Oxford University Press 1987 [rs. 35]
topics: | poetry | india | single-author | english
by the time i started reading indian english poetry, mahapatra was already an establishment figure, along with a.k. ramanujam, ezekiel, daruwalla. and since all poetry readers like to "discover" their unknown pet poets, and ignore the well-known voices, i didn't pay sufficient attention to mahapatra. indeed, in my initial exposure to mahapatra, i did not feel as engaged as i was with kamala das or ak ramanujan. however, with increased exposure, poems such as hunger, abandoned british cemetery at balasore, and dawn at puri have been growing on me. his is a quiet, unassuming voice, but it's his eye which arrests, how it shifts seamlessly across contexts. there is something deeply indian about his experience - of poverty and the religious ritual - but the best thing about reading jm is that you never know what will turn up in the next phrase. unfortunately for the indian readership, most of jayanta mahapatra's books have been out of print for some time; so the moment i encountered this slim volume at a library in the netherlands, i immediately copied large chunks of it. also, he has published much of his work in the usa, and though a handful of his poems are widely available on the net, his corpus remains surprisingly difficult to find in india. this book has been out of print for ages, and is quite difficult to get hold of, so i am excerpting some more of the poems [aug 2010].
Sometims a rain comes slowly across the sky, that turns upon its grey cloud, breaking away into light before it reaches its objective. The rain I have known and traded all this life is thrown like kelp on the beach. Like some shape of conscience I cannot look at, a malignant purpose is a nun's eye. Who was the last man on earth, to whom the cold cloud brought the blood to his face? [?] Numbly I climb to the mountain-tops of ours where my own soul quivers on the edge of answers. Which still, stale air sits on an angel's wings? What holds my rain so it's hard to overcome?
Not yet. Under the mango tree The cold ash of a deserted fire. Who needs the future? A ten-year-old girl combs her mother’s hair, where crows of rivalries are quietly nesting. The home will never be hers. In a corner of her mind a living green mango drops softly to earth.
It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back. The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly, trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself. I saw his white bone thrash his eyes. I followed him across the sprawling sands, my mind thumping in the flesh's sling. Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in. Silence gripped my sleeves; his body clawed at the froth his old nets had only dragged up from the seas. In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound. The wind was I, and the days and nights before. Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls. Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind. I heard him say: My daughter, she's just turned fifteen... Feel her. I'll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine. The sky fell on me, and a father's exhausted wile. Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber. She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there, the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside. ---- about the autographical elements in this poem, Mahapatra has written in his Door of Paper: Essays and Memoirs, suggesting that something like this had happened, but to someone else perhaps: The poem is based on a true incident; it could easily have happened to me on the poverty-ridden sands of Gopalpur-on-sea. Often have I imagined myself walking those sands, my solitude and my inherent sexuality working on me, to face the girl inside the dimly-lit, palm-frond shack. The landscape of Gopalpur chose me, and my poem to face perhaps my inner self, to see my own debasement, to realise my utter helplessness against the stubborn starvation light of my country. p.20
Over the soughing of the sombre wind priests chant louder than ever; the mouth of India opens. Crocodiles move into deeper waters. Mornings of heated middens smoke under the sun. The good wife lies in my bed through the long afternoon; dreaming still, unexhausted by the deep roar of funeral pyres. [Note: midden = dunghill]
Children, brown as earth, continue to laugh away at cripples and mating mongrels. Nobody ever bothers about them. The temple points to unending rhythm. On the dusty street the colour of shorn scalp there are things moving all the time and yet nothing seems to go away from sight. Injuries drowsy with the heat. And that sky there, claimed by inviolable authority, hanging on to its crutches of silence.
Endless crow noises A skull in the holy sands tilts its empty country towards hunger. White-clad widowed Women past the centers of their lives are waiting to enter the Great Temple Their austere eyes stare like those caught in a net hanging by the dawn's shining strands of faith. The fail early light catches ruined, leprous shells leaning against one another, a mass of crouched faces without names, and suddenly breaks out of my hide into the smoky blaze of a sullen solitary pyre that fills my aging mother: her last wish to be cremated here twisting uncertainly like light on the shifting sands
At Puri, the crows. The one wide street lolls out like a giant tongue. Five faceless lepers move aside as a priest passes by. And at the streets end the crowds thronging the temple door: a huge holy flower swaying in the wind of greater reasons.
