Saturday, January 23, 2010

Two Minutes Older: At Tinkonia Bagicha

When I first began to write poetry, I had no idea where to submit my work. So I wrote and watched other peoples’ acknowledgements carefully. One journal whose name cropped up often was Chandrabhāgā. Accordingly, I sent a few poems off to the editor, Jayanta Mahapatra, and was thrilled when he replied saying he’d like to use all of them. The few words of praise in his lovely hand-written letter were exactly what I needed to tip me over into taking my own writing seriously.

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 Cuttack were like a gift: we talked, though not always about poetry. I explored the Chandrabhāgā office, read old and new issues of the journal, browsed through poetry books and was given valuable copies of his books, A Rain of Rites and False Start (with a cover by Arun Kolatkar) and his latest, The Lie of Dawns: Poems 1974-2008.

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.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)


Falstaff said...

I'm envious.

Also does this mean there's finally a collected works of Mahapatra? yaay!

And nice piece. Though I wish you'd said more about his poems.

parotechnics said...

Nice piece Dala..

Space Bar said...

falsie: i will; there's only so much one can do in a column.

and it's selected rather than collected, which is a pity, but i can understand the impulse to leave out the less than best poems when there is a chance to.

more posts coming up.

Space Bar said...

paro: thanks.

sumana001 said...

I love his poetry, Dala, and I also treasure his hand-written letters. He is such a wonderful person. Your post brought tears to my eyes.

km said...

So glad you are writing this for a newspaper.

//Read my first Mahapatra poem when I was 13. Though what blew my mind then was learning that he taught physics and wrote poetry. Who knew one could be two things at once? :)

Falstaff said...

I suppose selected is better than nothing.

On a somewhat unrelated note, can someone explain to me this strange fascination people seem to have with hand-written letters? There seems to be the general idea that hand-written letters are more personal, which I personally have never understood. As long as there's evidence in the text that the letter is specific to you, how does it matter whether the person writing it chooses to use a pen or a keyboard?

The saddest thing about Chandrabhaga, from my perspective, is that technologically it still seems stuck in the 1980s (no website, no electronic submission process), and I can't help thinking that hand-writing letters is just another symptom of a larger technological apathy.

Space Bar said...

sumana: glad you liked.

km: :D and you read mahapatra at 13? i don't think i read any indian poetry until i went to rv.

falsie: two separate things, electronic submissions vs the other kind and hand-written letters.

i don't know how you see it, but writing is very linked with the 'person' in personality. you might say the same thing via email and append names, and use affectionate diminutives, be intimate and yet never manage to replicate exactly the emotion that the former gives rise to.

or so i feel but that's probably just a generational thing or something. :-)

about submissions, to chandrabhaga in particular: only mahapatra ran the journal. now that he's unwell, he can't. someone else can start some other journal but chandrabhaga is over. that's how it goes.

Equivocal said...

Just to echo Sridala on this one, I'm not particularly nostalgic for the era of handwriting, nor would I assert there's necessarily anything superior there, but handwriting can definitely be expressive in various ways not easily done in print; and that, naturally can have implications for poetry. There have been recent movements of Chinese poets who have gone back to working with handwritten characters (in that particular context I would imagine handwriting would make a big difference). Then there's Susan Howe's fascinating work on Emily Dickinson's handwriting:

Here's an essay on this in Howe's own words--brilliant, contentious-- though her theoretical language may be off putting to some:

Space Bar said...

equivocal: thanks for those links. i had also wanted to say that there's so much more you can tell from writing on a page - the corrections made, evidence of activity surrounding the writing; perhaps the ink ran out or a different pen was used half-way through. it makes it more interesting.

not that i'm complaining about technology, oh no! i'm just as ecstatic when someone i want to hear from writes; and the possibility of more frequent communication improves the chances of ecstasy greatly. :-) (or something.)

Falstaff said...

Equivocal: Good point. I have to admit I wasn't really applying the argument to poetry. More to everyday letters, the sort that JM was presumably sending SB. Can see how handwriting could serve an artistic purpose if used intelligently. Less convinced that scribbling any old thing in a letter is made somehow more personal by being handwritten.

[Full disclosure: I feel strongly about this only because I spent two years of my life getting hell from an ex-girlfriend who seemed to think, for reasons I never understood, that my 2,000+ word love letters were somehow less romantic because they were typed]

SB: Have you seen the new Nabokov? They reproduce the actual cards he wrote on in the book - so you can see exactly what he added, what he crossed out etc.

Of course, in the days before computers you could do that with a typed manuscript as well. Remember the Elizabeth Bishop book from a couple of years ago?

Space Bar said...

falsie: ah, in that case, (deep) sympathies. How obtuse of the woman.

And no, I haven't - damn you! Re the Bishop, yes. I somehow skipped straight to computers, so I didn't even think of typewriters.

Laxman said...

In times when there is a lack of appteciation for real great men, your article about jayanta mahapatra was really heartening. in school we used to have some of his poems; since than i have been an admirer of this man. Thanks for the article.

equivocal said...

Ah yes indeed, Falsie! Good riddance to that horrible lady! She clearly prefers packaging to content. I see where you're coming from now, poor thing. I myself haven't written a handwritten letter in years, though, on the other hand, I must say for some obscure reason I feel much more connected and physical composing poetry by hand and pen and paper, at least in the first draft or two. Do you compose straight onto the comp? And I still love to get the odd handwritten letter, or to have one fall out of the pages of a book or an archive.

Space Bar said...

Lakshman: thanks!

Falstaff said...

equivocal: Usually straight onto the comp, yes. Till a while back I would carry a notebook around, especially if I was traveling, to jot things down, but with my Blackberry now I don't even do that.

Cheshire Cat said...


All forms of apathy are to be encouraged, but especially the technological. The essay that made Homi Bhabha famous was typed with a manual typewriter on onionskin paper - the "onionskin" is such an important detail (and what is onionskin anyway?)

Aishwarya said...

Perhaps the lady in question was tactfully trying to get Falstaff to self edit?

(Loved this piece, Sridala)

Falstaff said...

Aishwarya: Could be. It's still an obtuse thing to do - anyone who knows me at all knows I would rather give up on a relationship than on the sound of my own voice.