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The pain of the passing of an Indian poet

Jayanta Mahapatra whose imprint left such a mark on national literary and cultural landscape is little known in Christian community
Indian poet Jayanta Mahapatra

Indian poet Jayanta Mahapatra (Photo: Wikibio.in)

Published: August 30, 2023 11:53 AM GMT
Updated: August 31, 2023 03:55 AM GMT

Till his body was cremated respecting his long-standing wish that he not be interred in a coffin in a cemetery, not many apart from his close circle of friends and admirers knew that celebrated Odisha poet, Jayanta Mahapatra, was a Christian.

It is not that the 95-year-old, who passed away in a Cuttack hospital on Aug. 27, wrote just in his mother tongue, Odiya.

A professor of physics, his poetry was in English, and he was known not in India alone, but in literary and academic circles across the English-speaking world long before two generations of Indian writers traveled the seven seas in translation.

His "Indian Summer" and "Hunger" are masterpieces that are now deemed classics among an awesome output of 27 books of poems, seven of them in Odiya. A short story collection "Green Gardener" and memoir "Door of Paper" are part of his great literary legacy.

He was conferred one of India’s top civilian awards, the Padma Shri, in 2009 for his lifetime contributions to literature in India. He was the first Indian poet to get the Sahitya Akademi award for his work in English poetry, the highest recognition for a writer in the country.

They were not the only accolades that came his way in his long career as a thinker, poet, novelist and writer of very popular short stories. An honorary doctorate from Ravenshaw University in Odisha, he was awarded the Tata Literature Lifetime Achievement Award, the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Literary Award, and the Allen Tate and Jacob Gladstein Memorial awards. 

Not a man who coveted titles and honors, and as a person with a conscience, he returned the Padma Shri protesting what he saw as a “moral imbalance” eroding the fabric of Indian society.

In a letter to the then-Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Mahapatra said, “Mine is a small, insignificant step. But it is my personal way of showing protest to the growing asymmetry that is evident in the country. I express my desire to return the award.”

He told friends: “My protest is not against a particular party.... I believe there is a genuine curtailment of freedom,” while referring to the Dadri lynching incident in which a mob killed a Muslim man on suspicion of killing a cow, the arrest of folk singer Kovan for a song critical of the prime minister and Tamil Nadu state’s chief minister, and the Assam state governor saying India belongs to Hindus.  His words resonate a decade later.

More than his individual work, Mahapatra with contemporaries A. K. Ramanujan and R. Parthasarathy formed a trio that birthed and then nursed English poetry in the country with a rare vocabulary. His distinctive voice was “untouched by the influences of the Bombay school,” which is known to redefine Indian English poetry.

Ramanujan was a linguist, folklorist, translator, and playwright in English, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Sanskrit. Parthasarathy, a lecturer in English Literature in Mumbai for a decade before joining Oxford University Press in 1971 as editor in Chennai and New Delhi, and now teaches English and Asian Studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Odisha politician, Baijayant Panda, in a tweet said Mahapatra’s poetry, rooted in the ethos of Odisha, served as a bridge between Indian culture and English verse.

It should have been surprising that a man so talented and whose imprint left such a mark on the national literary and cultural landscape is little known in the Christian community.

The media has so far not reported any obituary reference in any Church meeting or quoted a cardinal or a senior pastor on Mahapatra’s powerful legacy, which so enriches the minority community’s own chest full of little and big contributions to the making of India we know.

Such civilizational “intangibles” evade the Christian leadership in India. It could be said to have a tunnel vision that fixes on marble and granite, steeples, spires, and garrison buildings.

Faced with the mounting incidence of attacks on churches, pastors and the general Christian community, an entire faculty has been commissioned by the large churches, including the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, to produce directories or histories of the contribution of Christians to the making of India.

They are searching high and low to establish the community’s roots in the soil which they have enriched in establishing educational and medical institutions.

These are as easy to spot as a Cross in the smothering green sea of coconut fronds in Kerala, or the majestic cathedrals in Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata, or the tiny jewels of churches in the Himalayan foothills in Uttarakhand and Himachal.

The Jesuit and Anglican colleges in Delhi and the old presidency towns are stone certificates of educating an emerging nation-state in the 19th and 20th centuries. In them is also a passing role in raising a few leaders of India’s freedom struggle.

Jesuits working in the forests of central and northeast India nurtured the first crop of educated leaders from amongst the indigenous peoples.

The fingerprint in the nation’s physical health is also noted eagerly. Not just the major chain of hospitals and medical colleges by the Church — Protestant and Catholic — but also the emancipation of women — who were trained as nurses, and doctors — or the lowest among the then untouchables.

But researchers are at a loss when it comes to the human person, who has shed sweat and often blood in the freedom struggle, or worked tirelessly and without a halo in critical areas where no one dared tread.

Research personnel have focused on the issues of Dalit Christians and Dalits in general as a tectonic movement in the body politic. But then they don’t seem to be able to move further.

Researchers hurry for distinguished generals and lower ranks, or captains in hockey and athletics, where the occasional “Christian” name can be spotted more easily.

Not so possibly in the fine arts, or literature and the perfuming arts. Someone with a biblical name may turn out to be a Jewish person. Many writers in the Tamil and Malayalam languages or in Bangla have names that make it difficult, if not impossible, to guess their religion.

And yet, as the Japanese say — and they are used to high-intensity earthquakes that destroy buildings of stone but leave untouched those made of straw — civilizational contribution is by “human treasures,” the artists, the makers of ceramic vases, and the ones who perfected the tea ceremony.

Civilization grown and coming of age needs a certain delicacy of touch and firmness.

Mahapatra’s poetry and prose speak of this delicacy of touch. His rejection of state honors is an example of a firm conscience that is so devoutly to be desired at this moment in the nation’s evolution.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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DR.CAJETAN COELHO
Respectful farewell to Jayanta Mahapatra.
Asian Bishops
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