It was a windy day, perhaps going to rain. I was eagerly waiting for 6 pm since I was going to meet poet Jayanta Mahapatra at his residence in Tinikonia Bagicha, Cuttack,Odisha, for the first time. I mean for the first time at his residence. I had met the legendary poet a couple of times earlier, once when he had been invited to hand over the gold medal to me as the topper of the University in a seminar in BU, Odisha in 1995. I was quite mesmerized to see the poet in his calm-like-the-Buddha countenance. Again I met him at Sahitya Akadmi a few years ago in Delhi, after I had completed my PhD on his poetry along with the poetry of three other Indian English poets. I speak to Jayanta-da over phone quite often, and he and Mausi (his late wife) had been inviting me to their place. But I was most unfortunate since I got a chance to visit Cuttack only after the sad demise of Mausi.
Jayanta Mahapatra (1928): Besides being one of the finest English poets of the global poetry canon, Mahapatra is also a part of the trio of Indian poets who laid the foundations of Indian English Poetry. He has authored 19 books of poems. He is the recipient of most prestigious literary awards like the SAARC literary Award, Allen Tate Poet Prize, Padmashree, Sahitya Akademi Award and many others.
Anyway, everything happens in its own time, so did my visit to Jayanta-da’s place. I reached on time, and found the same, ever-smiling, warm-hearted, thin, composed and smart Jayanta-da, receiving me and my son Parth with open arms. We had a long chat - about poetry, art, culture and academia (and even Odia food!) while my son was busy clicking photographs of every detail of his sweet home and chatting with his house keeper, a nice and caring lady. Jayanta-da offered us the best samosas of Cuttack, insisted like a parent that we should eat a few more! I was amazed, looking at him, his simplicity, listening to his words, looking at the black-and-white photographs of his Cleopatra-like beautiful late-wife, greeting us from the walls of his “little study”, that he showed me with a child-like enthusiasm. It was an evening that made my life a little more meaningful!!
In this interview with Jayanta Mahapatra, the father of Indian English Poetry, I quote a few excerpts from my discussion with him that evening:
Nandini Sahu: Jayanta-da, could you please tell me, why is poetry important to you?
Jayanta Mahapatra: I cannot deny that the writing of poetry has been a cathartic means for me to purge myself of the various imperfections in my life. This has been more so in the beginning stages of my creative career, I Suppose. Poetry’s cleansing effect was important for me; the sort of relief I experienced when I finished a poem filled my whole being. Gradually, however, the sharpness of this feeling disappeared as I went from poem to poem. And poetry became crucial for me. It became a need. It’s strange how certain things come into your life and never let you go. Like a trap. And so, poetry held me, like a mysterious disease, or an illness.
NS: How do you begin to plan a new poem?
JM: No, there is no planning whatsoever when I go on to a new poem. Maybe very few poems of mine have been planned. I think a poem like “Grandfather” was planned, there was history behind it. Or else a new poem emerges out of a sudden feeling, perhaps a phrase, an idea, a consciousness of something, or a consciousness of my own self. I began writing late in life, and I knew nothing about writing a poem then. It was a kind of hunger that words could fill. At times those words could make a poem, mostly they failed to make the poem. I left it to my inner sense to complete the poem, and the process was intuitive, exploratory.
NS. What is the relationship between the voice of your discourse voice and your writing voice?
JM. I feel this question has a great relevance for those writers who do their creative writing in English. And in India one cannot ignore the fact that English, as it is spoken, varies from state to state, from one part of the country to another. Let me not go into this particular angle. I’d like to think that my speaking voice goes into my writing voice, almost, I would say. But even this isn’t true. For example, if I consider a word like “otherness”, it would merge perfectly into the English poem I am working on. But this word would not, generally be carried in the voice I am using to communicate with another person. But perhaps I don’t understand these things…. I belong to a generation where language was a formal medium; the literatures I have read have intensified this idea. It would be hard for me to use the speech of the new generation, the “digital” generation. I’d be content to keep my writing voice similar to my speaking voice in my poems. Finally, I’d conclude by saying that I’d like to write the language I’ve learnt all these years.
NS. Jayanta-da, of late, you are writing your autobiography in your mother tongue, Odia. Which language are you more comfortable with – English or Odia?
JM. Perhaps I am more at ease when I am writing my autobiography in Odia. There are no obstacles, no walls that I encounter when I am using Odia; the prose is meant for Odia readers and there is nothing “foreign” in it. There is no armor I have put on here and my prose should reveal the man inside, that is, me. And yet, because I read English, spoke English since I was four or five; because we had to use English all the time during school hours it was mandatory, you know, that I developed that love and fascination for the English language. It was my “grooming” in the English language that went on for 38 years – before I started to write poetry in English.
Later, I began to use my mother tongue, which is Odia. As to whether I am “more” comfortable with Odia or with English, it is not right for me to name one of the two. For me, the potential of English is great, and I could say that my obsession with English as a language for creative writing has gone into making my identity as a poet.
NS. Culture plays a very important role in your narrative. How and why do different cultures work as an inspiration to your work?
JM. When you talk of culture, I’d naturally go to my Odia culture, to my roots, from what I have imbibed from my parents and friends. I can truthfully say that I continue to be, even at this late age, to be affected by those early approaches of my parents. In a way, haunted. And it is not possible that I break free from those things, whether good or bad. This Odia culture has gone on to build my identity as a person, and then as a poet.
Learning is important for me, and as I have advanced in years, I realize how much the influence of great writers have been. I’ve learnt much, from poetry, from fiction and philosophy – from these great writers and their different cultures. I still go on learning from new writers that I discover, and so from their cultures. I am certain these have gone into the making of my own work.
NS. I have often discovered that Indian mythology enriches, augments your poetry. I would request you to please comment.
JM. Even when dawn is breaking over Cuttack, my home town, myths are taking up my waking hours. Myths that have gradually become reality. And my poems, when I begin to write them, use whatever is happening around me…. Look, if you are implying about the deliberate use of mythology in my poems, I don’t think you are right. However, myths are a part of our culture and poetry has to go on with them. But I don’t think Indian mythology has “enriched” my poetry. I feel the real object of all writing is to communicate something of importance, to find readers who would believe in your poetry. That’s all.
NS. I have a curious question for you Jayanta-da. Who,do you think, are the good poets on Indian English poetry today?
JM. The “good poets”? I wouldn’t know. Every poet has a good line or so, including me, but good poets are hard to find. Everywhere.
NS. In that case, what, do you think, is the future of Indian English poetry?
JM. One can see that English is not on the way out in India, as was envisaged by our
intellectuals fifty years ago. And I believe Indian English poetry is going to stay. Whether the future of this poetry is something to look forward to, is a different matter.
NS. Looking at the perfectionist that you are, I would like to know, do you revise and rewrite your poems?
JM. Yes, I do. And I believe every poet does this. A lot of revision has to be done.
NS. What would be your advice to the younger generation of poets?
JM. I don’t have anything to say. A poet has to write, has to keep on writing. Period.
NS. Thank you, Jayanta-da, for sparing your precious time.