This is history.
I would not disturb it: the ruins of stone and marble,
the crumbling wall of brick, the coma of alienated decay.
How exactly should the archaic dead make me behave?
A hundred and fifty years ago
I might have lived. Now nothing offends my ways.
A quietness of bramble and grass holds me to a weed.
Will it matter if I know who the victims were, who survived?
And yet, awed by the forgotten dead,
I walk around them: thirty-nine graves, their legends floating
in a twilight of baleful littoral,
the flaking history my intrusion does not animate.
Awkward in the silence, a scrawny lizard
watches the drama with its shrewd hooded gaze.
And a scorpion, its sting drooping,
two eerie arms spread upon the marble, over an alien name.
In the circle the epitaphs run: Florence R--, darling wife
of Captain R-- R--, aged nineteen, of cholera . . . .
Helen, beloved daughter of Mr and Mrs J. S. White, of cholera,
aged seventeen, in the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred . . . .
Of what concern to me is some vanished Empire?
Or the conquest of my ancestors’ timeless ennui?
It is the dying young who have the power to show
what the heart will hide, the grass shows no more.
Who watches now in the dark near the dead wall?
The tribe of grass in the cracks of my eyes?
It is the cholera still, death’s sickly trickle,
that plagues the sleepy shacks beyond this hump of earth,
moving easily, swiftly, with quiet power
through both past and present, the growing young,
into the final bone, wearying all truth with ruin.
This is the iron
rusting in the vanquished country, the blood’s unease,
the useless rain upon my unfamiliar window;
the tired triumphant smile left behind by the dead
on a discarded anchor half-sunk in mud beside the graves:
out there on the earth’s unwavering gravity
where it waits like a deity perhaps
for the elaborate ceremonial of a coming generation
to keep history awake, stifle the survivor’s issuing cry.
This is history, he would not disturb it: the ruins of stone and marble, the crumbling wall of brick, the coma of alienated decay, how beautiful the lines with which he starts the poem written as an elegy commemorating those who lying dead and buried in the abandoned cemetery at Balasore, Orissa, India away from their homes in Britain. It is a splendid poem, a superb one reminding style is man, the art of presentation, the point of deliberation the way he has dwelt, delved, and deliberated upon and we stand appalled to know that an Indian poet in English can write and express in such a way. Here Jayanta Mahapatra’s version of history and time is one of the historiographer’s, an ethnographer’s, an excavator’s elucidation of history. Such a poem, Thomas Gray did it in the past, which he did for posterity. How exactly should the archaic dead make him behave? is the question. A visitor what is he for, what is he going to mark? What can the dead feel and what his presence to do with? He has nothing to grieve for or to be sad. Just as one sees and goes through the historical things and stuffs so is the thing herein. It is all about an era gone by, all about the people who were not of here. But the history of mankind, humanity seen in terms of fate, destiny, situation, chance, and place, how to put it? This requires to be a good reader of history, a good reader of mankind. Who can about the recourse of earth, time, and history? There is nothing to ruminate or mourn the loss, but to accept and express it what he came across, what he found after going through the country cemetery and reading the epitaphs inscribed upon with the brief details. It is also important to know how many of us are the readers of time and earth?
It is a matter of a hundred and fifty years ago when he might have lived. Now nothing offends his ways. A quietness of bramble and grass holds him to a weed. Will it matter if he tries to know who the victims were, who survived? And yet, awed by the forgotten dead, he walks around them: thirty-nine graves, their legends floating in twilight of baleful littoral, the flaking history his intrusion does not animate. It is long since they have died and what use will it be there in knowing them, who they were, how had they been. Now they are part of history, time, and earth.
Awkward in the silence, a scrawny lizard watches the drama with its shrewd hooded gaze. And a scorpion, with its sting drooping, two eerie arms spread upon the marble goes crawling, over an alien name. How beautiful is the imagery filled with suspense and awe, the grotesque scorpion with the diabolic tail, we imagine it! The lizard too sees the whole drama going thereon. The scorpion of Mahapatra brings in the memory of the scorpion of Nissim Ezekiel and the owl complaining to the moon of Thomas Gray. The lizard and the scorpion add dramatic touches to the poem breaking the silence of the secluded landscape.
In the circle the epitaphs run: Florence R--, darling wife of Captain R-- R--, aged nineteen, of cholera . . . ., Helen, beloved daughter of Mr and Mrs J.S. White, of cholera, aged seventeen, in the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred . . . . Someone’s daughter, someone’s wife lie buried in the unknown cemetery away from their places. The dots tell about the time-span which the poet takes it not to elaborate upon as they have been cut short in the prime of their youth. There is a silence spread around the place. With what hope and service, they would have come? What fate or destiny did they meet with? How to say it where from they had been from? Where to gather it from?
Of what concern is it some vanished Empire? He does not know it that nor has anything to do with. What to with the colonial past when we were under the British which is but our ennui? It is the dying young who have the power to show what the heart will hide; the grass shows no more. How to know the pain and tragedy of their living as they went away so long? There is nothing as to grieve as the things have obliterated and have become obsolete. The empire’s history has gone with empire, but the graves are still there to tell of their disease and death.
