Jayanta Mahapatra is “an Oriya who writes in English”1.
Before commenting any further on him or his poetry, I would like to first discuss the whole question of “Identity” itself in general and short, for like anything it could be also defined, penetrated and analyzed from multiple angles.
“Identity” relates to the very term “existence” directly. Human beings exist. Different things in the universe exist. But how do they actually exist in the very mind of Human beings, is the question. And this is how we come to relate to “identity”. How anyone does relate to and recognizes himself (his inner self) and the outside world is the way in which we can say he identifies himself, as much as in relation to the world as to himself. This then can be said as an action of identifying on his part. And this only action of identifying then relates and connects to the identities of others. An identity of the self and the world for own self and the very identity of the self for the world, which varies in as many types as the numbers in arithmetic, and to some extent does effect the formation of self-identity. The verb “identify” then changes to noun “identity” and henceforth exists in constant resonance with the verb form.
So now coming back to the poet, a little history of his background will be helpful to understand the very question of identity of his own and that in his poems, whether distinct or related to him. Instead of citing the whole in the beginning, I would like to take it in parts with the discussion, while relating to his poems as well wherever required, thus relating both.
Jayanta Mahapatra is an Oriya, as hinted in the beginning. He was born there and bought up there. His whole life has been lived there. Orissa is “my land, my roots are there and my people”2.
This fact is very important for us because it relates to his very core as a poet as well as a human being.
Soon we will see how his identity as an Oriya and roots of Orissa, surfaces up or I must say form a major part of his poetry.
His poems that we will be discussing here are ‘Hunger’ (1976), ‘Dhauli’ (1979), ‘Grandfather’ (1983) and ‘A country’ (1983).
We will move year vise chronologically, taking one by one, discussing the question of identity in the very way I had mentioned earlier and also relating any of them with other or others if required.
So starting with ‘Hunger’, it is an autobiographical poem. Mahapatra is writing here from experience as he has said3. The hunger of his ‘flesh’, which is his sexual desires, compels him to have sex with the fisherman’s teenage daughter. He has a sense of guilt somewhere as evident from the poem,
“The sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile”
The poet can see the desperation of the father fisherman out of the hunger of the stomach which has compelled him to shove his daughter into the vicious act. The poet understands their helplessness and yet all that he can do is satisfy his own sexual hunger from their hunger of food.
The father fisherman’s poverty has led him to turn his daughter into a commodity. The girl, a teenager is silent. Even a prostitute has a choice about her customers, but here the girl as we can see is not even a human being, less forth the question of her identity if we can talk.
Further, Mahapatra has said that he had an abnormal relationship with his mother4 and an unhappy childhood. Perhaps this isolation from the womanly love serves along as a force with that of the sexual urges, to take advantage of the poor.
The identity of the sex seeking, lovelorn, mild-guilt ridden, opportunistic poet is like any other man. Even if the lovelorn and mild-guilt ridden adjectives cannot be applied that universally, sex seeking and opportunistic can. Any man in his situation would have probably done the same.
Similarly the identity of the fisherman, whose “words sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself”, with “his white bone thrash his eyes” is like any other...
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