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A Conversation with Jayanta Mahapatra

As Interviewed By: Rabindra Swain
& Preston Merchant

Jayanta Mahapatra was born in 1928 in Cuttack, in the Indian state of Orissa. Trained as a scientist, he taught college physics for thirty-six years. He started writing poetry at age 40, quickly becoming one of India’s most celebrated poets and one of its best known abroad.

His early efforts were rewarded. His first book, Close the Sky, Ten by Ten, appeared in 1970. Later, the Jacob Glatstein Memorial prize from Poetry for a selection of poems helped spur his first American publication, A Rain of Rites, which was issued by the University of Georgia Press in 1976. He has contributed to Critical Quarterly, the Sewanee Review, the Kenyon Review, and the New Yorker, as well as other magazines in India and elsewhere. He was the first recipient of India’s Sahitya Akademi-the National Academy of Letters-award in 1981. With over twenty-five books to his credit, including poems in English and Oriya, as well as translations of his own work and that of others, Mahapatra is one of India’s leading poets.
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India’s, and especially Orissa’s, ancient culture and often heart-breaking contemporary history drive his poems. If he believes that the poet is a lone voice working in solitude, his muse is not home-bound. Poetry has an obligation to respond to the wider world, to seek context across the ages. Much of his work moves freely among Hindu myth and newspaper headlines, not to find irony but to create a fuller portrait of humanity. In “All the Poetry There Is” from A Whiteness of Bone, he says that poetry “appears to rise out of the ashes” of suffering: “And the ashes turn and wheel through the dance / like birds of prey in awesome grace in the skies.” His world is a beautiful, dreadful place. “But don’t let poetry cauterize you like acid,” he warns in Bare Face, his latest collection. Poetry is the opening of the door to the outside.

The interview was conducted in Mahapatra’s home in Cuttack by Rabindra Swain, with input via email from Preston Merchant in New York.

Q: In your latest book, Bare Face, you offer a long poem on Gandhi. You were privileged enough (may we use that word?) to see Gandhi and listen to him. How did that experience affect you as a writer?

A: Yes, I was fortunate enough to have seen Gandhiji and listen to him when he was addressing prayer meetings in Patna after the severe rioting in Bengal. That was in 1947. I was a young student at Patna University, and our excitement was at its peak-to have been a part of the Indian people who had just become independent. The tricolour was nothing less than God. And Gandhiji, he was a superior being, above all of us lesser mortals. I cannot explain this reverence with which I hailed him. There he was, a mere two feet away from me, so close I could have stretched out my hand and touched him as he was walking towards the dais where he was to talk. Anyone who has seen that frail figure would wonder at the inner strength and conviction he carried. I had a lot to learn just watching him, to realise that this man, clad in only a dhoti, could have the courage to sit at a round-table conference in Britain, so much at ease among all those well-dressed Britishers!

Perhaps Gandhiji taught me that evening to be unafraid of those things which are truths. Perhaps Gandhiji taught me that the body was just a covering for the mind and that this mind could go on to dream and do those things that seemed impossible to achieve. I haven’t thought much about this before, but now in the long run of my life I can face the world with the conviction of my own poetry because of him. And that is exactly what I would like to believe.

Q: You started writing poetry in the late Sixties. Were you then aware of your immediate predecessors in India and abroad? Since you were teaching physics, not English or creative writing, who were your early influences?

A: There was just this urgency of writing at that time. I had reached a fairly late age in life and I was beginning to write. This mattered. Whatever I wrote then gave me something to hold on to and at the same time was food for my thoughts. I had no idea of what earlier poets in India had done. Nor was I aware of the poetry being written outside my country. I was teaching physics, true, but my interests lay always in novels and stories, mainly in English. I was doing a lot of reading and was acquainted with the fiction being written and published abroad. Of course I wasn’t into poetry, and so there were no early influences on my poetry. Maybe I stumbled into poetry like a blind man who couldn’t see what was ahead of him. What happened later is a different story-I fell, I got up, I groped my way through. [Smiles] I still do. There must have been a lot of self-consciousness in my early poems-I can’t say. But the world I found myself in, this inner world, became a very real world for me.

Books have always been my prized possessions, ever since I was a child. One of my earliest books is The Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad. It has a green, hard cover and was a text when I was studying for the Overseas School Certificate Examination (Senior Cambridge). It is quite a precious thing for me. I have a few Penguin paperbacks too, which I bought around 1944. The Conrad book is dated 1941. I was in school when I started buying books with the meagre amounts I could put together. But books were cheap in those days. This was during World War II. At that time paperbacks, pocketsize, were issued for the Armed Services in India, Burma, and Ceylon from England and the USA. Each book was available then for four annas (that is about 25 paise)! I had a considerable collection of those books. And all these were mostly fiction. I don’t remember reading poetry at all.

