A Thematic Study of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poems
Bijay Kand Dubey
Jayanta Mahapatra is one of those poets of modern Indian English poetry whose bases are one of physics and the physicist-poet taking liberties with imagery, photography, penciled silhouette and word-play rather than literature, one of light and shade, astronomy and the origin of the universe, shadow space and random descent rather than poetical meaning and interpretation. As swayamvara and indradhanush words are so are his poetic images, flimsy and frail like the dawn light. His poetry is just like the gossamer and the sunlight falling upon. Why to mean them if these mean it not? As we used to see pictures in kaleidoscopes is the case with his poetry. Man is but a negative photograph. See the negatives and think of his poetry, the images shadowed and blackened. An X-ray plate will be the best answer. He does not write for the sake of meaning to be understood and these poems are not for the Indian readers, but for the foreign audience, as some have opined about his poetry rightly. Poetry as the images of life forms the crux of his poems. What it lies ahead who can but say it? What is it substantial in life? His poetry is a study in nothingness; the void around; a poet of inner and outer vacuum. Where are we going, what are we doing? We don’t know is the answer. What is that lasts it here? Why does the same dawn break, the same twilight, the same morn, the same eve? Where does the light come from flashing? Where does darkness retreat back to finally? The universe is puzzling and life too riddled with uncertainties.
But Jayanta as a poet, it is difficult to take him into our clutch and stride. Though many call him an Oriya first, but he is not, first of all he is a professor of physics and physics his realm of study through which approaches he poetry and poetical studies. Secondly, is an imagist as his poems are studies in imagery, the imagery of nothingness and random descent, the blank space and the vacuum above. Who am I? What my name, my identity? To see it in the Shakespearean terms, ‘Man is a walking shadow.’ And then he is an Oriya or anything else, call him a realist, a feminist or a Nature poet. Apart from these, hunger, poverty, illiteracy, underdevelopment, scarcity, depravity, etc. form the basis of his discussion. Love, sexuality, loneliness and man-woman relationship too twitch him for an expression. A visionary and a dreamer, he derives from art, history, culture and tradition. After we made a tryst with India’s independence, what have we for the women, children and widows? There was a timer when drought, famine and unnatural deaths used to maraud our self and the stories of hunger, depravity, superstition, scarcity and depression used to do the rounds. Now it is the time for reckoning, what have we as for what we had promised? And what have they got, we mean the poor people? What developmental schemes have we for their welfare and development? How much successful are we in their execution? If this be, why are there poverty, unemployment, food problem and so on still? What did Gandhi envisage and dream about and how far have their dreams come true? It is not that Gandhi dreamt one day.
Somewhere it is about the Oriyas and Oriya culture, art and tradition; rocks, stones and trees, somewhere about Puri, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Balasore, somewhere about Jagannath Puri temple, Dhaulagiri and Khandagiri; the Konark Sun-temple, somewhere about the Chilika lake, rivers and bird sanctuaries, somewhere about hunger, moral depravity and scarcity of food, somewhere about sexuality, sensuality and carnal desires, somewhere about flesh and blood contact, man-woman relationship, give and take and attraction and repulsion met in love, somewhere about flesh trade, woman trafficking and body business. It is flesh trade which he deals with in Hunger, it is myth which he trades in Myth, the nameless identity of a rural persona in A Nameless Person, the contrast between faith and doubt in Dawn At Puri. The old father tired of fishing, hurling the nets and gathering them with the retarding muscles sells her teenage fisher girl on the sea beach. How much pathetic and pitiable is the scene? Using the same title he has written so many poems, naming Twilight, Morning, Evening, A Rain of Rites. There are a few on Cuttack, Puri, Bhubaneswar encompassing poems where he has tried to catch the rhythm and beat of the towns throbbing and pulsating and keeping pace with. The architectural splendor of the rock-built temples and the sculptures carved upon, erotic and passionate tell a different tale. The rathyatras of Puri have always delighted him with its festivity and procession, Jagannath, Balabhadra and Krishna going out and returning back after a few days, the grotesque-grotesque bizarre gods and goddesses carved out from wooden logs looking puppet-like and with the ogling eyes. Somewhere the echoes of Vedic and Upanishadic chants going in the temples even by noon or thereafter have always found echoes with his poetry as muffled voices or music from the behind and this is but his Vedism, Upanishadism, the inward love for. Somewhere the hot and perspiring summers, the hot scorching suns, the sun-burnt countryside homes with the mother and the daughter sitting in the mango orchard, fanning and seeing the motherly hair for louse take the canvas from and he gives touches to those aspects which lie undescribed. Finally, where to go leaving Orissa and Orissan landscapes, Orissa the land of his birth, nativity and schooling?
A Nameless Person
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
An Indian village lady tattooed, call her a purdahwalli, ghumtawalli or burkhawalli is the persona depicted in. The tongue cannot click the name of her lord. She passes her days in anonymity just like a persona without a name and identity. A home keeper or a housewife, call we, but she should be with an identity of her own.
With an oil lamp burning into the hands of hers, burning somehow, she keeps waiting or moving to and fro whose drunken flames know it where the body hides. She is feeling sleepy, but instead of keeps waiting for the return of the master.
Dawn At Puri
Endless crow noises
A skull in the holy sands
tilts its empty country towards hunger.
