Jayanta Mahapatra’s poem “Hunger”

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Jayanta Mahapatra, along with Ezekiel, Ramanujan and Dom Moraes, is a major voice of the first wave of modern Indian English poetry. In my opinion the works of poets like Kolatkar, Agha Shahid Ali stole the luster from the works of these other poets, Mahapatra held his own. If he is not as pervasively known name as someone like Ezekiel, it is due to non-poetic reasons. Mahapatra is one of the most haunting of the Indian English poets with a highly demanding poetic style. He edited a magazine called Chandrabhaga for some time. He started writing late in life: he taught Physics in a College in Cuttack and began writing after he was 40. But soon he had a substantial body of writing.

(Go here for a You tube interview. Poet’s Homepage)

from: poet's homepage

from: poet's homepage

His Crossing of the Rivers is a remarkable long poem. An abiding motif in his poems is the tangle between tradition and modernity. The picture that emerges in works like A Rain of rites is that Mahapatra tends to position himself on the side of modernity and then rather than challenging or undermining or ironically doubting tradition, he examines modernity itself by evoking the tradition to throw posers at his modern location. The modernity of the speaker in many of Mahapatra’s poems is a burden to bear. But, yet his poems do not cast tradition as the preferred resource. It is the difficulty that this opposition raises that gets foregrounded.

One of his poems that earned a lot of fame is ‘Hunger’. This poem impressed Bernard Young, the American poet, so much that he ‘quoted’ the whole poem in The Hudson Review. The poem presents two kinds of hunger – one (physical) leading to the fulfillment of other (sexual). The theme is quite obvious, so let me focus on what I like about this poem.

The poem primarily has two structures of images: flesh related and poverty related; hunger emanating from the flesh and that from poverty. What makes the poem impressive is the way these images entangle one another, some abstract, all building the irony of the two urges. The vividity of the images build a word portrait of the place, graphically relating the manners of the three characters.

The fisherman, the father who pimps his daughter, is careless in his offer of the girl: “as though his words sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself”. I think the poet craftily pushes the reader to question the very ideas of sanctity here. The utter hopelessness in the life of the fisherman and his daughter is such that it words like sanctity would be meaningless there. The values have no ‘purchase’ in so utterly degraded a human plight.

The image of wound is prepared to by such images as ‘the bone thrashing in his eyes’, ‘mind thumping in the flesh’s sling’, ‘burning the house’ ‘body clawing’. The actions indicated in these image portray the human effort that is rather desperate, fruitless and hurting. The wound image gathers them all together in a place where the combined force of all these previous images together hits the reader hard and jump him/her out of complacency. It must be borne in mind that the tourist searching for sexual gratification implicitly holds the place of the audience as the reader is a voyeur like the tourist.

from: museindia

from: museindia

The soot image, a customary suggestion of sin, alerts us to how the blackness of the predicament of the father pimping his daughter is a condemnation not of the father but of the society where such a tragedy comes to pass. The soot covers the shack of the fisherman, but it is the tourist’s mind on which the poem sees the soot. Thus, like Blake who said the presence of a whore in society is a curse of the marriage system, this poem questions the justness in society from which sanctity has disappeared.

I have always felt that it is the reader who has to bear the force of irony of this poem. Notice how the reader in this poem is not allowed to be outside of it. Like the tourist in the poem, the reader is an outsider and a sort of voyeur. So the shame of the plight of the pimping father falls on the reader – not on the individual reader.

It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back.
The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly,
trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words
sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself.
I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.

I followed him across the sprawling sands,
my mind thumping in the flesh’s sling.
Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in.
Silence gripped my sleeves; his body clawed at the froth
his old nets had only dragged up from the seas.

In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound.
The wind was I, and the days and nights before.
Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack
an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls.
Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind.

I heard him say: My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen…
Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.
The sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile.
Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.
She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside.

21 responses »

  1. Through “Hunger” and “The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street” Mahapatra has successfully depicted the ‘commodization’ sex and personal relationship in this modern era. In “Hunger” sex and personal relationship is at stake for suppression of the greatest hunger that is Poverty. But in Whorehouse poverty and the calling for materialistic world(symbolized with the advertisement of hoarding) are transforming the dwellers of this corrupted life into both: whores and the customers.

  2. The poem makes for a pleasurable reading evoking sensuality. It has some flow .The fisherman is trying as much to rid himself of the burden of an adolescent daughter as the fish of his net. Even offering her to be an object of pleasure is no consideration for the poor father.The so called hunger as perceived by the poet could be viewed both ways-erotically or with distaste depending on the reader’s attitude.In fact. that may be the beauty of it all leaving little room for any comment except that……..her readiness was a little too abrupt or was she that besotted !

  3. I heard him say: My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen…
    Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.
    The sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile.
    Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.
    She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,
    the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside.

    pls explain this stanza ???

  4. @ Mona and Ankita Sidhu: Through the last lines of the poem, Jayanta Mahapatra has shown, how the girl has become a commodity in this post-modern era and how her body is being advertised even by her own father for the suppression of poverty. The narrator could not but surprised hearing a father’s “exhausted will”. He becomes the saviour for the suppression of their “Hunger” and he did only through the exchange, having gratified his own Sexual “Hunger”. Actually in this world of comodization, everything can be gained only after exchanging the things having same value. The last two lines express the forbidden intercourse between an immature girl and the highly matured narrator. So her legs are “wormy” which should not to be consumed. But it is our natural instinct that we always have the attraction for the forbidden things. The narrator is no exceptional. Whenever the narrator is having pleasure with the girl, the situation is just like a fish, who has been caught into the net, is trying to get rid. But there she can do nothing except being consumed…

  5. Really, from the prehistoric age men or women are in search of hunger, one, shortage of food and sex. A nice poem ” Hunger”, by Mr. Jayanta Mohapatra

  6. explain the relation between rubber and the girl.is she compared with anything else??

  7. in such a wonderful manner the writer has brought out d agony of a poor man sacrificing such tender blooming buds thousands of such r sacrificed daily

  8. I would appreciate someone to explain the first stanza of the poem ‘Hunger’
    It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back.
    The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly,
    trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words
    sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself.
    I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.

  9. It’s really an awesome critical appreciation of the poem ‘Hunger’ and I have found it very useful to prepare myself for my examination. I also have gone through the comments and they are incredible. Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts and perceptions.

  10. Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Huffman Texas!
    Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic work!

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