Review: RE-READING JAYANTA MAHAPATRA THROUGH NANDINI SAHU'S LENS

"This book is the tribute, highest respect, from a young poet to a senior poet, from a devotee to divinity incarnate, idol embodied." says Prof. Nandini Sahu in the Critical Introduction to her book titled Re-Reading Jayanta Mahapatra (Selected Poems). It elegantly sums up the relationship that she shares with Jayanta Mahapatra, a name synonymous with the foundation of Indian English poetry.

Jayanta Mahapatra (1928- ) is the first Indian English poet to have won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1971. He considered as one of the founding fathers of Indian English poetry alongside Nissim Ezekiel and A.K Ramanujan. A prolific writer, he has published more than ten collections of poetry and a few prose pieces and continues to write till date. Also a bilingual poet, he has written several poems in his mother tongue Odia. His poetry offers a wide canvass of themes ranging from his familial relationships to the depravity of the society to representations of cultural landscapes of Odisha. Some of his notable works are A Rain of Rites (1976), Relationship (1980), Bare Face (2000), and Hesitant Light (2016).

Prof. Nandini Sahu, Amazon’s best-selling author 2022, Professor of English and Former Director, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU, New Delhi, India, is an established Indian English poet, creative writer and folklorist. She is the author/editor of seventeen books. She is the recipient of the Literary Award/Gold Medal from the Hon’ble Vice President of India for her contribution to English Studies. Her areas of research interest cover New Literatures, Critical Theory, Folklore and Culture Studies, Children’s Literature and American Literature.

Through this book aptly titled: Re-Reading Jayanta Mahapatra (Selected Poems), Sahu has shed new light on Mahapatra’s poetic oeuvre. The critical introduction covers the poet's entire career, starting with his early poems to his most recent publications. Several scholars like John Oliver Perry, M.K Naik, Bruce King, and Madhusudan Prasad have critically looked at Mahapatra vis-à-vis post-colonialism, modernism and symbolism. However, Sahu’s re-reading of the poet in question is unique because of the way she has successfully connected the poet’s personal life with his poetry. By doing so, she is encouraging the readers to read the poet in conjunction with his life. Her psychoanalytical approach sheds light on aspects of Mahapatra’s poetry which were hitherto invisible to his readers. Referring to his autobiography, Sahu has interwoven the details of his personal life with their varied representations in his poetry. This is a novel way of reinterpreting some of his poems. For instance, Sahu points out that Mahapatra had a loving relationship with his father which is reflected in the poetry collection Whiteness of Bone (1979) where he talks about his dying father or remembers the daily rituals his father used to practice when he was home.

Mahapatra’s complex relationship with his past is said to have affected him in ways that he himself did not fathom. She says, "His mind lurks in the past in quest of something that he himself is not aware of" (p. 16). Sahu has tried to unveil the complex relationship that the poet shares with his past by probing deep into his psyche. Looking into his past is like re-reading his poems in a different context. She focuses her attention on the recollective mode of Jayanta Mahapatra. In a poem titled “Grandfather”, the poet remembers reading the old, yellow stained diary of his grandfather. According to Sahu, “Mahapatra holds his grandfather accountable for the pessimism in the family because of his absence…the reawakening of the memories of his grandfather through the yellow diary becomes both a mien of joy and sorrow…(p.20)”. By citing several examples from Mahapatra’s works, Sahu highlights his past relationships starting with his grandfather, then moving to his father and mother.

The poet is seen negotiating, not only with people, but also with some of the past spaces he has occupied. Sahu observes and tries to decipher the ways in which remnants of his childhood home along with the people who used to reside in it continue to perturb him. Quoting these lines from Mahapatra’s poem “The Dispossessed”:

 

There is a photograph still hanging

on the wall in my father’s house. It is quite old,

and against an elaborate

backdrop the photographer used

are my parents, my younger brother and I.

I want to shut it from my mind

because it reminds one of a useless monument.