[the version here has been edited from its original publication in the volume Waiting (1979). Personally, I am not too sure the edits are for the better. The poem is one of the more philosophical ones, and perhaps JM is trying to improve its craft, but I would have been happy with the earlier craft! ] Afterwards when the wars of Kalinga were over, the fallow fields of Dhauli hid the blood-spilt butchered bodies. [originally "red-smeared voiceless bodies"] As the earth burrowed into their dead hunger with its mercilesss worms, [was "tortured worms"] guided the foxes to their limp genitals. Years later, the evening wind, trembling the glazed waters of the River Daya, keens in the rock edicts the vain word, like the voiceless cicadas of night: [was "shuttered silence, an air:"] the measure of Ashoka's suffering does not appear enough. The place of his pain peers lamentably from among the pains of the dead.
from http://sumasubramaniam.blogspot.com/2007_08_01_archive.html Awaken them; they are knobs of sound that seem to melt and crumple up like some jellyfish of tropical seas, torn from sleep with a hand lined by prophecies. Listen hard; their male, gaunt world sprawls the page like rows of tree trunks reeking in the smoke of ages, the branches glazed and dead as though longing to make up with the sky, but having lost touch with themselves were unable to find themselves, hold meaning. And yet, down the steps into the water at Varanasi, where the lifeless bodies seem to grow human, the shaggy heads of word-buds move back and forth between the harsh castanets of the rain and the noiseless feathers of summer - aware that their syllables' overwhelming silence would not escape the hearers now, and which must remain that mysterious divine path guarded by drifts of queer, quivering banyans: a language of clogs over cobbles, casting its uncertain spell, trembling sadly into mist.
The long, dying silence of the rain over the hills opens one's touch, a feeling for the soul's substance, as for the opal neck spiralling the inside of a shell. We keep calm; the voices move. I buy you the morning's lotus. we would return again and again to the movement that is neither forward nor backward, making us stop moving, without regret. You know: I will not touch you, like _that until our wedding night.
The substance that stirs in my palm could well be a dead man; no need to show surprise at the dizzy acts of wind. My old father sitting uncertainly three feet away is the slow cloud against the sky: so my heart's beating makes of me a survivor over here where the sun quietly sets. The ways of freeing myself: the glittering flowers, the immensity of rain for example, which were limited to promises once have had the lie to themselves. And the wind, that had made simple revelation in the leaves, plays upon the ascetic-faced vision of waters; and without thinking something makes me keep close to the walls as though I was afraid of that justice in the shadows. Now the world passes into my eye: the birds flutter toward rest around the tree, the clock jerks each memory towards the present to become a past, floating away like ash, over the bank. My own stirrings like the wind's keep hoping for the solace that would be me in my father's eyes to pour the good years back on my; the dead man who licks my palms is more likely to encourage my dark intolerance rather than turn me toward some strangely solemn charade: the dumb order of the myth lined up in the life-field, the unconcerned wind perhaps truer than the rest, rustling the empty, bodiless grains.
The faint starlight rolls restlessly on the mat. Those women talking outside have clouds passing across their eyes. Always there is a moon that is taking me somewhere. Why does one room invariably lead into other room? We, opening in time our vague doors, convinced that our minds lead to something never allowed before, sit down hurt under the trees, feeding it simply because it is there, as the wind does, blowing against the tree. Yet time is not clairvoyant, and if it has the answer to our lives, proud in its possession of that potential which can change our natures, beating the visions of childhood out of us, the socialism and the love, until we remain awkwardly swung to the great north of honour. What humility is that which will not let me reveal the real? What shameful secret lies hidden in the shadows of my moon? All these years; our demands no longer hurt our eyes. How can I stop the life I lead within myself-- The startled, pleading question in my hands lying in my lap while the gods go by, triumphant, in the sacked city at midnight?
The strong south wind hits our faces again, it's October; sunsets are fiery red and the waters of wells are clear already-- there we are, under the mango tree, in the old house, amid the drift of things, the vase on the bookcase with shadows of swifts reeling round it, and we don't know whether we are alone any more. But each day we watch the swifts come and go, watch the still-slender, teasing whore who shuffles down the crowded road and finds out that the middle-aged man surreptitiously following her is only listening to the slowing sounds of his own heart; and we sit and long for the child who left in 'seventy-three, and behave like our bitch that catches a scent and sniffs about in the air. We look around today and the day after tomorrow, remembering those who caught us like irrigation-canals across the dry nights in the distant countryside, and remembering, suddenly, someone who once envied us and our bodies so impudent, glistening with rain. Ah, this voice I hear now, what answer do I owe you? The tree trembles in the wind, the house where we once made love now weakens at the knees. And all the time that gathered into those moments fills the grave of the vast vase with dust.
