The Usawa Newsletter September'23

    A Tribute to Jayanta Mahapatra

    Reflecting on the life and legacy of this literary luminary, we have compiled a collection of heartfelt tributes dedicated to him.

    The Sense of Sound: A Note on Jayanta Mahapatra

    Jayanta Mahapatra’s fellowship to the International Writing Program (IWP) began not long after the United States Bicentennial celebrated the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration Of Independence, in 1976. The poet was part of a cohort of twenty-two writers from around the world who arrived in Iowa City during the final months of the first post-Watergate presidential election—which is to say: a complicated moment in American history. Asked what he recalled of his stay in the Midwest, Mahapatra replied, “It was a silence I’d never felt before in India. From a noisy, crowded town where I’d lived for more than forty years, right into the noiseless haze of Iowa, where the sky seemed to hang from the many farewells that wounded me, was unnerving. It was a silence that was full of the sense of sound, or perhaps did not carry any sense of sound at all, I cannot say.” What I can say is that the wisdom he gained from his exploration of the various ways in which silence can shape a life in poetry was what marked our single conversation, in an alcove reserved for writers during the Jaipur Literature Festival. It seemed to me he had created or discovered a special zone of silence, a place apart from the overflowing crowds, in which he explained some of what he had learned from his encounters with writers in the IWP. And since I cannot remember exactly what he said that afternoon I will let this prose poem retrieved from his stay in Iowa fill the silence that always attends the death of a great man:

    Through the windows of the Mayflower, the Iowa River looked so still as though
    its heart had stopped beating, small streaks of white appeared motionless on the
    surface. The morning was dull, yet clear, and clouds looked down upon me with
    their faceless gloom. A vast white cover of cloud. And the river. There it was;
    maybe, I told myself, it had felt the winter already. I finished my letter to R,
    dressed, and went down to mail it. Something led me to the Iowa River; it was
    cold. Ah, as I approached it, it looked so still, the waters heavy and idle. Yes, the
    river was frozen, a crust of ice had formed, and there, so real, in front of me.
    Something which I had only imagined, a wild dream. It was more powerful than
    snow. So still. I threw a stone, it did not go in, it lay pathetically on the surface. I
    walked along the river, watching the dead leaves, maple and oak, in the ice;
    somewhere a long stick thrust out its free end into the air. A second stone at
    another point broke the thin crust and sank in, in fierce display of its power.
    Something moved inside me, through the same blue-green and banal water that
    had not changed its visage, and held more power, grim, scornful, like the face of
    some funeral priest from my land.

    Christopher Merrill, Director, International Writing Program

    You’re safely ensconced in our hearts Jayanta da…

    in Jayanta da was a beautiful soul and a remarkable human being. Everything about him was inspiring – his poetry, his physical agility despite his age, his lucid mind and his humility. Despite being a decorated poet and having a huge fan following in India and overseas, Jayanta da’s feet were on the ground, his head firmly on his shoulders. He had a delightful sense of humour and an endearing ability to narrate amusing anecdotes that would leave me chuckling. He also had a roaring love for food: street food, restaurant food, home food, everything! He loved the quintessential Mumbai vada pav and I remember being chastened by well wishers when I indulged him with a vada pav everyday for the duration of his stay in Mumbai once.

    It seems rather hurtful to recount those carefree, happy hours now. Happy memories feel raw and poignant when one looks back on them after the person is no more. Jayanta da’s passing has left a terrible vacuum in my life as well as in the literary world. I imagine it’s going to be rare, if not impossible, to find a poet as gifted and humble as him – that combination might be hard to replicate.

    I recall once, we were sitting on the parapet of Land’s End watching the sea lapping the rocks below. Jayanta da happened to observe a woman selling small, plastic toys on the footpath. He drew out a ten rupee note and bought a plastic toy whistle from her. I was puzzled by his actions but refrained from expressing my confusion. After a few minutes, several passers by, stopped by and bought toys from the seller. Jayanta da, paused and said, “See! You buy one and a cascade starts…” I wondered silently if there was a subtle message there…

    Whenever Jayanta da spoke about his adolescent days, the child in him bubbled up from layers of tiredness of being a nonagenarian. I saw tears fill his eyes as he recounted incidents close to his heart, I saw his jaws convulse as he gave way to emotions that were anchored in memories, that went beyond the confines of time and space, like when he mentioned how his mother threw away his precious diaries when he was a teenager. “I used to be a loner in school. Those diaries were the only voice I had in those days…”, he said. I remember him deeply every day since he left us on the 27th of August. Remember him with tenderness and nostalgia for the person he was, for the values of honesty, dignity and humility he stood for and for how much he meant to us as a poet. Jayanta da, the morning after you left us, a Laughing Dove visited my terrace, looked me in the eye and cooed away incessantly. I imagine it was you, saying your final goodbyes and singing of your freedom at last. Of course. Birds speak to me like that.