Who watches now in the dark near the dead wall? The tribe of grass in the cracks of his eyes? It is the cholera still, death’s sickly trickle, that plagues the sleepy shacks beyond this hump of earth, moving easily, swiftly, with quiet power through both past and present, the growing young, into the final bone, wearying all truth with ruin. It was cholera the epidemic which claimed the precious lives of the English. The grass will grow up oblivious of what it happened in the long past. This is but the course of history, this is but the passage of time which one has to pass through. Still now cholera plagues the spirit of them and has not been vindicated. Can the diseases be conquered and eradicated? Just the cases have been minimized.
This is the iron rusting in the vanquished country, the blood’s unease to be felt about, the useless rain upon the unfamiliar window, what can it do? The tired triumphant smile left behind by the dead on a discarded anchor half-sunk in mud beside the graves, all these hint towards the deadly infection, affectation claiming their lives. Time takes a turn as the things too get shaped and reshaped in its course. But what will it linger and last none can say! Tragedy or loss may come anytime. Faces change and situations do not remain the same. So is mass and matter. So is human presence. Everything is but in a flux. Everything is transitory. So is the history of the earth and human habitation. The leaves of grass have the songs of their own to whistle with the winds passing by.
But we the human beings take the things in our own way. We know it not the history of time and man and the earth the recourse it takes to as per its diurnal course which, but Wordsworth too says it in the poem A Slumber Did My Spirit My Seal. What is it mortality, what is disease and death? How the untimely pall and gloom of death?
But there on the earth’s unwavering gravity, where it waits like a deity perhaps for the elaborate ceremonial of a coming generation to keep history awake, how to put it?, is the question. Cholera the killer disease waits for like a deity for the ceremonial farewells of one generation after another. The rotation of the earth, the gravity is intact.
What we see it today will not remain it tomorrow. The surface view of things will keep changing. One generation after another will keep exiting, this is but the way of the world. The writing of history, how to say it, who views in which way? The sense of history is the most important thing. The earth rotates in its way, so the things, matter and mass with it and from this periphery, how to view the things is the point.
To explain the poem is to lose the beauty of thought and meaning, idea and reflection. We do not why he has chosen to visit the abandoned and neglected cemetery. But as a writer here his stance is one of a visitor, a tourist never indulging in anything absurd to be put before. He does not question it anything. He has neither any grievance nor any qualm to voice or raise, but to accept it with calm resignation and gravity.
The Abandoned British Cemetery at Balasore, India is definitely one of the most beautiful poems ever written by Mahapatra which tell of the cemetery lying in a country where the victims were mostly the British who died of cholera and their life cut short by the epidemic, but the way he put the columns of decay, bricks crumbling and falling or breaking, stones and marbles losing lack lustre is splendid enough. The course of history, what to say it about? The recourse that time takes to, how to delineate it? What to say about life and its times and situations? Cholera and its times, how to describe it? Times had been hard when the outbreak of cholera used to take a toll upon human lives heavily. The British in India too is a picture. We have seen them as administrators, but have we from some different angle of deliberation? Now the British are no more in India, but their graves still lie in our burial grounds and graveyards. But who strives to read the epitaphs? This too is a study of history which the people know it not. History is archaeology and historiography. How is it written? There is something in the reading of time and phenomena too. Death the leveller, how to read the inscriptions of it which but time obliterates it? The history of diseases and deaths, how to take a note of that? But untimely death pains us most. Coloniality, post-colonially, nothing can avert death and its advancing steps though through the prisms of these we can view the things.
The Abandoned British Cemetery at Balasore, India is a specimen of the Churchyard school of poetry writing and the elegiac mood is one of stoicism and calm resignation. The poet elucidates all these things in a very sober way marking the quietude prevailing upon, silence talking about and the landscape so heavy with and he digs with the spade of history, historiography, and archaeology to delve deep into time. What differentiates it from the Elegy of Gray is its philosophic resignation which is but of physics, not of poetry and literature? There is nothing of melancholia and the melancholic strain in it. As the plasters fall off from the non-cured walls or the older ones so the flakes of history which but keep flaking.
There is plague which lies it referred to in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, but here is cholera not typhoid and someone will definitely talk about corona the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.
The ruins of stone and marble, the crumbling wall of brick, the coma of alienated decay, a quietness of bramble and grass holds me to a weed, I walk around them: thirty-nine graves, their legends floating, the flaking history my intrusion does not animate, awkward in the silence, a scrawny lizard watches the drama with its shrewd hooded gaze, etc. as the parts of the poetic sentences add verve and weight to the poem and its poetic structure.
When the poet says, ‘This is history’, we become appalled to read it as the starting line of the poem and think within if a poem can be started in such a way, but the music it adds is unimaginable. This is but history, the course of history which you know it not, I know it not, what is history? How is it written? History lies it unwritten. Many a thing we know it not, people’s history, time’s history, geography’s history, family’s history. Just the history of the kings cannot do it. There is something in regionalism and provincialism; in regional history, provincial history; the history of the place, the history of the people. There is something that we can draw from other sources which we but know it not. The tomb stones and inscriptions too can shed some light on the time of the age. So are diaries, memoirs, mementoes, letters and the papers of the different departments.