Tag Archives: Jayanta Mahapatra

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.