Jayanta Mahapatra: Connecting The Disconnects In Life & Poetry

Jayanta Mahapatra is one of the few top-ranking names in Indian English poetry, accepted globally. The fact that his poems are taught in many universities across the world testifies to his international standing and popularity. Nonetheless, he is dubbed as a most difficult poet to be taught to the students. Many professors admit that initially, they were not sure of their understanding of his poems, but years later, they could decipher the true meaning of the poems. In fact, he had created an idiom of his own and was capable of turning ordinary things into an uncommon narrative.

The complexities of his poems emanated from the complex life he led from his childhood. Being born into a converted Christian family in a city like Cuttack, with abundant presence of a vibrant Hindu culture, he was perplexed to find an identity of his own. While his orthodox family tied him to an alien faith, he was vastly influenced by the rich cultural diversity of his home city Cuttack and the state of Odisha. His subconscious was haunted by the ill-fated conversion of his grandfather Banamali Mahapatra into Christianity in the wake of the Great Famine that visited Odisha in the sixties of the nineteenth century and left many families embracing a different religion in the midst of abject poverty and starvation. His mother was very rude to him in his childhood days, so he had to leave home at a tender age but had to come back, thanks to the attraction of a loving father.

In college days, he performed poorly in English and was advised by a teacher to read more English novels and he took it seriously. It made him an ardent lover of the English language and he found himself quite at home in a foreign language. Although he studied Physics and became a lecturer in the subject, his love for English literature was an undying passion. This led him from the world of Physics to the world of poetry at the age of forty, obviously late, compared to his contemporary Indian English poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Ramanujan, etc. who had got established by then.

However, his distinct identity as a poet was acknowledged worldwide within a very short period of time and he won the first Sahitya Akademi award for English poetry for his poetry collection ‘Relationship’. This earned him an enviable position in the pan-Indian literary field. Even then, he was little known in Odisha as a poet. Rest is now history. Subsequently, he not only got a Padmashree for his contributions to literature but also got nominated as a Fellow of Sahitya Akademi in recognition of his poetic eminence in Indian literature. He was not only published worldwide but got invitations to many foreign universities. He had the rare company of many renowned poets in Asia, Europe, and the US and got a large fan following not only in India but also abroad. Many stalwarts in the poetry world very often visited him in his Tinikonia Bagicha residence in Cuttack and it became almost a place of pilgrimage for budding poets.

I came across this great personality in the early eighties when my poet friend and colleague Dipak Samantrai introduced me to him.  In our first meeting, I developed a liking for the man. Very shy and polite as a person, he had an amazing sense of humour. Although he was ten years senior to my father, he behaved like a friend and cracked jokes with me. His better half, a nice lady, not only entertained us with tea and snacks but also joined us in the humour. We spent many evenings like this but I observed that he was very reticent about his poetry. He didn’t like to discuss it publicly. Our relationship continued till recently.

Last year, I wrote a piece on him. When he came across it, his comment was that it was nice to read but does he deserve these words (?). This is the humility of the person who, in spite of his international fame as a poet, never displayed the slightest sign of ego or self-indulgence. Last January, we organised a literature festival in Bhubaneswar and I invited him to inaugurate it. However, he could not attend the inaugural session due to ill health. Poets from outside the state and abroad were keen to see him. Finally, the next day, he came for a brief period but his arrival was such an event he stole the show and everyone was keen to get photographed with him or to get his autograph. It was a dream come true for many and I was thanked profusely from all and sundry. The short speech he delivered that day still reverberates in the minds of those who were present on that fateful day.

His remarkable works in poetry include A Father’s Hours, A Rain of Rites, Waiting, The False Start, Collected Poems, Random Descent, and Noon. Not only poetry, he was brilliant in prose writing as well. He has written many short stories and essays. His published works among others include The Green Gardener, Door of Paper etc. He also translated many poems of Odia writers into English when he used to edit literature pages of some English journals. He proved himself to be an editor of international repute and ‘Chandrabhaga’ edited by him had a large number of contributors and subscribers from many foreign countries. He was so fascinated by the word Chandrabhaga that he named his house in that name and used to organise the Chandrabhaga Poetry Festival in Konark and finally desired in his will that his ashes be immersed in Chandrabhaga after death. Needless to say, Konark was the confluence of Chandrabhaga and the Bay of Bengal and is considered to be a holy place as per Hindu traditions.

In fact, his life was a confluence of the past and the present, physics and poetry, and many things more to add in that way. He tried to connect the disconnects of his past with the present in a most poignant manner in his poetry. We find the disillusionment of his childhood memories juxtaposed against the present-day realities of life. He connects his memories of Cuttack city bound by the twin rivers Mahanadi and Kathjodi on two sides and the glorious past of Odisha manifested in the ruins of ancient temples and architectural remains in Bhubaneswar, Puri, and Konark. He travels from the past to the present in a splendid manner in his poetry.

He tried his hand at Odia poetry in his later years and candidly admitted that the mother tongue is the best medium to express oneself. He had a few poetry collections in Odia which got admiration from the readers for the freshness of his style of writing. His autobiography in Odia, named ‘Bhor Motira Kanaphula’ is a masterpiece and would go down as a brilliant piece of autobiography in Odia literature. Its translation into English would serve better to reach a larger audience.

The last part of Jayanta Mahapatra’s life was marked by tragedies one after another. He lost his beloved wife, then his son, and finally Sarojini, the maidservant who served him for thirty-five years, in quick succession. With no one around to take care of him, he became a loner. Cruel fate disjointed him from his near and dear ones at a ripe age. Failing health due to advanced age accelerated by COVID-19 led to his frequent hospitalisation in the last couple of years. But he did not let his creative passion die in such adverse situations. Rather, he lived a full life with childlike simplicity and youthful mischief of a poet till he breathed his last at the age of ninety-five. In the hospital bed a few days before his death, he released his last poetry collection in Odia called ‘Jhanji’, edited and arranged to dispatch the last issue of Chandrabhaga to the contributors and subscribers, and even sent new poems to the editors from the hospital bed. With his passing away, we lost our only connection with the rest of the world in the form of poetry and our poet ambassador for the globe.

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