Q: Then reading fiction helped you write poetry?

A: You couldn’t say that. I had never imagined I’d write poetry one day. I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t have ambitions of that sort. Today as I think back, I can’t see myself having had such thoughts. I was interested in fiction, very much so. The language fascinated me; I could say truthfully that I learnt the language through my intensive reading habits, and that later I could use it easily in my poetry. I must admit I have been a voracious reader all my life, since I was a boy in school.

Q: Is this why you chose to write poems first in English, not in your mother tongue, Oriya?

A: English came to me easily, naturally. Could be the missionary school education I had, right from the beginning. Could be the love and regard for my school headmaster, a Britisher called David T. Roberts who instilled in me the passion for the English language. My father too, who did the same thing for me. Or, a weakness, if I might call it so. Oriya was a sort of second language I had to learn, later in life. I could say what I wished to in English, in poetry too. I had an untiring urge to learn the English language, and the novels I kept on reading kept me in a state of exuberant surrender, so that new words, newer expressions, thrilled me and gave me a sound, separate existence I could feel proud of.

Q: Have India’s local languages influenced your writing in English?

A: Well, I think the answer is yes. Oriya being my mother tongue and the language of Orissa, it must have had its implications on my own poetry in English. I would be writing like an Oriya, writing the poems that “belong” to Orissa, from inside the Oriya culture I am in. Maybe that is why I have insisted that the use of English for my poems has been incidental. So also there would be fragments of Bengali or Telugu or Hindi in my literary makeup, because all of these have done their work in time on my imagination, to create the poems that are mine, choosing their tradition and making their words.

But what I feel is that there is the working of a rhythm in my poetry which is quite separate from the poems of English-speaking poets. I don’t know whether readers have noticed it, but the rhyme and the rhythm of Oriya songs (because Oriya has had a strong oral tradition) have perhaps percolated into my own English poetry. Why, perhaps, I know it has. Listening to the songs and music pertaining to the year-long festivals of Oriya culture from my birth must have had some effect on my work. You can’t shut yourself in merely because you write in English, can you? This isn’t present in the familiar, linear sort of way, but perhaps you’d detect a sound-patterning that is distinctly different from the accepted forms of English poetry.

Q: You have extensively translated Oriya poetry, old and contemporary. Why do you translate? How do you see your own poetry in relation to the poetry you have translated from the Oriya?

A: I started translating at the same time I undertook writing poetry. I have done a lot of translation from the Oriya, both old and modern. As a matter of fact, I published translations of prose and poetry before I published my own poetry. Let me put this frankly. I translate from the Oriya because I’d want non-Oriya readers to know about the old and new literatures in Oriya. This has nothing absolutely to do with my own poetry, but both translation and my original work make up the total act of my writing. I want my translations to be seen in that light, because that’s what has happened-I began translating before I seriously began writing. I’d like to say the wish to translate from Oriya was a reaching out, as a response to the isolation Oriya literature suffered through the years.

Q: Do you see English-language poets in India becoming distanced from their local communities as they take up positions in universities or go abroad?

A: I suppose so. This distancing seems but natural when an Indian writer uses English for his or her writing. The local community tends to ignore the writer primarily because the community uses the native language of the region, and the use of English by the writer alienates him. The sense of participation in the community is missing. I am speaking of my own limited experiences as a poet. The sight of a person holding an English novel in his hand provokes different responses than when a person holds, say, an Oriya book; the writer then, right away, becomes an outsider, evoking feelings of protest.

Further, much of the resentment comes from writers who use their own native languages in India for their creative needs. Off and on, this tendency to exclude the English writer from the community comes into the open, dragging the writer down. I have tried to compromise with this sort of thing, to argue my way out, so to speak; but soon it became obvious to me that I was bargaining away my freedom, and I don’t ever wish to do that. I’d like to use the language according to my own needs-write in whatever language pleases me.

Q: Since Indian fiction in English has become wildly popular abroad, especially in the United States, Indian critics have accused authors of targeting their work specifically for that international audience. This may be part of the resentment you’re talking about. Indian poets may never face such criticism, but do you think it’s important for Indian poetry to have an international readership?

