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In Conversation

Brutal landscape

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

Jayanta Mahapatra on how he needs to find the little lights amidst desolation to keep going.


Physics taught me that time held you captive, but it also made you free.

Photo: C. Sunil Kumar

Poetry as anchor: Jayanta Mahapatra.

A new collection of a significant poet's work is a matter for celebration. A renewal of faith. But read Jayanta Mahapatra's Random Descent (Third Eye Communications, 2005) and the only source of light is the lucidity in the verse.

A cross between wise owl and naughty imp, Mahapatra's shy face is ready to break into quick smiles. But, belonging to a region where famine and starvation deaths are not news clips but daily sights, how can he fail to record the holocaust around him? "Close the Sky", "Rain of Rites", "Dispossessed Nests", "Burden of Waves and Fruit", "Shadow Space", "Bare Face"... his very titles reflect bleakness, guilt, incertitude.

Five collections of verse in Oriya, and translations into English from Oriya and Bengali, testify to his trilingual creativity. Included in anthologies of contemporary Indian poetry, Mahapatra has been published in journals abroad (The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, Critical Quarterly, Chicago, Kenyon, Sewanee Reviews), and won his share of honours, from the Jacob Gladstein Memorial Award (1975) to the Sahitya Akademi (1981) and Vaikom Mohammed Basheer (!997) Awards.

Agony and melancholy claw at his verse where childhood provides the canvas for strokes from every stage of experience. "A scream never ends... Blindfold your scream again, sweet Mariam,/ with the quick blood flowing down your seven-year thighs." Brutality is the truth of his landscape.

"My eyes, like these poems,/ seek something to hold on to, hoping to steady/ the hour"; but "The stony silence of the men staring hard/ crosses the line of sanity"; while "God hides in the dark like an alien." In this interview, as in Random Descent, Mahapatra talks about his passage through angst.

Your approach to time and space have changed through the years. Do you see this as a part of the creative process?

As a boy, when I thought I was the centre of the universe, I was proud to be an Indian. I saw the newborn nation as an indivisible entity. As a student in Patna University, hearing Mahatma Gandhi was to feel this unity. This encounter gave me the courage to face the world, its bitter truths, brought conviction to my poetry... Now regionalism has taken over completely. My space and time must reflect this splintering process.

Have you romanticised Gandhi?

Poetry itself is a romantic attitude. Otherwise I'd be doing what Gandhi did, what Mother Teresa did, fighting destitution and injustice in slums, villages. I sit in my house and write poems about what I see through the window. A safe option.

You started writing poetry at an age when people stop writing poetry. What got you started at 40?

I wrote fiction as a young man. Always rejected. I dabbled at many things. I was a good photographer, portraits fascinate me. Igot a job, but felt restless. No sense of direction. Poetry made me orient myself, express bottled up feelings, anchored my perception. Shyness led me to write. I couldn't mix with people.

But you taught Physics in college! You had to interact with students.

Not so difficult to talk to the young, but relating to people of my age was tough. I wouldn't go back to my childhood. The youngest in class, pushed around by everyone. Eldest at home, burdened with responsibilities. As an inspector of schools, my father was always travelling. We lived in an old village house, no electricity... I had to look after everything.

Did Physics lead you to speculate about time finite and infinite?

Physics taught me that time held you captive, but it also made you free. I was nothing but an infinitesimal speck floating in the vast universe. This broadened my vision, but I also feel pressurised, burdened by the weight of time.

If you are an inconsequential speck, your poetry is equally immaterial.

Sometimes I feel that. What does it mean, in itself? To me? To you?

Are there also times when you feel your writing has value?

If you read a line and can't forget it, it touches you, you return to it again, that's poetry. Today I realise that all my life, I've been writing not many poems, but a single one! Yet, when I analyse my work I think may be four to five can be called poems. I see great poets... Lorca, Neruda... I feel humbled. Don't stand a chance against them.

You have been true to your ethos, culture, roots. Isn't that something?

You can't rid yourself of them. In the hot summer months we have whole night open-air operas. Their tunes and melodies get into you, so do our dance and architecture. They have shaped our people's sensibility, my sensibility.

An Indian poet writing in English has a niche existence. But you took your time to start writing in Oriya. Why?

Didn't write in English out of ambition. I was educated in an English medium school, my vocabulary came from voracious reading. When I began to write in my mother tongue I found myself doing in Oriya what I couldn't do in English. Oriya has opened up a new readership. I have a sense of belonging to my people, my community, in a different way.

The Oriya tradition is unrivalled in sringara. Your verse is filled with karuna, bhayanaka and bibhatsa. What about the joys?

Difficult to say. There are sudden surges of joy, but the next moment you are pulled down. Here and there little lamps dispel the darkness. You strain to catch the light. Pain and terror stalk you, especially where I live. I must find the little lights to keep going, to raise levels of thinking and feeling. I don't know if my poetry does that.

Has the suffering increased or have you become more sensitive?

As we grow older our physical faculties fail, mental faculties grow. I don't know how to live with such desolation.

In Random Descent you quote Sylvia Plath and the Israeli poet Amichai. But how do Baudelaire, and more surprisingly, Wordsworth, also quoted by you, fit into your scheme?

Baudelaire is a city poet. I'm not. I don't like all his poetry. Somehow these lines got in. I shouldn't have used Wordsworth. Sometimes you don't like a thing and yet you feel compelled to do it.

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