Literary Review

‘History and tradition, my arms’

Jayanta Mahapatra  

Writing in both Odia and English, one of India’s best-known poets, Jayanta Mahapatra, and the first to win the Sahitya Akademi award for his English poetry, talks about how he would love his poems to take him from an ordinary to a higher plane. And how he is more emotional in Odia than in English. Excerpts from an interview:

You are a legendary figure, writing in Odia and English. How does your bi-linguality work itself out in your poetry?

When I began to write in Odia, I never knew how I was, in fact, so spontaneous. My English and Odia poems are complementary to each other. There are some Odia poems of mine that I could never have done in English; they are very idiomatic, written in the language in which we talk to each other. My poetry in Odia is rooted. I found that these poems were more easily understood than my English poems that I had been writing for years together. Have you noticed how subtitles of films, even in Bangla, words such as Abhimaan, cannot be translated into English?

How does your Odia sensibility get reflected in your English poems?

I can’t give you a precise answer but I suppose my upbringing and cultural rooting are bound to get into my English poems in a big way. My early English poems had a lot to do with the theme and landscape of my ancestors. Tradition and history too play a great part in my poetry.

Would you say that you had to stretch the English language to be able to accommodate your Odia sensibility or experiences?

I think it has come quite naturally and easily without much conscious effort.

Your poetry demonstrates that you are very concerned about the movement of time.

I think time plays a significant part in my poetry. When I write a poem, I don’t know what I am going to do with it. But when I start with the first line or the second, it is fixed in a specific moment and then when I go on to the next line, it may carry me 500 years back. These leaps in time are there and through the process of writing the poem, the links in time establish themselves to create a poem within the poem. I can’t say how this happens.

In your poem Dholi, for instance… Is that how you mean the poem deals with the history of ‘Kalinga’?

Yes, it deals with a big historical fact: when Ashoka came here, he massacred 100,000 Odias on the banks of Dholi river and the waters turned red. You cannot just forget historical facts as these. They are there in your blood and you know they belong to you. History has to be a part of your poetry. Definitely, you can’t ignore history and write a poem. Similarly, you can’t ignore tradition. I’d say history and tradition are the two arms of yours with which you construct a poem.

It’s almost like a river of time that flows and keeps accumulating various “present” moments.

Exactly! And you can’t forget that. If you do, you can’t live meaningfully.

You have been a teacher of physics. Would that have had any influence on your thinking?

That’s a question thrown at me several times before but I haven’t ever been able to give an answer. Maybe physics has helped me create a certain discipline in my poems but whether I’m successful in using that discipline to create that form and shape that matters, I wouldn’t be able to say… you’d be able to tell me.

I see a lot of metaphysical strains in your poetry that seem to be exploring a kind of suspension or an ‘in-between’ state of mind. A nowhere…

I will come to the first part of your argument first. I’d say that mystery has always fascinated me. You know, our living is not linear or straight in the way life is led or understood in the West. We exist in a sort of a mysterious atmosphere, in a cycle, I’d say… We do not know when a straight line becomes a circle and when the circle becomes a straight line. That pattern seems to be at the root of the Indian sense of living. Mystery has always fascinated me. We often think of what happens after death but isn’t death just another coffin? In the West, they forget about death soon after it happens in a household. We don’t… Our “shraddhs” are there every year and there are many customs to make us conscious of the dead. So our dead are a living presence amongst us.

Is that what you’d call “shadow-space”, the title of your book? There’s also a great use of “shadows” in your poems.

Maybe… It is a part of me always. I have not been able to give it up.

You also have this wonderful essay called “Mystery as Mantra”. Your mother is tellingly missing…

Frankly, I didn’t have a happy childhood and my relationship with my mother wasn’t what I wanted. In fact, I wouldn’t like to go back to that aspect of my childhood. Of course, my mother was always there for me. She helped me but I wouldn’t say that I loved her as much as I looked up to my father. So my father is there in a lot of my poetry but my mother is absent.

And your grandfather… You have a poem on him!

Yes, Grandfather too. But I must say that lately I have been able to bring in my mother into a couple of my poems.

And are these poems in English or Odia?

In English.

Is your poetry in Odia more emotional in content?

Yes, that’s true. More expression of sentiments in Odia; in fact, at times, rather mushy... If you translate those poems into English, they would not hold, but when I write a poem in Odia it tends to become more autobiographical, the inner world comes out of me. I think it becomes more intimate in Odia; that shows my vulnerability. I am very sure about that.

Are you a Christian of conviction? And are you looking for connections and the essence of other religions as well?

This is a very difficult question. While being a Christian, I grew up in Hindu surroundings. I couldn’t have given up my Hinduism — it’s there. My grandfather was 16 when a terrible famine occurred in Orissa in 1886; he was an orphan and starving. There were all those corpses piled up and here this boy was munching raw tamarind leaves to survive. He walked 20 miles to one of the free kitchens the Britishers had set up, and he became a Christian. You know, his blood is still there in me. The Hindu blood is also still running in me. I can give up neither. My mother showed me the crucifixion of Christ. I cannot forget the nature of that pain. And then, how can I forget my Hinduness? When I read the Vedas — Atharva Veda, for example — it tells me so much, all of this is part of me, and as you say, it’s not a confused state but a coming together.

It’s like building up a larger vision of humanism through seeking, suffering and sharing...

And I’d love my poetry to do that — to take me from the ordinary plane, on which I exist, to a slightly higher plane. I don’t know if I have ever been able to, sort of, experience a lightening of self… this lightness of being comes very suddenly in a poem — maybe in two or three — it has lifted me from the mundane existence in which I am generally situated.

Do you think that’s what sustained you in your earlier days when there was a strange non-acceptance of your poetry in English?

Yes. But I think today I am more tolerant. I think every day is a gift. I’d love to live the day as a gift given to me, by the world, by you, by your laughter, by your smile, by others — all these things matter to me so much today.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 3:48:10 PM |

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