Hi, JM, good morning! Whassup?
Yo, morning, beautiful! Birds are singing in the bamboos. Had coffee?
Yes, and hot hot vadas too, JM.
Yippie, love hot vadas!
Sounds pretty much like two teenagers conversing, right? My morning WhatsApp routine–even as a quasi-Luddite–would often start this way for the past eight months. JM, or Jayanta Mahapatra to the world, demanded I give him a nickname, call him a friend, and come to him to talk of all “fun things, not boring books and poetry, please!”
Like many others though, my first meeting with Mahapatra was at a 2016 literary festival in Bombay where he was surrounded by gazillion poets and writers. There was hardly any time for proper conversation. We spoke about the usual suspects–Sky Without Sky and A Rain of Rites–then posed to be clicked by a friend. He must have been photographed many times over at that festival and so, quite naturally, I exited from his memory to surface only in December 2022. However, it was poetry again which was the connector.
A close friend, a documentary film-maker and avid poetry lover, had suggested that I send off some of my books to Mahapatra along with my phone number and address. Usually lazy about such proactive moves, I heeded him. I also included a handwritten letter, reminding Mahapatra that we had met earlier on.
In about 10 days of the missive departing for Tinkonia Bagicha, where his very old mansion of a house ‘Chandrabhaga’ was located, a sudden phone call on my mobile, while I sat dozing in the Hyderabad metro, startled me.
“Nabina, Nabina,” piped the bird-like voice. This is how a legend sounds, I thought. A free and fervourful intonation.
I was astonished and overwhelmed that he called. Half the things I said or wanted to say must have sounded garbled. Mahapatra’s voice from the other side of the ether was child-like, ecstatic, and kind. That was the beginning of our communication. He was fairly adept at texting, and with a rare excitement he’d tell me about his garden, the old Hindi movie songs he loved, and the street food that he loved to eat in the company of ‘sweet’ friends.
“It’s damn good that we did NOT bond at a literary festival,” he told me later. “It’s so tiring to keep being polite with them, Nabina. Here we are, on a different plane.”
By then, I had travelled to Cuttack, the Silver City, to see Mahapatra. In our very first meet, he rose to greet me inside the modest living room with a bed where he usually relaxed. He kept touching my elbows to take a close look at my face with the refrain, “Nabina, Nabina.”
We did talk poetry on and off. “How is it that I never read your poetry properly before?” he seemed to complain. “Please send work for Chandrabhaga, the magazine I’m editing. It should be complete by July 2023.”
Troubled by kidney ailments–doctors had barred him from eating red meat, fried food, etc., a rule he breached from time to time–and bronchial asthma, he was as frail as a Gutta-percha doll. Yet, he would spend hours reading, writing new poems, and editing the journal of the same name as his house and the Chandrabhaga literary festival that he had been hosting for close to a decade.
If that defined the towering presence Mahapatra had in Indian writing–both English and Odia–the other part of him was mischievous, fun-loving, and frolicsome.
“Are you a little hesitant you are speaking to a 95-year-old this way? I don’t know any other way of talking to my little friends!” He could be frank with a beguiling charm.
‘Slip of a girl’, ‘little girl’, ‘my dear Nabina’, ‘my star poet’–so many epithets he could think up. My grown-up self was tickled pink nonetheless.
His ‘yo’ and ‘yippie’ prompted me to call him JM, and he loved it. Even ‘J’ would do some days, he joked, “When I’m more a rap artist than a poet of pathos and solitude.”
Our birth dates happened to be numerologically matched, he gleefully announced as we were getting friendlier. “Yours is 1+3=4 and mine is 2+2=4, Nabina. We will be BFFs, means, forever!”
A trip to the barrage in Naraj in my friend’s car made him gurgle in happiness like a child. Before that, we had stood by the banks of a crystal-blue Mahanadi, the December air across the river making him shiver within his windcheater.
Shy to a large extent, at the bend in Naraj, he pointed to a cluster of stalls and mumbled, “Pakodi.”
I wasn’t first sure if I heard him right. “Those stalls sell street food. You want to eat something, JM? Do you like pakodi?”
“Yes, yes. Don’t you?!” He cackled like a lark.
We immediately stopped, sat on the wooden benches of the street stalls, dipped our spoons into piping hot and brothy ghugni-chana to break and mingle the fresh fritters the stall owner ladled out from his large, hot, oil-filled kadai.
“And, tea, please!” JM dug out notes from his pocket to pay for our slurpy adventure.
All the way during the drive he recounted his favourite trees, temples, and waiting spots. He knew Cuttack like the palm of his hand, like his own shinbone, like the wispy white hair on his scalp.
When I rattled off those two lines, he smiled wide: “Ah, you know the verse too–Cuttack city is a white flower!”
