Through my Window

Chiselled poetry

Print edition : January 09, 2015

Sitakant Mohapatra. He belongs to the second generation of modernist poets in Odiya. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

SITAKANT MAHAPATRA, one of the leading poets of India, belongs to the second generation of modernist poets in Odiya. His works have been available in English translations for some time now, but the new anthology of his selected poems— Rotations of Unending Time (Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 2014)—carries some of the best samples of his work from 1963 to 2011. While the selection carries his widely anthologised poems like “The Ruined Temple”, “The Dhangda’s Lovesong”, “The Other View”, “A Song for Kubja” and “A Morning of Rain”, it also has several less-known poems that make it worth reading.

Like most of the early modernists in India, Sitakant too had deep roots in the traditions of his language and literature, especially the epic/devotional works of Sarala Das, Jagannath Das, Dinakrushna and Bhima Bhoi, the blind tribal poet, besides the Hindu and Muslim Odiya bhakti poets in the Vaishnavite tradition. His training and research in anthropology, his education at Cambridge and Harvard and the consequent familiarity with Western modern poetry equipped him with a sensibility that could magically transform the native tradition, bringing modern experience to bear on his reading of the epics. This exciting encounter gave him many poems, especially those based on the episodes in the Bhagavata, as it also happened with his contemporary Ramakanta Rath, well-known for his poems around the love of Radha and Krishna.

These poets, both unique in their own ways, carried forward the aesthetic transformation that had been pioneered by earlier poets like Sachi Routray, Guruprasad Mohanty and Bhanuji Rao. His native village, the tribal people of Odisha and the poets of yore are a regular presence in Sitakant’s poetry. In his own words: “I hear the recitation of the Odiya Bahagabata in the inner room of the house where so many gods were installed on a small wooden chariot. I hear the voices of Achyut, Yasovant and Bhima Bhoi’s bhajans at the tiny temple at one end of the village. I hear the stark fearsome voice of silence in the dark night of the village with cholera raging everywhere and the Goddess Mangala being propitiated by sankirtana. And then the voice of the rain, of numerous deaths, of remembered loves and the passing of the seasons punctuating births, sickness and death. It is also my father’s voice—he is gone now 11 years —reciting stanzas from Tapaswini of Gangadhar Meher and from Dinakrushna, Kavisurya and many other stalwarts of Odiya literature” (from the poet’s Jnanpith Award acceptance speech).

Love for life

While his poetry draws from the regional spiritual traditions, what propels it is a passionate love for life: “My poetry would like men to wish, at the end of the day, after going through all the tragedies and triumphs, smiles and tears of life, that they would like, if there is an afterlife, to be born again into this destiny, the destiny of being a man” ( ibid.). This is what makes Sitakant’s poetry ever hopeful, even while it does not turn its eyes away from the tragic in life and literature—like the absurd death of a beggar boy, Asoka’s blood-chilling Kalinga war or Krishna’s predestined death at the hands of the hunter Jara. His language, according to him, is an ancient chest “pure white like the soul, like/ hope, like sacred chants” as also “the deaf-mute infant’s hands, eternally outstretched toward the angels/ its cry embossed/ on the earth’s sun-baked face”, its words being “the confused nightingale’s/ half-lost, half-dead song at spring’s end”. Sura P. Rath, who has been a close student of Sitakant’s poetry, finds some keywords that recur in his poetry: Time, Destiny, History, Tradition, Death/Life.

Haraprasad Das, another important Odiya poet and critic, sees Sitakant synthesise the three principal idioms of Odiya poetry: the classical, the contemporary and the modern. The religious and mystical tradition of ancient Indian poetry, the lyrical modernism of European poetry and the Odiya folk poetry contribute equally to the formation of his sensibility and style as pointed out by his Swedish commentator, Olls Malmgren. He juxtaposes personal memory with racial memory and tries to establish a lasting bond with the world being fragmented by pain, solitude and alienation: his father’s death with Lord Krishna’s; his wife’s love for her son with the ethereal love of Yashoda and Krishna; his dead grandmother with the twinkling star above. He paints himself not as a magician with words but as a child standing before language, hands folded in prayer, asking it to reveal the secret of our evanescent existence with its inexorable grief and ineluctable magic. He can make immediate connections with actual life even while dealing with remote themes.

