Space and Time

Place in the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra and K Satchidanandan

K Satchidanandan, who is perhaps Kerala’s most acclaimed poet today, has written extensively in both Malayalam and English. SAHIL WALIA/INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
K Satchidanandan, who is perhaps Kerala’s most acclaimed poet today, has written extensively in both Malayalam and English. SAHIL WALIA/INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
01 November, 2016

IT IS OFTEN ASSUMED THAT to write in or be translated into English makes one “global,” and that to write in a “regional” language is to be more finely attuned to rural, small-town, or at least non-metropolitan India. The regional has two great signposts: language and space. But what if these signposts do not coincide? What of the writer in English who addresses the interior, or the writer in Malayalam who speaks from the metropole? And this doesn’t even begin to exhaust the possible permutations of a writer’s idiom, location and audience. How should we approach the matter of a writer’s relationship with geographical belonging and estrangement, and the literary consequences of it?

Two recent poetry collections—Jayanta Mahapatra’s The Lie of Dawns, and K Satchidanandan’s The Missing Rib—offer an occasion to examine these questions. Mahapatra’s collection consists almost entirely of poems written in English; though he has published extensively in Oriya, this book contains only one poem in translation. The Lie of Dawns is the most comprehensive collection of Mahapatra’s work to date, featuring poems from across a span of 35 years that the poet selected himself. Mahapatra came to poetry relatively late; he was over 40 years old when his first book of poetry, Svayamvara and Other Poems, came out in 1971. But he has been prolific since—according to the Sahitya Akademi, he has published 39 books in total. The Lie of Dawns gives us a fair measure of the range and cadence of the poet’s oeuvre, with many lyric poems and the occasional longer poem, showcasing the sense of inborn melancholy and remembering that is central to his work. It is particularly interesting to examine Mahapatra’s relation to the town of Cuttack, in Odisha, where he has lived almost all his life, and which produces in his poetry a dialectic of alienation and belonging.

Satchidanandan’s collection is a work of translation from Malayalam, rendered into English by the poet himself (though he does, for a few poems, thank a fellow translator). Satchidanandan—who is very vocal on many causes, ranging from free speech to environmentalism—is perhaps Kerala’s most widely acclaimed poet today. He has written influential works in Malayalam on many topics—for example, on post-structural feminism. Yet his equally deep engagement with English through his prose writings in that language, and his excellent translations of his own poetry, make it difficult to characterise him as either a monolingual or bilingual writer. While some of Satchidanandan’s older contemporaries have been rightly acclaimed as bilingual—such as the poets Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre, both of whom wrote in Marathi and English, and also translated their own verse between the two—what does one make of a poet who translates into but does not often compose in that second language?

Mahapatra wrote mostly in English, while living almost all his life in a small town—and his difficult inhabitation of that town was a central feature of his work. Satchidanandan wrote in Malayalam while living for many decades outside of Kerala. It is inadequate to term either poet “local” or “cosmopolitan,” even if we use both as words of praise. More important is to consider how each grapples with geographical space—how Mahapatra expresses the idea of belonging to a particular geography (say, Cuttack, however much he may feel alienated in it, or indeed hate it); and, likewise, how the idea of being a traveller and world citizen is intrinsic to Satchidanandan’s poetry, however much that citizenship is mediated by his mother tongue. For both poets, their place in the world has less to do with any particular region or language, and more with a complex sense of habitation on earth. Their works remind us that though this entire world is our home, no one is quite at home in the world, especially not in the realm of literature.

Satchidanandan’s Malayalam captures the sensuality of rainfall in Rome, the choking of a nightingale’s throat in Hiroshima, and the imagery of the Biblical world. Mahapatra writes with precision about local life. Clearly, writing in Malayalam or English does not make one poet regional or the other universal. Given English’s association with the abstraction and remoteness of the global, it may surprise some how Mahapatra can use the language to vividly describe, say, a festival in Puri. Equally, to some it may seem hard to make Malayalam come alive in describing the rain in Rome. And yet, to the great credit of these poets, these effects have been designed and achieved.

READING MAHAPATRA REVEALS how important Odisha is to his sense of poetic self. He has written numerous poems discussing festivals, histories, the shores of the Chandrabhaga. However, his description of the region is not so much an inventory as the basis of a certain worldview. Monsoons and paddy fields are not just beautiful in themselves, but also in how they speak to the earth’s diminishing ecological health. The regional is thus, in Mahapatra’s eyes, the ground of an implicit moral imagination.

Mahapatra’s work is tangled up in the history of Cuttack, and of east India more generally. He prefers not to write directly on political subjects, but his engagement with memory and history runs deep, traversing many levels. He describes how contemporary politicians loot the country, but also how this is all less real to the poet than the beat of rain on iron-barred windows, “the faint cries of cranes” and time as it “rests its terrible quiet on the river.” There is the time of history and political events, and then there is a more primordial time of nature—both are part of Mahapatra’s poetry, but the pull of the latter often seems greater.

