Thursday, January 17, 2013

'Something in me refuses to die': An Interview with Jayanta Mahapatra

This interview appeared in Mint last Saturday*. I'm putting up an earlier draft of the transcript, which contains a couple of questions we left out of even the web version; and  more lightly unedited answers.


Photo © Sridala Swami

If there is one thing Jayanta Mahapatra gives me, it is hope. Several years ago, as a person who scarcely dared to call herself a poet, I sent a bunch of poems to Chandrabhaga, the journal Mahapatra had edited for many years and recently revived. I was unused both to rejection and acceptance at that time. But I can safely say that the hand-written letter I got from him accepting all my poems, was crucial in helping me redefine myself as a poet.

Many hand-written letters were exchanged over the years that followed, but it wasn’t until 2010 that I felt an urgent, scarcely explicable need to visit Jayantada. Puzzled by my urgency, but nevertheless welcoming, he invited me stay. I had imagined that some at least, of our conversations would be about poetry, but I sensed a reluctance in Jayantada to talk about his work and found I could not ask him all the questions I’d imagined I would.

When he was in Hyderabad last year, he fell suddenly ill. I was worried, but relieved when his hand-written letters, the writing a little shaky, resumed. I was delighted when in November this year, an advance copy of Land, Jayantada’s 19th collection of poetry in English, arrived in the post.
It seemed the right time to get Jayantada to speak about his poetry. Going on as we’d begun, I sent him the questions and he replied over seven closely-written sheets of paper, in a neat beautiful hand. Here are excerpts from that response. I would even call it a conversation.

Of his numerous awards – the Padma Shri, the Sahitya Akademi Award, among others – I need say nothing readers don’t already know. Land takes as its epigraph a line from Oscar Wilde: ‘The artistic life is a long, lovely suicide’. Counter-intuitively, this also gives me hope: as someone who, like Jayantada, started writing poetry very late in life, I look forward to the ‘slow suicide’ in which all of us, no matter what our age or when we begin, are engaged. 


Sridala Swami: Jayantada, you were 40 when your first collection of poems was published. Can you talk about when and why you started to write poetry?

Jayanta Mahapatra: That’s right. I came into poetry quite late, when I was about forty. Not the proper age to write love poems, is it? Perhaps a stage comes when one has to make choices, and in my case it was the writing of poetry.  I had spent all those forty years doing research in theoretical physics, in serious photography, and often at doing practically nothing but reading. Reading still brings me a kind of joy. I like to return to those passages that enlighten me. The way language carried the emotion in a good book attracted me, and I kept learning the subtleties of language. I made my choice with poetry then, and poetry stayed with me.

SS: You have lived all your life in Orissa and its presence in your poetry is very strong. Could you talk about place, language and landscape and how it affects your poetry?

JM: Look, it’s difficult to say expressly how place, language and landscape affect my poetry. I have lived here all my life, and this is the land of my ancestors. Isn’t it but natural that these should come into my poems? Can I forget “hunger” when my own grandfather almost died of starvation in the terrible famine that struck Odisha in 1866? Can I forget the starving millions who live in the remote hinterland and subsist on dried mango seeds and tubers they collect from the jungles? It is the place that has shaped me: its traditions, myths, and more importantly, its history. These make the arms of my poetry.

SS: For years you edited Chandrabhaga, one of the country’s most influential little magazines. It was where many poets first published their poems. What made you want to start Chandrabhaga.

JM: In the late seventies, there was no standard magazine for Indian poetry. Nissim Ezekiel’s Poetry India had folded up and The Illustrated Weekly of India was becoming more politically directed, with Pritish Nandy as the editor. It was a disappointing scene. One had to send one’s poems abroad for publication, and that wasn’t easy. It was expensive too. So I thought I’d start this magazine, Chandrabhaga, for both established and new poets. The response was fairly good because we managed to send our issues abroad, to places like Harvard University and other graduate schools. The magazine was also sent as an exchange magazine to the USA. It was indexed in the PMLA and other directories, which brought me a quiet sense of pride. 

The essays were noticed, and reactions came in. One of my aims was to set standards for poetry, because any “poem” could be published in the poetry magazines in India, and that was terrible. It was sort of heartbreaking for me when I ceased publication.

SS: Much of your work was first published in journals in the US and elsewhere outside India. Did you correspond with poets from other countries? Will these letters be collected and published?

