THERE is a deceptive simplicity in Sitakant Mahapatra's poetry. They deal with his remembered village by the banks of the River Chitropala, his children, parents and grandparents. They explore life, meditate upon it, with a child-like innocence, which must always be the essential state of the poet's being: only the child-like can enter into the kingdom of heaven. But beyond the simple themes and language lies the eternal quest: man's search for meaning in his uncertain existence, his anguish in knowing that the only certainty is death. Mahapatra's poetry weaves together the recurring rhythms of life as embodied in tribal poetry, with the post-modern questioning, existential anguish and pain of the 20th Century poet. Rooted in nature and the daily rhythms of life, the changing seasons, these poems celebrate both life and death. They stand at the intersection between time and timelessness. One of the most memorable poems in this collection embodies the restless yearning to look directly into the face of Death, and thus, gain entry into the very heart of Life. The poem, titled "The Enemy" tells of a night vigil in a small village hospital, watching a loved one struggle with death. "We stacked everything in our camp/ The armoury bristled with injectibles of all kinds/ innumerable medicine bottles, Ganga's holy water,/ grapes, pomegranates, doctors, nurses and/ bottles of precious blood;/ the spears, shields, bows and arrows/ of our frail hopes, faith and prayer."
The poet sees this as the base camp set up to fight the enemy, Death. At the Chakravyuha's centre sit the sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, grandchildren "all as frontline warriors". From inside the grimy hospital room the enemy's camp can be glimpsed. As they fall half asleep, they are aware of the insidious presence "the footfall of a spy/ who loitered stealthily/ as a shadow in the dark." Overcome by the beauty of the night, they fall asleep, but wake to find that he, whom they had placed with so many defences at the very centre, had become just "a lump of clay, unmoving, shapeless/ eager to return to earth."
This fine poem captures the core of our experience of death through striking images, which remain in the mind like a fairy story about evil remains with a child. It is a primitive horror film, closer to our nightmares than any words.
Mahapatra's capacity to infuse the ordinary, the small details of village life with menace, magic and significance are seen again in "A Death in Hospital": "The landscape of grief,/ the syringe, the stool, the red blankets/ a magazine falling off a tired hand " The magic becomes palpable in his evocation of the Spring Moon; "the palas-flower moon" which invades the village like a mischievous presence, drinking rice beer in a leaf-cup, occupying the whole sky, so there was no space for either stars or clouds, but by morning there is only "the dead spring moon" floating in the sky's lake.
Returning to myth, Mahapatra creates a brilliant, ironic inversion of the legend of the blind-from-birth Bhima. Seeking to describe the beauty of the world to him, the protagonist can only recount the endless details, but "your voice could respond/ yes, everything seems shining!/ What an illuminated/ white night/ inside the dark interior./ I would not have the courage to ask/ which interior/ which dark night/ the womb of which temple?"
Mahapatra's ironic twist to this ancient legend underscores the richness of the imagination against that of the every day seeing eye. It is also the typical of the way he brings his modern sensibility to bear upon myth and legend. This may be why he has been called "the mythographer of time". The intense probing of the every day rural experience is the very thread that connects him to an intense cosmic consciousness. Premonitions and awareness of the fact that "in the midst of life we are in death" light up the world of his poetry. The images he creates from fear and darkness are unforgettable. In "The Vulture" he tells of the dreaded bird building a nest on the highest branch of the tree in front of their house. "The long shadow/ of its inauspicious gaze/ covered all our work,/ our days, our dreams." A messenger of death, it provoked fear. And then, Mahapatra's unforgettable image, fear laced with compassion:
One day we noticed with relief
it had fallen down dead
its neck and face
tucked between the crumpled wings
like a playful child
hiding his face
between two knees...
Mahapatra's gift for ironic playfulness, his compassion for the creatures of this world, and even the larger figures looming above, becomes richly evident here: He mocks death, while pitying it.
In his acceptance of the Jnanpith Award in 1994, Mahapatra affirmed the mystery of existence, which is "at the heart of our being, and it is our task to find symbols for it... It is time to look for the miracle in the ordinary to mediate on our ordinary experience, beyond which there may not, after all, be any meaning, mystery, miracle and dream." For Mahapatra, the liberating force is the imagination. As in his poetry, he says it simply yet forcefully: "Life is the residence of the human spirit, and by refusing to open the liberating door of imagination it can be turned into a prison."
In Mahapatra's poetry, the windows of life are flung wide open, and both time and timelessness, today and eternity rush in.
Let Your Journey be Long, Sitakant Mahapatra, Rupa and Co., 2001, Rs. 195.
ANNA SUJATHA MATHAI
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