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Jan 9, 2013

Jayant Mahapatra

Though the feminist writer claims ‘women are one half of the sky’ but history witnesses anguish and agony of woman. They have been kept away from basic needs and fundamental rights, and their worlds have been confined to home and kitchen. They have been merely treated as an object of sensual satisfaction.

We have plenty of feminist theories postulated by various authors and critics. They aim at ensuring egalitarianism of opportunities and rights for women in all sphere of life. Elizabeth Barret Browning, a Victorian poetess who said in 1845, “England has had many learned women ………. And yet where are the poetesses? ……. And I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none”. The practical application of feminist theories can be best illustrated through George Eliot’s Middle March. Victorian morality made it difficult for Marian Evans to authenticate a fair justice for her work if she projected herself as a woman writer. So, she wrote under male pseudonym George Eliot to ensure the legitimacy and authority essential for her work. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman reiterates that the education of woman is only way to exonerate them from enslavement. Virginia Woolf’s A Room for One’s Own emphasizes economic independence and privacy for women.

Simones’s De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex criticizes subordination and alienation of women by the myth ‘Woman is Man’s Other’.1 Elaine Showalter’s Feminist Criticism In The Wilderness admonishes the muted culture of women and the dominant culture of men. Kamala Das is a ‘representative’ of contemporary Indian feminist concerns. Her demand is to sink cultural difference such as region, religion and class. Her poem, An Introduction’ is an archetypal symbol of women’s predicaments.

Abovementioned are female authors and their raising of voice for women is natural and birthdom. But the role of Mahapatra in highlighting pathetic conditions of women cannot be ignored. The plight of women is part and parcel of his poetry and it captures chunk of his theme. He delineates them in all shapes and figures. In terms of Madhusadan Prasad:

“Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetic world is doubtless scattered singularly with various images of wives, beloveds, whores, seductresses, village women, city women and adolescent girls, having deeply significant metaphoric evocations and spotlighting his tragic vision of life to which he is essentially committed. …………….Demonstrating his vital poetic strategy and dimensionalising his deep humanism as well as his overriding thematic obsessions, Mahapatra’s images of women indubitably form a tonal chord central to the mood of his poems”.

Mahapatra has a great reverence and veneration for women who are primordial symbol of suffering and sacrifice. He also confides in mythical saying, “Wherever Women are revered Gods dwell there.” He views:

Our minds were tied to the myth
That womanhood was pure, one
With the repose of the gods.

But, at the same time, he is profoundly perplexed at perpetual and perennial problem pertaining to women. He discloses his disappointment and disgruntlement in this way:

“Perhaps, the status of the Indian Women in our society today has gone down. It is pathetic indeed to read accounts of the degradation our women subjected to in the daily newspapers. Cases of rape, murder, mutilation continue to fill the pages, and one sits helplessly, feeling this pain one is not able to do anything about…..I can see the pain in the eyes of women as they pass by the road every day; their seems to say: we are the beast of the burden, like cattle. It is about this pain I would like to write because I can’t do anything else”.

Though we may be a devout devotees of women divinities but when it comes to assisting the damsels in distress and desolation we deter ourselves from our deeds. What to speak of common women, we did not spare even the Goddess Sita from passing through ordeal and severe trial where she is asked by husband the God Rama to pass the “Agni Pariksha” to prove her chastity after she is released from abduction by the great monster Ravana. Draupdi, the wife of five Pandavas, is disrobed by Dushysana in the presence of all courtiers and stalwarts. We have copious example of such extent in our history and myth. And same is the plight of ordinary women in their conventional and customary lives. Mahapatra presents pen portrait position of Indian women:
Surrounded by the rough noose
of ownership, to feel
A sort of dutifulness
in the quiet bait of blood;
frightened, frail of paper
like an origami crane in the wind.
While the man says:
it’s the same story. The same one
we’ve heard a thousand times.

