More of Mahapatra

Earlier this year, Sahitya Akademi inducted Jayanta Mahapatra as one of its 21 fellows, along with three other eminent writers. According to the website of the national academy of letters, this is the highest honour it bestows on any writer, and this privilege is reserved for “the immortals of literature”. Anyone familiar with Indian writing in English or Odia cannot be unaware of Mahapatra, who has written over 40 books, and is the winner of numerous awards. Those curious to read his poetry could have already accessed it in the volume published by Poetrywala in 2017. The book under review provides additional material, such as reviews of his books, reflections by his contemporaries, letters to publishers and peers, and even some unpublished poetry. It is an invaluable addition to the Mahapatra canon.

The book is neatly divided into 14 sections, besides an introduction by the editor, beginning with autobiographical writings, recollections by other writers on Mahapatra, poems written on him, criticism of his work, reviews of his books, his poetry — published elsewhere and unpublished, short stories, travel writing, essays on Odisha, interviews, Mahapatra’s essays on other writers and criticism, and correspondence. Every “Reader” of a writer’s work faces the challenge of organising the material to be included, and this must have been a particularly difficult one for Panda. But one would have hoped for cleaner editorial decisions.

One section I would have deleted is his well-known poems. Panda writes about his choices in the introduction: “Coming up with an eclectic list was the toughest part… all the usual ‘suspects’ are included…” Perhaps he would have done better to have excluded the “usual suspects”, which a curious reader can easily find in another anthology, and included more unusual ones, along with some critical apparatus. The absence of a strong critical apparatus is perhaps the weakest link in this otherwise excellent volume.

Jayanta Mahapatra: A Reader; Author: Durga Prasad Panda (Editor); Publisher: Sahitya Akademi; Pages: 450; Price: Rs 350
The best sections of the book are Mahapatra’s memories of other poets and other writers on him. Of interest to me was his essay on Allen Ginsberg, “On the Mountain with Allen Ginsberg”, where he describes a rather unconventional poetry reading at the Boulder Performing Arts Centre: “a young… African-American poet called Akilah Oliver took off her shirt when she started to read, right there in front of everyone on the podium… And then Akilah had gone on to remove her bra… I gulped. Sitting in the front row, I stole a glance at Allen and Anne Waldman and Lorenzo Thomas seated alongside. The world had not changed.” One can almost imagine the stunned expression on Mahapatra’s beautifully rotund face at this performance of nudity, which was an integral part of the Beat aesthetic.

In another essay, recently deceased poet Meena Alexander writes about discovering Indian poetry in English by travelling to Cuttack to meet Mahapatra. “It was 1976 I was twenty-five years old. I took the train to Cuttack… Through Jayanta, who had lived his whole life in Cuttack, I learnt to understand the poet’s bond with place; learnt to understand how the elegiac voice could gather sustenance from the landscape around; learnt, too, how to accept the ravages of time.” Mahapatra has often been held up as an example of the local and the international — somewhat as a counterpoint to the cosmopolitan culture of the Bombay school.

Discovering Mahapatra is not unlike discovering India’s deep soul. Poet and novelist Amit Chaudhuri writes about his encounter: “(Jayanta Mahapatra) was of that generation of poets who’d begun work in English in the 1960s… Mahapatra was one of its most unusual practitioners: neither a romantic, not a modernist, direct and veiled at once.” Chaudhuri recollects submitting his youthful poems to Mahapatra’s famed literary magazine Chandrabhaga.”

Letters such as this are the fodder for the fire of any young, unsure poet. One wonders how many others Mahapatra might have inspired like this.

The writer’s novel, Ritual, is forthcoming this year


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