Contemporary Concerns: Guni Vats

The play of truth and illusion: Language as myth in the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra
                                                                                      - Guni Vats
Guni Vats
Language is not merely a medium of communication but also the mode of expression. Jayanta Mahapatra uses language in his poems with the precision of a musician to express what he experienced. Mithya or myths in Hindu mythology are read as subjective truths, truths that don’t claim to be universal but are true in a specific frame of reference. Once the words are made free of their fixed meanings and treated as metaphors, they initiate a free play of meanings, where signifiers could refer to any number of signified and each signified gives a new meaning to the entire text. This paper attempts to read three of Mahapatra’s poems treating language as myth. A Missing Person breaks away from the scientific truth of space and time and in the illusion is realized a missing woman, a woman who is not found by the mirror but the drunk flames of an oil lamp. Her Hand is an apology of a guilty nation whose hypocrisy does not allow it to hold the hand of a rape victim but are reduced to mere spectator. Hunger is the narration of vulgar stance of hunger and its satiation that does not hide under ornate language or metaphors. Mahapatra breaks apart from every convention to convey his mystic experience and thus his truth often germinates from the myths of his land and he often layers his myth with the truth of his experiences. By studying his language as myth and appreciating the metaphorical existence of his works, the paper tries to celebrate the free play of truth and illusion that his poems create. They offer something for everybody, they are the poems that germinate from the soil and the soul and they sure reach where they germinate from, thus completing its cyclic existence.

Keywords: Language, Myth, Truth, Metaphors, Illusions.

                The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. (Nietzsche 7)

Language is not merely a medium of communication but an expression. And if mankind has ever evolved its aesthetic of expression, it is best served with the sophistication of poetry. The arrangement of words designed to satisfy the appetite of human need for art convey more than what is reflected by the black ink. They open a realm of free play of meanings. The words were designated fixed meanings to construct a social order that must rely on a scientific system of existence. An existence where the stimuli were designated sound and visual symbols. These symbols do not attempt to sing the universal truth but only simplify the riddle of stimuli and the overused words automatically assume the shape of truth making the case for scientific evidence. Myths in Hindu mythology hold a sacred place as they are not dismissed as the lies told for satiating the hunger of belief but are celebrated as the subjective truth. Myth is the truth told from a frame of reference, it is not universal but fixed and limited. Language and myth could thus be both understood as metaphors, metaphors that have been used repeatedly to earn a place of truth.
            What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins. (Nietzsche 4)

Jayanta Mahapatra is a celebrated poet known for the ‘difficulty’ of his poems. Critics agree that his poems are not meant as mere appreciation of language or the scenery but convey much more that surpasses the limited understanding of a literary piece. His usage of language and selection of diction sets apart his poems as they paint a canvas with the precision of a painter and hides the bright light of a star under the darkness of night sky using best the aesthetics of an artist. His work hardly offers poetic relief; it taunts the reader and evokes him to scratch his senses to the best of his ability to decipher what hides beneath every word and the space between words. Truth in art is a fairly subjective concept and it could be argued that the aim of a work of art is never to establish a universal truth but to deconstruct the rigidity that forms a truth. Mahapatra’s poems shatter the established images beautifully. They offer a piece of satisfaction for every curious mind; his poems unwind in layers and with every depth they take on a new meaning. My paper attempts to dig in the layers of his poems by freeing the words of their rigid and limited meanings. I attempt to peel the layers of his words by finding metaphors and not meanings. The poems without the rigidity of literary forms and meanings take the form of myths, the subjective truths that are expressed by the metaphors of his poems and their significance in the culture we live in.

Truth and illusion play a confusing game. The deciding verdict stays with belief. Words together only create a myriad of illusions and its deliberate usage and decided presence establish the paradigm of truth. Mahapatra’s poems oscillate between illusion and truth. He writes what he experiences and to understand his poetry is to walk in his steps through the sceneries that he has been in. The language he uses in his poems could be taken away from the accepted meanings and provided with the less obvious interpretations and when this happens they can be seen in absolutely different light; poems that may not be social documents but a narration of pain and anguish, the process of creation of a myth. His poetry breaks the ‘forms’ and thus enters in the field of free play of signifiers. Looking at his poems with this point of view would not require a detailed study of his experiences but only the portraits he sketches through his words. He discloses the metaphorical lives we all lead in the mythic society only to create the comfort of a permanent truth but that only ultimately unveils the vulgarity of illusion hidden under every established meaning.

