Jayanta Mahapatra, award-winning Indian poet shares reasons for writing: his childhood, his land, his people

February 17, 2010

Vivekanand Jha, poet and research scholar from India has been working on his Ph.D., studying the poetry of noted
Indian English poet Jayanta Mahapatra.
Jha (left) with Mahapatra taken by Sujeet Kumar Jha

As part of his research, Jha interviewed Mahapatra this November and in February asked Holly Rose Review (HRR) to consider publishing the piece.  HRR is honored to feature Jha’s interview, edited by Theresa Senato Edwards.

Here is Jha’s brief preface:  

Jayanta Mahapatra needs little introduction. There are many features which make him distinct from his contemporaries: he is the most prolific poet in the history of Indian English Poetry, he belongs to a poor and middle class family, he is a scholar from a science background, he is the first poet to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award in Indian English Poetry, he is a poet who commands more respect overseas than at home, and he has a profundity of images and symbols in his poetry.    
He is in his nineties, and he has been a chronic patient of asthma and recurrent migraines.  Moreover, after the passing of his wife, the late Runu Mahapatra, last year, he is internally shaken and weakened, as they were an ideal and exemplary couple. After meeting with him, I spoke to his maidservant who had been serving Mahapatra and his wife for years regarding how Mahapatra feels about the absence of his wife. She said he wept bitterly when his wife died, and even now he bursts into tears occasionally in her loving memory.    

An excerpt of Mahapatra and Jha’s conversation:   

In the book, “Door of Paper: Essays and Memoirs,” are all the essays and articles written by you available?   

Not all, but most of them are available.   

Your theme of poetry is similar to that of your essays and articles?   

Yah, all [about] my childhood.   

You have somewhere talked about A. K. Ramanujan.   

Yes, he was idealistic and [a] very good writer.   

It is he whom you like most?   


In the book, “History of Indian English Literature,” authored by M. K. Naik, Naik mentions that contemporary Indian poets who made names in Indian and English poetry have gotten their first book published by P. Lal. Is it true?   

It is true because all these people were published by P. Lal. He also has done a very good job, very good humanitarian job. We can’t deny it. Giving encouragement to new writers is something not many people have done.   

The very titles of your books of poetry bear significance of bleakness and barrenness. Is there vested interest in doing that?   

No, it came on its own.   

What are the works you are at present busy with?   

At present I am writing my autobiography in Oriya. At least one part I want to publish latest by June, if I am living (smiling). After I finish it, I will publish a new book of English poems. So let me see what happens.   

In your autobiography, you write about your life up until 1989. Are you planning to write or have written about yourself after that?   

I have written [a] small portion of my autobiography because an American encyclopedia wanted it for a living contemporary writers [section], but now I am writing [my] autobiography in Oriya. It’s being serialized in a magazine.   

It is after 1989?   

No, no, no, it’s about my childhood and early days.   

Has it been published?   

I am just writing it now. Only three [parts] have come out. Next will come out soon.  One by one in a series, I am trying to write. I don’t know. I can’t tell of tomorrow. But I am trying to do whatever I can. It’s all about my childhood, my youth, and my days at Patna.   

What would be your advice to the budding poet?   

Write whatever you feel, feel from your heart, from your inside. One thing will also help you. Tilt to a little higher level. If we can go somewhat towards God in the guise of writing–If we can, that should be our goal. Don’t you think so? Your conscience and soul search good things. And when you go about writing a poem as a priest offers the God by picking and choosing the flowers, so we should do with words.   

To whom do you dedicate your success as a poet?   

It’s my wife.    

I would like to know about your reaction on the talk of you being the father of modern and post-modern Indian English poetry.   

No, no. I write what I can. I don’t think about it   

Is Chandrabhaga [a literary magazine] still publishing or not?   

We are not publishing it now. I didn’t have time. I didn’t have the money involved for publishing. All these sorts of problems to take over. That’s why we stopped it.   

In a country of more than one billion people, a magazine such as Chandrabhaga had come to cease publication. In your view what is the fate and future of Indian English poetry?   

Graphic magazines, fashion magazines, movie magazines, you can only get funding. Otherwise nobody is purchasing a literary periodical. Not only in India, I think this is the case of every where in the world.  But especially in India, we have too much emphasis on film and fashion.   

What was your main source of inspiration?   

Main source of inspiration: my land, my people, my place, what I see, what social injustice I see, and political injustice. I should like to write about the hunger. I think Orissa is one of the very, very, very, very poor states, very poor. You go inside the villages; you will see they [the villagers] don’t have places to live in. They don’t have a roof over their heads. They don’t have rice to eat. And only politicians can find out which things are there. During election time they do visit the villages once, and the next five years nothing happens. The same poverty, they sell their children to keep their own stomachs. Mothers sell their daughters; fathers sell their daughters. Even today it’s happening. Especially in Orissa and the interior of India.   

You have talked about some emerging poets from the North-East region.    

There are some good and young poets especially from Meghalay, Mizoram, and also in Arunachal Pradesh.   

Earlier such talents were not there in that region. How now do such things happen to be?     

See, there is tension there in North-East. If you have no tension, you can’t write well. If you have tension, you can bring about your feelings well. Unless you have failure, suffering, and sorrows in your life, how can you write? If you have enough to eat, enough money, a good house and a car, why will you write? What will you write about? You have no problems to write about! If you have problems–may be racial problems, religious problems, hunger problems and social problems. Problems will lead you to think. Unless you think you can’t write, ideas will not come in your mind. For ideas you need the images to supplement your ideas.  So all things make a certain cycle that is necessary. It begins only when you have certain problems in your life to start writing poetry.   

You have talked about one poet from Kolkota.   

You talk about Rudhra Kinshuk. I like this poet. Young boy and he makes good use of new images. I like when you put a new type of image in the poem.   

What do you mean by new images? Innovation should be extracted from new inventions, science, and technology?   

New images mean you try to bring about something that never happened or has never been done by some other poets before you. There was a great Urdu poet from the Allahabad side, Faiz Ahmad Faiz.  He used to write, “I want to drink through eyes not by lips.” Something new like this.   

© Vivekanand Jha, 2010 

Jha’s blog: vjha33.blogspot.com

Mahapatra’s powerful poems “Hunger” and “Freedom” can be read online, and other information about the poet can be found on his Web site: jayantamahapatra.com.  

It is also important to note Mahapatra’s most recent awards: India’s Padma Shree Award, 2009, and the Allen Tate Award, The Sewanee Review, 2009.


One Response to “Jayanta Mahapatra, award-winning Indian poet shares reasons for writing: his childhood, his land, his people”

  1. suraj kumar verma Says:

    really it is a praiseworthy effort of the research scholar.

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