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Book Review May 2018.

     We are delighted to announce Ms. Vinita Agrawal’s profound review of the book of poems “Hesitant Light” by Jayanta Mahapatra as May 2018. winning review of our monthly Book Review Contest.

    The winner is entitled to a certificate and a check in the amount of US $ 100.

Congratulations to Ms. Vinita!

 

You can read the winning review here:

 

Title: Hesitant Light
Author: Jayanta Mahapatra
Publishers: AuthorsPress, Delhi
ISBN No. : 978-93-5207-374-0
Price: Rs. 250/-
No. Of Pages: 103

The Ink At 88: New Poetry By Jayanta Mahapatra

Words believed me, I’d always thought,
yet one more word from me
would fleck my face with blood.

Not To Be Loved By A Poem, Jayanta Mahapatra

Age, they say, is work of art. But in Jayanta Mahapatra or Jayanta da’s case as I prefer to call him, the opposite seems to be true – art seems to have become the work of age. His brand new collection of brilliant poetry titled, Hesitant Light displays inspiration and tenacity that are expectedly in short supply at the age of eighty eight. One expects a bone weary surrender to the realities of life and loss, to what is, to the way things are in the twilight years of life. But Jayanta da defies the gravity of age and converts his realities into yet another book of sagacious, insightful verses – a collection of fifty eight soul-stirring poems. Most of the verses are new with about half a dozen or so incorporated from those published in the Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Indian literature and others where they appeared between 2014 to 2016 making them recent as well.

His poems reveal that life happens from within and that the days that go by have memories of their own. These memories get interwoven into the ordinary things surrounding our existence. The poems in this collection are mostly rooted in the old house in Cuttack where he has lived all his life. The dark Orissa skies, its soil, its rain and the slush it brings in its wake, the leaves, the lissome guavas that dangle from the tree in his courtyard, the rivers and river beds, the darkness that ‘bend(s) over railings of the public park’ (Crossing The River) are all intertwined into his poetry. Nature blends seamlessly with his perceptions of pain. He is a master craftsman whose words evoke awe at the depth of meaning conveyed by using gentle language. He exposes the innermost thoughts and fears that wrangle his present state of mind.  In a poem called Not To Be Loved By A Poem, he confesses to the ‘fear of betrayal by a poem’.

In the title poem Hesitant Light, he talks in the same voice that he did in his anthology The Lie of Dawns published in 2009 showcasing his best work from 1974 to 2008. In this poem which  also lends itself to the title of the book, Jayanta da refers to the treacherous falseness of dawn. For him, dawns do not promise a ray of hope and a new beginning as is often depicted in poetry. Rather, he writes,

“the wail of an approaching ambulance
makes the dawn seem unreal.”

Where we go is unimportant.
Life’s choices are few.

Above the ruin of days
another December dawn
crawls along the ground,
in its hesitant light,

but to be imprisoned by this thing
that was like a door
that had no walls behind it,
and still held on to the inconceivable
breadth of the world,

**

Jayanta da attempts to sum up all the days of his life in this collection. He seeks to iron the creases of his memory.

“But my memory is so full
that I’d like to lose more of it.”

he pens in a poem titled Fable Of The First Traveller

In another poem titled The Weight Of Yesterday, he says

Memories have left no tracks.
Maybe this was to be expected,
for they beat far beyond
the windows of my prisons
with their homesick, remorseless rhythms

Nothing touches me now
not even the wet night
burning into my skin.
**

Interestingly, Jayanta da has a series of three Fable poems in his book – Fable of the First Person, First Traveller and First Person. They are a set of three short introspective poems, posing questions of “what to do with oneself” and looking at how “our wounds smear(ed) themselves over our birth”.

He acknowledges almost out of some inner compulsion, the rights and wrongs of his life. Perhaps his own demons have propelled him to write this book – as though all the poetry that he’s penned in the past was inadequate to vent out the restlessness that has ravaged his mind and soul for many years. His strange, resentment towards his father and mother in particular, find expression in more than a couple of poems in this book.

