Widely regarded as one of the ‘immortals of Indian literature’ and practitioner of what Bruce King calls ‘elite art’ of fugitive imagery, Jayanta Mahapatra is the most meditative and subversive voice of ‘a disturbing silence’ in world poetry. Significantly, “his concern for the dispossessed rustic that is rare among the urbanised Indian poets writing in English marks him out as a tragic rebel”, writes K Satchidanandan about Mahapatra’s poetry. Affectionately described as ‘a native Neruda’, his relationship with Indian poetry in English is defined by dream-layered experiences of mythic forms of memory, and elegiac engagement with language, landscape and history of the virtuous waters of the hidden springs of the Mahanadi.
Writing with the ripening shyness of a “squint-eyed fourteen-year fisher girl”, bilingual poet and critic Durga Prasad Panda has edited Jayanta Mahapatra: A Reader, the most compelling volume about the many heteronyms of Mahapatra’s life and poetry. Reading Mahapatra’s works with the ravenous sensitivity of a practising poet, Panda has meticulously compiled his words and images, including uncollected poems, critical essays, conversations, correspondences and critical appreciation of his works. The opening section, Looking Into the Mirror, a collection of six autobiographical essays, narrates chillingly beautiful reminiscences of Mahapatra’s ancestral lineaments of personal identity, and visceral family emotions—a moth-eaten memory of his grandfather’s conversion to Christianity, troubled relationship with his mother, warm bonding with a doting father, and the joys of being the first-ever Indian poet to win the Sahitya Akademi award for English poetry in 1981 for his epic poem, Relationship.
The section Close Encounters includes, among others, a mellifluous recollection by novelist Amit Choudhuri about an unexpected visit to Tinkonia Bagicha, home of Mahapatra and celebrated poetry journal Chandrabhaga, in Cuttack. The Reader also compiles intimate explorations and reviews of complexities of his poetics by stalwarts like Bruce King, Dilip Chitre, R Parthasarthy, K Satchidanandan, Burton Blume, Frank Allen, John Oliver Perry, Madhusudan Prasad, PP Raveendran and Ranjit Hoskote, among others. From the most recent conversation with Mahapatra by poet Sukrita Paul Kumar to the earliest ones, The Reader offers six interviews to reflect on the inner recesses of his transformative poetic vision. Curiously, it also includes short stories from his only collection The Green Gardner and Other Stories. In a memorable section on Mahapatra’s celebrated talent for epistolary magic, Panda showcases a sampling of letters he received from Meena Alexander, Norman Simms and John Oliver Perry. To conclude, in a symphonic tribute titled Jayanta, Keki Daruwalla says, “while other poets agitate, Jayanta, he meditates”, relentlessly, movingly and convincingly!
The author is a poet, writer & professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. His recent anthology is titled Banaras and the Other