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The Best of Jayanta Mahapatra.

The Selected Poems (1987; see WLT 62:2, p. 333) by Oxford University Press became outdated almost immediately, for Jayanta Mahapatra was (and at sixty-eight still is) moving well past the darkly meditative complaints which gained him international notice in A Rain of Rites (1976) and The False Start (1980). Most deservedly, in his own nation he had received the first award ever given an Indian English poet by the National Literary Academy for the eminently Otissan long meditative poem Relationship (1980), which had been followed by Life Signs (1983) and Burden of Waves and Fruit (1987), not to mention several earlier volumes and the then just completed long poem mythicizing an eighty-year-old suicidal woman's dreadfully difficult life, Temple (1986).

With even more work to choose from, the present well-balanced selection - in a series preceded by The Best of Kamala Das and soon to be followed by Meena Alexander: A Selection - provides substantially more from each volume than the Oxford edition, including the whole of Relationship and Temple (with the poet's slightly expanded notes to both) as well as ten poems (the average number per volume) from A Whiteness of Bone (1992; see WLT 67:2, p. 445) and, to conclude, a recent short "autobiographical fragment" in prose. In addition, the editor contributes an excellent introduction, "Decolonising Indian English Poetry," that places Mahapatra securely in his primary position among twentieth-century Indian poets, in English or whatever language - without apologies to Tagore, Aurobindo, Sarojini Naidu, or the hundreds of other recognized poets from whatever place on the subcontinent. This high estimate is convincingly achieved not by generalized academic argument but by tracking crucial conflicting forces within Mahapatra's poetic development - his complex relationship with both "the ideology of the aesthetic" and that of cultural decolonization. Perhaps most important, the thesis is demonstrated by clear-principled and careful analysis of specific passages of poetry both early and late, including three compelling poems about "post-modernist uncertainty" contending with postcolonial historicity in Temple.

Not surprisingly, therefore, an examination of P. P. Raveendran's choices of poems may reveal some slight bias toward not only the more complex poetry but also that which confronts - sometimes angrily as well as sadly - the appalling and bleak prospects for ordinary (i.e., poor) people in his native Otissan land or, occasionally, in the confusing whole Indian cultural context. Almost all the poems most chosen or alluded to by previous critics and anthologists are included, though a few highly quotable ones may be missed, like "The Abandoned British Cemetery at Balasore" and "Somewhere My Man," which so conveniently begins, "A man does not mean anything / But the place" - perhaps now seen as too easy a remark, despite or because of the forty lines of seemingly random images that follow, embodying the thought, "Nothing matters." For, after all, despite this common Hindu/Indian posture of apathy (or is it a secularized renunciation of desire and ambition?), what happens in his world comes to gain widening moral and social significance more and more often for Mahapatra.

With this lengthy chronological selection we can watch Mahapatra more and more frequently risking making outright assertions about human conduct like "To wait for purpose is to be devoid of meaning" ("The Waiting" in A Whiteness of Bone) even while accepting and even celebrating a world of uncertainty and confusion. At times this hard-won stance seems to him just a habit of mind, perhaps absorbed from Hindu notions of the illusoriness of ordinary life (maya) and the fusion of opposites (nondualism, advaita; see his "Mystery as Mantra: Letter from Oris-sa," WLT 68:2 [Spring 1994], p. 288). Thus he can explain that his poetry is often rejected by Western editors for "tend[ing] toward the philosophic" and for its vagueness of suggestion (in fact, mystery is a prime value in traditional Indian esthetics), qualities we prize precisely for their balancing emotionally loaded recalcitrance with restrained optimism. A late poem not in this collection, "The Absence of Knowledge" (Sewanee Review, Winter 1994), weaves in and out of vagueness and clear statement, negativity and acceptance: an unusually distinct narrating "I" recalls "how at a railway station long ago, / I stood at a ticket-window feeling this absence / with unfulfilled hands for a kind of future," and how "Once as a child, I realized / I would be watched, identified with performance, / as I went on to learn the face of a man / who leaves one in some dispassionate voice." The poem ends: "I always seem to fear it, / because whatever grows from this absence / is the destiny I feel I shall share. / Almost like the past, like God, / moving along the wall like a gecko, / it starts hunting out the bright-eyed insects / freed by rain from the hidden earth of my future."

Though I have become attached to poems like this and wish several more had been included, especially "Light" and "Behind" and "The Dispossessed" and "Bone of Time" (a marvelous moon figure), still Raveendran's choices may make for contemporary Indian readers an even better case for Mahapatra's primacy. Following his insight about one of the dynamics driving Mahapatra's poetic career, Raveendran elects to focus attention on personal and social paradoxes of poetry-writing (as in "The Quality of Ruins" in Life Signs and "All the Poetry There Is," "Of a Questionable Conviction," and "A Morning Walk in Bhopal" in Whiteness), pitting them against poems unexpectedly angry about human circumstances like "In God's Night" or "Deaths in Orissa." He even includes seven pages from the sometimes strained, highly politicized Dispossessed Nests: The 1984 Poems, about disasters in the Punjab and Bhopal, Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, and the death of the poet's father, and he might have included translations of some of the new popular poems in Oriya that express social protest, like "Raju (Is My Name, Just Raju)." Altogether it has been and should ever be a bracing experience to reconsider Mahapatra's lengthy corpus in one broad sweep, prompting both fresh discoveries and delightful renewals. One challenge is to pick out the very few and slight revisions in some early poems, changes that mostly tone down and sharpen the rhetoric of negative sentiment. With rare humor in his self-deprecation, Mahapatra ends "Of a Questionable Conviction" in Whiteness: "They all say he was a poet. / His eyes saw the pain in the mirror / that occupied him. / They didn't grudge him that: / such a harmless pastime never ruined anybody's sleep." Harmless to sleep, perhaps, yet Mahapatra's risky endeavors for esthetic and social and personal meaning unfailingly arouse his readers to the mysterious world we all inhabit.

John Oliver Perry Seattle
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Author:Perry, John Oliver
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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