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Interview with Jayanta Mahapatra: A doyen of Indian-English poetry

By August 8, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – Sunday Magazine   –   Sailen Routray


He is the first Indian-English poet to get the Sahitya Akademi award and now the first Indian-English poet to be made a Fellow of the Akademi


If you want to reach Jayanta Mahapatra, it is enough to mark the epistle to ‘Jayanta Mahapatra, Cuttack’ for it to find him. You don’t need any better testimony to the reputation this grand old man of Indian literature enjoys, built on the foundation of more than half a century’s prodigious creative output.

In May this year, Mahapatra was made a Fellow of the Sahitya Akademi. In 2018, the Akademi published Jayanta Mahapatra: A Reader. Last year also saw the release of his 744-page Collected Poems. He hasn’t been in very good health, but agreed to an interview with the same rare grace that shines through his poetry. Excerpts:

The Sahitya Akademi Fellowship is perhaps the highest literary honour ever bestowed upon an English poet in India…

When a poet, a writer, keeps doing his work seriously, awards will come his way. I have thought of awards as little flowers that fade the next morning. But what is strange is that when I was given the Sahitya Akademi Award almost 40 years ago, in 1981, I was the first Indian English poet to be so awarded; I am now also the first poet writing in English to become a Fellow of the Sahitya Akademi.

Your poetic voice is an ambiguous one. In several of your poems, the authorial voice and the narrative voice are not always in consonance. It is not a distraction though; in fact, it produces a startling intimacy. How is this achieved?

I would not be able to talk about what you have pointed out. You see, I have always tended to go back to those images which have built my life. And these have always come from the place I have lived in. When I was a boy, a child of five or six, my father had taken me to Puri, and I still remember being at Narendra Tank — there were very, very old turtles there — with people shouting, “ekade, ekade” (“this side, this side”). These images have made my life; it is the land that has made me, and in turn shaped my poetry. So, yes, I am intimate with the land; I could not have lived elsewhere, nor could I have written poetry anywhere else.

In your English poems, the sentences are intricately crafted. But the Odia poems are simple. Also, sometimes you have ‘paired’ poems in both languages, that are not translations of each other, but seem related to the same experience.

I do not know Odia very well. Writing in both English and Odia has been a complementary exercise for me. I have explored my innermost thoughts in English, which I have not been able to do in Odia, at least not deliberately. I want to be understood more generally by everyone when I write in Odia. Many years after I began writing in English, I started composing poems in my own tongue, because I wanted to be closer to my brothers, to my own people, to my neighbours.

For example, the Odia poem ‘Aamba Gachha’ (‘The Mango Tree’) from the collection Baayaa Rajaa has come directly from flesh and blood; it is more intimate. It has come straight from the Jayanta Mahapatra who lives, who was there with his father — the father and son who planted the tree — and that intimacy is not there in the English poem ‘Collaboration’ from Lie of Dawns, which is an altogether different poem, although somehow springing from the same experience. Influences of poems I have read in English have contributed significantly to ‘Collaboration,’ whereas ‘Amba Gachha’ has come out of my own mind and experiences.

Descriptions of small-town Odisha, say, Cuttack or Sambalpur, in your poems as well as in your Odia autobiography Pahini Rati (The Night is Yet to End; Bijayinee Publications, 2013) are populated with trees, creepers, birds and other aspects of nature. What has been your relationship with ‘urban nature’?

Look at this house. In its yard I have planted bamboos. Many of the older mango and pear trees are now gone, felled by successive cyclones, but many still stand and their leaves often enter this house and make a mess. When it rains, I open my doors and windows. I want the thunder and the lightning to come in. I also want the dust to come in. I do not mind the dust of Cuttack. I do not mind the way of life of Cuttack. I feel really bad when I see everything changing so fast. All the trees in the city are gone. It has a couple of rivers on its two sides; 60-70 years ago, you had water just beside the banks. Now the rivers have very little water. And that itself brings a pang to my heart. I can’t live like this. It is as if I am now living in a totally different environment.

Your poetry is suffused with rain, both as a climatic event, but also as metaphor. Increasingly we live in times when rain is decreasing in intensity. How do you relate to this shift?

Rain is tied to my inner longings; the inner longing that is always there and which my years of writing poetry have not been able to subdue or take care of. Rain is a metaphor, a correlation, for the life that I lead inside.

In Pahini Rati, we get lyrical descriptions of the dark in small-town Odisha. How do you relate to darkness?

Darkness is a part of our world, a part of life. When I was a child, our house was located at the edge of the neighbourhood. It was surrounded by huge deodar trees. We had no electricity then. And the clamour of fruit bats and the wind howling through the leaves of the deodars, these brought unknown fears to me. I still remember the shadows from the kerosene lamps that I used in my little room to study by. All this instilled in me a certain fear that I took a long time to overcome. When I started writing poems, the Bombay poets had a big, big hold on Indian poetry in English; they had created their own lingo. The twist of language, the inherent mystery that emerges in a poem to provide different meanings to readers — it was totally absent in that tradition. But mystery has always fascinated me.

You are a pioneer of a particular tradition of Indian-English poetry, that is not over-intellectualised and tries to directly deal and cope with the affects. Who among the younger generation of poets has a similar approach, do you think?

Many poets from the Northeast write in this fashion. My friends Kynpham [Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih] and Robin [Robin S. Ngangom], Nabanita [Nabanita Kanungo] — all of them write really well. And they are talking about their place; poetry can only emerge from the place you live in. I have had several chances to go and lead a life abroad. I do not know why, but I could not do so. I do not know what it is about the place, but I really love it here in Cuttack. And I continue to live here. That’s all.

Apart from the Sahitya Akademi publication Indian Literature, there is no credible, periodic print magazine for creative writing in English in the country. But simultaneously, there has been an explosion of English-language media. What do you think of this phenomenon?

I have not been able to find out why there have not been good, standard magazines or journals in English which would publish creative work. We write more and more in English and, at the same time, are not able to sustain a print magazine in the language for creative literature. English language newspapers should devote a page a month, at least, to creative writing.

You have been a prolific translator of Odia to English. Of your translations, which do you like the most?

I liked translating parts of Rudra Sudhanidhi [a 15th century Odia text in prose, composed by Narayana Abadhuta Swami]. I really love that text; the very fact that a mendicant, a sadhu, would do this kind of writing is amazing. It is a very difficult text and I thought it was beyond me. I did not find anybody who could explain things to me; so I could not complete the translation.

The writer is an author and researcher based in Bhubaneswar.

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