A: Arbitrarily, Indian poets writing in English (and I speak of those few poets who publish their poems in significant literary periodicals in the USA and UK) have also been the target of such accusations that they write for an international audience. But I ask myself: If I feel I have written a strong poem, what do I do with it? Isn’t it right that I try to get it published (if I can) in a good poetry journal like Poetry Review (London) or Poetry (Chicago)? Importantly, when I submit my poetry to such magazines, I am throwing my work open for competition-for my poems to be judged alongside the best submissions that come in from American or British poets. Such an acceptance helps me tremendously. You know this, don’t you, from your own experience? It makes me regain my confidence in my work, and I can take pride and joy in the labours of writing poems.

So it is important for me to have an international readership. Simultaneously I would surrender my narrow identity (Oriya-Indian, in my case) for a recognition larger than my own.

Q: With A Rain of Rites in 1976 you received your widest international recognition. How did you find an American publisher for the book? How did you feel then?

A: Most of the poems which made up A Rain of Rites were first published in literary publications such as Critical Quarterly (Britain) and the TLS (Britain), and the Chicago Review, Poetry, and the Sewanee Review (USA). I guess publishers do like manuscripts where the poems have appeared first in important journals. Such magazine publication gives a decisive tilt in the poet’s favour. So, as a number of poems in A Rain of Rites had appeared in Britain, the USA, and Australia, I thought it would be a good idea to find a publisher in the US.

A Rain of Rites was one of the two books the University of Georgia Press published out of a fairly large number of submissions that year. I would say I was lucky, for the reports of the readers were favourable. A Rain of Rites was published in 1976, the year I found myself being invited to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. As I said a little earlier, I was definitely fortunate, for the invitation from Paul Engle, the director of the program, came right out of the blue. I had no idea at all of this international writing program. Paul Engle had read the eleven poems that had appeared in Poetry and had noticed the award-the Jacob Glatstein Memorial Prize-from the magazine for those poems in 1975. That exposure was what helped Paul Engle decide to invite me to his program.

Q: Your next collection, The False Start, is very personal, full of questions for the self. What answers have questions like “Was I merely a drunken man who needed / his morals like intoxications to bring / the real and imagined worlds together?” provided you with?

A: I suppose poetry can at times be useful in providing answers or responses to questions which bother the self. It can be a kind of test of our attitudes to the self. And poetry, its form as we all know, is a meeting place between the inward and the outward. It can be extremely intimate too, and my thoughts, when they come into a poem, do not want me to be alone in them. Whether these provide one with answers is difficult to say. But the urge to confess, and unburden oneself, is a jump that can tie the poet’s impulses to the community and contribute to a sharing of the human voice. So I sat down to write poetry not knowing about the kind of happiness it sought. And I didn’t mean really to be asking those questions you spoke about in my poems; it just happened because I didn’t quite know what I was doing. The insistence of the self cannot be put aside.

Q: Do you think poetry has a therapeutic effect, both reading and writing?

A: Both reading and writing, and I would like to emphasize the latter, do help somehow to relieve the pressures one suffers from. There is no denying this to a certain extent, I would say. Speaking out one’s innermost thoughts eases one. And yet, once you have finished with a poem and it is there in front of you, printed and placed well in a book or a journal, you somehow come to realise that the poem is an illusion; it is no more the reality that prompted you to write the poem. So what do you do? You are back again where you started. The poem is but a symbol of your own life; you know it is not real. A few more years and there is only the ash of your poem left behind. But I suppose one is always grateful to have had the experience to write a poem. It gives you unmistakably another level of experience. I mean, it also purges you to live your life a little differently. This is not very apparent at first but the push towards a different direction that your life might take is there.

Q: In your recent piece in The Hindu, one of India’s largest English-language newspapers, you emphasised the political angle to poetry, which you feel the younger generation is seriously lacking. By this do you suggest that a poet should take a stand?

A: It’s just not the question of taking a stand by poets. Of course, in The Hindu I spoke about the total absence of the social or political angle in most poets. This does not generally happen with our regional language writers. By this I did not mean that a poet has to be a “political poet” just as one can become a “love poet” or a “historical poet” or an “economical poet”. What is needed is that poetry should have the freedom to express, in any way appropriate to it, the diversity of human experience. A poet is a poet by virtue of what he sees. We may take this further to say that a poet is responsible to his conscience, to his sense of what is right or wrong, that comes from both knowledge and judgement. It comes from the poet’s justification to think. To locate the relation of poetry to social action is difficult. Frankly, it would be more satisfying for me as a human being to work with the Missionaries of Charity, for example, than to sit down and write a sorry poem at midnight about what ails the country and my neighbour.