The collection begins with a series of family poems. In “Relationship”, he says: “Your time resembled any other: the teacher sits in the crumbling schoolhouse,/ cane in hand, and the commotion of children/ stretches all the way to the clouds: the afternoon ends. The father/ walking ahead, small son behind,/ rustles the thistles, the dead snails and crabs….” “You return to the wet consolation/ of Gita chants” as he returns “to see my market of torn and grimy paper, attending/ to the myriad, meaningless affairs/ of the King’s palace”. His grandma’s death teaches him to cry alone, in private (“Grandma”) while he notices his grandfather’s bearded face amidst the trees on the banks of Chitrotpala river and hears his boisterous laughter (“Grandpa”). He recalls how his father, a schoolteacher, used to see Brahma, Vishnu and Siva glowing in the circle of the children’s slates (“Father, Heaven”).

This picture of the father grows more intense and detailed in another poem, “Your Portrait”, which speaks about the helplessness of the dead: he will remain a portrait on the wall as if staring from some unreachably distant star. Despite the mother’s entreaties, the autumn moon never falls into her son’s hands; only dusty darkness envelops everything (“Mother”). Touching his beloved, he senses the gongs and bells from the temples in remote villages and hears the chanting of home-bound birds (“When I Touch You”). The poet asks his son not to throw away the slush and try to be a god, instead he should know the enchanting lotus of pain flowers in that mud (“A Poem for Munu”). One day he will realise that life is but a series of regrets (“May Your Journey Be Long”).

There are poems on his village and hers too and one on the temple city of Bhubaneswar: “In vain I eavesdrop/ on the voices of your stones, black-robed with mossy beards” (“Bhubaneswar”, 1972). In “Ruined Temple”, the poet draws a picture of desolation where bats fly like blind gods to an uncertain future. Gods with all their weapons look pale and infirm “as if there never had been/ nor ever could be a pain/ or sorrow crueller than viewing/ the course of human life” (“The Deities”). When a beggar boy dies, stars fall into his empty skull-like aluminium bowl like “pennies, nickels and dimes” (“The Death of a Beggar Boy”).

Two other poems follow up this death, detailing his funeral procession and the post-mortem. When they rip open his tiny body, the poet says, they will be surprised by the cries of many orphaned birds rising from his arteries and veins; they will hear “the echoing emptiness of dense forests in his thinned blood”. In another poem, this time on his own death, he asks death to come at any time except in “that languid hour/ when rain is most tempestuous”. “Shadow” speaks of a shade that stands at the gate of the poet’s home, unseen by everyone else: it could be death, it could be a haunting feeling of guilt or the world that awaits his kindness. Even sunset in the mirror of a bus can stimulate the poet’s imagination that sees the yellow-gold petals of dahlia dropping, burning the glass like a girl’s cheeks (“Sunset in a Bus Mirror”).

“Yashoda’s Soliloquy: The Other View” highlights the essentially destabilising effect of the mystic experience. Yashoda, who sees the whole universe in little Krishna’s mouth, like T.S. Eliot’s Magi before the newborn Jesus, is simply unable to articulate her experience even when she feels the power of the event she has just witnessed. She can only express it in a monologue of hesitations where the real and the imagined fuse into a surreal moment that renders language impotent: “And how, alone, shall I endure/ this magic illusion I can’t show anyone?”, she wonders. Kubja awaiting Krishna “at the end of the summer of her body” is the despised hunchback waiting for release from her colourless existence (“A Song for Kubja”).

In “Jester”, the jester discovers, “Laughing and crying are the same.” The poet finds in a tree a goddess, a mother, a hospitable householder, a poet writing a lovely poem in the sky (“A Tree Litany”). Several things in the village fascinate the poet: a cockfight, an ordinary man’s death, a soldier’s sad return from Kargil in a coffin, cows grazing the election posters, the village sky reflected in a pool, a morning of rain, a lemon tree with stars on her leaves and music in her fruits, a modest village fair. And all the while the poet is aware of the limits of language: “My word is the half-extinguished cooing/ of the confused cuckoo at spring’s end;/ my language is the paired hands/ of the deaf-mute child planted in sun-baked soil,/ his arms reaching for the unknown/ paradise of the gods.” Sura P. Rath and Mark Halperin have been able to capture, as much as is possible, the poet’s vision of the world and his ways with language.

