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Home page > English > Interview > Poetry can touch and extrude a sort of revelation

Poetry can touch and extrude a sort of revelation

Malayalam poet and Multilingual Translator Santosh Alex in conversation with Shri Jayanta Mahapatra .

Thursday 21 April 2011, by Santhosh Alex



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Santosh alex : Congratulations for being confered the Padma Shri Award by the Indian Government.How do you feel at this point of time. Do you think it should have been awarded much before ?

Jayanta Mahapatra : Thank you. I should like to focus my thoughts on the next poem I wan’t to write. Nothing else. My hurts have always been my own,since I was a child, buried inside me. And these hurts are mine, nobody else’s. Awards wilt like flowers, are soon forgotten. I think you will agree.

SA : Which was you first published poem and in which journal it was published ?

JM: " Loneliness " perhaps . In a literary journal called SOUTH AND WEST in USA and simultaneously in a calcutta journal, LEVANT , in 1968 another group of three poems.

SA : Jayanta Mahapatra is a poet from a generation which preceded Midnight’s Children.

When you came up with your first book of poems “Close the sky, Ten by Ten ” in 1971, Your contemporaries like Kamala Das and Keki N Daruwalla younger to you had already published their first poetry collection. Were your fingers crossed of getting accepted and talked about ? If yes why, if no why ?

JM : Yes, When I started writing poetry, these poets were already established ones. Most poets would have done their best work, I guess. Look, I was a student of science, but I loved literature. I have never imagined I would write poetry one day. It was like facing a wall at that time. The reviews I got were discouraging, and I had to get a hold on myself to continue writing poetry. The good part was that the new poems I wrote and sent out to significant journals like Critical Quarterly in England , were accepted – and that too by editors no less than Prof. C.B Cox and Prof. Anthony Dyson. It was truly exciting to be published there.

SA : From your first poetry collection to the recent one titled " Random Descent." How do you evaluate your journey as a poet in terms of subject , style and language ?

JM :It is difficult for me to evaluate my work. Let me be clear on this: I never intended to be a " poet " in the first place. I was a student of physics , and quite a bit of time when I was teaching physics went into research work.. However , I did not complete it. May be I realised the futility of working on a topic which did not relate to the development and betterment of society. Well, now I somehow feel that poetry more or less does the same thing. But poetry can reach out to others and extrude a sort of revelation sometimes. This is what poetry is able to do., touch another and that’s what matters. My earliest poems were exercises perhaps, written mainly to please my own self. I can’t say. These poems were more fused in themselves, and tended to be abstract. Critics were disappointed when my first two books appeared. And I was hurt. But I wanted to go on writing, so I began to read contemporary poetry, and thought I should write more simple, understandable poems. It is difficult to write a good poem, even today, I am speaking of myself.

SA : Your early poems were born of love, of love’s selfishness. They celebrate not only passion, the body’s spacious business, but consistently evoke a melancholic atmosphere rent with absences, fears, foreboding and sufferings. Do you think the word “love ”has lost its meaning in today’s context.Your opinion.

JM : Any beginning poet writes about love, because that is the first subject that comes to him. However it is not easy to write about love. I must have been a very foolish person to have written about love. I had not read the love poems of Pablo Neruda, it was perhaps the limit of my stupidity. You ask about love , I don’t have any answers. A hundred year back in my life it could have been a kind of infatuation, today , I can’t say what love is. That moment when you don’t need anyone else changes in one’s life. May be love is never real, in a real world.

SA : It is seen that slowly and steadily you have released yourself from the lonesome citadel of love, and learnt to involve with other men, living or dead with many other succulent chambers of living. Fear of ageing, fear of death, and love for life and memory, love for the golden past an inquisitiveness to live amid contraries of life were the themes in your later poetry.How difficult was this transition ?

JM : I don’t know, but you can’t write about the same things all your life. You learn to look at the world around you, and you realize painfully that you are not the person who runs the world. You learn to open your eyes and ears, and as you lie along, listening , you discover the knowledge of death you carry with in yourself is shared with all living creatures, human beings and animals. And so you will write about these things. Perhaps the subjects of poems change instinctively.

SA : Landscape and Nature form a part of your poetry- Shrines,temple, rickshaw pullers, deodar trees, small fragments of light and shadow, the cows chewing on so forth are depicted with ease.How difficult was to bring Indian ethos and feelings to English .Your thoughts on “ Indianness ”and English.

