Unopened places here, and the wind
that sounds merely the conch of some false dream.
—The Room Light, from Random Descent
I knew Jayanta Mahapatra, who died on 27 August, first through letters. It was with the first set of poems I sent out that I tentatively decided to call myself a poet. At that time, the journal Jayanta Mahapatra used to edit, Chandrabhaga, had recently been revived after 15 years. The poems I submitted were accepted, with a handwritten note, and a gentle reminder to include a self-addressed stamped envelope the next time I submitted poetry or short fiction. I must have submitted something immediately after, because among his letters to me is an envelope with my handwriting, startlingly different from his tiny, neat hand. Not long after the first two or three warm but impersonal letters, I was told to address him as Jayantada. In the years that followed, we exchanged many letters, the relationship deepening into friendship.
The first time I met Jayantada, it was because I had invited myself to visit him. In my letters, I had expressed an inexplicable but urgent wish to meet him. I had imagined that I would travel to Bhubaneswar, stay somewhere, and go to meet him and spend some time with him. Instead, he invited me to stay with him, and arranged the few days I spent with him with the care one would give to family.
Chandrabhaga, the house where he lived, set a little off the narrow main road in an old part of Cuttack, is a different world. Stepping inside its gates, you leave the cacophony of horns and the rumble of traffic behind. There are trees sheltering a house, small from the outside, but spacious and airy from the inside.
Upstairs, in a long, light-filled room, I was allowed to browse through a portion of the literary history of Indian poetry in English. Boxes contained old issues of Chandrabhaga—both in the first avatar (1979-85) and the recent ones.
The biannual journal, in its first run, published many now senior poets, Keki Daruwalla and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra among them. In fact, Jayantada’s Chandrabhaga, in its first iteration, was the site of several lively debates, including Mehrotra’s now well-known essay, The Emperor Has No Clothes (Chandrabhaga, issue 7, 1982). Later, when he revived it in 2000, there were poems, in English and translations from other languages, and the occasional short story. But the essays were absent.
This evening God shall stand by someone’s bed
and assure him once again that he should suffer.
—Sermon Of The Garbage Heap, from Land
That Jayantada had the drive to revive Chandrabhaga, and keep it going—irregularly, to be sure—even up to a year ago, is a testament to his quiet dedication to the literary landscape that is Indian poetry. That he kept the journal going and continued to publish books of poetry through several bouts of serious health issues is nothing short of miraculous.
Sometime in 2006 perhaps, Bruce King, the well-known champion of Anglophone Indian poetry, wrote to a poetry server that many of us were on, to say that things were touch and go with Jayantada. I don’t know how he survived that time, but he did.
And he continued to survive setback after setback—the death of his beloved wife Runu (to whose memory he has dedicated several books), and of his only son a few years ago. The death of the poet Meena Alexander, who wrote extensively about his work, and who was a close friend, was equally devastating. His own health continued to deteriorate over this last decade but he survived and lived to sit again at his desk to write.
I often asked myself, because I couldn’t bring myself to ask him, how he found it in him to write again and yet again, through an unfairly large portion of suffering. I don’t have a sufficient answer. I know it’s possible to write because of suffering, and perhaps the poems we have—filled with the landscape of his inner life as much as of his home state and people—are thanks to the immensity of his grief.
Other people might have found it easy to have conversations with Jayantada about poetry but I never could. In our letters, in the times I met him in person and spent time with him, I can’t recall anything substantial we said about poetry. For the space he deservedly occupies in the literary world, Jayantada was a quiet man to the point of being self-effacing. It was easy to be silent with him, to share a meal, or have an innocuous conversation about nothing in particular. I especially remember the way he could sit in his garden, or in a wheelchair amid the bustle of an airport, and surround himself with stillness.
Perhaps he preferred to fill the silences in his life not with conversations and with people, but with the writing he dedicated himself to every single day. Perhaps it was not a choice, given his nature.
slow falling back
—from XXVI, Sky Without Sky–The Puri Poems
I find myself reluctant to talk about Jayantada’s poetry but I often think about why he, as mentor and poet, was so important to me. Like him, I started writing poetry at a late age. He proved that there was no timeline for writing—no appropriate age to begin or cease, no set intervals at which to publish, no need to brandish a curriculum vitae at the poetry establishment.
Like him, I felt like an autodidact when it came to writing poetry—and this despite having studied literature in college. I learnt to write what I had lived and found later, through his example, that it was sufficient.
When periods of fallowness follow the publication of a new collection, when I am taken over by the certainty that there are no poems left in me, I think of Jayantada and his late flowering, the poems coming almost despite himself. In my copy of Hesitant Light (2016), he wrote that it might be his last collection; he wrote two more after that.
In what would prove to be his last letter to me, in January 2020, he spoke about how we lapse into loneliness, despite the “wonder besieging us”, and said, “Today I’d like to enjoy each day, the freedom the day brings me rather than sit down at my desk and try to write a line of poetry.”
When I feel, like him, that sense that I would rather enjoy the day—or suffer it, if that is what the day brings—than write poetry, I permit myself to do that. I permit myself to know that poetry, like life, is also transient.
I remember how he also described poetry, in an interview, as but a symbol of one’s own life. He said, “a few more years and there is only the ash of your poem left behind”.
Whatever his own assessment of his poetry, Jayanta Mahapatra’s work is more than ash left behind. It carries the spirit of his long life, and of what he himself felt as the something in him that refused to die.
I am forever grateful for his friendship and love. Go well to your well-deserved rest, Jayantada.
Sridala Swami is a poet, essayist and photographer.