Day after day the drunk sea at Chandipur spits out the gauze wings of shells along the beach and rumples the thin air behind the sands. Who can tell of the songs of this sea that go on to baffle and double the space around our lives? Or of smells paralysed through the centuries, of deltas hard and white that stretched once to lure the feet of women bidding their men goodbye? Or of salt and light that dark and provocative eyes demanded, their shoulders drooping like lotuses in the noonday sun? And what is it now that scatters the tide in the shadow of this proud watercourse? The ridicule of the dead? Sussurant sails still whisper legends on the horizon: who are you, occupant of the silent sigh of the conch? The ground seems only a memory now, a torn breath, and as we wait for the tide to flood the mudflats the song that reaches our ears is just our own. The cries of fishermen come drifting through the spray, music of what the world has lost.
(from https://mailman.rice.edu/pipermail/sasialit/2006-November/043728.html) The yellowed diary's notes whisper in vernacular. They sound the forgotten posture, the cramped cry that forces me to hear that voice. Now I stumble back in your black-paged wake. No uneasy stir of cloud darkened the white skies of your day; the silence of dust grazed in the long afterniin sun, ruling the cracked fallow earth, ate into the laughter of your flesh. For you it was the hardest question of all. Dead, empty tress stood by the dragging river, past your weakened body, flailing against your sleep. You thought of the way the jackals moved, to move. Did you hear the young tamarind leaves rustle in the cold mean nights of your belly? Did you see your own death? Watch it tear at your cries, break them into fits of unnatural laughter? How old were you? Hunted, you turned coward and ran, the real animal in you plunigng through your bone. You left your family behind, the buried things, the precious clod that praised the quality of a god. The impersihable that swung your broken body, turned it inside out? What did faith matter? What Hindu world so ancient and true for you to hold? Uneasily you dreamed toward the center of your web. The separate life let you survive, while perhaps the one you left wept in the blur of your heart. Now in a night of sleep and taunting rain My son and I speak of that famine nameless as snow. A conscience of years is between us. He is young. The whirls of glory are breaking down for him before me. Does he think of the past as a loss we have lived, our own? Out of silence we look back now at what we do not know. There is a dawn waiting beside us, whose signs are a hundred odd years away from you, Grandfather. You are an invisible piece on a board Whose move has made our children grow, to know us, carrying us deep where our voices lapse into silence. We wish we knew you more. We wish we knew what it was to be, against dying, to know the dignity that had to be earned dangerously, your last chance that was blindly terrifying, so unfair. We wish we had not to wake up with our smiles in the middle of some social order.
An orange flare lights the pale panes of the hospital in a final wish of daylight. It's not yet dark. In the chiildren's ward under a mother's face the dead, always so young. Water startles in the river's throat. Its cry: a plea to share in its curse? Somewhere, this twilight shall fall and hide the whiteness of jasmines about to bloom. Newly-lit lamps in the houses across the street make me look out at the wet August evening that holds up the vast unknown in such small delicate hands.
rain of rites 7 a summer poem 8 idyll 9 somewhere my man 10 main temple street, puri 12 moving 13 dawn at puri 14 myth 15 sunburst 16 summer 18 hunger 19
the faith 20 In these indistinguishable mornings like pale-yellow hospital linen, a legless cripple clutters up the wide temple-street, the quiet early light crouched in his palms. taste for tomorrow 21 dhauli 22 dhauli 22 sanskrit 23 the indian way 24 thought of the future 25 country festival 27
pain 28 steps in the dark 29 day of rain 30 mountain 31 ash 32 abandoned british cemetery at balasore 33 sailboat of occasions 35 the moon moments 36 the day after my friends became godly and great 37
relationship I 38 Once again one must sit back and bury the face in this earth of the forbidden myth the phallus of the enormous stone relationship II 41 Today I watch through the window the grave that is my mother's, watch the old impulses in red and yellow chalked across the white terraces of childhood, along the shores of distant refrains, as a member of some magician's audience watches a white rabbit flash out of the excited applause to vanish in the air. ... relationship IV 42 And now, you, my ancient love of a hundred names, of rains and endless skies and morning mists, of wind-beaten evenings of owl-calls and of rice-harvests in December, my love of gold nose-rings and laughing earrings, of towering ruins of stone panting in the dark... relationship VIII 45 It is my own life that has cornered me beneath the stones of this temple in ruins, in a blaze of sun. relationship IX 47 This must be the myth of every happiness, the high wind that flings the flowers into disarray, the adamant bones which keep rolling in the dust of the dark butterflies, the cry of the wounded sun silenced among the ruins of Konarka
