A Rain of Rites by Jayanta Mahapatra
By: Bijay Kant Dubey
A Rain of Rites is one of the best poetry-collections of Jayanta Mahapatra to be have been authored, taking him to the pedestals of international name and fame, really a standard overseas presentation, an admirable one for an Indian writer of verse. Dawn is the first poem with which the collection opens and we get attuned to the Mahapatrian imagery and word-play which is so easily available in his poetry. A Wordsworth reveling into the landscapes of solitary silence, strange quietude and solitude, he tells the things of Orissa. Village is the second to follow Dawn, really an excellent piece from him. Thereafter, the poems included in it, as such, Old Palaces, These Women, A Missing Person, Samsara, Five Indian Songs, A Rain of Rites, A Rain, The Exile, Listening, Summer, Ceremony, Main Temple Street, Puri, The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street, The Sentence, A Twilight Poem, Appearances, Myth, Four Rain Poems, A Dead Boy, Moving, Silence, Dawn at Puri, Listening to a Prayer, Sunburst, On the Bank of the Ganges, Girl Shopping in a Department Store, A Tree, Indian Summer Poem, The Ruins, Evening, Idyll, The Bare Arms in Packing Cases, Ikons, I Hear My Fingers Sadly Touching an Ivory Key, Somewhere, My Man, Hunger, An Old Country, The Desert under the Breath, Hands, Of Armour, This Stranger, My Daughter, India, The Landscape of Return, The Face, Faces, The Tattooed Taste and Now When We Think of Compromise.
Certainly, his is not an Indian view of life, but an alien insider writing the poems of such a verve and substance that one will think that these are not for the Indian reader and audience, but the foreigners and the international readers. The Indians may not understand as their faculties not so reasonable and logical, advanced and linguistical. Jayanta Mahapatra’s English is that of a Christian missionary’s, but the difference is in it that instead of being a convert Christian he has not on Christian matters, but confuses us with his Hindu view of life and physicist observations. This is for such a quality that he got his recognition in the West before being here. No other poet has understood Indian philosophy, economy and sociology as he has in his poetry. In the beginning when one tries to take, one may not like, but when one reads with his faculties open one will so lovingly.
A Rain of Rites as a title for the whole series of poems included in it tells of a strange stillness, quietude, solitude rarely to be come across elsewhere scenic with the Indian country with mud-built houses scattered across a vast stretch of land, rivers, hills and trees, the landscape painted against the mythic past. A coastal state of the rains and rites, dotting it, it has a tale of own to tell, narrate and annotate. It is better to see his verses rather than studying for meaning, laying them bare. There is a strange serenity to be marked in the poems.
Not the rains, but the rain of rites takes on frequently. The poet seeks to know who the first man was to whom the old cloud brought the blood to his face. There is nothing o take the rains or the rites seriously, as he takes to them privately for personal reflections. Ikons is extraordinarily beautiful as he takes to the Shiva lingam rarely described so far. We do not anyone who can in such a way as he has penetrated into our psyche and ethos joining through the myth of idolatry and breaking through iconoclasm.
A poet of dawns and twilights he marvels us with his falling light and imagery. Where does it break from and retreat back to, is a mystery and there is no answer to it to resolve it. The poems of Jayanta Mahaptara are pictures and portraits drawn in silence and solitude on the canvas of nihilism and iconoclasm. What we say right, is it really? What we say wrong, is it really?
Let us see Dawn:
Out of the dark it whirls back
into a darkly mysterious house.
Is it the earth within?
Does it keep us waking, give brief respite?
Like a hard crossword puzzle
it sets riddles crowding against one another:
the thunders trailing around hatchet-faced banana leaves,
a front gate limp with dew,
the acid sounds of a distant temple bell,
the wet silent night of a crow that hangs in the first sun.
Is the dawn only a way through such strange terrain?
The frenzy of noise, which a silence recalls
through companions lost, things suddenly found?
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.
(A Rain of Rites, Jayanta Mahapatra, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1976, p.1)
Dawn as a poem is scenic and picturesque, landscapic and beautiful. With the break of the dawn, there conjure up the images, of the sunlight falling, dazzling, glistening and glowing, the crows flying, temple bells tinkling, silence recalling the frenzy of a noise.
The poet does it marvels with the half-said statements keeping this stanza or that stanza. The last two lines of the poem tell another story which is but Indian, feminine, rural and matriarchal lying suppressed and oppressed under the hegemony of the patriarchs. The hawks of the society will let her live a life of own.
To annotate and analyze the poetic lines of Jayanta Mahapatra is to destroy the beauty of his poems; to critique and make a criticism of as it is difficult to paraphrase and penetrate his vision.
In the poem, Listening to a Prayer, the poet says that stone cuts deep and with it the stories of the gods and goddesses carved out do the rounds. In the temple square the wind has nowhere to go rather than settling on his shoulders. Dawn at Puri is a tense poem of a somber mood and refection. The shifting sands and the shifting shadows with the swapping faith and doubt take the space of the poet. In the poem entitled Moving, the poet depicts a ten-armed Durga framed in the mythic past and carried away by some twenty-four tired men. A group of Brahmans singing the song while the tar keep melting along the lane. Dumb silence of a god’s curved eye directed like a pilgrimage is the attraction of the poem.
Jayanta Mahapatra has a unique style of relating to the Hindu philosophy of life. Rarely has a poet penetrated Indian religion and philosophy as has questionably. He has the disbelief as well as logic to contradict the base of our tradition. As Aldous Huxley says in Benares and George Orwell in his essay on Gandhi so is Jayanta Mahapatra in his questioning of faith and doubt. Why is faith so revered? Why not to give points to doubt? Let us think of the time when faith was not.
