I replied and thanked Jayantada – as he requested that I call him – and in the months that followed we kept up a correspondence. At that time, Jayantada had just revived Chandrabhāgā which he edited without a break from 1979 to 1985, when the journal had to close for lack of funds. In its first run, Chandrabhāgā had contributions from poets such as Meena Alexander and Arun Kolatkar and poet-critics such as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, whose now famous essay, ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ was published in Issues 3 and 7 respectively of Chandrabhāgā, in response to a letter from the poet R. Parthasarathy who took exception to an essay published in the very first issue of the journal. In its new avatar, Chandrabhāgā hoped to revive the conversation (and skirmishing) between poets.
But Jayanta Mahapatra is not just an editor of an important little magazine but also one of the best poets of his generation. He was 42 when his first book, Swayamvara and Other Poems was published in 1971 (take heart, all you who started writing late!) making his work contemporaneous with younger poets such as Dilip Chitre and Keki Daruwalla. His poetry is dark and makes no concessions to the reader’s desire for hope (‘Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in,’ he writes, in his best-known poem ‘Hunger’). In 2009 he was awarded the Padma Shri.
It could have been an award given too late: in 2006, Jayantada was critically ill. The news made my heart lodge itself in my throat and refuse to budge. I could not say why it was important to me that Jayantada survive and recover – maybe because of the letters he wrote me, maybe because the poems in his then-recently-published book, Random Descent affected me deeply – I wrote him letters often and sent him poems by other people that I thought would bring comfort. The amazing thing is that he replied to every one of my letters though his hand was shakier and more crabbed with each reply.
I was determined to meet this poet who wrote to an unknown writer with affection and encouragement, through bad health and a painful recovery.
It took me nearly four years to move from wish to fulfilment: earlier this month, I called Jayantada and asked him if I could come and visit him. He was ill once again, but he welcomed my visit.
The three days I spent in
Reading through the books chronologically, I find a poem from The Lie of Dawns:
If he turns the night darker
and the silence deeper
it’s because the wind
doesn’t like him touching it
and because the earth is afraid
at the power of his feeling
From ‘At Times a Man Growing Old’
For the first time, I find myself on the brink of an opportunity to understand a writer’s work as a whole. Jayanta Mahapatra’s autobiography is now being serialised in the Oriya magazine, Bijoya. I hope it will be translated into English soon and wonder how like his poetry it will be.
My one regret is that I could not get Jayantada to record a few poems – he was too unwell to speak for long, let alone recite poetry. I hope some day I can return to Tinkonia Bagicha and persuade Jayantada to lend me his voice.