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‘Old Things to Talk Over’: A Tribute to Jayanta Mahapatra 

A former student remembers the way his teacher, Jayanta Mahapatra, seamlessly blended physics, Odisha’s rich cultural ambience and his relationship with his own past to create a perpetually expanding universe in his poetry.

When you are deep in love, you do not seem to age; isn’t that so, JP?

                                                              –  Jayanta Mahapatra to Odia poet J.P. Das, translated from the Odia original by Das.

The title of this tribute is, of course, borrowed from Jayanta Mahapatra’s titular poem published in the Sewanee Review long ago. Fifty-five years of writing seems to be an incredibly long stretch of time for a poet who began writing poetry at the relatively late age of forty; but surely, that would have given him a lot of “old things to talk over.” 

‘Noon’ by Jayanta Mahapatra.

By the time Mahapatra began writing, some of his contemporaries had already become established and famous. Nissim Ezekiel, for example, just a year older, had already been recognised as a philosopher and guide whom younger writers – particularly poets – looked up to in the 1950s. Ezekiel rejected, as Mahapatra would recollect, his submissions in the 1960s. Arun Kolatkar, four years younger than Mahapatra, was already two decades old as a mature poet when the latter first published his poetry. The same is true of A.K. Ramanujan, who was three years his junior. Yet, Mahapatra, who taught physics at various colleges in Odisha until he retired in 1986, was the first Indian English poet to be given the Sahitya Akademi award in 1981. 

Soon after the news of his passing spread, a friend from Odisha called to share with me his sense of grief. After all, a bit of our common past had died with the great poet, for both of us were fortunate to have been under Jayanta Mahapatra’s tutelage during his brief stint at Fakir Mohan College, Balasore, in the late 1960s (this writer was a student of science before deciding in favour of a lifelong engagement with literature). We recalled how we had once mischievously sneaked into the physics laboratory where Mahapatra had his office desk. He had left open his diary on which he had apparently been scribbling what appeared to be drafts of some slogans he was working on. 

As was not unusual in those days, companies selling products such as chocolates or jeans used to hold slogan contests. We had heard that he used to take part in those competitions. Little did we know then that he was engaged in five-finger exercises to nurture his ambition to become a poet. In fact, Mahapatra would later recollect how in the year 1969, he sent a few of his poems to a worldwide poetry contest held by the International Who’s Who in Poetry in London. He won the second prize for his poem, The Report Card

Also read | Remembering Pain: A One-Word Conversation with Jayanta Mahapatra

Here, I cannot help but recall one peculiarity of my physics teacher. When he returned to me an assignment on Kirchhoff’s Law, I was aghast to see many red marks around the mistakes in spelling and grammar I must have made, but not one remark on the correctness of my answers. I was so stunned by his assessment that I can “see” those red marks even now. Recalling this incident years later he told me,  “English, the language itself, fascinated me as much as science and mathematics.” 

Jayanta Mahapatra with J.P. Das. Photo: J.P. Das.

I met Jayanta Mahapatra again quite unexpectedly nearly a decade-and-a-half later at the Golden Threshold in Hyderabad, where he had been invited to talk about and read his poetry. Once the residence of Sarojini Naidu’s family, the Golden Threshold, named after one of her poetry collections, was then being used as a make-shift campus of the newly set up University of Hyderabad. I was a Research Fellow there.

Our next “meeting” was epistolary, in the form of a hand-written inland letter from him, equally unexpected. This form of interaction continued. By then our relationship was of a poet and an admiring critic. He never made secret of his dislike for literary critics; and each time we met he would warn me not to discuss poetry.   

Sometime in the mid-1980s, he began writing and publishing Odia poetry in Odisha as he wrote to me in a letter dated October 25, 1989:

“My own writing has slowed down a little. I do find a repetitiveness in my own poems. Of late, I have started writing a few poems in Odia, although I find my vocabulary inadequate…and my language stilted.”

Then, giving a personal touch he added: “Your father [Basanta Kumar Satpathy] writes so well, and I have always admired the stories he has written.” Yes, there was something unmistakeably personal about the way he made his new acquaintances feel close to him, conferring on them a unique sense of privilege. Like everyone else, I too felt I was closer to him than the others were. 

The cover of the ‘Chandrabhaga’ journal.

But returning to the subject I began with, Mahapatra, the teacher of physics, continued to be a student of the English language. In a sense, physics impacted his poetic vision in an important sort of way. While speaking about the mysteries that excited him, Mahapatra would say: “We have only a dim sense of the presence of such unknown forms, something akin to enormous galaxies or interstellar space through which we pass, and about which we can only imagine.” 