Poet of integrity

Arundhati Subramaniam has already won acclaim as a poet of integrity, an excellent prose writer and a discerning editor. After Where I live: New and Collected Poems (2009) she has come out with a new collection, When God is a Traveller (Harper Collins, 2014), which discovers a language adequate to explore the ambivalences of the human mind with its contradictory pulls of the flesh and the spirit. There is a beautiful uncertainty about her poems, a desire to fill every space that battles one to vacate every space, to retreat into invisibility. There is intense love, intimately physical, intense enough to scald and char along with a will to withdraw, to renounce, to vanish.

One finds this in many of our woman saint poets, say, Akka Mahadevi, Andal or Meerabai, who move towards something like a resolution by transforming desire into devotion and expressing that devotion in the language of desire. Siva in the case of Akka, and Krishna in the case of Andal and Meera are gods they worship and men they lust after at the same time. Arundhati can be uninhibitedly sensual while still yearning for transcendence. This ambivalence combined with the sense of wonder, of unexpectedness, of moods as well as words, is what marks her apart from other Indian poets writing in English today. She works on language like a sculptor until everything but poetry is chiselled off from it. She is not loud or repetitive and knows well how to begin a poem and how to end it, which is the mark of a good poet. She wants a face that is accustomed to her absence, “a face no longer disfigured/ by need. A face you can turn inside out like a sock,/ never knowing the difference/ between the surface and interior,/ soft as old wool, implacable/ as peace, the fibres accustomed/ to concavity,/ to disuse”(“Refaced”). This opening poem composed after Imtiaz Dharker’s “Canvas” sums up Arundhati’s aspiration to integrity, to an un-intrusive presence that is almost a form of evanescence.

This desire takes on new hues in a poem like “Leapfrog” where the poet asks not for the certainty of stone, but “the quiet logic/ of rain,/ of love,/ of the simple calendars of my childhood/ of saints aureoled by overripe lemons”, and “the fierce tenderness/ of watching/ word slither into word,/ into the miraculous algae/ of language,/ untamed by doubt/ or gravity…”. “Demand” reconfirms this love of quietude: she craves “nothing but that whisper/ of breath against the ear./ Breath that’s warm/ like the sigh of Palmyra trees/ in Tirunelveli plantations./ Breath/ that’s crisp/ like linen, rice-starched,/ dhoop-soaked,/ in a family cupboard.”

Arundhati’s poems have a clear predilection for adjectives like soft, slow, simple, silent, faint, unknown, quiet, simple, pure, deep, all of which reveal her unconscious ever in search of peace, balance, tranquillity and mystery. The other pole of this mood of reconciliation-renunciation is desire, that finds its bare and beautiful expression in poems like “Black Oestrus”, “Rutting”, “And This is Pain too” and “Lover Tongue” where she longs for something more certain than semicolons, and feels “a deep churning/ of juices/ in the clay innards/ of a sealed vessel/ plotting mutiny/ one day”, a lust that is the deepest/ I have known,/ celebrated by paperback romances/ in station bookstalls, by poets in the dungeons of Toledo, by bards crooning foreverness/ and gut-thump on FM radio/ in Bombay traffic jams” a raw “monsoonal ferocity/ of need” , a thought about lying near a lover, “mouth on forehead, limbs woven/ into a knot too dense/ for yearning”: but this is not just a physical yearning: “I’m learning, love,/ still learning/ that there’s more to desire/ than this tribal shudder/in the loins”.

There are, too, memories of growing up which at this stage are tinged with nostalgia as in the poem “Wearing High Heels” where she sees her classmates turn from boys into bankers, or “Sharecropping” where she recalls her mother treading nimbly across language, preferring Dev Anand to Imran Khan, her daughter’s hero, talking Buddhism and Lata Mangeshkar, watching her daughter grow stealthily into her body as age advances, or “Epigrams for Life after Forty” where “Between the doorbell/and the death knell/ is the tax exemption certificate”, or “And Here is Middle Age Again” when the need to consume, to belong, to be loved comes back like yesterday’s scripts, or “The Other Side of Tablecloths” where she recalls Miss Guzder’s sewing classes where she used to feel disowned for the mayhem she made of tablecloths and hopes to grow one day into a seamstress her teacher will be proud of: “I’ll suture and snip,/ lazy-daisy and butcher,/ love and leave,/ no strings attached.” Arundhati has an unfailing feeling for the cadence of words and the freshness of syntax that give a unique tenor and texture to her poems though she would compare her poetry to coarse cotton with perforations rather than polyester and rayon: “It’s taken a long time/ to understand/ poems matter/ because they have holes” (“Poems Matter”). Elsewhere she says, “Some stories have holes” too (“Six About Love Stories”).

