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Mall Road

Bus Addey, Maal Rode, Camp, Madal Toun, Ajadpur, Shalimaar...

'Hunger', Jayanta Mahapatra

It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back.
The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly,
trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words
sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself.
I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.

I followed him across the sprawling sands,
my mind thumping in the flesh's sling.
Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in.
Silence gripped my sleeves; his body clawed at the froth
his old nets had only dragged up from the seas.

In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound.
The wind was I, and the days and nights before.
Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack
an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls.
Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind.

I heard him say: My daughter, she's just turned fifteen...
Feel her. I'll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.
The sky fell on me, and a father's exhausted wile.
Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.
She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside.

"Physicist and poet, Jayanta Mahapatra's honours include the Jacob Glatstein Prize for poetry. He writes in English and Oriya and edits aliterary journal, 'Chandrabhaga'. He lives in Cuttack." - The Little Magazine

Mahapatra has always insisted that he is an Oriya (rather than an Indian) writing in English. The rhythms of his English poetry, he says, derive from the rhythms of Oriya oral poetry that he grew up with. His poetry often deals with poverty, deprivation, the failure of the nation-state and are imbued with a strong sense of historical continuity.

In this poem notice how Mahapatra shifts the focus from his own act of using a prostitute to the fisherman's poverty; how the fisherman's daughter has neither voice nor any agency; and how the two hungers - sexual desire and poverty - are collapsed so casually.

The second edition of the book Many Indias, Many Literatures (edited by Shormishtha Panja, Worldview, Delhi, 2001) includes an interview of Mahapatra by Sumanyu Satpathy. Unfortunately the date of the interview is not given. I type here what Mahapatra says about "Hunger".

In your poem 'Hunger' I think it's [Arvind Krishna] Mehrotra who says the word "wormy" is unfortunate. But I feel the word is richly ambiguous - it can mean the man's thinness due to hunger or it could mean that he is worm-ridden.

Mehrotra knows English much better than I do. May be he's right. But I wouldn't change a single word in this poem. This poem was quoted in full in the 'Hudson Review' in 1972. Bernard Young, a famous American critic, gave me a wonderful review. I'm sorry to say that I've always had this sort of reception from Indian academics.


'Hunger' was written twenty-five years ago. I grew up in Cuttack, close to a temple. There were two rivers close by. The ways of life there were different. I was into religion. My poems today don't have those old images. I've taken the temple out of my system. I had an unhappy childhood. I had an abnormal relationship with my mother. I owe a lot to my father, though. He put me in a missionary school. The school had a British headmaster... I was trampled upon in my childhood. That still remains with me. I'm not deliberately holding on to tensions. I ran away from home thrice. I'm shaped by factors beyond my control. Now I'm at peace with myself, but this wasn't the case ten years ago. Perhaps as a result of that childhood I always feel alone, alone when I'm with my family or part of a crowd. There's a chasm inside which can never be bridged. In 'Hunger' I was writing from experience.

This is the first time he admits that the poem is autobiographical; note how he reaches this confession in the end in a convoluted manner.

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