Women are acute sufferer of gender biasing. They are neglected and marginalized at both cultural and biological levels. At the one hand their life is restricted to house and kitchen; to look after the children husband and others. On the other hand they are only meant to quench the carnal crave of men. Mahapatra succinctly sums up deploring and muted state of Indian women in the poem “Dawn”:

There is a dawn which travels alone,
Without the effort of creation, without puzzle.
It stands simply, framed in the door, white in the air:
An Indian woman, piled up to her silences
Waiting for what the world will only let her do.

The news of most secret is made open secret. There is no privacy and secrecy for women. The state of attaining puberty and adolescence is celebrated with fabulous festivities and fanfares. We let the whole world know that a girl of sweet-sixteen is ripened in her sexuality and sensuality. Mahapatra’s astonishment appears in this way:
Two aunts, a distant cousin
like a ghost of her disapproving mother,
their genial grins as though redeemed
by unchanging village ways,
mouths scarlet with paan juice,
they recite tales
to the glowing limbs of Chelammal.

Mahapatra presents pulchritudinous portrait of women struggling for their identity. They lead a meaningless and futile life. There is nothing but darkness all around them. The life is a living hell for them and they are bound to survive amidst sorrows and difficulties. They are mired in the mud of this mundane mayhem:

In the darkened room
a woman
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.

Above listed lines are possibly maiden of Mahapatra poetic career and he gave them title of ‘A Missing Person’. It is autographical in tone and temperament. To his own confession:

“And the picture of my mother, swathed in sari, holding on to the oil lamp in the shadows, the sooty flame swaying in the breeze, seemed to establish itself firmly in my mind.

Strangely, these evenings stayed as though carved of black and polished bone. An inexplicable loneliness linked itself with the sad-eyed oil lamp of my mother. They came to mean the same thing to me. Coupled with this was the frustrating, numbing pity felt for my cousin who was battered by frequent beatings from her drunken husband”.

The intention and context of writing this poem is further corroborated by his conversation with authoress Neeru Tandon. The poet clarifies:

“Married woman doesn’t see her image in the mirror, when she looks she cannot find her features. Yes, it is loss of identity. A man was used to come drunk and; here of course I have taken it from a real incident, he used to beat his wife in front of me; I mean it happened in my house. I had a cousin who used to come late in the evenings and I would open the door because I was there; he would come and beat his wife; I saw it as a mere spectator, so these things affected me”.

The word ‘women’ is considered as a metaphor of sacrifice and suffering. There desire and fate is destined by men. They are compelled to surrender against willful and stubborn desire of men. Mahapatra observes:

And the women
not answering to their names any more
and usually lying like unexpected lakes
deep within the wooded hills
break their calm surfaces
like wild water snakes
let loose from the yearly floods

We have another example of woman being treated as a device of sex. In this regard comment of Madhusudan Prasad is plausible: “women who is helpless and, therefore, eternally, ‘Each night” exploited as a sex object by man to bury his ‘hurt’ inside her”1. In the poem “Idyll” Mahapatra writes:

And something in a woman’s eyes tempts confessions
From her husband as they stretch out to sleep.
A time never lost, rising as a mist, that floats upon

Women feel insecure and unsafe away from home. Wherever they go, evil and vulgar eyes of men stare at their sensuous limbs. They confront indecent and indecorous truant of men at public and non-public places. Mahapatra illustrates an instance of a shopkeeper staring in a lecherous way at woman who goes to shop to purchase four kilo of rice:
Two big-arsed
Srikakulam women
nude hunger in eyes
fans himself in the lethargy of his dream.

Mahapatra soul is seriously shattered at the misery of women. They make their presence felt even in their absence and they remain to resonate and reverberate in his rhythmic rhyme. He aptly recapitulates:

When she is
When she is not
But about above lines different critics have different opinions as S. K. Desai comments: “Nothing clearly emerges for the two clauses without complements, one positive and the other negative. It is the parallelism of the clauses, along with the semantic linking of woman. ‘She’ and ‘she’ that create some teasing ripples of floating feelings without substance.”

