Poet Jayanta Mahapatra was cremated at the Khannagar crematorium of Cuttack, Odisha, on August 28. This in spite of him being a third-generation Christian, his grandfather having converted during the Orissa famine of 1866. The cremation was according to his own wishes, as recorded in his will, which also bequeathed a part of the ancestral property that he had inhabited for most of his adult life, to the family of Sarojini, his long-time caretaker.
Both these gestures are perhaps typical of the man who always occupied a tenuous space between the mainstream and the margins of literary circles in India and Odisha. Although a much-awarded poet, widespread recognition of his work came pretty late in his life. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2009, when he was already 81 years old. Perhaps the most significant honour he received was in 2019 when he became a Fellow of the Sahitya Akademi. He was 91 then.
In his autobiography, Pahini Rati (The Night is Not Yet Over), Mahapatra mentions his studied marginalisation by the Odia literary establishment, where bureaucrats and professors of Odia and English literature have always found it easy to construct identities. Here he also discusses his experience of being a “mere teacher of physics” who starts writing poetry when posted in B.J.B. College in Bhubaneswar, apparently late, at the age of 38. He writes consistently from then on in terms of quality and quantity, managing to publish his poems in reputed literary periodicals across the world, such as The Times Literary Supplement, Critical Quarterly, Poetry—Chicago, and The Sewanee Review. He also publishes four volumes of poems within a decade of starting his writing practice.
This was a late budding, but what an efflorescence it was. However, his poetic diction, which waywardly combines maps of his affective territories, personal snapshots of regional history, fleeting shadows of Odia language, and philosophical musings, was at odds with the canon of Indian English poetry that was being fashioned in Bombay in the first two decades after Independence.
The “Bombay School” (comprising the reigning tastemakers of Indian English literature at that time) was not a great fan of Mahapatra’s work. Nissim Ezekiel, in particular, was not excited by the first two of his poetry volumes when they came out in 1971. Ezekiel had published one of Mahapatra’s early poems, “Girl by the window”, in The Illustrated Weekly of India, which Ezekiel edited along with others. However, he wrote a review in the Weekly of Mahapatra’s collections, Close the Sky, Ten by Ten (Dialogue Publications, Kolkata), and Svayamvara and Other Poems (Writers Workshop, Kolkata), that was critical and expressed bafflement.
However, the acceptance of Mahapatra’s work across the globe by established journals meant that he had no reason to look back. He continued to write and publish regularly, not only poems but also translations of poetical works from Odia. His careers as a poet and as a translator fed into each other. The number of his poetry collections in English (apart from selections and edited/collected volumes) is more or less the same as that of his translations of Odia poetry into English. He also translated the Bengali poems of Sakti Chattopadhyay (his original award-winning collection, Jete Pari, Kintu Keno Jabo) into English in a volume published by Sahitya Akademi titled I Can, But Why Should I Go.
Translation is indeed a key trope through which we can engage with Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry. If there is one poet who always reminds me of Mahapatra, it is Agha Shahid Ali. When you read Shahid Ali and are stuck at a line or a stanza, you just have to translate it into Urdu/Hindustani in your mind for it to bloom into light. Similar is the case with Jayanta Mahapatra. When you are troubled by the movement of his lines or by some peculiar image, you render the lines into Odia and they make perfect sense.
Standing with the marginalised
So, for some time I used to think that Jayanta Mahapatra is that cliché, an Odia poet writing in English. But then I started engaging with his Odia poetry four years ago, before doing a longish interview with him, and my idea of Jayanta Mahapatra changed.
Although he is not a part of the Odia poetry canon and his contribution to Odia literature is yet to be seriously assessed (his autobiography Pahini Rati creates the texture of affective interiority in first-person narration in Odia for the first time, and reads more like a long prose poem), his Odia poems are remarkable. The forms of the lines are almost premodern, terse, and short. And yet the sensibility is high-modernist—socially engaged, politically conscious, resolutely standing with common people, the oppressed, the marginalised, long before it became fashionable in Odia poetry to do so. Here he is an English poet writing in Odia, English in tone, pitch, and the affective register, yet very Odia in the cadence and flow of the lines.
- Although Jayanta Mahapatra was a much-awarded poet, widespread recognition of his work came pretty late in his life.
- Translation is a key trope through which we can engage with Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry.
- His Odia poems are remarkable: here he is an English poet writing in Odia, English in tone, pitch and the affective register, yet very Odia in the cadence and flow of the lines.
Perhaps this is the sign of a great poet, as opposed to a merely competent one? Jayanta Mahapatra wrote in English, he wrote in Odia, he also wrote from Odia into English through his translations. However, like all great poets, what he actually wrote in was perhaps a language completely of his own making (which sometimes sounded like Odia and sometimes like English), made up of the perceived absence of love from his mother, the ghosts of the trees that have disappeared from his beloved city of Cuttack, fragments of texts as diverse as Walden (by Henry David Thoreau), Rubaiyat (by Omar Khayyam) and Rudra Sudhanidhi (by Narayanananda Abadhuta Swami), and the play between darkness and light through which all of us who dabble with words, try to make sense.
That language, Jayanta Mahapatra’s language, will not die.
Sailen Routray is an author based in Kamakhyanagar in central Odisha.