A Missing Person is the saga of a woman in three crisp stanzas. An onlooker expresses the plight of ‘a woman’. Her actions coincide with the play of light and darkness and burn her passions at the end. The title declares a person that is missing, it neither is the appeal of finding the lost nor is it an admission of what is lost. It is the plain acceptance of a person, and not a woman, who is missing. A missing person who could be any among the billion faces populating the world. The three stanzas could be read as transcending the fetters of time and space. The first stanza establishes the dark room as the site of action but the third line shatters the admission when the mirror seems to consume the space. The darkness of room merely becomes an instrument while the scene of action transcends to the mirror that fails to reflect the woman. The second line establishes ‘a woman’, the woman that stands, the only truth that seems existent in the dark room. The stanza probably plays with the sentiments of academicians sympathetic to the woman. The play of metaphor could be enjoyed when the woman could be established as present and the mirror unable to reflect her existence. The instrument meant for reflection fails to act on its truth and what is left is a mere illusion. The next stanza shifts the time frame when the woman ‘waits’ at the ‘edge of her sleep’. The edge of sleep establishes the illusion further where it points at a transitional stage from wakefulness to sleep. The state of consciousness that easily gives way to hallucinations and maybe that is what she is waiting for. After the failure of mirror to reflect her, she turns to her hallucinations to find her, to reflect her. The failure of an established scientific truth leads to the onset of an illusion, a myth that for her seems to be the ultimate truth. The third stanza illuminates the darkened room with the ‘oil lamp’. The shift from darkness to light might have provided with an image in the mirror, which she no longer needs. Her reflection does not depend on the truth of light and mirror but the illusion of a source of light in her hand, the truth in her hand that may find the illusion in her. The stanza might just be an extension of the hallucination where the ‘drunken yellow flames’ dance to reach out to her body, her passions and find in her the body she hides. She does not need the truth of a mirror to find her but the illusion of drunken flames and the poet shows how:
            in her hands she holds
                the oil lamp
                whose drunken yellow flames
                know where her lovely body hides.  (The Lie of Dawns 89)

Her Hand resonates like the apology that is an expression of a sorry and a guilty nation. The title does not disclose the horrific act or the plight; it only unveils her hand, the hand of a rape victim. The first line declares that the hand of the girl is ‘made of darkness’ and the very second line discloses the hypocrisy with the question, ‘how will I hold it?’ (Mahapatra 20) The intention is to provide support then why does the darkness matter and why is there darkness? The ‘how’ speaks for the inability of a hypocrite society that only talks of sympathy but in return only designates the victim with profound darkness. The second stanza paints the image of hell; the ‘decapitated heads’ of streetlamps appear to be the hung heads that decorate the gates of death and the ‘blood’ that ‘opens that terrible door between us’ appears to be the Miton’s gate to hell. Could the ‘I’ in the first stanza be the dilemma of the lord of death who has come to take the ‘little girl’ while the ashamed inanimate streetlamps, meant to give light, stand in shame on witnessing the gruesome act of cruelty. The third stanza screams of the country, whose mouth is ‘clamped in pain’, the country that fails to even cry at the pain of its residents. ‘While its body writhes on its bed of nails’, creates the image of a nation lying on a bed of nails, writhing but unable to scream of pain because of the brace that shuts its mouth. These two lines shred every piece of sanity in the unashamed nation that is unable to even cry for the pain of the little girl that lies unattended on its street. The ‘raped body’ of the girl is only that is left for holding; her soul might have departed when the act of rape was committed. The body lies on the street in darkness but the resistance is so strong that even the ‘guilt’ of death fails to ‘hug her’.
            This little girl has just her raped body
                for me to reach her
                The weight of my guilt is unable
                to overcome my resistance to hug her. (Mahapatra 20)

The poem might have taunted the Gods or spat at the country that unashamedly resists holding the raped body. It uses the hand as a metaphor for support and shatters the illusion of a country believing in myths while abandoning its own. The image of the body of nation writhing on bed of nails might bring back the memory of Bhishma from Mahabharata. The grandfather of both Pandavas and Kauravas, who lived his life proving true to his swear but then fell at the battleground on the bed of arrows. While he lay there awaiting his death he witnessed the bloodshed where his family fought against its own blood. The Bharata we live in today could be disillusioned with this myth, when the act of Dharma and Truth have reduced to mere myths and the truth stabs the illusions so cruelly that we end up killing our own and then fail to merely hold her hand.

Hunger is the vulgar narration of a stance of hunger and its satiation. The poem opens with the confession of the narrator’s hunger, ‘it was hard to believe that the flesh was heavy on my back’. (The Lie of Dawns 41) It might have been hard for him to admit to his humanly hunger of satiating the need of his flesh but he walks through the poem as if in trance and narrates the events that opened the door to a hunger that his hunger might satiate. The fisherman’s casual proposal, ‘will you have her’ and his careless trails of his nets and nerves lead the narrator to a home that whined with pangs of hunger. The narrator followed the ‘sanctified’ purpose but is almost immediately shocked with the consequence of proposal, ‘I saw his white bone thrash his eyes' (The Lie of Dawns 46) the father might have sanctified the arrangement of offering his daughter as he would offer her in the act of a sanctified matrimonial arrangement. But his body could not comply with his mythic sanctity and the truth of his vulgarity thrashed through his eyes leaving his hunger vulnerable to the customer of his daughter.