The following lines of the poem “The Stranger My Daughter” deserve avid reading and multiple interpretations:
My precious golden daughter
looks out through the glass
I nail two damp eyes to the door
and the while
the waiting draws me down
Drums beating under the earth
tremble her taut skin
there is a sun we know of
there are
the secret spasms to reason
Juices from my daughter’s body
are filling the noisy hives

To start with, the poem is an another example of encroachment on the freedom of women as father keeps close tabs on the activities of the juvenile and prepubescent daughters or it also signifies safety concerns of the parents for their growing daughters against the evil eyes of frivolous and wanton boys. This is possibly one of the reason, the parents of today don’t desire a daughter as a child. Or parents may be right in his way by not allowing adequate freedom to daughters who have broken the heart of numerous parents by indulging themselves in pre- nuptial and extra-marital activities or daughter remain unnecessary burden on their parents till they get married. So, the parents breath a sigh of relief by transferring their burdens to their husbands.

The Indian culture and tradition is based on forbidding myth and superstition. The men have been demonical dominance over women. The former have formulated fictitious and filthy rules and rituals keeping in mind their own comfort, convenience and decadent life style at the cost of torment and exploitation of the latter. It is a sheer injustice that a widower can remarry but a widow can’t, a widower can put on all kind of clothes and garments but a widow will robe only in white, a widower can relish omnivorous status but a widow will be a pure vegetarian and so on. Widower keeps on executing and fulfilling his all wishes and desires unabatedly but on widow a shackle of culture and convention is unleashed to bear bleak and barren life. Mahapatra writes widows woes thus:
Silent white walls of forbearance sit up
And begin to climb the stairs
Of her long inauspicious loneliness

The poet further delineates how a sex hungry man adds a woe to the worries of a widow:

Like jackals, malicious women around her,
sniffing the smell of the left over death,
feed on her scandalous intestines
through rain and summer, the spectacle or order,
through unreality and beguiling concern.

The poet is very much upset about the uncultured behaviour and moral depravity of Indian women. We hardly learn good things from western culture but don’t demur to discriminately imitate grey aspects of them. School, college and office going girls and women feel shame and inferiority in wearing traditional garments and clothes but they feel elated and elevated in making themselves naked and stripped to the extreme and, perhaps, this is one of the reasons of burgeoning incidents of eve teasing as such robes stir the stagnant and volcanic lust and passion of men. So, in sheer frustration, Mahapatra asks rhetorical question ‘what is wrong with my country?’ in the poem “The Twentyfifth Anniversary of a Republic”:

What is wrong with my country?
the jungles have become gentle, the woman restless.
and history reposes between the college girl’s breasts :
the exploits of warrior-queens, the pride pieced together
from a god’s tainted armours ………….
Mina, my pretty neighbour, flashes round and
round the gilded stage
hiding jungles in her purse, holding on to her divorce,
and a lonely Ph.D.

The poem, “Hunger” is one of the best examples of the circumstances which compel women to adopt the profession of prostitution. A fisherman who is poor and penniless, doesn’t hesitate to bargain the flesh of fifteen years old daughter. The poet wants to emphasize that numerous such incidents take place in our society where innocent and adolescent girls are dumped into this trade. It exposes stark reality of our contemporary society and independent India:

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. Felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside.

With the onset of evening, the common people finish their jobs but it is the time when whores come into activity. Having dressed beautifully, they flaunt on the road to woo the customers. In the poem “Slum” Mahapatra depicts:
The familiar old whore on the road
splits open in the sugary dusk,
her tired breasts trailing me everywhere :
where jackals find the rotting carcass

In his book “Dispossessed Nest” Mahapatra transcends from Oriyanness to Indianness. He crucially condemns raping and killing of innocent and naïve women by the terrorists in Punjab. In the long poem, “Bewildered Wheatfields” he writes:
Now a man knows only two ways
for dealing with a stray woman
he rapes her
and he kills her.

Even sanctum sanctorum is not devoid of heinous and atrocious activities. Every now and then the news of eve teasing flashes. We have another example of fourteen-year fisher girl, not for prostitution this time, but now being raped by petulant and perverted son of careless priest. Nevertheless, instead of bringing to book the rapist and helping to the victim, the latter is repeatedly raped by four policemen in the police station. On the one hand Mahapatra questions the viability and sanctity of temple and on the other hand condemns corrupt and promiscuous posture of police administration. In the poem “The Lost Children of America” he exposes:
In the Hanuman Temple last night
the priest’s pomaded jean-clad son
raped squint-eyed fourteen-year fishergirl
on the cracked stone platform behind the shrine
and this morning
her father found her at the police station
assaulted over and over again by four policemen
dripping of darkness and of scarlet death.

