Apr/May 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Jayanta Mahapatra

Review by Vivekanand Jha

At times, as I watch,
it seems as though my country's body
floats down somewhere on the river.

Jayanta Mahapatra, after five decades of writing, is the most prolific poet in the history of Indian English Poetry. A scholar with a science background from a middle class family, he was the first poet to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award. Oddly, he commands more respect overseas than at home. Four out of his 16 collection of poems were published abroad. His work appears in prestigious international anthologies including The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (Random House, New York, 1996) and The Poetry Anthology 1912-2002 (Ivan R.Dee, Chicago, 2002).

One morning in November of 2009, I had an opportunity to visit the residence of Jayanta Mahapatra. In his nineties, he has been a chronic patient of asthma and recurrent migraines. Because of chest heaviness and breathlessness, he doesn't prefer, at all, to talk in the morning hour. Moreover, after the passing of his wife last year, he is internally shaken and weakened. However, I returned in the evening, and he generously agreed to speake with me then about his work.


VJ     In Door of Paper: Essays & Memoirs, you write about your work, your thoughts on poetry, the creative process, social issues like hunger and poverty, and natural disasters like the cyclone in Orissa where you live. Are all the essays and articles you've written available in this book?

JM     Not all, but most of them are available.

VJ     Much of your of poetry is about the themes you wrote about in the book.

JM    Yes.

VJ     Who is the contemporary poet you like the most?

JM    Can't say.

VJ     You have somewhere talked about A. K. Ramanujan.

JM    Yes, he was idealistic and very good writer.

VJ     It is he whom you like most!

JM    Yes.

VJ     In the book History of Indian English Literature authored by M. K. Naik, he mentions that contemporary Indian poets who made names in the Indian and world English poetry, all saw their first books published by P. Lal. Is it true?

JM    It is true because all these people were published by P. Lal. He also has done a very good job, very good humanitarian job. We can't deny it. Giving encouragement to new writers is something not many people have done. The poet like Ezekiel, even this man who made a name, Vikram Seth, he was also published by P. Lal. Kamala Das, all these people were published.

VJ     Sir, you express your dissatisfaction over the absence of constructive criticism of your poetry, especially in India. Critics seem to focus only on the ugly aspects of your poetry. What kind of criticism do you prefer?

JM    I don't read criticism. I haven't seen those books. I don't want to see criticism because that doesn't help me much unless it is positive criticism. One doesn't write for critics who say nothing helpful.

VJ     The very title of your book of poetry, The Lie of Dawns: Poetry 1974-2008, bears significance of bleakness and barrenness. Is there vested interest in doing that?

JM    No, it came on its own.

VJ     What works you are at present busy with?

JM    At present I am writing my autobiography in Oriya. At least one part I want to publish latest by June, if I am living (smiling). After I finish it, I will publish a new book of English poems. So let me see what happens.

VJ     Orissa is a very poor state in the North East region and coastal part of India. It suffers from natural calamity. You have lived in the Tinkonia Bageecha, Cuttack of Orissa for many years. Your only son lives in Singapore, but you turn him down to live with him because of your love and affection for the motherland and Oriya tongue.

JM    Yes, true.

VJ     Have you decided the title of your new book of poetry?

JM    No, no, not yet.

VJ     How many poems will be in it?

JM    I don't know. I have still not decided.

VJ     Your autobiography is available up to 1989. Are you planning to write or have you written about yourself after that?

JM    I have written small portions of my autobiography because an American Encyclopedia wanted it for living contemporary writers, but now I am writing the autobiography of my time in Oriya. It's being serialized in a magazine.

VJ     It is after 1989?

JM    No, no, no, it's about my childhood and early days. I am just writing it now. Only three has come out. Next will come out soon, one by one in series. I am trying to write. I don't know I will finish it. Kal ki baat to ham nahin bol sakate (I can't tell of tomorrow), but I am trying to do whatever I can. It's all about my childhood, my youth, and my days at Patna.

VJ     What would be your advice to the budding poet?

JM    Write whatever you feel, feel from your heart, from your inside. One thing will also help you. Just you write from the level, tilt a little to a higher level. Thora eshawar ke taraph, thora sa, aagar hamlog ja sakate hain likhake (If we can go somewhat towards God in the guise of writing)—if we can, that should be our goal. Don't you think so? Your conscience and soul search good things. And when you go about writing a poem, Jaise Poojari phool chun-chun kar chadhate hain to hamlog Pooja ke tarahshabad ko aik-aik kar ke banana chahiye, mera to yahin khyal hai (As a priest offers the God by picking and choosing the flowers, so we should do with words).

VJ     To whom do you want to dedicate your success as a poet?

JM    It's my wife. She has been very co-operative. She has been giving me freedom. If your wife doesn't give you freedom, how can you write? Somebody should be there, you take the time also, and also worries, no worries from other things, household things and all like that. So if you have time, and then she gives you freedom also to live, and we want to live to help the people.

VJ     I would like to know your reaction on the talk of your being one of the fathers of the modern and post-modern Indian English poetry.

JM    No, no. I write what I can. I don't think about it.

VJ     Can you recall the moment and instant which had inspired you to compose maiden verse?

JM    Actually I was writing stories in the beginning, but these stories were not published, they were all rejected. So I didn't write for a long day. I did research in physics and still photography. Then later on I began writing. I don't know how it happened, but very late it happened.