Mahapatra does write poems on specific historical themes, such as the emperor Ashoka’s grief after the devastating war in Kalinga, the temples of Konark, and British cemeteries in Balasore. Seen together, these topics form a plausible, sequential history of Odisha. But even when his poems refer to a distant past, such as the time of Ashoka, their sentiment is not only pinned to that historical moment, but also to something more immediate and intimate. In Mahapatra’s work, history is not just a series of concrete events; it is something inherited, in traces, and as part of a larger legacy of human suffering. The past is all old, dead faces and barely remembered languages, both faint and intimate. Sanskrit is a language of “clogs over cobbles”—in Varanasi, in the chanting that accompanies the burning of dead bodies, the “shaggy heads of the word-buds move back and forth” between rain, mist and banyan tree.

Jayanta Mahapatra has spent most of his life in Cuttack, Odisha, and his poetry is haunted by his complex relationship with the place. RENUKA PURI/INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

Satchidanandan also looks for reprieve from local devastation, and he finds it in far corners of the world that, at least temporarily, give hope. But his poetry also reflects on matters closer to home. In addition to poems set in foreign lands, he also has poems on the history of Kerala—many of which he composed when far away from it. Compared to Mahapatra, he writes more directly of political events, and one could argue that his most moving poems are obituaries to school and college mates who died in political struggles. Often, these poems bear a universal message of equality, but are embedded in very local histories, contexts, betrayals. In the poem ‘Beginnings,’ dedicated to “UP Jayaraj, friend, writer, radical,” he writes, “you died an infant for only/ infants have faith in the world/ Watch out: enemies have started/ praising you.”

Just as the regional cannot be located in an obvious point in space, time too cannot be easily pinned to a particular historical moment. The works in Mahapatra’s collection are not individually dated, and this adds to the sense that they are not positioned in any single time. Satchidanandan’s collection is not chronologically arranged either, and this gives his work some of that same quality. Time is a “shadow freed/ from the past and from the future,” writes Mahapatra, while Satchidanandan says, “Outside, our time, like a clock,/ its tongue pulled out.” Neither poet’s work is ahistorical, but the effectiveness of their poems lies at least partly in their ability to displace a clear sense of time, language and space. Their poems are each a sum of many disparate references—whereby, mysteriously, as Mahapatra puts it, a “great bulk of conscience stirs,” and a poem is birthed.

How does Satchidanandan negotiate this poetic autonomy of not being linked to a particular time or space? He seems to travel to other lands not to appropriate those places but to learn to be solitary and listen to his muse everywhere, thus making all lands his home. The poet has to be pervasive, but not godlike—rather, he is pervasive but humble, as in Satchidananandan’s poem about a cicada: “cicada, cicada, let me listen/ to your endless sitar wherever I am … all lands are my land, all homes my home.”

Satchidanandan often invokes history elliptically, as memory, silence, conscience, myth—much as Mahapatra does. Sometimes, many of these elements are present in the same poem. In ‘January 1, blood,’ on the death of the playwright and activist Safdar Hashmi, he describes the day when Hashmi was murdered while performing a street play for workers, outside a Delhi factory:

It was a pale day when winter
was sharpening its claws.
The new year about to enter
stood transfixed on the threshold
seeing your ominous blood.
Your blood splattered over the dead lampposts
aching for light…

Satchidanandan also writes of Ram Bahadur, a comrade of Hashmi’s also killed that day, who “lay like your heart.” While a few noisy murderers roared in victory, the great mass of mourners was hushed, “their feet/ falling gently like the fishing nets on the sea … their hearts/ at half-mast.” The mechanics coming off their shift “concealed/ oceans of grief in their blue uniforms … parched trees on camel backs looking for water … cuckoos that sing inside martyr’s bones.” There is a sense in the poem that the ferocity of violence in its immediacy and specificity (Hashmi, Ram Bahadur, New Year, Delhi, 1989) cannot be confronted—to do so would be like looking open-eyed at the noonday sun. Rather, to fully honour the moment, we have to step back from it.

“but this is the life with my land I can share:/ Flowers on the Tomb that can’t keep away memory,/ the distance growing every year in sorrow alone,” Mahapatra writes in ‘The Fifteenth of August.’ His poetic perception, instead of being rooted in a specific time and place, is both more intimate and more expansive—that of habitation on the earth as a whole, or within the cosmos. His poetry is a meditation on that fragile intimacy between person and planet. The micro-cosmos of the human body has a secret coordination with the “outer” world in his work. The inner and outer freely permeate each other. “When will my eye return,/ that has been swallowed by the sky?” Mahapatra asks in ‘Pain.’ In another striking image, in ‘Relationship,’ he mulls: “we felt the black slime of lotus-root/ move slowly through our bone,/ copying the reeds in the river.” In Satchidanandan’s verse, too, there is often a similar sense of permeability. In ‘Hymn to Wine,’ he writes: “Wine was in the heart of God./ He poured it down/ to create vineyards./ Raise the cup to your lips,/ and you are kissing the Earth./ Each droplet sings in the blood,/ a lark, as we turn into/ the cherry trees of spring.”