JM : It wasn’t difficult for me to express my native culture in English. May be a good reason would be that I began writing poetry late in my life, when I had mastered my knowledge of the English language. I had a missionary school education with a British headmaster who liked me a lot and encouraged me in the ways of English. Books were a great help, I learnt a lot form them, picking up novels and story books from libraries wherever my father traveled. And later, I used to save up the little money I got, to buy books from the railway book stall.

And “ Indianness ?” I don’t know . I am an Indian and I write about the way I live, my people live, Is that Indianness ?

SA :The woman is yet another image in Mahapatra’s poetry. As a symbol, she is usually identified with the ’discarded things’. She is often portrayed as a sexually oppressed by the so called patriarchal system and poverty. The image of the woman has been vividly presented in the poem, "The whorehouse in a Calcutta Street." Your thoughts on women and their freedom in total and especially in Orissa.

JM : Well, the Indian woman, for all her depiction in our old , sacred texts as a supreme being, has been the victim of lust, cruelty and violence. And we haven’t been able to do anything about this. Perhaps things are changing today, with the new generation of girls asserting their rights. I don’t know, but in my childhood I saw my cousin being beaten up by her drunk husband, I watched helplessly my grandmother being mistreated – and today, in a slum about fifty yards from my house, young women are being doused with kerosene and burned to death for paltry, trivial reasons . And I suppose Orissa and Andhra have most of these victims of oppression.

SA : In one of your poems titled " Night " you opine nobody know who eats up whom on the other side of the window ? Towards the conclusion of the poem you say " All I have left is this moment ." Do you think in our country ( especially in Orissa )the poor people are still in bondage and they don’t have the freedom to enjoy the present moment of life ? Will the sympathy of a poet alone give them some hope ?

JM: Certainly , more than sixty years after independence, our poor are still poor, and don’t even have a shelter over their heads. It’s the moment that matters, the homeless still throng religious shrines for food, still beg for food at railway stations, eating leftovers from the trains that serve food for passenges. Many fulfil their appetite with cheap drinks, tea or water. No, I ‘am not making this up. You have to walk a little way down the coast to see how our people live.

And then , a poem is not a question of sympathy. It is just what one sees and feels that a poet writes about and a poet knows well that no one is listening to him. And our “ right ” is not merely about hunger, but about inequality and injustice and a total indifference to our people’s needs.

SA : Your poetry is difficult to comprehend by the ordinary reader at the very first attempt because of obscurity, complexity and allusiveness in your poems.Have you ever thought your poems should have been little more simple in terms of expression. ?

JM: I believe you are right when you speak of the obscurity in my poems, But that’s how I write them,those especially when I began writing. But then, I feel poetry should leave the reader with something to ponder, to think about. Even if the reader doesn’t understand the whole poem, perhaps parts of it would leave the reader with a mood, an exuberance or a despair , and this much would be enough for the poem’s goal. At least that’s how I would like to look at poetry . And to remove the mystery out of a poem doesn’t seem quite right to me……… But perhaps, my poems are simpler now than what they were , four decades ago. Readers should vouch for that.

SA: Aiyappa Panicker opined " The tragic consciousness doesnot seem to operate in the work of any Indian poet in English as disturbingly as in that of Jayanta Mahapatra." How do you bring about pain & agony in your poetry ?Reasons.

JM: It’s not about the question of writing effectively about pain in my poems. As I was saying, nothing much has changed in these years after we achieved independence, the poverty , the illiteracy ( especially in the remote tribal communities here ) and a hard casteism- all these make our people struggle with their lives. If I don’t write about them , who will ? I can’t say why, But in a sense I feel that my life is bound to those about whom I write. And I don’t wish to trivialize. I have often been to the remote hinterland to see for myself how a part of me lives, and that’s important for me, it cripples my heart.

SA : Many of your poems deal with the attrocities in state of Orissa. Being in the state for the past four decades, do you think writers from Orissa had really voiced the attrocities of the people and the system. Your thoughts .

JM: No, not many have written about the recent attrocities in their poems. I feel established poets have steered clear of the issue, preferring to write about safe subjects like love and myths. I don’t wish to comment on this.Orissa’s tribal Christians are still living in camps. As a poet, I can write in the only way I can. I cannot comprehend this divisiveness in the name of religion. It hurts. The victims of the terrible violence in Kandhamal just six months back , is very real. This experience of violence is new to me, I had never felt how I feel today ,when I was a boy. And this is a country which professes peaceful ideals. I ask myself, is it the same country in which I was born ?