But as I said, poetry has the right to judge. I feel I have the right to make such a statement. One can infer that our right to judge is urged by the servile ways of our politicians, who must flatter their electorate. However, the right to judge carries some amount of danger with it. When we, as poets, watch the game of politics, we are spectators-and this can distort our vision in certain ways. So a great danger we encounter, as poets away from direct participation in the affairs of the community, is that we take ourselves easily as the guardians of moral purity. I can always proclaim: Politics is dirty and the government is corrupt, but I as a poet am clean; my aims are beyond reproach. This I feel is wrong. It leads to a sort of vanity in the poet, an arrogance. I remember three lines from one of my own poems, which say:

Any time my Government breaks its promises,
A line of this poem
Is dragged along the wide, clean streets of New Delhi . . .

Perhaps this is an example of what I was trying to refer to, i.e., of my own stand as a guardian of moral behaviour. In stating this, don’t I seem to suffer from a small sense of guilt-a guilt our educated middle class carries with it almost all the time? And yet, I believe no world would exist unless poetry, out of all the arts, creates it for us.

Q: Much of your later work concerns the futility of writing poetry in the face of human suffering. You draw on political and social events in India and elsewhere, including Kosovo and Africa, noting in Bare Face, “Poetry is not even sure / what it is trying to turn from”. Do poets have a responsibility to engage the world around them?

A: If you are talking about the responsibility of a poet, I think the poet cannot simply say: ‘I have none. I am just devoted to my writing.’ He cannot put it aside, because the poet is engaged, all the time, with ideology, whether he admits it to himself or not. His final responsibility-by this, I mean of what he has gotten at last through his years of continuous work-is peace. It is the poet’s bone. Maybe that’s what the poet would do, to keep on gnawing his grief to the bone, for peace. I don’t know if what I am saying makes sense, but one simply can’t shut one’s eyes to what is happening around him, here and in the outside world. It is a time of long suffering we are going through; we cannot deny this, even when science and technology have united the world. And poetry, it talks about feeling and the truth of feeling. One has to say what one feels-that is the poet’s primary responsibility. This is what we have to do in our poetry. It seems to me one can’t write poetry in isolation. If you shut yourself off, you make yourself barren, sterile. Poetry talks through discourse. We must realize that.

Q: In other words, are you suggesting that poetry should turn toward contemporary crises and pain?

A: I feel it’s but natural that poetry should inscribe contemporary crises and pain. Let’s talk about India. Or Orissa, for that matter. We are an extremely poor and backward state, with almost half of our people living impoverished lives, especially in the mountainous regions to the west. On the other hand, Orissa has had a rich, mystical culture in the past. How does one reconcile this fact that even after more than fifty years of independence our villagers have to sell their daughters for a few measures of rice in order to survive? Between one place and another, between my life and that of a Kalahandi villager, from inhabitant to inhabitant, there are profound differences. So one of the purposes of poetry would be to write about these things. And about corruption, injustice, and maladministration. Maybe the future of Indian literature is not separate from the future of world literature which in turn is inseparable from the future of man. And then, here in India we are facing the crisis of religious intolerance as well. There are serious caste problems, too. All this brings in a lot of pain for the feeling being. And literature has to feed on this in order to create. And whether they are wrested from life with purpose or passively encountered on the way, these experiences will certainly mould the writer’s ideas for the writing of poetry.

Q: No wonder there is so much of suffering in your poetry. The pain of your age comes through your poetry so sharply. Would we be right if we said that you feel you are living in a painful age?

A: I suppose any sensitive person would feel the same way I do. If I have a pained heart, it is because I feel I am living in an age of distress. It is because we have gone through long periods of disillusionment, without anything happening after 1947 to improve the standards of living in our remote villages. This is especially true of Orissa. This I know first-hand, because I do visit these villages and see for myself. It’s not hearsay. What goes on in the name of development such as the building of dams and industries, for instance, usurps a lot of land from its original inhabitants who have had both an economic and spiritual attachment to it that goes back to the beginning of time. So my poetry probably responds with a sense of grimness and suffering.

Q: In “Possessions”, from Shadow Space, you write of poets, “In pain perhaps / they stand inside, but cannot / yet slam the door of their voice.” Later in “June Rain”, you as a poet wrestle with your “unwillingness / to say those words that the tragedy of chaos demands”. Do you see poetry as caught in the tension between a revulsion at the world and an obligation to respond artfully or sympathetically to it?