Mahapatra has made an ironical comment on the functioning of the government machinery and police administration. One and only cause of prostitution is poverty and this profession can be uprooted by eliminating poverty, by implementing rehabilitation programs, by providing free food and education to their children and by employing them on some jobs. In spite of taking such measures and initiatives, the government issues license to the women indulging in the flesh-trading and that further aggravates their wounds. Police nabs and persecute those prostitutes who are not in the possession of license and to get rid of police they envisage different lame excuses as a young boy does to escape evil acts from his parents. Moreover, the only source of income and livelihood for prostitutes are their flesh and skin, and with the rolling of the days, weeks, months and years, their charms and appearance gets faded and they keep on loosing customers. So, to hide their age and looks they go in the shelter of cosmetic illusion. Mahapatra writes in “The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of a Republic: 1975”:
The prostitutes are younger this year:
At the police station they’re careless to give reasons
For being what they are
And the older women careful enough not to show their years.

Mahapatra has depicted both the prostitute and client in professional and commercial way. On the one hand the prostitute is in the hot haste to attend another customer because, firstly, this is only means of her sustenance. Whatever amount she gets, only a small part of that remains with her and a great chunk is devoured and extorted by the touts and the pimps. Secondly, she might have fed up with monotonous and wearisome sex, so she doesn’t show curiosity and involvement with the clients. On the other hand, the client, tired and fatigued with the jobs of the day or not in good terms with his wife or miles away from home, family, wife and children to earn bread and butter, visits and pays the whore to have a kind of enlightenment and refreshment; a play and foreplay before the final play. In the poem “The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street”, the poet describes:
You fall back against her in the dumb light,
trying to learn something more about women---
while she does what she thinks proper to please you,
the sweet, the little things, the imagined;
until the statute of the man within
you’ve believed in throughout the years
comes back to you, a disobeying toy---
and the walls you wanted to pull down
mirror only of things mortal, and passing by;
like a girl holding on to your wide wilderness;
as though it were real, as though the renewing voice
tore the membrane of your half-woken mind
when, like a door, her words close behind:
“Hurry, will you? Let me go.”
and her lonely breath thrashed against your kind.

In the poem “Absence”, We have another instance of communication but indirect one between the client and the whore where the former though with guilty conscience, pledge to exploit and consummate the flesh of the latter by optimal degree:
When the windows shut down on your thighs
my hands quiver with the glances of my thousand eyes
as your long eyes touch my paid-out pain
and i revenge the presence from your presence.

Mahapatra poetry deftly demonstrates the weal and woes of women. It incorporates various vice and virtues associated with them. He comes out with a solution for the pain and predicament they are confronted with. He makes use of the legend of ogress Putna for this very purpose. Afraid of prophecy of being killed by the God Krishna, the mammoth monster Kansa sends the ogress Putna to assassinate the incarnated child Krishna. As illusive she was, she metamorphosed herself into a beautiful and motherly figure. She smeared venom on her breasts and offered milk to the child. The children Krishana sucked and soaked her up to death. If we go by the myth and the scripture, ogress Putna registered ‘Moksha’ or salvation by receiving the death at the hands of the god Krishna because she offers two things simultaneously: evil and good; hemlock and nectar; venom and milk; for the former she is penalized death and for playing the role of mother, she is awarded ‘Moksha’. The poet writes:
And now the ogress
transformed into a lovely woman
her poisoned nipples
the moksha-centre of her own martyrdom………….

The poet want to substantiate that as Putna achieved salvation by virtue of her own acts, the women can also keep their sufferings at bay only by their own deeds i.e. their redemption solely subsists on their womanhood. Otherwise they were, they are and they will be bearing the burnt of man made manacle.

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