When I first became acquainted with Jayantada he was simply Jayanta Mahapatra, the poet I had to study in my PU, or pre-university, English textbook way back in the 1980s. I did not know much about him then, apart from the feeling that he was someone big, writing great poetry that had to be taught in the colleges and therefore someone larger than life, inspiring awe and reverence among first-time college kids like us.

Certainly, his The Captive Air of Chandipur-on-Sea added to our reverence for him, evocative as it is, of “the still sad music of humanity” and imbued with a profound love for a land haunted by and absorbing the memories of centuries.

Later, I met him again in the Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, which we studied for our MA. At that time, the feeling that I was in the presence of a great poet intensified manifold as I read his poetry and wrote assignments and test papers on it.

Then too, I was merely a fledgling poet, or rather, an unpublished scribbler of what I thought privately and fondly was poetry. Indeed, I had started writing many years before – soon after I completed my matriculation – but I had never dared show my poetry to anyone or send it anywhere for publication.

I still remember exactly how I began my first poem. Poetry had come like an illness. In the unhappy tenement of my youth was a young woman, abandoned and alone with her girl child. She was beautiful beyond belief, and it was simply incomprehensible to me that such loveliness could have been treated with such cruelty.

She seemed to me, in her loneliness, like a flambeau in the dark lanes of those nights: someone both hope and joy-giving, a soulmate, a fellow sufferer with whom I could share my hardship and loneliness. Something stirred inside me. I was racked by a sudden desolate yearning, something fierce and restless, a gnawing, tormenting desire to reach out, to touch. I scrawled my first few lines of poetry, something I never knew I ever had, addressed to the woman, the very first I ever loved.

This first poem was followed by others, kept in a notebook with many scratches and cancellations. It was only at the university that I tentatively showed these poems to one of my teachers – the late EN Lall – who straightaway told me to get them published somewhere. That was how I made Jayantada’s acquaintance for the first time outside the poetry textbooks.

Jayanta Mahapatra, the editor

From Robin Singh Ngangom, at that time, an established poet and already a close friend of Jayantada’s, I came to know that Jayantada was going to edit the poetry page of The Telegraph’s Sunday Magazine – the most widely read English-language newspaper in the North East in those days.

I watched out for the first batch of poems to be published in the Magazine and then decided to try my luck. To my surprise and great delight, one out of the six poems I had sent, The Fungus, was soon published in the Magazine.

This was followed by another one, The Parking Lot, published in the very next issue. Imagine then the euphoria that overwhelmed me. The great man whom I had admired for years, who had seemed so remote, a great name among great poets, had actually selected and published two of my very own poems. I was going to be read by everybody who knew me. Think of their surprise. The unremarkable and inconspicuous Kynpham published by Mahapatra. My nostrils flared with pride, and I was not ashamed of it either: as far as I was concerned, it was my first achievement as a poet.

Still, this did not make him an acquaintance. I could not boast to my friends that I knew Jayanta Mahapatra. But it was also quite pleasing to realise that my poetry was published on its own merit and not because I had known the celebrated selector.

My first contact with Jayantada came when I sent him my first collection of poems, Moments, published in 1992 by Writers Workshop. Robin gave me his address, but it was only after several weeks of hesitation that I could muster enough courage to post the book to him. I was going though all sorts of trepidation: what if he thought I was presumptuous? What if he said the book was no good? What if he did not acknowledge my book at all? Would not that be a kind of denouncement in itself?

But I need not have lost sleep and rest over it at all, for prompt came the reply – after just two weeks – not only acknowledging his receipt of the book but also giving me some of the best comments I have had on my poetry.

I still remember his words very clearly: “One of your good qualities,” he had said, “Is the sincerity you say things with – and the feel of the poems, which speaks of the earth you live on and love ... The poems contain lovely lines and I have many favourites...You are writing extraordinarily well.”

This, for the poetry of a beginner like me. I can tell you without shame that I could not stop talking about it for weeks, and to those who knew anything at all about literature, I did not fail to show them the letter as well.

Since then, I have met Jayantada several times – whenever he came to our part of the world, which was quite often, and in poetry festivals around the country. When I did not meet him, I spoke to him over the phone or wrote to him, discussing poetry, common friends, and the fate of Chandrabhaga, the journal that he so loves and of which he is so justifiably proud. In all my interactions with him, one thing, and one thing only, impresses me above all others: his self-effacing modesty.

