March 28, 2020
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The Mahapatra Muse

Two deeply vivid volumes of poems from the oriya masters

The Mahapatra Muse
The Ruined Temple And Other Poems
By Sitakant Mahapatra
Harper Collins Publishers India Not Mentioned

JAYANTA and Sitakant Mahapatra are two thoroughbreds who have kept up with Pegasus these many years. Their devotion to the muse has been single-minded. They have never deviated into other genres. The fruits of their labour differ, but don’t they always? Sitakant has been translated into many languages. He has won the Jnanpith, something that Jayanta cannot aspire to. The logic can’t be faulted. Why should the brown sahibs be encouraged to indulge in their Anglo-Saxon idiosyncrasies? The sons of the soil, linguistically speaking, should inherit the earth. Unexceptionable.

Both poets write with their heart, sometimes with the heart on the sleeve. The Orissa landscape and way of life comes alive in both volumes. Jayanta rightly contends that he is an Oriya poet who, by accident, writes in English. And as if to offset this handicap he has now come out with a volume of verse in Oriya. Jayanta’s verse is ruminant, and so introverted that it borders at times, on the edge of neurosis. Sitakant’s verse is outgoing, buoyed on a current of empathy and sentiment.

There was a time when reading Sitakant in English was a bit of a chore. The translations were imperfect. The lines would drip with sentiment. In every fifth poem someone would be shedding tears. Midway through some mundane account of life in a village you would be ambushed by massive hyperbole. Much of that is gone. The poetry is sharp and neat and surprises with a classy turn of phrase on every other page. "How generous of the sea/to call at my door for its dues! to remember an obscure name/in its unending ledgers." Later in the poem (The Mist) sea-surrounded objects become "immaculate with eternity". And the gentle touch is visible—" the hush of  your absence spreads/in the fragrant moonlight".

One of Sitakant’s strong points is the way he paints poverty—" a harvest of dreams/in a shrivelled ribcage," or "a little jungle of neglected thatch". Poignant vignettes are strewn across the book, and some remarkable poems like The Empire and The Night. The imagery is clean and crystal clear: "A jet tears through/the blue slate of the sky/a tiny line of chalk". Tribals dance "hand on hip, interlocked despairs/in rhythmic fury".

Both poets are maharathis and need to be judged by high standards. Sitakant uses the larger-than-life gesture (on his grandmother’s death he says: "I looked up at the sky where/she had become another star"). English poetry carries this understatement business too far. But overstatement is also risky. In Flowering Time he writes: "I strained to decipher... if the ceremony of water/explains the fire of pain." Sounds good but I am straining to decipher what it means. In Your Village he writes: "Starlight breaks the pitcher of silence/grieving wombs all begin dancing." We will let that pitcher of silence thing pass, but what of those dancing wombs? Then there are apostrophes to death and Bhubaneswar. He descends from the stark to the sentimental. A "burnt blackened scarecrow" of a mother sheds "tears like a tired cloud" for her dead child. That tired cloud is a let-down.

Jayanta Mahapatra’s selected poems are well chosen, and are preceded by an academic introduction by the editor, P.R. Raveendran who seems to see all poetry in the colonial/post-colonial paradigm. As an article on Jayanta it could be considered passe. As an introduction to the best of Jayanta it is less than satisfactory.

Most of his best poems are here— Dawn at Puri, A Rain of Rites, Hunger, Grandfather, Total Solar Eclipse, Temple and the Lost Children of America. In the last one he talks of the hippies, "who rejected their own land" and who don’t ask the usual questions—" Why is my skin so brown, my birth not final?/Why do I clean my arse with my hand?/Why do I seek a virgin woman for my wife?/Why do I grovel before that grote sque god of bitter wood?"

One realises with a start that there is a lot of violence in Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry. In the above poem you come across "the priest’s pomaded jeanclad son" raping the "fourteen-year fishergirl" behind the shrine and her rape by four policemen "dripping of darkness and of scarlet death". In Dispossessed Nests we have a "torso/looking about for its missing head" and "two ripped out eyes/shaking their tears". Repeatedly the poet comes up against "the senseless refrain of hate". Chelammal, in the poem Temple is both a modern Shakti and an actual woman who killed herself due to poverty. In her "unending attrition of pain", she says: "O solemn Ayodhya skies!/O savage dens of Shiva!/Let me not awaken/the meaningless tears of rage and hate/when you fumble at the catch of my consciousness/before you cut the heart out of my body/and nights scour my womb/with the ashes of solitude."

Jayanta broods over the "darkness whose meaning escapes our children". And again, "somewhere, beyond the high Himalayan ranges, a lost man wears his darkness like a sleep". Dream is another motif running through his work. Much of his poetry can be taken as a dream-state, as he tackles "the dream-dark of the present" and of the past. He says in Temple: "Only when you dream reality begins". And his poetry has a dreamy sub-surface music which haunts the ear.

One comes across linguistic contortions. A story is "chewed on by the vultures of a country’s leaders". "The evening wind trembling the glazed waters," when what he means is making the glazed waters tremble. But the final impression is that of being face to face with a consummate poet, as "the burden of understood things billows upward like smoke," and he progresses "surrounded by the loves" he has grown up with. The same can be said for Sitakant.

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