    Vinita Agrawal

    “Our ancestors are a living presence with us” said Jayanta Mahapatra to me in a conversation a few years ago. True, indeed he himself would be a living presence forever for us, the poets of the subcontinent, through his poems and his warm spirit. The mystery he had said lay in how we in India understand our lives woven in a cyclic fashion; there is no saying when the straight line becomes a circle and then again, the circle turns into a straight line. He related his understanding of “time” to physics, the discipline he was trained in. Rooted in Odia culture, history and landscape, he spoke of how his poem “Dhauli” came out of his intense pain over the gruesome massacre of the people of Odisha (Kalinga kingdom), and how the river lay discoloured with their blood. The past of his land lived on vibrantly in his memory. By writing poetry in both English as well as Odia language, he enriched both the languages and cherished the freedom to choose the language to suit the content he wished to write on. One of the few poets to have been published abroad in prestigious magazines since long, Jayanta Mahapatra contributed greatly in internationalizing Indian poetry in English. In editing and publishing “Chandrabhaga”, he mentored many a generation of young poets. We pay our humble homage to him by taking inspiration from him and honing our sensitivities and creative skills in writing poetry.

    Sukrita Paul Kumar

    Requiem for Jayanta Dada

    I (28 th August 2023)
    I feel your absence like an earthquake. The way
    an earth-hugging invertebrate does, sensing
    the shake with un-mouthed keening.
    The tremors rising and subsiding.
    The ripple-spread of shockwaves. The cracks
    erupting on the erstwhile smooth surfaces
    of my heart. There is no respite.
    Not that I am asking for one. For I
    do not wish to scatter my grief like day-old rice
    to crows on the terrace. I have loved you always
    as one loves the taken-for-granted deity
    in a corner of the house, in its solitary altar.
    I keep that space within.
    At certain hours, the incense of my pain swells
    like ash from the lit-end of a joss-stick.
    Another evidence of your benevolence to me,
    each time I inhale the scent of bereavement.
    II (30 th August 2023)
    Three days Dada. Three days after you left
    a plump full moon hung above the horizon watching
    the bustle of people as they prepared
    for the night. It took the moon three days
    to come visiting in her glorious light. Your body
    by then had turned to ash. The ash you wrote of.
    Grey and warm. Then white and cold. And dry
    as the soil on the moon.
    A long time ago, and it seems that long to me now,
    I used to knock on your door
    with letters scrawled by an untidy hand, and
    you would respond, as if welcoming a wandering child.
    You kept your doors, all of them, wide open. You let us in
    as you did the bees and potter wasps, dead flowers come loose
    from their stems, the elusive scent of the bamboos swaying
    in your garden. All wafted in. None stayed for long.
    They say your solitude saddened you in the end.
    I say that is how you gifted your poetry to the world.
    Like this year’s super blue moon. Rising, holding
    her mysteries close. Casting her radiance with
    carefree generosity over the expanses of our nights.
    On the morning of the fourth day, I saw the moon again.
    A perfect disc of cold white ash smeared
    on the sky’s forehead. What did the moon know
    that I did not? But I can remember. This much I
    am allowed. So, I press your memories
    between the leaves of books. Sometimes,
    like flowers with too thick petals, they bleed
    into the pages and the words become blurred.
    III (1 st September 2023)
    September is for the white of Kash flowers.
    Feathery fingers susurrating.
    Torment to come.
    Nights of cicadas and frog throngs. Of lament too.
    The hush beat of a hunting owl.
    Terrified squeak of mouse.
    On your rocking chair beneath the bamboos
    That you had planted scores of years ago
    Ash borne on errant wind now sings to their roots.
    Mynahs on your sills. Grudging
    Eyes of yellow kohl. In a moment
    They will raise their chorus cloud ward.
    I see you. You are listening in your garden.
    Contemplative and waiting.
    Life atremble, in your fingertips.
    The Koel repeats his notes
    Slicing the silence open
    The bamboos, you told me,
    Have flowered this year. They were
    Loyal to you in the end.
    Grief begins like a ripple,
    Grows in concentric circles.
    Rocking the body,
    Bending the mind in prayer.
    But not towards God or any almighty.
    Nor to the universe that sings.
    But to the smallest, most fragile of things –
    Fronds of Kash in the fields
    Shy bamboo flowers
    A sparrow’s dusty wing
    – Fleeting. All fleeting, but
    You knew this. And you kept poetry
    flowing while you were waiting.


    A Book, a Day, and Into a Long Journey with Jayanta Mahapatra

    Death is not extinguishing the light;
    it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.

    Rabindranath Tagore.

