Jayanta Mahapatra, born in 1928, was the first winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for poetry. He has lived all his life in Cuttack, and its landscape forms an essential part of his poetic topography and terrain. Many of his poems are regarded as classics and are taught in schools and colleges in India. In his new 700-plus-page omnibus, Collected Poems, Mahapatra, a Padma Shree awardee, has chosen to collate his work in reverse chronological order (including many unpublished poems). This gives the reader a sense of travelling from his current state back to his very early days, both stylistically and in terms of his preoccupations—forming an arc of a lifetime in verse.
One of my many favourite poems, Song of the Bones, is a typical example of his style—lyrical, sombre, understated, wise, nostalgic and sparely crafted: “It has been raining again / and the water drips upon the bones, /flowing into the cold earth where /the dead lie easily in rows.” Further along, he continues, “Each bone in my body conquers me; /like a lover who secures his mistress /with formulae of habit, walls of circumstance /and eyes of suspended time, /these bones empty me of my words.”