This, to my mind, was quite Einsteinian, and had implications for Mahapatra’s poetry. His engagement with physics and the cultural ambience of Odisha seamlessly blended in his poetry. After all, both physics and Indian mysticism in some sense deal with the mystery of time, truth in the worldly sense, as well as the unreliability of sense perceptions. 

Similarly, the other themes which dominate his poetry and prose works are his relationship with the myths and legends of Odisha. The mystery of its silent stones could and did tell the poet about Odisha’s history, as did the temple structures, in glorious ruins, represent flesh in timeless frieze; and the sculptures being a link in the racial memory of Odias between the here and the hereafter. 

Not far from where the poet lived stood the Shanti Stupa, a mute witness to the metamorphosis of Ashoka, from cruel king to the propagator of Buddhist lore. Having forced the Kalinga war on the Odias, and unable to witness the consequences thereof, the bloodying of the river Daya (literally meaning compassion), Ashoka embraced Buddhism and spread Buddhist piety in Asia. But for Mahapatra, Ashoka did not atone enough for his sins. So, he says in a poem, “the measure of Ashoka’s suffering /does not appear enough”. Also, in his long poem Relationship, where he tries to make sense of his relationship with Odisha’s historical past, he recalls “how the waters of the Daya/stank with the bodies of my ancestors”.

‘Random Descent,’ by Jayanta Mahapatra.

Mahapatra may have been deeply touched by Buddhist humanism, but it was Christian piety that had rescued his grandfather from the jaws of death. During the Great Famine of 1866 (known in Odisha as the Na’anka Durbhikhya), his grandfather, “starving and in a state of collapse, staggered into a mercy camp run by white Christian missionaries in Cuttack,” as Mahapatra never tires of reminding us in his autobiographical writings, where he embraced a new religion urged by the Baptists.

“So, as children, we grew up between two worlds. The first was the home where we were subjected to a rigid Christian upbringing, with rules my mother sternly imposed; the other was the vast and dominant Hindu amphitheatre outside, with the preponderance of rites and festivals which represented the way of life of our own people….” 

He speaks of this conversion, what it means to him, and his ambivalent attitude towards it in his poem, Grandfather: “The separate life let you survive, while perhaps/the one you left wept in the blur of your heart.” The blurring of the two spaces thus continued to colour his poetry. One can put it another way by saying that his poetry is a confluence of two cultures in more ways than one: the scientific, and the artistic, that the English physicist-novelist, C. P. Snow had envisaged. 

Mahapatra, similarly, brings in comparisons between scientific, mathematical and philosophical categories. In one of his essays called Time in the Poem, for example, he uses a scientific framework to express a philosophical-artistic principle: 

A poem…appears to me to be full or made up of various times, maybe like a dim corner in a room, inhabited by spiders… On the surface, the poem may emerge as a result of the summation of events or happenings at a number of times. In other words, the poem = S (et1+ et2 + et3 + …) where t, t, t… represent different instants of time when the emotional forces in the poem came into play. And yet, such a generalisation could be full of error. This is because a poem does not represent an algebraic summation of emotional operatives. The conclusion or outcome of a good or successful poem will only happen, when, mathematically speaking, the summation is replaced by an integral, the integration taking place over the entire time in which the poem works.

It is worth noting how in his poems, the use of the word shadow could evoke the sense of a ghost or of darkness, depending on the context. Both appear in many poems in the collection, Life Signs, and in the volumes after Relationship

‘Life Signs (Three Crowns)’ by Jayanta Mahapatra.

Finally, in our assessment of his poetry, we must talk a little about his training as a physicist. One can reverse what is said of Einstein: During 1979, the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s birth, as writers across all media jostled with each other to recount his achievements, his theory of relativity tended to hog the show. “Relatively” little space was given to Einstein the musician.

Similarly, perhaps critics of Mohapatra’s poetry tend to give “relatively” little space to Mahapatra, the physicist, just as we give “relatively” little space to Arun Kolatkar, the graphic designer, while discussing his poetry. 

We must of course remember Mahapatra as one of our finest poets. But we must not forget that he was a short story writer of no mean order, an indefatigable translator, and a great editor (witness his dedicated editorship over decades of the poetry page of the Telegraph colour magazine, and the literary journals Chandrabhaga and Lipi).  

In a tribute to the iconic modern Odia poet Sachin Raut-Roy (1916-2004), Mahapatra had written: “Wouldn’t it be right for us to conclude by saying that his [Raut-Roy’s] struggle to make sense of his life through poetry was a painful struggle with his own unchanging conscience?” In conclusion, it might be fitting to pose the same rhetorical question of Mahapatra and his struggle too.

Sumanyu Satpathy, former Professor and Chair, Department of English, University of Delhi, is an independent scholar.