    I last met Jayanta uncle in June this year. Then his last words were, “please do not take pains to come all the way. I may not recover this time.” A tragic self prediction, isn’t it? Actually I planned to celebrate his birthday (October 22) at his home in Cuttack this time. But “our thoughts are ours, there ends none of our own” (Hamlet).

    I first met Jayanta in January 2006. In the infant years of my writing, one morning while browsing for new poetry arrivals at a bookstall in Vijayawada, I bumped into an arresting title A Whiteness of Bone and read a poem “All the Poetry there is”. The images and metaphors were brilliant, alluring and cryptic that I was so tempted to buy the book and finished a few of them that evening. They were exactly the kind of poems I dreamt of writing but failed. I heard his name but never read him seriously before except for a mechanical academic reading. I passionately fell in love with his poetry. The next morning I started off to Cuttack to meet him. I didn’;t know in fact why I was going at all but just wanted to see him. I didn’t even have any reservation; I travelled in the general compartment. I reached Cuttack and boarded an auto rickshaw to Tinkonia Bagicha. That was where he lived. I saw his address on the book I bought. When the auto rickshaw was nearing, my heart started to pound with awe imagining my meeting of the great poet. When I was wondering what to speak with him fear gripped me. I didn’t know anything about him or his poetry. I reached his home. Beside one of the huge gates was inscribed Chandrabagha on a marble plaque but when I later asked whether it was the name of the journal he runs, he said he meant the river.

    Entering the compound I saw the culms of huge bamboo that reminded the lines “…carry the silent air in the bamboos / to the roots of our small cries” from his A Whiteness of Bone. There was a beautiful garden in the compound with a concrete bench in the middle where Jayanta used to sit to enjoy the solitude. On the entrance door a beautiful golden yellow rice sheaf was hung. It evoked the image of rice which was like a motif in his poetry.

    When I reached the door, his wife Mrs Runu Mahapatra received me. I joined my hands and said I came to meet Mr Jayanta Mahapatra. She said he went out for groceries and would be back in a while and showed me a chair. He came after a while; stood in the door staring at me in a surprise wondering who I was. In a little stammering voice I said “I came from Vijayawada to see you.” He asked what brought me. I said I read A Whiteness of Bone and fell in love with his poetry. And he asked “What can I do for you?” I didn’;t really know what to answer and I knew I was neither intellectually nor creatively matured enough to speak anything about poetry. And both laughed affectionately at my innocence. Then I told him I too wrote a few poems and asked him whether I could show. Smiling, he asked just one which I thought was my best. I didn’t even know which one was my “best” but gave one. He read and asked for one more. I gave. Then what he said had just unsettled me with a shattering blow; collapsed my castle of cards. He said, “Sreekanth! Try to write some poetry.” Pale-faced and with a broken smile I nodded “Yes Uncle.” He asked me, “do you have some pain in your life?” I said “yes.” Then he told, “poetry should never drag you further into grief; do not burden poetry with all your grief. Poetry should more be a source of healing from grief with a sort of catharsis, must squeeze the grief off the heart, but should not pull further into it.”

    Then what he did to me the next moment transformed my writing, thinking and even reading. He asked me to sit on the floor (divan bedding) and rewrite my 40-line poem by compressing it in its size without spoiling the meaning and said, “You came from very far, you should not go empty handed”. He said he would return in half an hour. It was really an ordeal. I tried and could redo it only to 30 lines. He returned and read, took my poem, sat beside me on divan and spent half an hour doing it in just 15 lines without spoiling an iota of the theme and said “You can now send this poem to some good magazine, it may publish.” And later it was. He had also curly-bracketed five lines and said that they were very good. They were, “Democracy on its last journey / to the burning ghat / drags its wounded feet on the / hot sandy dunes / of the deserted nation.” I can never forget this emotional moment when my eyes were moist with hope. I strongly recorded those changes in my memory. Jayanta and my poem in his hand were like Michelangelo carving a stone. Before I met him I was not sure whether I was writing poetry or some sentimental scribbles and almost every journal used to reject my poems.

    By the time this tutorial episode was over, it was 11o clock in the morning. He then said “I have some writing work, feel free to spend some time with aunty.” He told aunty to talk to me. And I shyingly went inside and was surprised that I felt very homely and motherly with her. After a while, he said, “We’d be very happy if you please have lunch with us”. Do I deserve it? ; and never dreamt would dine with one of the greatest writers of the era.