SA : You have been largely influenced by the father of our nation. The poem “Requiem ”is an example for this. Do you think Gandhism is still relevant ? If yes ,why ?

JM: I should like to believe that we lost our country when Gandhi was shot dead on 30th January 1948. Or it was the beginning of the end of what our leaders had fought for. I don’t know anything about politics. I don’t know anything about Gandhism. So I can’t speak of its “ relevance ” today. Gandhi’s courage was exemplary. As a student at Patna University in Bihar during the years 1946 – 49, I had the opportunity to attend his prayer meeting in the Bankipur Maidan when the country was ripped by Hindu – Muslim riots. It is but natural that I pay homage to men like Gandhi, that’s all I can truthfully say.

SA : In the internet age do you think the readers of poetry are dwindling in number. Your take on this.

JM: Although I am a man of science, I don’t use a computer. I am sorry I lag behind in the internet age. So I can’t talk about the readers of poetry. Poetry has always attracted very few readers. But then there will always be some who will ready and enjoy poetry. Here, in my hometown of Cuttack, there were probably ten readers of mine thirty years back. And today there are probably thirty readers of mine. So, generally speaking , the readership is almost constant.

SA: History proves that across the globe poets were jailed and tortured as there is explosion in poetry . Yet fiction writers are more talked about and discussed. Do you think in our country poetry still has a long way to go. Especially English poetry.

JM : As I said, poetry has a limited readership. It’s not easy to get into a poem in one cursory reading. But fiction is different . Look at the sales of Mills & Boon books, for example. You pick up a novel at a railway station or bus stand and realize you can pass the time when you travel. But you can’t do that for a poetry book. No, Whether a regional language or English, poetry will have limited sales. Time won’t change this.

SA : Your poems have been translated into many regional and foreign languages.You have Successfuly translated Sakti Chattopadhyay’s poems in English. Your opinion on translation . Do you think translators have been given their due in our country?Reasons.

JM : To speak the truth, I like doing translations. And I began my writing “career ” doing translations from the Oriya to English. I am still working on translations, it offers me a sort of challenge, to produce an English poem from an Oriya poem or Vice Versa.

About the “ due ” you mention, I am not keen on getting any such, if dues are a sort of awards. I have translated seven books of Oriya poetry into English, a book of Bangla poetry ,besides a number of stories and essays. I think we should better not go into his question of awards or “ dues ” ; there is so much of politics in all this too. I am lucky I am able to work in the field of translation as well, and that should be enough.

SA: The new poetic forms such as Haiku, SMS poems etc are gaining popularity. Do you think this will long last ?Your opinion.

JM : The haiku is an old form , and some of the haikus penned by Basko still are read. They give unlimited pleasure. The haiku will go on. But I can’t speak of sms poems, I am ignorant of this. However, concrete poetry is still being written in many places in the West. May be I am old fashioned, I still write the so – called conservative poem when I can.

SA : Do you think the media can play an important part in popularizing poetry or for that matter any form of literature.Or does it merely fulfil its duties.

JM : Sorry , I can’t say. I would like to write my poem in peace or whatever, and not think of the media.

SA : There are many young poets like Usha Akella, Tabish Khair,Gorima Basu, Bijoy mishra etc who are talented . Do you think they can take forward the legacy of senior poets like yourself, Kamala Das, Keki, Meana Alexander etc. Your thoughts .

JM: Sorry I haven’t read three of the poets you mentioned. But there are a number of poets who are writing superbly. Their collections have been published by the Sahitya Academi, and their poetry is relevant to the times in which we live.

I suppose one has to go on writing without thinking of what your labours would bring- is what’s crucial. And that one should have faith in what one writes.

SA : Chandrabhaga is a reputed journal. You have introduced many writers and translators through this journal .I was fortunate enough to have my translations published in chandrabhagha. Any plan for its revival ?

JM : No, not right now. The support I had earlier is not there anymore.

SA : Let the coolness of the first June rain give us relief, let Orissa break free from the captiveness of hazards, let us talk about a little change in our lives, let the pink buds of the tall cotton tree burst, let the nets being dragged in the river mouth be full of hilsa. Let us hope God has a better plan for our country.Sir, I am grateful to you for the opportunity given. May God give you good health and happiness through out your life .

JM : Thank u . Yes, let’s have a country we can be proud of . And let me think of this day as a gift I can fruitfully use.

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