violence 50 The day dims. When I open and shut my mouth the darkness chokes inside. The sad light pushes against a bullock-cart-driver's whip which rests in a corner of the corridor, safe from the black pressure of dragging ribs. a country 51 total solar eclipse 53 It was the drawn-out cry of day that left behind no echo, day that became meek as a frightened child. A banner of pale human skin fluttered on top of the temple of Jagannath the vase 55 a monsoon day fable 56 The fable at the beginning of the monsoon echoes alone, like a bell ringing in a temple far from home. ... in the fields of desolate rice 58 captive air of chandipur on sea 59 lost children of america 60 dead river 65 life signs 66 grandfather 67 again one day walking by the river 69
the voice 70 river 71 twilight 74 events 75 burden of waves and fruit 76 talking of death 78
Neither Alien Nor Postmodern: Jayanta Mahapatra's Poetry from India, John Oliver Perry, Kenyon Review v. 8(4):55-66, 1986. Excerpts: Among the multitude of problems facing any poet in India choosing to write in English -scarcely ever his or his parents' first or mother tongue-two inherent contradictions in his cultural situation interlock to defeat all but the most overdetermined poets. First, the adopted language medium (read by only 3 percent of the Indian populace) carries messages adapted to quite other phenomenological circumstances. No matter how modified as Indian English, it is inherently, structurally and developmentally adapted from a culture geographically, historically, and socially English and Western and liberal-progressive, a set of cultural biases quite different from those of the ancient but modernizing Hinduism that still dominates almost all Indian life. Secondly, no matter how important in India and internationally the potential audience for such poetry may be, the actual readership is necessarily minute, thinly dispersed, and probably culturally alien or (if in India) a tiny, hypereducated elite class ruling or managing or exploiting the hugely predominant Hindu village culture from some modern cosmopolitan capital city. For the first decade or so after Independence, these contradictions suggested even to the Indian English poets themselves that their "other language" taken from the British imperialists could not possibly work for poetry in the new India. After repeated attempts at clarification by critics there and abroad and despite the unexpected explosion of Indo-English poetry writing in the last two decades, the problems have not been resolved, perhaps can never be. Poets like Jayanta Mahapatra almost perversely persist in writing in English, thereby creating their own impossible situation for poetry, not just existentially and phenomenologically but undeniably practically. Working practically alone as a village-dwelling teacher of college physics in a poor eastern province, Mahapatra has developed a profoundly "sincere" inner voice surprisingly unironic, unalienated, unmediated, of interest to very diverse but contemporaneous Indian and foreign audiences. Making such broadly successful poems of his inner life has, furthermore, changed his circumstances and modified his vision in ways that poetry, since romantic times, has been imagined to do, but rarely does in fact. When I started writing poetry I thought it would be a safe and private business.... Now everything seems changed.... The years have only instilled in me a different sense of the requirements of poetry . . . I am aware, fully aware that my poems deal with the life within myself, where the mind tries to find a sort of coherence from the mass of things in the world outside it" (Sunday Observer interview, May 27, 1984). As his poem "Grandfather" reveals, Mahapatra's father's father converted to Christianity, and was therefore rejected by his orthodox caste Hindu family, during the 1866 rice famine in Orissa, which is still one of the poorest states in India, with its own curlicued alphabet and sinuous language, Oriya. Educated in colonial Christian schools, Mahapatra's father became a subinspector of primary schools for the British and then for the State of Orissa. What's in my father's house is not mine. In his eyes, dirty and heavy as rainwater flowing into earth, is the ridicule my indifference quietly left behind: and the whisper of an old myth in the clouds. Thinking to escape his beliefs I go to meet the spectre of belief, a looming shadow the colour of mud, watery and immense as the Ganga. (Life Signs) Perhaps seeking some more equal challenge, after a suitable Christian "love" marriage, when his single child, a son, was seven, during a frustrating romantic affair with a young woman at the college, Mahapatra at age forty began writing love poems in English. ... The image of his unobtainable beloved in time took its place in a series of females who figure more or less frequently in his poetry, still with some feeling of guilt and ultimate frustration. The title Svayamvara (1971), of his second volume-again with many love poems "for R.M." (his wife Runu) -- refers to the rare form of Hindu marriage in which the woman has a choice. Throughout his mature 1980 volume, The False Start, she appears deeply transformed as a "you" who is neither self nor other, neither actual nor merely imaginary a darkly disappearing, persistently female phantasm who takes symbolic and suggestive forms from passing prostitutes or absent and silent divinities. simple belief in the gods, not a consciously