I’ve come to dislike the world so much
that when my father died
I took the burning face and dropped it
on top of the pile
of crushed-out cigarettes in the ash tray.
**
From the poem Behind Closed Windows

If that is not a revelation of some pent up inner rage, I don’t know what is.  And in a poem titled In This Room, he agonizes:

I remember my father’s hands, playing
then with my mother’s false pretense,
the eyes of their rooms wide open in rage
while silence would humble itself
and sit down on the wide cold floor,
awed by the coldness of life’s secrets
that hold answers to questions we never ask.

a bird starts to move, looking
for a quiet place to spend the night.
**

Perhaps the scars of childhood never leave the psyche. Perhaps childhood is an eternal bowl that holds hurt and bewilderment in its space forever.

Death in all its dimensions too plays a pivotal role in his verses. It is natural for someone in their eighties to confront the shadow of death, consciously or unconsciously. So too Jayanta da. His words reveal a distinct discomfort and an his acute awareness that he’s made to eighty eight – a place where the shadow of death never leaves.  Through his poems, he attempts to pinpoint the reasons why ‘someone’ still wants him here. A reason not directed towards the immense love and respect of his readers but something intrinsic, fundamental, almost to the point of being divine. The confessional poems of his new book seem to convey that in the search itself lies the answer, that seeking is in itself the receiving.

In the poem When The Shadows Would Leave, he ponders

Perhaps it’s all about the strength
to live, is this moment,
because I’ve lived this far
and am so engendered; because
I’m still alive, and death
succeeds in making us betray those we love
as we practice our inexcusable behavior.
**

Obviously and fortunately, his perception of death, is not the end of existence. Nor is it an imminent closure to all that is familiar. Rather it is a ‘betrayal of your loved ones’. In the poem After The Death Of A Friend, he talks of memory celebrating “when it finds shadows through flesh” revealing a sensitive insight into memory and all its niggling emotions.

Some of his words reflect a painful distance from happiness as we understand it.  To his sensitive and perceptive mind, every new day seems like a new burden to carry within his octogenarian body. The collection displays a haunting obsession with shadows and its various interpretations.

“Not a breath of air anywhere
Just my sinful shadow
keeps craving for a kindered being.”
**
From A Hot May Afternoon

Several of his poems are timely responses to the political happenings in our world. The book contains poems on the Peshawar School Terrorist incident, on Malala – the brave girl from Northwest Pakistan who was shot but went on to win the Nobel prize for peace and many on Rape.

He mentions rape in a plethora of poems making a hard hitting point that when a girl is raped it’s a crime against all women. One victim is in reality a multitude of victims…one incident is all of humanity wronged in the truest sense of the word. It’s a relief to these broad perspectives on rape, a crime that has specifically been on the rise in recent times. As a society we treat every case individually and get nowhere with our verdicts. Perhaps a view that defines exploitation of one as the potential exploitation of all might propel us into finding the deeper malaise affecting  society and help us address it better, from a broader baseline.

In the poem Crossing The River on the rape of a tribal woman, he asserts,

Her face buried in their rage
the stripped, naked Kondh woman
writhing on the forest floor
can only implore
her deity of the silent trees
to pull down those leaves upon her.

The pallid lights of street lights
fill with tears from a swath of rain,
as nakedness leans
against the walls of moonlight elsewhere,
a faithless shadow
that mocks time
on the crime they’ll commit again tomorrow;
and a white ceiling moves in the sky
more than white, unhooking her eyes
with which the earth had held her earlier.
**

Several poems in the book are enriched with the history and mythology of Kalinganagar – the state where he has his roots, the geography to which he dedicates most of his work whether it’s about the climate, the terrain, it’s local people or its cultural background. The anthology contains a couple of poems dedicated to his home city, Cuttack. However not all poems are on Orissa. In fact, the collection sweeps in to the courtyard of the poet’s mind, memories spanning Lake Como in Italy to Lake Chilka closer home, Jobra in Bangladesh to the local street corners of Cuttack. Almost as though he is bringing a closure to the incidents and memories that have held his mind hostage for a long span of time.