In the poem Samsara applying iconoclasm he tells the tales of this samsara, what was it before, what is it in the present and what will it be in future. This is samsara, here lies it maya-moha and bairagya, birth and death and the transmigration of the soul. With the onset of the autumn festivity starts and the resurrected gods anointed. Somewhere a Brahman priest waits haughtily by the temple doors. A prayer falls to wander around the deserted targets of the soul. Offerings of marigolds, fruit and shaven heads stare like terrified men and the slow stone surges to flame. And a man begins to begin in the centre of the past as sees no end to it. Here the poet seems to be referring to endless cycle of birth and death.
What the philosophers and spiritualists fail to penetrate he has caught all that in his poetry the essence of Hinduism and the Hindu view of life. Black ikons as a word refers to antique statues found during excavations from the debris of the temples or the mounds of the earth dug out. Many of them are in museums, as for example, of Radha and Krishna, Nataraja Shiva, Kali and Buddha. But here the Shiva linga is the centre of focus.
Ikons as a poem can be taken into consideration:
a museum of symbols
silence the land.
still blot out the hills.
the sacred plant in a Hindoo home,
cow and scabbed stone,
a dark rock of answers and air.
What else can the face of crowds show?
Among them a father stands,
looking around, like a hill.
Then, mumbling to himself,
he touches the linga with his forehead,
divine earths closing his eyes, a sightless god;
his charred silence
left from an enormous fire
no can remember.
The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street is one of the chief attractions of the collection A Rain of Rites not from the cultural point of view, but from the sociological perspective as because herein lies a different story of life told by the daughters sold and bought for living, passing life as the caged birds. But setting it aside, he has dealt with in a similar manner as he has in the poem named Hunger where the author person himself as a visitor. Better had it been had he heard a mujra song from the kothawallis and enjoyed as with Cchote or Badeyen Mian of the red light area of Lahore or Benares or Bhagalpore. Khushwant Singh too has in his columns all about the red light area of Lahore. In Bihar’s Bhojpuri-speaking areas, the bai dance is one such, also called pros dance. But who is a prostitute? The situations and circumstances turn one into; the conditions of life, what will place one at which crossroad of life, even Mahapatra may not guess it. The Thai, Nepali and Ukrainian girls serving the restaurants and hotels sometimes prick our conscience. Is our modernity or advancement at the cost of them? Where will this hurrying take to ultimately? Perhaps it is Santaragacchi that he is describing it here with a view to catch the gala and glitz of Calcutta.
The poet gives the direction in which the beauties and belles, powdered and creamed, scented and bejeweled, magical and bespangled can be met. Walk right in. It is yours. The girls lie in waiting for you. The house smiles wryly into the lighted street. Just thing of the women one has aspired to know and have not. The faces in the posters, the public hoardings and who are all there together and who are those who have brought them here not, but put the house conjure upon and interest the startled eye to fall upon where pasts join and part with.
The sacred hollow courtyard harbours the promise of a great conspiracy. Even if do you nothing but the heresy of the house keeps engulfing. Do not be ashamed of. It is a type of business where the client and the professional all get benefitted from. It is better if one thinks of the secret moonlight of the women left behind their false chatter.
On the Bank of the Ganges is a beautiful poem bringing to our memory the reference with which the Hindus see the river as they consider it that a dip into the holy waters will absolve of them of their sins and the scenes connected with it. The vermillion smeared trees by the river banks make them appear like savagely beasts staring. After that the song of the lone Ganga boatman stumbles across lofty silences. Pious bathers crowd the riverside steps, the bathing ghats. Maybe it that an old blind flow makes them adhered to, enforcing them too otherwise as their thinking mind takes to conventionally. The poet half-awakes from his dream and finds the realities so conflicting and contrasting. But water, water is everywhere, the Coleridgean water around the imagery of the ancient mariner. The myths will remain mythic. Water also lies.
A Missing Person though he calls it an autobiographical piece relating to the posture of his mother, but instead of it there is something more added to it. An Indian woman cannot take the name of her husband. The courtyard is the circle, range of dwelling. How painful is it to live a life! A Missing Person is the missing persona of Adil Jussawalla found in Jayanta Mahapatra’s countryside and that too a rural India woman living under the purdah.
In the poem named India Jayanta Mahapatra writes:
In an impressive map of lime-washed childhood
can one straggle out,
shift the brutal bones of its boundaries?
The Shiva linga,
the rhythmic susurrus of chants on wrecks of petals,
the cage suspended in every father’s just eyes.
Small patient birds here sing in the drawn-out summer twilight,
then fall silent to the night.
The trembling of dreams is everywhere, like the wind.
When new learned dumbly to grow,
we felt of ourselves abandoned in the wilds, in things not real,
full of the mysterious fog that excites the shadows of the spirit.
The title poem A Rain of Rites is a different type of piece in which the poet has nothing to do with rains, but with what it brings rain, what the story of it? How did the rains come first and who brought when? The rain which he has known is the kelp on the sea beach. Like some shape of conscience he cannot look at, a malignant purpose in a nun’s eye. Sometimes a rain comes slowly across the sky that turns upon its grey cloud, breaking away into light. Who was the last man to whom the cold cloud brought the blood to his face? Numbly he climbs the mountain-tops where his own soul too quivers on the edge of answers. A poet of science orientation, he will definitely put up such a supposition differing from the literary students and here lies in the gap between the arts and the science faculty students. Reasoning is the main faculty of Jayanta Mahapatra which it is not in others.