VJ     Is the magazine Chandrabhaga still publishing, or not?

JM    We are not publishing it now. I didn't have time. I didn't have the money for publishing. All these sorts of problems take over. That's why we stopped it.

VJ     In a country of more than one billion people, "Chandrabhaga" had to cease publication. In your view, what is the fate and future of Indian English poetry?

JM    Graphic magazine, fashion magazine, movie magazine, you can only get funding for those. Otherwise nobody is purchasing a literary periodical. Not only in India. I think this is the case of everywhere in the world, but especially in India where we have too much emphasis on film and fashion.

VJ     I have read your various interviews, articles, and essays and found that you never mention the great names like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, T.S. Eliot, and Y. B. Yeats. Does that make you unorthodox or unconventional?

JM    I didn't know. I didn't study them. I studied science, you know. English literature, I didn't read.

VJ     What is your main source of inspiration?

JM    My main sources of inspiration are my land, my people, my place, what I see, and what social injustices I see, to include political injustice. I should like to write about the hunger. I think Orissa is one of the very, very, very, very poorest states. Very poor. You go inside the villages, and you will see they don't have the place to live in. They don't have a roof over their heads. They don't have one meal a day. They don't have rice to eat. And politicians. During election time they do visit the villages once, and for the next five years, nothing happens. The same poverty. They sell their children to keep their stomachs full. Mothers sell their daughters, fathers sell their daughters. Even today it's happening. Especially in Orissa and the interior of India.

VJ     In your autobiography you have talked about a beautiful girl.

JM    Irene! Irene! It happened just in the class. But this is in Oriya I have talked about other girls also, so that I could enjoy more priority. In English you can't do that. In your own mother tongue you can talk about those things that you can't talk about in English. What we have by virtue of our soil and local air that we can't have any other way. We have with our mother tongue. I have one and only religion, that if I couldn't help anybody why should I harm (Apani mitti se, apani hawa se jo hoti hai wo bahar ke raste se nahin. Apani maa ke juwan se hoti hai. Mera to ek hin dharma hai ki kisi ka kuchh harm mat karo. Ham to kisi ke liye kuchh kar nahin pate hai to kisi ko dukh kyon pahuchayen). If you can't help somebody let us not harm somebody. That should be the religion of everybody. Religion has no concern with temple, church or mosque.

VJ     I came to know from your autobiography that you have performed your M. Sc. from Patana.

JM    That's right, from Patna, Patna Science college.

VJ     As I am from Bihar, I would like to know about your experience of staying there during the course of post graduation at Patna University. What was the positive aspect you had found there?

JM    Those days were much better than today. And Patna University was one of the best universities of India. I was living in a small mess, small verandah, and small rented building. We were about ten students. We are rented small rooms from a professor of the engineering college, Prof Ojha. The building in which we were staying was near to the Mahendru Ghat and law college.

VJ     In which year did you do your M. Sc.?

JM    It was in the year 1949-50.

VJ     For how many years had you been at Bihar?

JM    I had been there for three years.

VJ     At that time the P. G. course was of three years!

JM    I didn't appear in final examination. I came away home. Again I went and appeared in the examination. That time riots were there. I didn't feel secure. All sorts of things were there.

VJ     You have talked about some emerging poets from the North-East region.

JM    There are some good and young poets, especially from Meghalay, Mizoram, and also in Arunachal Pradesh.

VJ     Earlier, such talents were not there in that region. How do we come to see them now?

JM    See, there is tension there in North-East. If you have no tension, you can't write well. If you have tension, you can bring about your feelings well. Unless you have failure, suffering, and sorrows in your life, how can you write? If you have enough to eat, enough money, a good house and a car, why will you write? What will you write about? You have no problems to write about! If you have got problems, maybe racial problems, religious problems, hunger problems, and social problems. Problems will lead you to think. Unless you think you can't write, ideas will not come in your mind. For ideas you need the images to supplement your ideas. So all things make a certain cycle that is necessary. It begins only when you have certain problems in your life to start writing poetry. Is it not true, Vivekanand?

VJ     You have talked about one poet from Kolkota.

JM    You talk about Rudhra Kinshuk.I like this poet. Young boy and he makes good use of new images. I like when one puts a new type of images in a poem.

VJ     What do you mean by new images?

JM    New images mean you try to bring about something that never happened or that was never done by some other poets before you. There was a great Urdu poet from Allahabad side, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who used to write, "I want to drink through eyes, not by lips" (Lavon se nahin Main peena chahata, main ankhoon se peena chahata hoon). Something new like this.

VJ     Is only writing your main sort of engagement?

JM    I read also a lot. When I can't read, I write. When I can't write, I read.

VJ     What is your source of entertainments?

JM     I like to watch TV.

VJ     Which program do you like most?

JM    I put it on and just think of other things.

VJ     Do you like news channels?

JM    No, no they are very, very sensational news. Even now cricket also I don't see. Earlier I used to watch each and every match without fail. Last year I have stopped it. Cricket has degraded now after the rising importance of T-twenty Matches.

VJ     (For readers who aren't familiar with T-twenty Matches, they are the new version of cricket match in which teams of both sides play for twenty matches in an explosive manner to give more enjoyment to cricket lovers.)

Thank you, Jayanta Mahapatra for answering my questions.


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