Sahu portrays the gripping effect that the space still has on the poet. He seems to seek solace in his past. The poet is seen continually negotiating with the notion of home, what it means to him after so many years, and why he feels lost. Continuously probing into his actions, his failures, Sahu has enriched our critical understanding of the psychological underpinning of the poet’s poems by searching for connection between his home and family members who are now deceased.

The transformation of the poet in terms of his transition from writing love poems to writing poems on larger issues of life is also traced in the critical introduction by Sahu. In the early part of his career, Mahapatra used to write extensively on the themes of love. According to Sahu, Mahapatra views love as the “seminal needs of the mortals” (p. 18). His maturity as a poet reflects in his poetry subsequently when he started writing about the history of India and his locale. The preoccupation with the past stays the same. Only now, he is reflecting on the past by focusing on historical incidents. According to Sahu, "The present which seldom comforts him, seems to be a sheer support system to reach back to the past"(p. 32). This past that Sahu is referring to is his cultural past. In doing so, she is able to clearly show us the progression that Mahapatra has undergone from being a personal poet to being a poet writing about the collective history of a shared tradition.

Sahu shows the readers how acutely aware Mahapatra is of the traditional Odia customs and the binding power of Lord Jagannath. His familiarity with the rich cultural past of Odisha stems from the strained relationship he shares with his Christian identity in a land dominated by the Hindu tradition. The whirlwind of emotions that the poet experiences in connection with his position in the Odia society is linked to his fractured religious identity by Sahu. His grandfather had forcibly converted to Christianity during the devastating famine of 1866. Sahu says, "The one aspect of the cultural heritageof his native land is that he is never tired of portraying the religious rituals and worship in these temples" (p. 38). Mahapatra also feels burdened and is affected by the legend of King Ashoka and the Kalinga war that killed thousands. She cites poems like “Dawn at Puri” and “Relationship” to depict the multifaceted representations of his traditional past.

Moving from the past to the contemporary society occupied by the poet, Sahu has also depicted the effects the “contemporary Indian degenerative situation” (p. 51) has on Mahapatra. Quoting his lines from poems like Japan II, Sometimes, “The Lost Children of America", “The twenty-fifth Anniversary of a Republic", she comments on his highly sensitive treatment of these issues. They are naked truths of life that disturb him. Sahu also makes interesting observation on the nature of time in Mahapatra’s poetry. She remarks, “Even if the poet has a sense of belongingness to the present, he is agonized because of the fleeting nature of time..” (p 77). Mahapatra is seen to be taking huge leaps across centuries, perhaps in search of steady ground, feeling “remote” in the present, but not comfortable in the past either, according to Sahu.

The poems in this collection shed light on the various modes of interaction through which Mahapatra reflects and dwells on the past. His personal relationships, his friendships, the Odia society, historical past of the state, all collide to form a huge backdrop for his poems. The poems that have found a place in this collection have been carefully curated by Sahu. She has meticulously selected some of Mahapatra’s best poems that depict the diverse range of themes he has written about till date. This book not only serves as an excellent entry point for readers who have never read Mahapatra but it will also be helpful for academics looking for a comprehensive critical introduction to the poet.  Sahu has successfully reaffirmed the importance of re-reading Jayanta Mahapatra as his poems are evergreen and the more one reads him, the more there is to discover. Through her re-reading of Mahapatra’s poetry, she has proved his poems are able to withstand the test of time. In doing so, she has successfully reiterated the crucial role that Mahapatra has played in shaping the legacy of Indian English Poetry.

 

Reviewer’s Bio: Dikshya Samantarai is a PhD Research Scholar from the Department of English, School of Humanities, IGNOU. Working on Mahapatra’s poetry, her research contributes in the ambit of Indian English Poetry.  She completed her Masters in English from Hindu College, University of Delhi in 2018. Currently, she is engaged as a Guest Faculty in Department of English, Miranda House, University of Delhi. Her other areas of interest include science fiction, magic realism and theories on body politics. She has also published a paper titled ‘Question of Authenticity in the Man in the High Castle’ in Journal of Arts, IIS University.


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