A: Poetry is expected to make sense of life. If I find it in fragments, wrought with tensions, I try to talk about it in the best way I can. I realise it is fairly easy to leave it that way in the poems I write. At the bottom, I am an average, confused man without solutions for the ills of living. What else can one do but mirror what one sees in a helpless kind of way? And poetry too, which is the fate of life, perhaps finds itself caught between a sort of disgust for the world and a responsibility to respond to it. An act of unstable equilibrium, perhaps. And this poetry turns out to be an art absolutely for its own sake; the fear of writing it is really what makes me write.

Q: Let’s turn back to some of your earlier work, which on the surface seems less political. Much of it is experimental but offering a strange simplicity. “Woman” reads in its entirety: “Even / when she is / Even / when she is not.” Would it be wrong to say that you started as a love poet?

A: I think putting a label on a poet because of the subjects he or she has covered in the poems is illogical. Because most poets write from their inner doubts and anxieties, would they be called “anxiety-poets”? The poem you quote appears now to be a clever exercise to me. I cannot call it a love poem. It has a form, yes, but it rests on a few words. There is a concealed menace in the poem, if I can call it a poem. I would never write such a thing now, because it doesn’t seem to have a voice in it. I hope you see what I mean.

Q: The long poem Temple deals entirely with Shakti, the feminine principle which you have personified in the story of Chellamal, a childless eighty-year-old woman who commits suicide along with her eighty-five-year-old husband. Have India’s Hindu myths found contemporary resonance for you?

A: Talking of Temple, I can’t say exactly how I came to write it. It’s true that a news item in The Times of India made me begin the poem, but I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I’d do this poem as a sort of symbolic journey and lead it into a spiritual realization of human suffering. It is a dream narrative representing the plight of the long-suffering Indian woman. You ask me about Hindu myths going into the poem. The acceptance of tradition, of one’s roots, would in ways I cannot define justify the poetic act. I suppose past and present, man and nature, contribute to the myth which is necessary for survival. Temple, on the surface, may point to the life and times of a woman in Indian society, but it may also go on to suggest the spiritual nature of life’s journey, poetic or actual. And yes, I did use the Hindu myths of the destructive image of the ogress, Putana, to drive in the point that life has to be lived amidst all deceits, cruelties, disguises and contradictions, and that illusion, whether mystical or earthy, might help to save man from ultimate despair.

Q: Your poems have been deeply rooted in the Indian landscape, especially Orissa. The architecture and sculpture of Orissa, some of the world’s treasures, have influenced your poems from the beginning.

A: I was born here. I’ve lived here all my life. What else can I write about but the place I belong to? I can only work out my relationships with the world I live in, and with myself, through my poems. So Orissa is the world that holds me; it also strips me naked. Its history is mine. The mango swaying on the boughs is mine. Konarak’s grandeur is mine, the temple’s loneliness is mine. The leper woman dying under a tree with her stumped arms stretched out is mine, too. So I write about these. Don’t think I am being romantic. For this I know: like the mango ripening on the bough, I too am ripening for death.

Q: At times your poetry takes sudden leaps from one point of time to another, for example, from the past to the present and again to the past. Has this been deliberate?

A: Time plays a pivotal role in my poetry. I suppose it is because I have never felt that time is linear, so as you mention there are sudden shifts from the present to the past and vice versa in a number of my poems. Chaos is at the centre of all existence, of matter, both organic and inorganic. Somehow the shifts or leaps, as you say, come naturally to me. Perhaps, that is not the correct way for poems to be written, but I didn’t learn to write the correct poem!

Q: Have all your pangs and unhappiness been assuaged in writing across the years?

A: I don’t think writing can do that. To a certain extent, it helps. When you are in the act of writing, you forget yourself, and that’s that. But writing can’t wipe away your hurts, because poetry celebrates certain aspects of the past, and poetry builds on nostalgia. You cannot wipe the slate of your past clean with poetry or writing.

Q: How far back can you remember?

A: My earliest memory is that of my father rushing into our bedroom of the hostel quarters where we lived and picking me up in his arms to carry me into the open yard of the Nanda Deul temple. I was four. The building was rocking precariously in the earthquake that struck Bihar and Orissa. I do think of this often, and it doesn’t seem real anymore.
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Rabindra K. Swain was born in 1960. He gained an M.A. in English Literature in 1983 and a Ph.D. on the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra in 1995 from Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India. He has published three books of poetry, Once Back Home (Har-Ananda, New Delhi, 1996), A Tapestry of Steps (Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1999), and Severed Cord (Indialog, 2002). He has also published a book of translations from Oriya, Bahubreehi, and a critical work, The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Critical Study (Prestige Books, New Delhi, 2000). His poetry has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Verse, New Letters, and Quarterly West, among others.

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