    Then at lunch he said with a smile, “I’ll give you a pleasant surprise now” and he called someone “Sarojini, Sarojini”, twice. An elderly woman came from Kitchen. He introduced, “Meet Sarojini, she’s from Srikakulam, AP, speaks Telugu”. It was another great surprise. She’s a helper, came 30 years ago and remained with them like their daughter. Her son Issac also grew up there. I developed a native kind of association with her since she is a Telugu woman. It was she or Issac who always used to pick up my phone. After lunch, we had a long conversation about many things. During our lunch he shared his memories with AK Ramanujan and even showed me a sealed champagne bottle which Ramanujan gave him as a gift before his death. He shared his memories and photographs with Allen Ginsberg famous American poet and Prof. CB Cox, the then editor of Critical Quarterly. During lunch he said, “Sreekanth I’m sorry I’m using spoon, you please feel free to use hand.” In every bit of our conversation I could see love in him. Except for a few minutes initially I could soon become homely with both uncle and aunty.

    That evening when I was about to leave to stay at a lodge, aunty told that uncle asked her to tell me to stay with them that night. Evening while helping her at the dinner table she said “uncle generally doesn’t speak intimately with a stranger like you.” And when I asked then why with me, she said “Seems he has taken a liking for you”. I was so overwhelmed and felt so proud of those words. And the next day I left. Ever since, we met many times, had a volume of sweet memories.

    After a few years, Runu aunty died. Sarojini told me that he cried like a child when she died. It was after aunty’s death we became more intimate, had correspondence through letters. Sarojini and her Son Issac had been uncle’s caretakers. Sarojini looked after him with utmost care for many years. He used to say he owed her a lot. Uncle has one son Mohan who also died. Uncle seriously suffered from Covid and had its after-effects also. And another tragedy was recently Sarojini also died of a stroke. Her death took him into deep depression. He wrote to me, “It was good having you here. Am still unwell. And Sarojini’s passing has left such a chasm that it can’t be filled. I haven’t been my normal self after her death, and you must have noticed that.” After her death Issac and his wife took care of him till his death.

    But for uncle, I wouldn’t have written poetry. Uncle and auntie were like my (grand) parents. That’s why I dedicated my maiden book Poems of the Void to uncle and aunty. When I sent the first copy, he called and excitedly thanked me over the phone for dedicating it to them. He said, “I loved the poem ‘The Last Birthday’ it has moved me”. This compliment was like a Ph.D. Till then I didn’t have much confidence or regard for my own poetry. But this compliment gave lot of hope. Actually, that poem I wrote on my father’s last birthday we celebrated in the hospital itself a week before he died in Cancer ward in ICU, CMC Vellore in 2014. It was this death episode he said that touched him. It’s a fact that the theme of death was a kind of obsession in many of his poems. It was published in Burrow Journal Australia. I honestly attribute this honour to what uncle did sitting beside me on our first meet.

    Lastly I am pressed to share a few of my memories from our last meet. I was always fascinated by Jayanta’s reading table. It was my favourite place at his home. He used to pore over something, writing or reading always bent over the table. He was half engulfed by a tall and U-shaped dense wall of books. I used to sit near him silently reading something picked from his library. In the middle of his reading he used to take unwrapped lemon flavoured chocolates and eat from a tin beside. He usually loved to read under a lamplight encircled by darkness. His home was pleasantly silent all the time, a perfect ambience for a writer which I long again and again to be in. On my last meet I asked him what he was reading. He said he had a big task to complete. It was the 20 th edition of Chandrabhaga (his last one) to be ready soon and asked me to send five of my poems. In the letter he wrote to me “Auschwitz” was a poem I’ll use. It is so honestly done. So revealing.” I was so excited because previously he rejected my poems writing a gentle note what I had to improve.

    Later once I asked him how he was submitting poems to the foreign journals. He said, “I don’t have a computer. And I know nothing about the technical things you mention in your SMS”, and I told him, “If you have any poems to be submitted to the journals you wish to, please don’t hesitate to send me. I’ll submit them online to as many journals as you wish. It takes less than five minutes for submitting. What all you have pending and if you wish them to be sent to any particular ones of your choice, I will.” And this was what he wrote to me,

    “It is so kind of you, Sreekanth, to say you would submit my poems which you would try to get publish in US journals. I will try to send you a group soon by postal mail and will leave it to you to do what you can. This eases me a lot, Sreekanth, and I am fortunate that God has put this concern in your mind. Am grateful both to Jesu and to you.


    The last poems he sent to me were, “Starting Point’, “Road”, “Not This Love”, “Night”, Bird and Sky” “Eager for Love”, “Poem”, “The End of Something”. I created an Email for him and sent them to Poetryfoundation (Chicago) and Paris Review and New Yorker through These were his last poems. I feel it was God’s most precious opportunity to me.



    You often used to speak about aunty. Now I am very happy that you are on your way to her – your long-dreamt destination, and will always be with her in the eternity where there are will be neither tears nor “Hunger” nor “Indian Summer”. We all will certainly meet one day.

    Happy journey Uncle.

    Photographs from the Collection of the Poet Durga Prasad Panda, editor of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Reader