book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Selected Poems

Jayanta Mahapatra

Mahapatra, Jayanta;

Selected Poems

Oxford University Press 1987 [rs. 35]

ISBN 0195620518

topics: |  poetry | india | single-author | english

book review

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

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].


	dedication: for RUNU, once again

A rain of rites : Jayanta Mahapatra


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 in 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?

A Summer Poem

			p.8 [from Rain of Rites, 1976] 

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.

Hunger : Jayanta Mahapatra

			p.24 [from Rain of Rites, 1976] 

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

Myth (rain of rites)


Years drift sluggishly through the air:
a chanting, the long years, an incense. 
Face upon face returns to the barbed horizons
of the foggy temple; here lies
a crumpled leaf, a filthy scarlet flower
out of placeless pasts, on the motionless stairs.

		Old brassy bells
moulded by memories, dark, unfulfilled,
to make the year come back again --
	a recurring prayer.

The stairs seem endless, lifelong, 
and those peaks too, Annapurna, Dhaulagiri;
uncertain, impressive as gods.
	I dare not go
into the dark, dank sanctum
where the myth shifts
swiftly from hand to hand, eye to eye.
The dried, sacrificed flowers smile at me.
	I have become;
a diamond in my eye

Vague grieving years pit against
	the distant peaks
like a dying butterfly
as a bearded, saffron-robed man
	asks me, firmly:
Are you a Hindu?

A Summer Poem: Jayanta Mahapatra p.8

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.

Main temple street, Puri, p.12

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.

Dawn at puri p.14

	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

Taste for Tomorrow: Jayanta Mahapatra p.21

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.

Dhauli p.22

	   [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.

Sanskrit: Jayanta Mahapatra p.23


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 Indian Way : Jayanta Mahapatra p.24

	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.

Ash: Jayanta Mahapatra p.417

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 Moon Moments: p.36

    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 Vase : Jayanta Mahapatra p.55

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.

A monsoon day fable

			p.56 [from Life Signs_, 1983]

The fable at the beginning of the monsoon
echoes alone, like a bell ringing in a temple
far from home. The furrows of earth that turned
year after year do not change shape or colour:
is it music, this immortality? Crouching silence
that takes cover inside a lump of shadow.
simply mocking man?  Suddenly the face of the girl
I cannot have appears before me.
And the tune of the latest hit song interrupts itself,
then resumes in my head.  I think
of visiting the afternoon movie hoping to see
the ageing dancer who lives by herself across the street
I feel the silence of a woman's secret whiteness ·
where her petticoat, loose and undone, lies open
sorrowfully, as though after an act of love.

I feel the silence of the ugly, squint-eyed girl
as she paces the street, between the taunting buildings.
All this adds up to a silence the meaning of which
I cannot reach; or was it a destiny, a fable,
a scent of the same rain on the earth?
Or the pull of a loose muscle in the dancer's startled leg?

The Cuttack dawn herds the emaciated cows
toward the municipal slaughter-house, their feet
slipping, their eyes following the vague light
into silence.  Wet, as though with glue, they haunt
me through the nights, perhaps equipped with designs
to show man his true nature, perhaps
like the eyes of Einstein. For me to deny       [?eys]
the thought that I am in a sort of exile.

My observation is limited to the process of my falling,
and neither the law of falling bodies ·
nor the general theory of relativity stills the wing.
The day stands like a mature prime minister
bur a thousand thoughts away, a thousand voices above
the level of mournful lowing in my room.
I pick up the morning newspaper and see
how a nation goes on insulting itself
with its own web of rhetoric.  And remember how
some of us poets had participated at the Silver Jubilee
celebrations of the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi,
and with plagiarized smiles and abstract talk
convinced ourselves that in harmony there was
no deception.  It seems so strange looking at one another
and finding ourselves go into the distances of our eyes;
even my wife does not look as if she belonged to me,
and even the spittle I swallow every hour
has nothing perhaps to do with me, like
that unreachable Girl who leads me to a dim corner
of my conscience, alone.  Alone, I look at her
as though I do not understand, the heart dry
in the midst of all this wetness.

At dawn when rain scratches against my skin
I hear again that familiar beat which did noth1ng
but merely quicken for someone's presence,
and I hear the silence of today
in its song of dead refrains:
a lonely halo of earth
that gazes aimlessly about the footprintts
of someone going home.

The Captive Air of Chandipur-on-Sea : Jayanta Mahapatra p.59

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.

Grandfather: Jayanta Mahapatra p.67


     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.

Twilight p.74

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.


from a rain of rites (1976)

  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

from Waiting (1979)

  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

from The False Start (l980)

  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

from Relationship (1980)

  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

from Life Signs (1983)

  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
  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

from Burden of waves and fruit (1986)

  the voice                                     70
  river                                         71
  twilight                                      74
  events                                        75
  burden of waves and fruit                     76
  talking of death                              78

review: John Oliver Perry, Kenyon review, 1986

Neither Alien Nor Postmodern: Jayanta Mahapatra's Poetry from India,
John Oliver Perry, Kenyon Review v. 8(4):55-66, 1986.

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

	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.

Jayanta Mahapatra on Indian poetry in English: Of the Lowly potato

      [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. ...

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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Oct 06