JM: Oh yes, there’s a lot of correspondence lying in old files and cartons. I haven’t been able to do anything about it. I was, for years, preserving these letters from poets and editors until a severe illness almost took my life in 2006. Then I simply left the letters as they were. You could say I abandoned them, realising the futility of such feelings. As a matter of fact, I destroyed a number of them after I recovered partly ... I asked myself: Do these letters measure your life in any way? And if they do, they will be just like passing faces you see when a train goes past you. I’d say there’s nothing to claim, nothing to own in them. I don’t think of them as a literary record, to be published at some time.

SS: In 2010, you were writing a weekly column in an Odia newspaper - your autobiography in serialised form. Has it now been collected and translated?

JM: The serialisation of my autobiography in Odia is still going on in the Bijoya, a literary monthly. It is finished and will soon be taken up for publication. I wanted to do an intimate and raw sort of thing, so I instinctively turned to Odia, not English. As to translating it into English, I have no idea if it’s going to be done.

SS: What poets do you like to read, whether contemporary or from an earlier time? Whose work has touched or moved you? 

JM: Fiction has been my first love all my life. My schooldays were spent with H. Rider Haggard, E. M. Ballantyne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. From there, my reading habits broadened and I went into the classics – Dickens, Conrad, Dostoievsky and Tolstoy. Today I read Saramago, LeClezio and Javier Marias. 

But it was only in the 1970s and ’80s that I turned to reading contemporary poetry. Even Eliot and Tagore were unknown to me at that time. My six months with writers at the International Writing Program in Iowa City, USA [1976-77] brought me face to face with their poetry. It was really enlightening; a sort of unknown world, vast, passionate and experimental opened out, and I could put my poetry beside theirs. 

I began to read Rimbaud and Baudelaire in English translation, then Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis, Vicente Aleixandre and [Salvatore] Quasimodo. It was wonderful, reading the lines of these master poets, and I felt myself slipping into the bodies of the greats, amazed and thoroughly humbled. In Australia for the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1978 I met Sapardi Djoko Damono of Indonesia, Margaret Atwood of Canada and Galway Kinell of the USA.
So much of the work of poets like Neruda has left me mute. Quasimodo too. And then, there are Sylvia Plath and Carolyn Forché, who have never ceased to move me. If I made a list, I wouldn’t know where to start and where to end. The beauty in these poets lies in the manner in which we comprehend their poetry and the silence in their lines that we must honour. 

But in the end, I always find something which moves me in every poet I read, almost every poet.

SS: You have lectured about poetry at Delhi University as a Poet in Residence and have conducted creative writing workshops in Baroda. How do you talk about poetry to young people? How do they respond? 

JM: I always try to impress upon the young poets that I am not the one they should emulate. I don’t belong to those great poets – to their company, I mean – that I could speak about poetry and how to go about writing a poem. My ignorance is there for all to see – in my training as a physicist, and also in the fact that I started writing poetry when I was forty. From my own experiences my poetry came, that’s the truth, and I tell younger people that. Also that 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. 

You tell them that poetry writing isn’t an easy thing – a struggle for me, every time I sit down to write – and they understand. They understand that the passion for poetry also needs their flesh and blood, and is more about understanding the world they live in, and understanding their own selves.

SS: You taught Physics at Ravenshaw College for a number of years. How do you find science relates to your poetry?

JM: I am not sure whether you’d agree that poetry is a way of looking at the world, and when this world is looked at from the condition of the mind that questions, from the scientific mind and from the poetic mind, each object is seen (1) as it is, and (2) as a crucible that can hold a number of immeasurable secrets which questions could release. I am not very sure when I say that possibilities present themselves more as a question than an answer. And more or less physics and poetry point to the same thing. Maybe as one goes deeper and deeper into poetry, an objective analysis is evident, such as is found in physics, where successive schemes add up somehow into a single arrangement. 

My ignorance is there for all to see. But just as it is difficult to understand the intimate relation of poetry to the universe, it’s becoming more complex to see through the relationship of science, or physics, with the universe.

SS: How do you write poetry? What makes you keep writing it.

JM: There is something in me that refuses to die. It does not accept easy definition, and my physics cannot make an equation out of it. It’s there, somewhere deep inside me perhaps. And this is poetry.
But my experience, through my long life, has taught me that I loved to write poetry because I love life and cherish it. And there are risks in experience; so in poetry. And this is what’s significant: that because one loves life, one cherishes the poem, its utmost power that goes on to sustain us. But again, I wouldn’t know how I write poetry. I never intended to be a poet. But one looks at the world and is pained by the despair around and you find it hard to keep silent about it.


*The photograph that accompanies the article - reproduced here - is mine. I'm sure Mint will eventually give me a photo credit for it. (Just sayin').

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