Jayanta Mahapatra on finite joy of receiving awards, mark of a good poem
Jayanta Mahapatra speaks about the role of the poet in society, why Odisha has seeped into so much of his work, and what the mark of a good poem is
"A poet—if I may call myself one—leads a very private existence, monotonous existence. Don't you think so? Because he writes in his own privacy, in his own corner, and he needs solitude for that. When he's given an award, there's a break in his existence. It does give him a sort of elation, and joy. Of course, that joy doesn't stay for long. It's like a flower, it wilts the next morning. But there is a sense of a pride because one's work has been recognised."
Jayanta Mahapatra was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the latest edition of Tata Literature Live!. He is also one of the poets who famously returned his Padma Shri in 2015, to protest against the growing "moral asymmetry" in the country. He is firmly of the opinion that poetry cannot exist outside of society, and that poets cannot live in isolation. "A poet is a poet — by virtue of what he sees, he hears, he feels. This means that although he writes in his own corner, he cannot be dead to the world around him. He lives in the world, and he writes, primarily, to connect to the world."
That November morning, I was sitting before a man whose name I had heard five years ago, in an English Literature class.
His quivering face, white hair and soft voice reminded me about how many decades of poetry had passed between him putting his pen down to paper, and this interview.
Mahapatra is aware of his age, and of approaching death (he termed it imminent) — which nonagenarian would not be? But accompanying this awareness is a piercing sense of melancholy, and some sombre questions: Who will read and remember him after he dies? Who even reads poetry these days?
Mahapatra turned to writing in his 40s. This was a volatile time when he had begun to think that his life was close to being over. He remembers being restless as a child and teenager, "My childhood and youth were not things I could go back to or be nostalgic about. As a matter of fact, it was not a happy childhood. It was so bad that I ran away from home — twice. I actually ran away to Mumbai once, when I was a young teen. But then I returned. I suppose I don't know how I pulled myself through."
Writing presented itself as a cathartic experience. He was fascinated by the English language and was fond of reading. He picked up words along the way, strengthened his vocabulary and realised that he could try writing. Not many know that before he had begun writing, he had dabbled quite a bit in photography — a skill he says he has mastered better than poetry. But the poet says he never planned to make a shift from his career in theoretical physics; he was merely driven by instinct. "I happened to live in an ontology of instinct. Whatever I have done, I have done by virtue of my instinct. My existence has been an instinctual experience. I never knew what I was going to do."
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.
(from 'The Captive Air Of Chandipur-On-Sea')
Odisha finds its way into many of Mahapatra's poems. He was born in the state and lived there, and he says he could not have lived anywhere else. He formed friendships here that would go on to nourish his life until he reached a mature age. "I had friends who travelled and lived abroad, like Parthasarathy and Ramanujan, but I couldn't. I came back." So rooted is he to this land that even its myths and traditions seep into his writing. Tradition constitutes a part of literature, and tradition is one of the arms of poetry — the other is history, he says. "You take out history and tradition, and your poetry becomes spineless." A century ago, poet TS Eliot felt the same way, "Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour... This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional."
He does not think of writing in English and writing in Odia as being different. It's more of a complementary thing. There are certain things I can't do in English — those colloquialisms that can't be translated, such as the word 'abhimaan'. These are feelings that are wholly unknown to Western audiences."
Of that love, of that mile
walked together in the rain,
only a weariness remains.
(from 'Of that Love')
"I like writing poetry about us — about you, and you, and I, and the world around me. I would like to talk about humanity as a whole, their way of life," Mahapatra said to me.
Though he has been writing for nearly five decades now, he says he cannot quite define his style, except for saying that the poets of the past have moulded his work and continue to influence it. Some of the poets he has been inspired by are Federico García Lorca (Spain), Pablo Neruda (Chile) and Octavio Paz (Mexico). Of his own poems, he likes 'Hunger', 'Grandfather', and 'The Abandoned British Cemetry', among others.
Mahapatra is considered by many as being one of the poets who laid down the foundations of Indian English Poetry; his name is taken alongside Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, AK Ramanujan and R Parthasarathy. Along with the Padmi Shri, he also won the Sahitya Akademi Award — making him the first Indian poet writing in English to win this honour. He has been published in the country and abroad, in several international magazines, which is why it is disconcerting to know that a poet of such stature too, can have moments of self-doubt (or is it disbelief at how life has turned out, the success that one has earned?). It made this 20-something writer wonder how she will evaluate her own life, 70 years from now.
In the darkened room
cannot find her reflection in the mirror
waiting as usual
at the edge of sleep
In her hands she holds
the oil lamp
whose drunken yellow flames
know where her lonely body hides
('A Missing Person')
I ask Mahapatra what he thinks is the sign of a good poem, he tells me good poems are not created overnight. They are not written simply because one knows the language, or because one is feeling a particular emotion. "Poems need to be revelatory, they should show something that has not been shown before. If it offers something new, either through images or through statements made, then the poem has possibly done what it was meant to do. If you look at all the best poets we have had, they've always been spiritual people. They have always looked upwards. A good poem should lift you from the plane we live in, this mundane plane that we exist in now, into something a little higher. It's a sort of prayer, worship, sadhana. If it does not take us higher, of what use is that poem?" he asks.
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