Reflections: In Conversation with Jayanta Mahapatra

Zinia Mitra, Nakshalbari College, Darjeeling, India

That’s what,

You don’t know where you live. Inside.

(“A Father’s Hours” 52)

In my landscape, which indeed very few are allowed to inhabit, residents are quietly slipping away. Rituparno Ghosh, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Maya Angelou, Nabarun Bhattacharyya. Like the deserted shore at dawn I can only watch their boats floating away, undulating then fading out of sight. In the relentless silence that is gradually setting in, a few words have yet stayed back, lingering. Some movies, some novels, a few lines … left back as the travelers have hurried on with their preferred backpacks. As we try to negotiate with this emptiness, we cling on to some known lines, return to known poems to fill in the empty spaces that steadily fills our lives. Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry is like a pristine countryside where I have returned time and again.

I grew familiar with the name Jayanta Mahapatra when he worked as an editor of the poetry section in the Telegraph Colour Magazine , (like Khushwant Singh who selected short stories for it for sometime), the first such editing done by Sahitya Akademi winner (1980) for Indian English Poetry. Inspired by the picks I had planned to pen my own poetry and send in submissions as sparrows mistook their way into my room and pecked at my mirror, but like so many other plans of mine I never did.

Years later Prof. Niranjan Mohanty (Department of English, Visva Bharati) and Prof. Binoy Banerjee (Department of English, NBU) met at an occasion at the University of North Bengal, and discussed the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra at length. That is when I decided to do my PhD on Mahapatra’s poetry, as there clearly was a research gap. The critical outpourings on Mahapatra was not adequate to the awards and honours he had received.

I wrote to the poet.

I was surprised by the quick and warm response I received from the poet in a tidy scrawl:

“… But, Zinia have you read my poetry? Critics and readers (here in Orissa ) persist in saying my poetry is too complicated to be understood. I say this with a felling of hurt…I wrote poetry because I wanted to, and because it comes out of love.”

Jayanta Mahapatra June 20, 2002


After I completed my thesis, received my parchment from the then Vice- Chancellor Hon’ble Goplakrishna Gandhi, even after I studied Mahapatra again and wrote on the poet as a Social Critic (Bhashanagar, 2012), and published a book on him: (Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: Imagery and Experiential Identity. Authorspress, 2012). I found that I was not quite finished with him. I think herein lies the essence of true poetry. One is never quite finished with it. It breathes everytime “Children, brown as earth, continue to laugh” (16) or “a ten year old girl /combs her mother’s hair/ where crows of rivalry/ are quietly nesting” (A Rain of Rites). Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry is scattered in many such images throughout India, breathing and vibrant.

Jayanta Mahapatra (by then I called him Jayantada) had expressed his desire to visit Darjeeling in one of his letters. He wrote: “… hope there will be a time soon when we can meet. Maybe when I come to Darjeeling [he spelt Darjiling] to your University.” He was excited like a child at the future possibility. But it happened the other way round. I visited him accompanied by Subodh Sarkar, the Bengali poet, after a workshop on translation held in Bhubenshwar. The Translation Workshop was organized by Subodh Sarkar, the editor of Bhashanagar, and Kedar Mishra the editor of Sachitra Vijaya, Ojas, and Batayana. We visited his residence at Tinkonia Bagicha. Those who have visited his house will agree with me that some houses refuse to change with time and hold on to their aged unrenovated beauty. Tinkonia Bagicha was one such house, shaded by big trees, hospitality rolling on its shinning floor. Cool place, warm heart. Roomful of books, black and white photograph of Runu Mahapatra (poet’s wife). She was a beautiful lady. I carried back home to Siliguri memories sweeter than the sweets Jayantada had packed for me.

Honoured with the Sahitya Akademi award for poetry (1980) for his volume Relationship, Mahapatra’s poetry has appeared in various journals national and international. His lists of awards and recognitions extend form being featured in International Who’s Who in Poetry, London, 1970 , Jacob Glanstein Memorial award, Poetry Magazine Chicago,(1975) Gangadhar National Award for Poetry (1994), to being an invited poet at International Writing Program, Iowa City 1976 and Cultural Award Visitor in Australia, 1978. We marvel not at the extensive list of honours and awards but at the strange turns that life takes. The professor of physics at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack ended up as a Doctor of Literature, (honoris causa Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, 2006). He was also awarded India’s Padma Shree Award in 2009.

Correspondences have an air of privacy about them. Specially the informal ones where the writer assumes the informal voice, rather, let’s say drops his/her assumed voice.Thus when we read them we have an assiduous feeling that we are prying into somebody else’s living room, and, going by human nature, that makes us all the more curious. (I sometimes wonder how people can lay bare all the correspondences that are supposed to be treasured privately, and all will agree that privacy is not always synonymous with clandestine. Maybe they don’t. They only pretend to.)

I would, however, like to share one of Jayantada’ s letters here:

Dear Zinia,

We are nearing the end of the year and each one of us tends to reflect on the days gone by. Somehow I do not wish to think back. It is safer to live each day as it comes .I don’t know if you will agree , I write slowly now-a days. And I believe that when I am through with life , all my poems can represent a movement .If this movement makes some sense of life I suppose one has done his little bit.

Dec 17, 2003

“Chance rules our lives and future is all unknown. Best live as best as we may form day to day” was voiced by a character in Sophocles play whose situation and circumstance stands as widely different from our poet as Sophocles’s era is form ours, but there are certain timeless truths human beings arrive at and this particular one is one such summit.

Zinia Mitra is the Head of the Department of English at Nakshalbari College, Darjeeling, India. Her travelogues and articles have been published in The Statesman. Her reviews, articles, translations have been widely published in books and journals. Her books include: Indian Poetry in English Critical Essays, Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: Imagery and Experiential Identity and Twentieth Century British Literature: Reconstructing Literary Sensibility. She is on the advisory /editorial board of academic journals. Her poems have been published in Muse India, Ruminations, Contemporary Literary Review India , Kavya Bharati.