“When God is a Traveller” is a tribute to the travelling god Subramania, for instance, who “has seen enough revolutions, promises, the desperate light/ of shopping malls, hospital rooms,/ manifestos, theologies, the iron taste/ of blood, the great craters in the middle of love”. Here is the god whose race is run, “who stands fluid-stemmed/ knowing he is the tree/ that bears fruit, festive/with the sun”. He is ready to circle the world again just to see it through your eyes.

Absurdity of existence

Hemant Divate is a modernist, rather a postmodernist, struggling to come to terms with the absurdity of existence. His Struggles with Imagined Gods, ably translated from Marathi into English by Mustansir Dalvi (Poetrywala, Mumbai), carries 22 refreshingly new poems. The opening poem is an example: “A moment from life is stuck/ between the teeth/ of a poem./ It lingers in the interstices,/ like scraps of meat/ leftover, after chewing/ on a chicken lollypop,/ no different from the space between two words/ filled with the fresh, juicy meat of a poem.” This is a totally new way of looking at the relationship between life and poetry, expressed in a modern urban idiom that has few prior models.

Or look at the poem on Prague: the poet paces the town, wolfs it down like a glutton and tries to own the city by walking it. He becomes Gregor Samsa there, abandoned by an unrepentant shivering Kafka: “Look up now, to the old clock tower and count/ how many writers need to suffer and die/ to bring one insect to life.” He finds women and men become numerals on the Charles Bridge. He sees the impending demise of Kafka’s language. And slowly turns into a cockroach that reaches the Praha (Prague) railway station diving with his antenna to find Coke bottles blocking his path. Kafka accosts him and whispers to him that for the first time now he realised that Prague was sexy. And the poet too notices the city’s sexiness.

The poems are marked by an unforced irreverence: “Religion is like a fire burn on my palm;/ a bright, billowing, bubbling boil,/ like a pink jelly bean, sensitive to the touch,/ responsive between thumb and finger./ I don’t have the balls to call it enticing,/ sexy, like a clitoris” (“Three Poems for Perdu Uncle”). The postmodern world with its repetitiveness and superficiality annoys the poet: “A man may die, but like poetry/ his email ID is never deleted./ Like the Taj, the Ajanta caves, the Qutub Minar,/ his facebook and LinkedIn profiles live on, eternal.” Each man is being reduced to data, and pole form real bytes in the world that can be measured by a monitor. He realises like all of us in the social media at times do: “This whole bloody world/ is stuck in the labyrinth of superficiality…. The meaning of life/ is to be part of this circus of superficiality,/ to become superficial without feeling superficial/ and applaud the superficial.” Life becomes a festival of caprice and may be only the old-world people can provide a home-grown remedy to extinguish this illusion of superficiality (“A Man may Die, but…”).

“Life Begins When You Enter This Room” is a long poem, almost a collage of experiences from travel ( “As if I am back in Shillong/ strolling among the pines/ or jaywalking down the heavenly streets of Pattaya/ where every streetwalker calls out to me with respect”), political events like 26/11 (“With 26/11 becoming every walking day and sleepless night,/ what is to be done, in the end?”), thoughts on language (cows and buffaloes running over the flyover of language, the corpse of language stuck in the garbage of Dharavi, the poet trying to survive death by keeping his textual face on) and on art (the miasma of a moaning Mona Lisa, Zakir Husain’s teen taal) ending with death (“Does the sound of a man dying even reach you from the wide, 70 mm Galapagos rainforest of the afterlife?”).

There are, too, anxieties about the spoken language being devoured by refined tongues, with their packaged entertainments and political and physical pornography, people surrounded not by friends but by brands, the world of malls and of advertisement, health shows raising one’s blood pressure and the violence we carry like an axe in the mind (the poems in the section “What happened?”). In times like these, the only refuge is poetry: “I only know how to write poetry./ To be able to jerk off thus is my birthright./ This much I know: should a Hitler rise/ to stifle my freedom to write/ I will not die, no, not I,/ before I choke the life out of him” (“In Warsaw’s Blue Cemetery”). Hemant Divate creates an idiom of his own out of everyday words picked up from our near-virtual postmodern existence, a new dialect for the consumerist world fed on advertisements, television channels, tweets, timelines and the growing violence that engulfs the dreams of a new world.

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