The path that narrator follows the fisherman is depicted with the beauty of language where even the grains of sand accuse him of the forthcoming act, ‘I followed him across the sprawling sands’. The word ‘sprawling’ sing the abuse where the daughter might lie with her limbs spread out just like the sand does when the two men tread over it. ‘Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in’, the only hope in the scenario comes with burning down the house, the metaphorical body that the customer resides in and thus ending the prospect of any hunger. But ‘silence’ grips him when he looks at the body of the fisherman that ‘clawed at the froth his old nets had only dragged up from the sea’. The froth that demarcates the hunger in absolute colloquial of the word, the mere froth of hunger and no fish to satiate that hunger left burning in the house.

The third stanza raises the act to the epitome of cruelty and vulgarity when even the poet stammers, ‘In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound’ (The Lie of Dawns 46) the gates of the hunger stuck house are opened like a wound, a wound in the hunger stuck body. The following lines mark a tone of existentialism in the poet which brings across him not as an animal who would hunt to feed but a human who would self-analyze and ultimately give in to the hunger of his body and his passion. ‘In wind was I, and the days and nights before. Palm fronds scratched my skin’, at witnessing the opened wound, poet becomes a part of the wind and the days and nights that preceded the moment when the palm fronds scratched his skin, agonizing his hunger. Once inside the shack, Mahapatra describes the dimensions of mind and space using the absolute genius diction that set a tone to the act that is to follow. ‘an oil lamp splayed the hours…over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind’ (The Lie of Dawns 46) the truth of time and space has merged with the metaphors of splay and sticky soot and has created an illusion of the act of satiation of hunger that might have occurred in the shack over and over again on the days and nights before. Here the poet shows:
            I heard him say: My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen…
                Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.   (The Lie of Dawns 46)
The ellipses in the first line shake the truth and unveil it in its most ugly form. The daughter who has just turned fifteen is offered in exchange for satiation of hunger. Although the customer’s shock is expressed with the dialectic use of Hindi saying, ‘The sky fell on me’ but his act is then justified by the ‘exhausted wile’ of the father and he ultimately decides to proceed. ‘long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.’(The Lie of Dawns 46) the girl’s fifteen years of hunger only gifted her rubber cold life. ‘She opened her wormy legs wide’ is the only action that the girl undertakes but it conveys much more than is expressed. The manner of opening her legs give the act a kind of repetitive brilliance, like this act was not her first, she is accustomed at soliciting men like the narrator. ‘I felt the hunger there, the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside’, the final line gives words to the inherent tale of hunger, that of existence and of passion and both make men their slave, both demand satiation. The poem does not hide its motive under ornate metaphors but breaks the myth of father as the savior and mocks at the illusion of human goodness. The poem does not advocate the truth of suppressed women or establishes the myth of father’s protective haven for his daughter. It breaks through the shackles of a sophisticated society and bares the basic human hunger; the hunger that swallows all myth and illusions to satiate it, the only truth is uncovered.

Jayanta Mahapatra sculpts his poems with the precision of an artist and with the innocence of a soul that has lived on these experiences he depict. His poems and his experiences could best be stated in his words, in an interview Mahapatra said, a poet is a poet by virtue of what he or she sees or hears, and that itself begins the mystifying process of the poem’ (Ten Writers in Interview). He breaks apart from every convention to convey his mystic experience and thus his truth often germinates from the myths of his land and he often layers his myth with the truth of his experiences. By studying his language as myth and appreciating the metaphorical existence of his works, I tried to celebrate the free play of truth and illusion that his poems create. They offer something for everybody, they are the poems that germinate from the soil and the soul and they sure reach where they germinate from, thus completing its cyclic existence. Mahapatra is sure not easy to be read or to be deciphered but then that might be his exact motive. He frees the spirit of his work by wrapping them in a language that does not bind them in the strict cages of meanings and truth. His poems are not meant to be understood or be broken; they are the paintings that need to be appreciated by the aesthetic of art native to every soul. They sing of a melody that might hurt some or offend others, but they never fail to touch the tune of every soul that is exposed to his work. His poems hide tales within tales and only the eyes looking for breaking the fetters of intellectual knowledge may enjoy the nectar of his writings and get drunk on his sensibilities that evoke the worst of us to stare at us in our nudity and then move towards the better. He might not be sketching a myth or telling a truth but he is singing to the few who want to experience what he has experienced.  The discussion can be summed up with these lines from his Genesis:
            Maybe nothing came from anything,
                A long drawn-out yawn from nowhere. …
                The myth has its head stuck in the form of a tree.
                And the spirits of knowledge won’t let it pass.   (Mahapatra 17)


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