Odiya poet Jayanta Mahapatra, whose latest collection of poems was released recently, talks about a lifetime in verse.
By the time we approached Tinikonia Bagicha, Cuttack, the poet’s familiar address, the strong breeze of May, had turned into a regular summer gale. We halted just outside Chandrabhaga as the sheet of rain assailed us with intermittent flashes of lightening. From the car windows, we saw the swaying Deodars that have come up in the courtyard after the devastating cyclone of Odisha in 1999.We made our way through poodles of water. At 85, Jayanta Mahapatra appeared to be surprisingly alert. An emergency light at the bed cum study threw flickering shadows on the walls. I missed Runu Mahapatra’s loving presence. Jayanta Mahapatra fussed over our comforts as he shared his latest Collection, Land, just published.
Excerpts from the interview -
Why did you think of writing your autobiography, and in Odiya?
it’s difficult to say why I wanted to write about myself. When I was 82 or 83, I started writing it. I never knew I would write it in Odiya because many of my close associates from outside wanted to read it in English. .. But when I started it, I knew I had no choice other than Odiya. I wanted my people to know about what I had written. The autobiography would give some perspectives on my poetry as well.
What role did Memory play in the arrangement of events you have reconstructed in your autobiography?
It is Memory which drove me to Poetry in the first place. If it hadn’t been for Memory, I do not think I would have written Poetry. Life itself is reminiscence, and Poetry therefore is reminiscence.
All Poetry, I think, stems from a sense of disillusionment, a sort of despair, a certain gloom... My childhood, and my later years are a period I wouldn’t like to relive or rethink. And so, my past plays an important role in my Poetry.
Indian men are generally close to their mothers. And yet, in your case, in all your writings you show closeness to your father vis a vis your mother. Could you explain?
Now, this is very true! I was the eldest son in the family. We are two brothers and my father used to stay away most of the time. He was a Sub- Inspector of schools. He would return once in two months... My mother and I would be alone in the house and I would be there to take care of the house in a way. As I grew up, I found my mother very suspicious of me. I don’t know why. I mean there was a sort of chasm which we couldn’t bridge. Maybe there was something we couldn’t share. Then my younger brother was born and my mother had fixed the attention on my younger brother. These minor little things used to affect me. I wouldn’t like to talk about such things because they are in my autobiography...
Tinikonia Bagicha, Cuttack, is more than an address for you. There seems o be an inexorable desire [in you] to return to Cuttack again and again. This is also reflected in our autobiography. Why is this so?
[Laughs] This is very difficult to say! This is a place where I was born; this is where I have lived, a place where I have spent my evenings, close to the rivers Kathjodi and Mahanadi, a place where I learned to crawl when I was six months old. Perhaps it is that which helped me get rooted to Odisha, and Cuttack. I have never had any regrets that like my poet friends like R. Parthasarthy, A.K.Ramanujan or Saleem Peeradina I couldn’t stay abroad for a long period. Even Dilip Chitre was there for three to four years in Iowa. But I came back from Iowa after six months. I didn’t like to stay. Odisha called me!
Your life seems to be marked by trauma and fear. In fact, I see this as a recurrent motif in much of your writings. How does the poet handle trauma and fear in poetic and existential terms?
You see Sachi, I was a restless person since I was a boy and this restlessness took me in different directions such as the [pursuit] of Physics. I couldn’t complete my Ph.D. in Physics. And then I took up Photography and reading. I do a lot of reading even till now. And then, I wanted to travel a bit. I was not successful in writing stories that were rejected by The Illustrated Weekly of India. I wanted to build up on my language. When I thought I could use the English language to my needs, make a noun into a verb, a verb into an adjective, turn the meanings around to the meanings that were not, I was in love with what I would call ‘language plus’.
Poetry, I thought, would help me that way. I thought I would use English in a way that had not been used before by my compatriots... And that helped me!
Although Christian by birth, your creative self is primarily Hindu in terms of myth, symbols, folklore and idiom. How have you achieved a sense of balance and acceptance with your multiple selves?
True, I have multiple selves. My grandfather became a Christian and he was totally Hindu. When you go into his autobiography, you will find it totally Hindu. Christianity is something I learnt at my mother’s footsteps. The evening prayers were there. We learnt to revere the Christ. He was such an exemplary figure. Everybody could live and die for Him. But when you come to Hinduism, that is a part of me again. The genes are there. I have planted a Tulsi in my courtyard although I don’t do Puja to it. I love the Tulsi. I love to sit near it. That’s my inner self, and my inner self may be totally Hindu.
Did you feel comfortable in depicting the erotic experiences of your adolescent life?
The fragile erotic moments of love and of touch which I experienced as a boy helped me to get over the antagonism I felt from my mother. It was not sex. It was a feeling of reaching out to the other person and the feeling of the other person reaching out to me…
In the Lawrentian sense?
Yes! It is there in the present moments of my life too.
Your grandparents had to embrace Christianity because they took refuge among the Christian Missionaries during the Great Famine of Odisha in 1866. How did you translate these real life experiences, personally very tragic and agonizing, into the poems that got published in the Sewanee Review?
I don’t know. I can’t answer this. You are talking about the creative process. I couldn’t tell you [about that]. I can only tell you that I have written honestly from my heart... You know that I have not had any [formal] training in Poetry.MyPoetry has been exploratory. The first sentence was there that my father was dying. I start with that. And then, I am entering a black box. But I do not know about the door which is there on the other side of the box. And so, my Poetry just goes on exploring, until I find my way on the other side of the box.
Do you revise our poems, or leave them as they are?
I revise quite a lot… Last month, the Editor of Sewanee Review asked me as to why I had kept the word ‘merely’ at the end of one poem. ‘It does not work’, he said. And so I revised. I took out that word and put in another one in its place.
How do you combine our interest in Poetry with our profession as a Physicist?
You know that loved to teach Physics, and later on, I loved Poetry as much as I did Physics. I saw that Poetry and Physics had the same ring around them. The non- understanding and mysticism of higher Physics and higher Poetry are common to both of them.
How do you look at Death as a poet?
Death has a meaning for you at different stages of our life. For example, when you are fifty or so, you are more afraid of death--- You see so many of your close associates dying, and the fear of death is there. But when you come to my age, when you are eighty plus, the fear of death isn’t there. The point is, you don’t know what death is. Today when I live in isolation, I have this overwhelming desire for death. But the next moment, the urge to live comes back.
You have successfully edited the Poetry Journal Chandrabhaga for many decades with ups and downs. What are the requisites for running a good literary Journal?
It should be a one- man show... You should be a sound judge of Poetry.
Don’t you think it would help to have an Editorial Board?
I can’t cope with dissensions. I have no flair for administration…. The best thing for me is to rely on my own judgement.
What do you think of creative writing programs? Some say that one is born as a poet and not made. Did the Iowa writing workshop make a difference to you?
Yes, it did! It made a great difference in the sense that I met poets from other countries and I could put my own poems alongside those of others. And that helped me to improve on my poetry.
What has Poetry meant to you in existential terms?
I began writing Poetry at a late stage like Wallace Stevens or Thomas Hardy. Poetry gave me an opportunity to love people, to love fellow beings. That is what Poetry taught me.
And finally, what would you say to the new generation of Indian English poets?
I would say that it is not about English, Odiya or Telugu; it is about what your heart says. What you feel you should put into your poetry... But the point is whatever you write and whatever you do in life should be interrelated. You should be responsible to your conscience. Responsibility to your conscience is of great importance in Poetry.