|September 22, 1997|
AUTHORSPEAK: JAYANTA MAHAPATRA
Ministrel of the Streets
The poet feels emotions matter more than craft.
By Devika Mehra
Jayanta Mahapatra is what you would expect a poet to be -- shy, pensive, measuring his words as if he were about to share a secret. Mahapatra began his career in a rather unlikely way. He spent much of his early life unravelling the mysteries of physics but he always felt a certain inner restlessness and lack of direction. On introspection, though, Mahapatra feels in subtle ways there was a connection. "Physics is the poetry of the intellect and poetry is the science of the intellect," he says. "In many ways, physics taught me to look into myself." Nevertheless, Mahapatra's mind was always on poetry. "I fell in love with English. I played with words, turning them over and over again until they were heavy with meaning."
The transition to writing wasn't easy though. Mahapatra wrote his first story at the age of 21. It was rejected. He gave up writing for a long time after that. Almost two decades later came a collection of poems which he sent to Nissim Ezekiel who was then editing a literary magazine. That too came back with a rejection slip. It was left to the London-based literary magazine Critical Quarterly to first publish his poems. After that, Indian publishers began to queue up.
Mahapatra writes about what he knows best -- Cuttack, his home. About the cobbler on the street, the hunger of street children, the pain in a woman's eyes. His poems are about real people and everyday emotions. It is through the local that he reaches the universal. But even now, after 19 collections of English poetry and two books of short stories, including his latest, The Green Gardener, he still feels his craft is deficient. "But that is not that important to me," he says, "so long as the emotions come through." Pain is an integral theme in his poems, and Mahapatra feels his writing, which he admits is largely autobiographical, is a form of exorcism -- of his own unhappy childhood memories.
Mahapatra is highly regarded in the West. His poems appear in American magazines like the New Yorker and Poetry. But he is disappointed with his short stories. "They read like extended poems. I'll stick to poetry now." But for someone who wrote his first poem when he was 37, Mahapatra has more than made up for lost time. The stamina and the poetic vision are still there. And as he wrote in a poem: "I think I will go on with stories in my life/Wondering about the power they have."
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