What we also see in both poets’ work is not a simple diminishment of the feeling of intimacy as one travels farther from one’s home, but rather intimacy surging up unexpectedly, despite the distance. For example, at the Lychakorsky Cemetery in the Ukraine, Mahapatra suddenly feels free to “breathe in the night air,/ as though the damp September wind/ held all that was left of truth and goodness.” The dead not only have no nationality, but also no individuality, for in war, in the name of the nation, we lose all sense of our own health, home and body. There is, in that densely packed cemetery, a sense of universal kinship.

Similarly, at a war memorial in Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Satchidanandan is reminded of his isolation and finitude in the face of the great conflicts of the twentieth century: “We live on islands./ Hear the oceans of blood…/ heaving inside our graveyards … / our kisses explode one another/ … our words are ants/ that drag in only headless corpses./ … these flowers are for/ our own hearts, long ago dead.” Memorials, in Satchidanandan’s eyes, despite seeming to pin bodies to a spot of the earth, actually bring home the sense that the human body belongs to the earth as a whole. His poetry can make us feel a connection to distant places, even if that sense is expressed in the idiom of catastrophe.

A habitation on earth is claimed through travel, yet the poet in this case does not dominate the world. He is only travelling as witness, often to chronic war. And if he does not always claim citizenship of the world—if he isn’t, in too facile a fashion, global—it is because he honours the fact that one cannot fully inherit another region’s painful history. Even genuine sympathy has its limits in the face of others’ suffering and loss, and maybe, in the end, words are indeed only ants that drag in headless corpses.

Sometimes such corpses are much closer to home. One of Satchidanandan’s most famous poems is ‘Granny’: “My granny was insane./ As her madness ripened into death,/ my uncle, a miser,/ kept her in our store room/ wrapped in straw./ My granny dried up, burst;/ her seeds flew out of the window … Can I help writing poems/ About monkeys with teeth of gold?” The poet, through the artifice of poetry, both enshrines his grandmother in verse, and liberates her from a life of pain and family scandal.

Here, similarly, is one of Mahapatra’s finest poems, ‘I hear My Fingers Sadly Touching an Ivory Key,’ in full:

Swans sink wordlessly to the carpet
miles of polished floors
reach out
for the glass of voices
There are gulls crying everywhere
and glazed green grass
in the park with the swans
folding their cold throats

Mahapatra’s art miniaturises and freezes the world, converting it into a carpet to be walked on, reducing voice to glass, trapping a cry in the crease of the throat. Chains of associations within this poem free its elements from their more workaday connotations. In the very labour of birthing a poem, there is a seizure of the earth and home which alone makes us truly possess and own our humanity. It is only in this sense that a small speck of earth can be ours for a flash.

On the whole, Satchidanandan’s oeuvre is more exuberant than Mahapatra’s, and more freely claims far regions of the earth, speaking to a life of travel, curiosity and learning about the larger world. Often, the imagery he creates has an autonomy that takes the poem in completely unexpected directions. Here, for example, is a chain of ideas from ‘Old Women’: “Old women do not really fly on magic wands/ or make obscure prophecies/ … They just sit on vacant park benches/ in the quiet evenings/ calling doves by their names/ … Or, trembling like waves/ they stand in endless queues in/ government hospitals/ or settle like sterile clouds/ in post offices awaiting mail … They whisper like a drizzle/ as they roam the streets … There are swings still/ in their half-blind eyes.” The images here are mostly sad, but also startling; death, home and isolation stand as recurring themes throughout these fortuitous twistings.

For many poets, however much they travel, the speck of earth that feels most like home is the room in which they work, and from whose windows they view the world. Mahapatra plays with this thought in ‘Someone in My Room,’ where he describes a room with a “small teak desk” where the rain beats on the window’s iron bars throughout the monsoon. The poet imagines someone, twenty years hence, “walking between the graves of the footsteps of mine today.” The poet’s room is, as much as a place of creation, always a place charged with the claustrophobia of death. Here is Satchidanandan on a similar theme, in ‘In Rooms that Choke’:

When I die slowly
in rooms that choke
with you and breeze
and dreams and gods
all beyond my reach,
I call flowers by name.
When, one by one,
their scents fill my room,
I choke.
The room is like a coffin, but also a place of awakening, and of returning to the labour of the desk and the pen.

There is a sense of plenitude in the works of both these poets—one can never say enough about the Chandrabhaga, one can never travel enough. Our modes of belonging and of inhabiting the earth, they suggest, can never be exhausted by either intimacy or expansiveness, language or silence, spatial or temporal location.