Home Feature “I am bound, and yet I am free!”

“I am bound, and yet I am free!”

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By Dr Sanjeev Chopra

This is a tribute from the Valley of Words to India’s foremost bilingual poet (in English and Odiya) Jayanta Mahapatra, who passed away in Cuttack at the grand age of ninety-five on August 27. This year’s Poetry café at VoW will be a celebration of his works: participants will get to hear the renditions  of his poems, and also present their verses to him.

Indian writing in English was not offered as an optional paper in my college (1976) and most of the faculty, with the solitary exception of OP Khurana, were convinced that while Shakespeare was the gold standard, Milton could also be read for his Paradise series. Wordworth, Byron, Tennyson, Keats and Shelly offered good ‘quotations’ to embellish our texts but the twentieth century poets, including Elliot, Auden, Thomas and Plath did not really have the grasp over the Queen’s lexicon. They were not included in our graduate course which was heavily loaded in favour of the bard’s plays: Merchant of Venice, Tempest, Othello, Midsummer Night’s Dream and classics by Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Oscar Wilde was far too wild, and Kipling was ignored, because of his Indian origins and Indian themes. One plausible reason was that because of the two world wars, and the ferment of Indian nationalism, the syllabus of English teaching in India remained frozen in the first decade of the previous century. All this should have changed at the dawn of Independence, but the focus on linguistic states, and the virulent ‘Remove English campaign’ in some Hindi speaking states in the fifties and sixties put English pedagogy on the backfoot. In the Northern states, English  was  considered ‘foreign’ and Indian writers in English were treated as ‘nowhere children’ in popular discourse. The situation was different in the South and the West, where English was juxtaposed against the imposition of Hindi. Therefore, we in Punjab read all the contemporary poets outside of the syllabus – and our professor recommended Jayant Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Dom Moraes and AK Ramanujam – in fact, Jayant Mahapatra’s book ‘Swayamvara and other Poems’ (Writers Workshop. Calcutta) was given to me as a prize for achieving distinction in the university examination. Since then, one has tried to keep pace with his poetic oeuvre.

A few words about the poet for the millennials before we delve into some of my favourite verses! Born on October 22, 1928, in Cuttack, Odisha, Jayanta Mahapatra belonged to a lower middle-class family. He understood quite early that good education was the only instrument at his command to overcome his familial circumstances. So, he worked hard at the Stewart School, Cuttack, where he enjoyed physics more than poetry, obtaining his masters in the first division after which he taught at different government colleges of Odisha from 1949 to 1986. But though physics was his profession, poetry was his calling, although it was not till his mid-thirties that he made a serious tryst with poetry. The contemporary English poetry scene in India of the time was centred around Bombay, Calcutta and Madras as the three metros were then called, and his first offerings were rejected  by Indian magazines and papers till they found acceptance in Boundary, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Poetry International, Poetry(Chicago), The Sewanee Review and the Georgia. By the early eighties, recognition came from Indian publications and the English departments of Indian universities as well. He was able to ‘capture’ India as few poets could in any language: he had a keen sense of observation as well as of history and context.

Writes Sachidanand Mohanty, who worked closely with him, ‘The deprivations of his childhood, of which he got a glimpse from his grandfather’s diaries, had a major influence on him. Mahapatra’s poems carry ancestral memories, tinged with pathos. His grandfather’s diary dating back to the great famine of Odisha of 1866 remained his prized possession. Forced to convert to Christianity due to starvation, his grandfather had left behind a document that was both history and memory, a “scroll of despair”. It prompted him to write a poem titled “Grand Father” that first appeared in The Sewanee Review. Its opening lines go: “The yellow diary’s notes whisper in vernacular/They sound the forgotten posture/ The cramped cry that forces me to hear that voice/ Now I stumble in your black-paged wake.” The journal comes alive – it is as if it is an interactive artefact from a museum of living history.

Take another poem: Dawn at Puri: “Endless crow noises/A skull on the holy sands/ tilts its empty country toward hunger./White-clad widowed women/ past the centres 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 frail 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”.

This poem is graphic, it is gripping, it is personal, it is philosophical, it is Vedantic and it is almost as if one is right there, in the vicinity of the Jagannath Temple at a time when most of Orissa and Bengal were mired in extreme poverty, and physical survival itself was at stake. This is not the picture of Jagannath today, and so this poem could have been written only when it was written, and it speaks about faith, widowhood, death, light and crow sounds – all in the course of a hundred words.

His best-known poem, “Relationship”, won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1981: he was the first Indian English poet to receive the honour. He recalled later that “Relationship” was “in many ways memorable for me, because it grew out of my dream memories of a past life, the past life of my land as well as mine. In that sense it was memory which built the poem, forcing me to go into my past, and then delivering me from it’. From then to now, Indian writing in English is a celebrated genre, so much so that it is often accused of occupying prime space in literature festivals and popular magazines to the exclusion of Bhashas of Bharat.

And, finally, let us hear what it means to be a poet in his own words:

“A poet is a poet by virtue of what he sees or hears. Living as I do, beside a crowded road lined with shops, there is always something going on around me, and I am witness to things both trivial and catastrophic. There is no crisis here, just everyday happenings; but as sentient, thinking creatures what matters to us is life, which urges us to see beyond what we see.” “Poetry”, he continued, “has always been a calling for me. That it could be some sort of career; no, never. It has sustained my life in ways I cannot describe. It has left me in a space to which I am bound and yet free.”