The book contains a couple of intensely personal verses. One of them is dedicated to his beloved wife Runu, whom he lost a few years ago and whose passing away plunged him into the dark wells of loneliness and forced solitude. The poem exposes the wound of loss in all its starkness.

Uneasy In The Silent Night
(for Runu)

It’s the wounds of your life that look down
at me, uncertain what to do; and your eyes shut, shut,
leaving, to find another life on another world.
I am the stranger who would hold back his tears,
my spirit conditioned to the actor’s body, hard, disciplined.

Floating against the sides of this day, oh love,
let the silent night make us love the silence of your love.
**

Also personal is the poem on to Nabaneeta in which the closing line ‘ And that long evening seems a beautiful mistake, Nabaneeta ” expresses a regret that has not been stifled

Two of the most powerful poems in the book are Guavas and Gravity. They happen to be my personal favorites, exhibiting an extraordinary maturity of thought that comes not just with age but an inner awareness that has witnessed one’s own evolution. Like all the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra, these poems are also intensely thought provoking and layered with complex imagery.

The reader can not help but feel a deep empathy for the tremendous willpower that Jayanta da displays in confronting his bitterness with life. His words display a deep down weariness with the task of writing. “I am beginning to fear the sound of a poem’s knock” , he writes. And in another place, he says, “A second is a breath that does not take long to end.”

To me personally two things stand out in Hesitant Light. Firstly, the literary genius that allows him to depict ordinary things in extraordinary ways.  In ways that penetrate the deeper aspects of human nature. His vision and insight into man’s psyche is not short of stunning.

And the second is the opportunity to view Jayanta da up close and personal through his remarkable poetry. One can observe, a trifle helplessly,  how he has become an outsider to himself – someone who witnesses his every action and draws conclusions on his observations. and then composes poetry from all of that.

“It’s not the slow drip
of the sky’s immensity that concerns me
the ridiculous panic on the razor’s edge
that settles hold of me one instant
and is gone the next,

but the way I lay down my newspaper
on the bench, turn my wrist over and look
at the time by my watch. My own world
is so small. I’m always in front of myself.
**
From the poem Solitude.

In highlighting his weariness with the outside world and still inhabiting that very world, he depicts the eternal dichotomy between mind and body.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to close this review by mentioning one more poem from the book, a poem titled India’s Independence Day. After all, here is a man who was born in 1928, 19 years before India became independent, a man who has spent the last 88 years observing with circumspection how the country has conducted itself in these 69 years of freedom. He is rather cynical and disillusioned at how India is today. What we have failed to achieve – things like communal harmony, dignity for the Dalits and respect for women supersede India’s more ostensible achievements. He writes:

Sixty nine years back, something
lost itself and fell the whole way.

(I look for)
the white paper bag in my hand
that weighs almost nothing,
but with a scream stuck deep inside,
a scream so frightful that I can’t get it out?
**

Hesitant Light is a jewel in the crown for Jayanta Mahapatra’s long writing career. It is at par with some of his best works. In terms of perspectives gained from living a full life, the book tops even his past masterpieces. By no means is this a rambling of an old man past his prime. No. The poems are exquisitely executed and tightly controlled. Even in the most revealing of words there is an element of restraint. He lets go of his pain but not of himself. These are the writings of a dignified individual whom age has failed to conquer, time has failed to tame. The poems are pensive yes but not pathetic. To be deprived of reading this book would be to be deprived of a wisdom that is 88 years old, written in ink of the same age but of a vastly enriched hue. The ink at 88 is richer, darker and quickly stains the heart.

The youth and the older generation both have a lot to glean from the contents of this book for they lay bare the essential truths of life via nefarious passage of time. Jayanta da is a man who is not afraid to share his vulnerabilities, his fears and his sense of resignation with the realities of life. We, as readers of poetry, can only reach out our hands and hearts to him  and thank him for baring his soul to us.

*********

Reviewed by Vinita Agrawal.
Vinita Agrawal is an award winning poet and critic based in Mumbai. She has authored three books of poetry.