Out at Naraj, he pointed to where his darling rivers Kathajodi and Mahanadi parted. During the monsoon season, both would be in spate and rather dangerous to approach beyond a certain point. Readers of his recently published memoir in Odia Bhoro Motiro Kanaphulo (translations are available now) might recall how he describes his wife Runu Mahapatra when they first met: Runu’s two long plaits were to him like the two rivers Kathajodi and Mahanadi, he wrote.
“I know this hundred-year-old banyan and the crows that have nested here for generations,” JM looked up the massive tree with its Corvus cacophony. The ground all around the massive banyan had turned a strange sapphire colour with years and years of bird poop falling and creating translucent layers, solidifying like stacked-up films of mica.
“The crows are never lonely, we humans are,” JM’s eyes were distant.
With his wife Runu gone almost two decades ago and son Mohan Mahapatra gone in 2018, there were only a handful of people who came to the solitary legend–not as literary cohorts or admirers or festival organisers, but as companions to his stark loneliness, his child-like tantrums, and his wide-eyed love for surprises.
I do not know which space I was treading into when I came to him, or he came to me in his twilight years–muse, buddy, or soul-child.
JM prattled when we met, texted when I was gone, spoke of tailorbirds and sparrows in his garden, the bamboos flowering in spring. The latter happened apparently for the very first time after he had stepped into this house since he set up a family.
The Holi celebration in March 2023 in his weed-overgrown garden yard was perhaps his last hurrah. My friend had invited a few others from Kolkata and nearby. A young singer and his dancer friend regaled JM with their performances. I sang him an Assamese folk song. We smeared red, green, and yellow gulal on each other. Laddus were passed around. JM’s friends, who included a local watchmaker, shopkeeper, and small business owners, dropped in to enjoy the little event. The bamboo flowers overhead formed a filigreed canopy, the spring sky was blue as the waters of the Mahanadi, and love and merriment were in the air. “I am vulnerable to love,” he had told me earlier. In his white kurta-pyjama ensemble with a face lit up by the Holi colours, JM exuded the vulnerability of a stranded angel.
Soon after the bamboo flowered and the leaves went dry and brown, he became morose.
“How to tackle this loneliness, Nabina?” He texted anxiously throughout the summer. “They say bamboos die once they flower, and I’m afraid I too will not live. But this loneliness before the great darkness is most painful.”
On cue, the bamboo turned green with the onset of the monsoon. His living room window opened to that refreshing sight, where he spent hours looking outside. But by then he was unwell with bouts of bronchial asthma induced by the humidity.
I saw him at the tail-end of the monsoon season again. JM was mostly confined to his bed and only once did he sit up to flash his mischievous smile and hum “Hai apna dil toh awara”, a sort of a theme song for him. A massive tree had fallen in a gale across his compound gate. He sent me a photo and told me he preferred it that way, not willing to saw it off. Later, the Cuttack mayor apparently ordered the tree to be chopped and removed, as it was an electrical hazard. Its branches were entangled on the wires of the roadside poles.
People close to him came willingly, but went away because they had their own lives to pursue. I was guilty of the same. He made me promise to bring the famed Osmania cookies again once he got well. It was July, and Chandrabhaga magazine, edition 20, was already in the press. He showed me a scan of the table of contents; he had delivered his baby to the world. Now to the Chandrabhaga festival, edition 10, he mused. A plan unfulfilled.
JM and I had plans to soak in the rain. To ride a boat on the river. To eat pohala fish in besara sauce. So many plans that will perhaps only happen when I meet him across that barrier of life and death. My last hurrah was cooking him fish curry twice, right before he was hospitalised. While my friend fetched possibly the freshest Mahanadi rohu one could get, I employed the simplest recipe handed down by my mother.
“I loved the soupy curry, Nabina. So nourishing.” He beamed the first time he had it.
He wanted it another time before I left Cuttack. When I went to leave the lunch box at his house, he wasn’t able to speak much, just about able to murmur. He indicated the box to be kept on his dining table where the caretaker family that lived alongside his house would make sure he has it for lunch. After a few words of care, I left with a sad heart.
The next morning he texted:
liked it so much
Retained some for tomorrow”
Even the most mundane text he could turn like a poem.
The love and compassion one encountered in his company are legendary indeed. Let others speak of his poetic brilliance, which I have touched upon elsewhere. In going away on 27 August, 2023, he has left for us the undying zeal for life: “Only fools will say poetry is not life. But here we are, my little friend, making it a life full of poetry as reality.”
“My dearest Nabina”—this start to my mornings will not happen any longer. But I will have my JM with me. A BFF who never tired of the world, its splendour, and its colours and beauty.
(Views expressed are personal)
Nabina Das is a poet and writer based in Hyderabad
(This appeared in the print as 'Your Legend, My JM')