small delicate hands.

As for Mahapatra, he belonged to the intellectual aristocracy of the world though he lived a very down-to-earth life in Cuttack, never hankering after literary awards and recognition. Reclusiveness is a serious writer’s sine qua non.

(KK Srivastava is a former Additional Deputy Comptroller & Auditor General, an acclaimed poet, writer and columnist for The Pioneer, The Daily Guardian and Brazilian Literary magazine SIBILA. Currently, he is a nominated member from the category of ‘Literate person from the public and community’ of Ethics Committee on Research of mental health establishment- IHBAS (Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences), of Government of NCT of Delhi where he in working with a group of psychiatrists/neurologists on research work on mental health. Views expressed are personal.)

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