willed faith, is everywhere apparent and crushing in Mahapatra's immediate living situation, so that revival of a rich culture, or even connection with fellow beings, is both quite unnecessary and the reverse of his need. Rather explicitly, a fairly recent poem, "Needs" from Life Signs, begins: The world that gradually spreads like fire under my needs has struck the sky's stars. I am marked by the slow venom of need. Is an ancient law only to be obeyed? In the cramped mind where memory puts its mysterious hand and gropes between the past and the present? Again and again some thought keeps the dawn high above the bared mind, the details of home, loves and pride veiled in clouds upon the scales of need until, older, one comes to know that it is not enough to be simply alive, that the hand reaching painfully at another can be caught unawares, drenched in use's blood. ... quite evidently a feeling for profoundly Indian cultural strains provides the solid grounding for Mahapatra's indigenous reputation. In his last book, Burden of Waves and Fruit (Three Continents Press, Washington, 1986), he persists in his commitment, if it is not an obsession by this time, to unifying descriptive and abstract modes of experience in a simple poetic moment. Rain stands on the margins of my time, a discovery, like theft, making me careful how I lay the hour down, looking at the trees growing too large for my little yard, filling with lurid light, and I hardly see spring coming. ("Again the Rain Falls") Operating from a cultural situation that lives with an obvious multitude of inherent contradictions and ancient violations of human necessity, but lacking our opportunities to enjoy these or some other ironies, Mahapatra has been hard at work discovering in virtual isolation how an indeterminable mystery encircles, enlarges, enlightens and shadows his living, and so may, in some way, enrich our own.
[There is a tension that has developed between Indian poets writing from India - "poetry which eased itself from the earth the poet inhabited, nurtured and nourished by the soil and the air" - and poetry that "could have come as well from the pen of a poet living in Britain or Australia." The latter point of view is espoused in the narratives of expatriate-based authors like Salman Rushdie and Jeet Thayil (one of the poets Mahapatra butchers without naming in this essay. Some others (e.g. Amitabh Ghosh) perhaps would agree with Mahapatra. I find myself completely in agreement with Mahapatra. ] If we accept the fact that English poetry in India has taken a definite direction today, we could trace its influence to a few poets who were teachers of English literature themselves. Nissim Ezekiel could be considered to lead this poetry movement; he was followed by A.K. Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy and Shiv K. Kumar, if I would name some. Today, we have a number of younger poets who seem to be influenced by the terse craftwork exhibited by their elders. If we examine these poems, we find an excessive use of wit and irony in them. It is difficult not to notice the distance this poetry reveals, as compared to the poems of poets in the many regional languages of India. Also is evident a lack of musicality in the poems. Somehow I believe that music is the most important virtue in poetry, and this appears to be absent. [Skewers the poetry issue of London Magazine, ed. by Alan Ross; shows a disdain for "well-crafted poetry" that doesn't speak from the heart.] A look into this issue gives us an insight into the type of poetry the editor likes to publish. I could never respond to the sight of Nandi in the manner a poem "Pahupatinath" goes on to depict the scene (pp. 178-79): A bull of beaten gold balanced on balls so large they dwarfed the nesting crowds. With hands full of money, flowers and prayers, our unruly lines mobbed the priest. [Jeet Thayil] [AM: though i am a strong atheist, i too find the image of nandi's immense balls distasteful; it is perhaps more in line of the US flag burning art than indian sensibilities. even mf hussain's nudes were considerably more subtle. notably, this poem does not seem to appear in any other collection or publication anywhere. ] Or, as in the poem "One or Two Places" on page 63 of the issue: If you love your country, he said, why are you here? Say, I am tired of hearing about all that wonder that was India kind of crap. [Parthasarathy] My own writing has always reflected an Oriya sensibility and I have felt myself to be an Oriya poet who happened to write in English. I suppose our sensibility, the Indian sensibility, is different from the Western one, and this fact stands in the way of the Western reader. However, it was in the eighties or early nineties, that a change was seen in much of the English poetry written in India. The discerning reader no longer wanted to read merely a well-crafted poem of an Indian poet in English, a poem which could have come as well from the pen of a poet living in Britain or Australia. Poets, younger poets, from various parts of the country were coming out with their poems; suddenly, English poems were being written differently in Kerala, in the Northeast, and in my own state of Orissa. It was the native culture showing in the poem of the Indian English poet. It was a poetry which eased itself from the earth the poet inhabited, nurtured and nourished by the soil and the air of the place. ...