A Conversation with Jayanta Mahapatra

Jayanta Mahapatra, the renowned and prolific Indian English poet, invited the Indian scholar Vivekanand Jha to visit him at his residence last November where they spent an evening in discussion. Let us share in an excerpt:

Vivekanand Jha:  What are you are at present busy with?

Jayanta Mahapatra:  At present I am writing my autobiography in [the Indian language] Oriya. It's being serialized in a magazine, three have come out, the next will come out soon--latest by June, if I am living (smilingly). I am trying to write. I can't tell of tomorrow (Kal ki baat to ham nahin bol sakate). After I finish it, I will publish a new book of English poems. So let me see what happens.

VJ:  Your autobiography is available up to 1989. Are you planning to write or have written about yourself after that?

JM:  No, no, no, it’s about my childhood, my youth and my days at Patna. I had written a small portoin of my autobiography because an American encycolpedia wanted it for living cintemporary writers, but now I am writing it in Oriya. In your own mother tongue you can talk about those things that you can’t talk about in English. What we have by virtue of our soil and local air that we can’t have any other way. We have with our mother tongue. I have one and only religion: that if I couldn’t help anybody why should I harm. (Apani  mitti se, apani hawa se jo hoti hai wo bahar ke raste se nahin. Apani maa ke juwan se hoti hai. Mera to  ek hin dharma hai ki kisi ka kuchh harm mat karo. Ham to kisi ke liye kuchh kar  nahin pate hai to kisi  ko  dukh kyon pahuchayen). If you can’t help somebody let us not harm somebody. That should be the religion of everybody. Religion has no concern with temple, church or mosque.

VJ:   I came to know from that autobiography that you have performed your M. Sc. in Physics from Patna.

JM: That’s right, from Patna Science College [of Patna University, in Bihar].

VJ: As I am from Bihar, I would like to know about your  experience of staying there during the course of post graduation at Patna University. What was the positive aspect you found?

JM: Those days were much better than today. And Patna University was one of the best universities of India. I was living in a small mess, small veranda and small rented building. We were about ten students. We rented small rooms of the professor of engineering college, Prof  Ojha. The building in which we were staying was near to the Mahendru Ghat and law college.
VJ:  In which year you have done your M. Sc.?

JM: It was in the year 1949-50.
VJ: For how many years you had been Bihar?

JM: I had been there for three years. I didn’t appear inthe first final examination. I came away home. Later, I went and appeared in the examination. That time riots were there. I didn’t feel secure. All sorts of things were there.

VJ: Can you recall the moment and instant which had inspired you to compose maiden verse?

JM: Actually I was writing stories in the beginning, but these stories were not published, they were all rejected. So I didn’t write for long. I did research in Physics, and in still photography I also had a interest. Then later on I began writing. I don’t know how it happened, very late it happened.

VJ: I have read your various interviews, articles and essays and found that you never mentioned the great names like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, T.S. Eliot, Yeats. Does it make you something unorthodox and unconventional?

JM: I didn’t know. I didn’t study them. I studied science, you know. English literature I didn’t read.

VJ: What was your main source of inspiration?

JM:  Main source of inspiration is 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 the one of the very, very, very, very poor states, very poor. You go inside the villages you will see they don’t have the place to live in. They don’t have roof over their heads. They don’t have one meal a day. 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 sail their daughters. Even today it’s happening. Especially in Orissa and interior of India.

VJ: Do you watch news channels?

JM: No, no, they are very sensational.

VJ: You have talked about some emerging poets from the Northeast region.

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

VJ:  Earlier such talents were not there in that region. How have things changed? 

JM: See, there is tension in the Northeast. 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, it may be racial problems, religious problems, hunger problems and social problems. Problems will lead you to think, and unless you think you can’t write, ideas will not come in your mind. 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.

VJ:  Is Chandrabhaga [a biannual literary journal] still publishing?

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

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

JM: Graphic magazine, fashion magazine, movie magazine, can get funding. Otherwise, nobody is purchasing a literary periodical. Not only in India, I think this is the case everywhere in the world, but especially in India, we have too much emphasis on film and fashion.

VJ:  In the book History of Indian English Literature, the author, M. K. Naik, mentions that contemporary Indian poets who have made a name in  Indian and English poetry had their first books published by P. Lal only. Is it true?

JM:  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 poet like Ezekiel, even this man who made a name, Vikram Seth, he was also published by P. Lal. Kamala Das, all these people were published.  

VJ: You have talked about one poet from Kolkota.

JM:  You talk about Rudhra Kinshuk.I like this poet. Young boy and he makes good use of new images. I like when poets use a new type of image in a poem.
VJ: What do you mean by new images? Innovation, it should be extracted from new invention, science and technology?

JM: New images mean you try to bring about something that has never happened or done by some other poets before you. There was a great Urdu poet from Allahabad side, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, he used to write, “I  want to drink through eyes not by lips” ( Lavon se nahin  Main peena chahata, main ankhoon se peena chahata hoon). Something new like this.

VJ:  You express your dissatisfaction over the absence of constructive criticism on your poetry, especially in India. They include only ugly aspects of your poetry. What kind of criticism do you want to have?

JM:  I don’t read criticism. I haven’t seen those books.  I don’t want to see criticism because that doesn’t help me much. One doesn’t write because the critic tells to write like this.

VJ:  What would be your advice to the budding poet?

JM:  Write whatever you feel, feel from your heart, from your inside. One thing will also help you: Just write from the level, tilt a little higher level. If we can go somewhat towards God in the guise of writing... If we ca,n 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, as one offers to God by picking and choosing the flowers, so we should do with words. 

VIVEKANAND JHA is a  32-year-old poet and scholar from India. He is a PhD student at Lalit Narayan Mithila University Darbhanga, where he is studying the poetry of Indian English poet Jayanta Mahapatra under the close supervision and intimate guidance of Dr. A K Bachchan, Professor of English, and L.N.M.U Darbhanga. Vivekanand Jha is the son of noted professor and award winning poet Dr. Rajanand Jha (Crowned with Sahitya Akademi Award, New Delhi)
His poems have been published in Pagan Imagination, P & W (Poetry and Writing), Danse Macabre, Vox Poetica, Writing Raw, Tribal Soul Kitchen, Winamop, Literature India, Mother Bird, Retort Magazine, Kalinga Times, Holy Rose Review, and more.