"I owe you, Jayanta-da"
Distinguished bilingual poet Jayanta Mahapatra (1928–2023) passed away on 27 August. He was the first Indian to get the Sahitya Akademi award for English poetry
It was the turn of this century.
Having rashly given up my job as a copywriter at HTA, Bombay, in order to re-make myself as a full-time writer (whatever that might be), I knuckled down to making that even more rashly announced agenda come true.
How? I wrote.
I wrote and I wrote.
Fiction was my new day job (of course, because that was what was going to make me an overnight sensation). And poetry (of course, because that was what was going to see me through the dark nights of my soul).
I knew no one. I had no contacts in the ‘literary world’. (My husband knew more poets than I did, and two of them—Jeet Thayil and Mani Rao—were my first mentors, going on to become lifelong friends.) I was a small, very frightened person, with very big hopes. And while it was clear to me that fiction needed an endlessly secret life till I was ready with my ‘masterpiece’, I could at least create some outward semblance of being a ‘real writer’ by sending my poems out into the world, hoping they would land and take root on some hospitable planet. Namely, literary magazines. Print journals. Those beautiful things that I now had time to leaf through at the British Council library. Wasafiri. Stand. Granta.
I assiduously copied down the submission guidelines, noted the requirement for an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) and visited the nearest stationery shops (there were many in my erstwhile office neighbourhood in Fort) to equip myself for this new chapter in my life.
The GPO was my favourite haunt in those days, I didn’t dare entrust these precious missives to any other branch, and it was always with a sense of fulfilment that I left the building.
I spent a small fortune on airmail registered post before I realised the real purpose of the SASE. That’s what brought your rejected poems back to you, like unwanted homing pigeons.
You paid the price, twice over: once for your self-worth (you were now good enough to be in print!) and then for your self-pity (you were so bad they didn’t even bother to personalise the rejection letter!). You gulped. You stashed away the rejections, envelope and all, in a box you tried hard not to see, and you began all over again.
It was around this time that my father saved me (from impending penury and irrevocable despair). Why not submit to Indian journals, he said to me, once I had confessed that I too was trying to follow in his footsteps as a poet.
"Indian journals?" I asked (still in the thrall of Westward ho!). Which ones? The Journal of the Poetry Society (published out of Delhi), he said. Chandrabhaga (published out of Cuttack). Didn’t I know these? I didn’t. And, my father added, like the icing on the cake that it was, Chandrabhaga was edited by Jayanta Mahapatra. "Surely you know the name?"
Ashamed of my ignorance and eager to make up, I became a subscriber to both magazines. And I started submitting my poems, knowing the outcome already and bracing myself for it.
I still remember the day I got my first handwritten letter from Jayanta Mahapatra. It was a rejection letter, yes, but couched in the gentlest, most genuinely caring terms. These poems hadn’t really worked, but that was no reason not to send him more. Would I?
Would I?! Such a senior poet, writing to me? Was it possible? And in his own hand? What exquisite writing! In ink! He was critical, yes, but not in the least condescending. I was not good enough yet, but I would be. He believed it. And so, I began believing it too.
That was the beginning of an epistolary exchange with Jayanta-da, which is how he signed off, and which is how I addressed him.
I think there were three rounds of rejections before my first acceptance.
And while the thrill of seeing my poems in print for the first time in such a prestigious Indian journal was overwhelming, the feeling that remains mint-new more than two decades later is gratitude. If Jayanta-da hadn’t written to me that way—as he did to everyone, which in no way diminished the special feeling it evoked in each of us who were the recipients of his careful readings—I might have abandoned all hope.
When my first book of poems, Sight May Strike You Blind, came out in 2007, he was one of several poets I thanked.
By then, I was no longer alone, I had a community that had grown slowly, quietly; I had friends who were poets, and miraculously, I too was now a published poet.
It was a full 10 years later that I actually first met him, at a poetry festival in Mumbai.
We were both shy, as if the eloquence of our epistolary exchange belonged already to another time, other people. I was brimful with joy, even more so since my father was also there, and it felt like full circle.
On Sunday, 27 August 2023, when I heard that Jayanta-da had passed away, I felt the stab that signals the end of an era.
He taught me the virtue of patience. He taught me how to be kind to poets who are only just beginning. He taught me the endless value of time, as a co-author.
This was before mobile phones, before Submittable, before the quick and easy networks that social media enables. Across time and distance, he taught me how to wait—for the right word. He taught me how to fail, and fail better, and never give up.
I realise now, 11 poetry books later, that he taught me to value myself in ways that included but were not restricted to my gifts as a poet.
As I see the posts on my Instagram feed, poets of all ages, languages, sensibilities, sharing their own private memories of meeting Jayanta Mahapatra, I realise how many lives he touched. His poetry remains the place where we can and will go to find him. There will be time, when the emotions are less immediate, to read and reflect on his legacy as a poet.
For now, it is the legacy of the human I want to remember.
For seeing me from darkness to light in more ways than you could have imagined, I owe you, Jayanta-da.
May you rest in peace and poetry. And may we remember how to give as we have received from you—unstintingly, unsparingly, with love.
Sampurna Chattarji’s latest poetry collection is Unmappable Moves (Poetrywala 2023). She can be found on Instagram as @ShampooChats