White-clad widowed Women
past the centers 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 fail 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
Dawn at Puri is a poem of faith and doubt stranded on the vast seashore of Puri marking the funeral pyre burning, the black crows crowing, the holy skull lying on the sands, the widows queued up to enter the Great Temple and the lepers scrambling as nameless figures. Crows and the skull picture a world raked by hunger, scarcity, heat, dust and thirst; depravity, mismanagement and trouble. The white-clad women are in rows to enter the temple who have nothing left with them, the eyes looking waterless. What to ask for from the deity, deliverance or something else? The dawn light flashes upon and shifts to, frail and shaky in its presence. The lepers assembled add to the pity and misery of the poem and contrast faith with doubt and suspense. Where actually is faith? Why does God not see it all? Again the dawn light dazzles over the pyre burning on the sands. The sudden blaze lights up the sky and it reminds him of the wish of the mother who too likes it to be cremated here as Puri is the swargadwara. As dawn light is frail and shaky in its presence so is human faith staggering. Nothing is certain here, everything but temporary and transitory.
It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back.
The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly,
trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words
sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself.
I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.
I followed him across the sprawling sands,
my mind thumping in the flesh's sling.
Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in.
Silence gripped my sleeves; his body clawed at the froth
his old nets had only dragged up from the seas.
In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound.
The wind was I, and the days and nights before.
Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack
an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls.
Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind.
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. I felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside.
Hunger as a poem is a poem of not the hunger of the belly, but the hunger of the flesh and blood. What it startles us is this that a father can sell her daughter for money, that is a poor and old fisherman offering his teenage daughter and the author persona taking the privilege of the situation. Here the sensual desires of the poet come to the fore side by side it pictures the poor living conditions and hard works of the seafaring poor folks like those of the fishermen and boatmen braving the winds, waves, surfs, foams and fatal aquatic animals they keep hurling the nets and trying. But here is a tale of an old, retarded, poor and miserable fisherman whose nerves work it not more, nets draw it not to meet up his demands. The poor shack built from haystacks and palm leaves and the soot from the dimly burning oil-lamp add to the description of poverty-stricken lives.
When the father says that she is just fifteen to feel her, the sky falls on him as he leaps towards her undecidedly but with a yearning within to quench the thirst, to extinguish the bodily fire burning him.
Years drift sluggishly through the air:
a chanting, the long years, an incense.
Face upon face returns to the barbed horizons
of the foggy temple; here lies
a crumpled leaf, a filthy scarlet flower
out of placeless pasts, on the motionless stairs.
Old brassy bells
moulded by memories, dark, unfulfilled,
to make the year come back again --
a recurring prayer.
The stairs seem endless, lifelong,
and those peaks too, Annapurna, Dhaulagiri;
uncertain, impressive as gods.
I dare not go
into the dark, dank sanctum
where the myth shifts
swiftly from hand to hand, eye to eye.
The dried, sacrificed flowers smile at me.
I have become;
a diamond in my eye
Vague grieving years pit against
the distant peaks
like a dying butterfly
as a bearded, saffron-robed man
asks me, firmly:
Are you a Hindu?
Myth as a poem is not a myth of Orissa, but of ancient India, its thought and tradition, the snow-capped mountains and forested where meditated it the sadhus and yogis, into the caves turning years into penance, winning over the self. When we read the poem, the mystery of the caps and the myth of the yogis in sadhna do the rounds. The temples resounding with chanting and prayer add incense like aroma to it. But the crumpled leaves and flowers too have a song to sing. Why to pluck them for mere faith, ravish their beauty? The poet does not want to enter the temple, climb up as the bearded, saffron-robed man asks him if he is a Hindoo and here lies in the truth that he is a Christian convert.
The poem is one such which can even fail the mythical ones by William Butler Yeats as is the poetic quality of the lines. None can describe the mystery of the snow-capped peaks and caves and the myth of age-old meditation in such a way as he has taking in the old brassy bells and its tolls.
Over the soughing of the sombre wind
priests chant louder than ever.
the mouth of India opens :
Crocodiles move into deeper waters.
The good wife
lies on my bed
through the long afternoon;
dreaming still, not exhausted
by the deep roar of funeral pyres.
Peculiarly private and personal, he takes to in his typical way of reflection. When the somber wind keeps soughing, the priests of India chant louder. The mouth of India opens at that time when heat and dust parch it up, the earth burns, the blazing summer with the Mercury soars up and even during that time, rituals continue on. The priests can be seen praying, chanting mantras. Crocodiles move into deeper waters. People take a siesta during the summer noon. The sun blazes it hot and it becomes difficult to stand under the sun. The good wife lies he by his bed dreaming and oblivious of the pyres burning far and the choric voices unto in a muffled reverberation.
Jayanta Mahapatra is not a poet whose poetry is pleasurable and joy-giving and instead of taxes and waylays us. To read him is not to feel free. There is very much of nothingness, existentialism, nihilism in him which but we know it not, the drama of the absurd. This life is a waiting and we keep for the turn of things. Where we are going, what are we doing, we know it not. What is it false, what is it real, how to say it as the things keep swapping positions and places? The shape of the things continues to change and situations are not alike in the duration of time envisaged. Everything is but a matter of time, time all-powerful, all-pervasive.
The twilight falling on the hospital panes, just as a pale flare, lighting up and picturing the children’s ward and the mothers sad and dejected wailing for the loss is scenic otherwise as it twitches us with a note of dejection. Again the same takes to a different recourse allowing the jasmines to crack open and bloom and spread sweet redolence all but in hide. Let us mark the images that lie in contrast.
An orange flare
lights the pale panes of the hospital
in a final wish of daylight.
It's not yet dark.
In the children’s ward
under a mother's face
the dead, always so young.
Water startles in the river's throat.
a plea to share in its curse?
Somewhere, this twilight shall fall
and hide the whiteness of jasmines about to bloom.
in the houses across the street
make me look out at the wet August evening
that holds up the vast unknown
in such small delicate hands.