‘I know nothing about my poems’

When I first wrote to him, I thought he would be dismissive of me, or at best be patronising, widely known as he was. However, his very first letter proved how wrong I had been in my apprehension, for he had begun by saying, “You ask me about my frank comments. First, let me confess that I am ignorant about these things. My training has been in physics, not literature or poetry. So whatever I can tell you will be a reader’s assessment, and a very subjective one.”

This, to my mind, coming from one of the most acclaimed poets in modern India, was an example of a rare kind of modesty. This modesty, I realise now, is also the reason why Jayantada is so reluctant to talk about his poetry.

At one of the meet-the-author programmes we had organised for him at the Department of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Jayantada was asked by eager students to discuss some of his poems included in the MA syllabus. Indeed, all of them were excited about it, for what better explanation could they get than from the poet himself? But to everybody’s astonishment, he politely declined to oblige, saying, “I know nothing about my poems.” Being the kind of man he is, I now understand the awful embarrassment that sort of request must have caused him.

His endearing modesty impressed me from the start: in the words he wrote to me and his attitude towards our relationship. When he did not need to be nice at all, when he was already so established and renowned, he treated me, young and callow as I was, like his equal and spoke in subsequent letters of our “quiet friendship”. Wouldn’t anybody’s heart warm to a person of such humility and goodwill?

Jayantada’s “quiet friendship” is extended to all the poets of Shillong, particularly Robin Singh Ngangom, Desmond L Kharmawphlang, Ananya S Guha and young Anjum Hasam, as the newest kid on the block. This is a fact that Jayantada is never tired of making known again and again in his letters and conversations with us. I remember him asking me in one of his letters – almost with reproach, “When are you calling me to Shillong? I want to be with all of you.” In another one, he declared jubilantly, “I’m coming to Shillong on October 30 [1999], and so am excited that all of us can get together and get drunk in Mawphlang.”

Mawphlang is the site of a large and famous sacred grove in the Khasi Hills situated on a tableland surrounded by low hills in the east, north and south, and an extensive ground running its entire length in the west. The grove is breathtakingly beautiful and is a favourite picnic spot for many local and visiting tourists.

To this spot, we usually took Jayantada whenever he visited Shillong for a reading. I had also taken him to Sohra, my birthplace, more than once. He seemed to enjoy it very much as far as I could judge from his reference to the experience in some of his letters afterwards. It was here that we had our best times together, here that we unwound after the hectic events of a poetry festival.

But of course, Jayantada jested when he spoke of getting drunk. I have never known a man to drink so sparingly. I have never seen him drink more than a peg or two. Only once did I see him affected by alcohol during an event in Shillong! It was not because of overindulgence, but because of a delayed dinner. In effect, we had made him drink on an empty stomach, and the consequence was that Robin and I had to carry him bodily to his hotel room.

Poets, friends, soulmates

Jayantada’s “quiet friendship” with the Shillong poets is perhaps much more than that. Many of his letters make it plain that he considers us his soulmates. We are a bunch of free spirits unburdened by any fanatical creed. Intellectually, we share many of his interests and poetically – although none of us has reached anywhere near the heights he has scaled – we speak a similar language, sustained by strong feelings and invigorated by metaphors drawn from the land and the customs of our people. As an illustration, I quote from one of Jayantada’s untitled poems printed on a handcrafted greetings card he had sent to me:

The rain is home, clinging
pitifully to the Orissa countryside.
Orioles turn on their wings of gold
where the sky falls into darker cloud.
Beyond the wood fence, grow lotuses
and wild hyacinths of the wetness.
Again, from somewhere,
one calls back the love
of what one hungers to be touched by,
so I can call you by your name – Orissa,
as the wind returns again
for those empty voices it nurtures
in the thick-leafed mangoes and cashews,
and rain’s frightened hands
drop the comic book of our history
onto the weathered stones.

Anyone acquainted with the poetry of the Shillong poets at all would readily agree that they speak this kind of idiom, one born of love and intimately aligned with the geography and history of the land. With this kind of community spirit between us, it was only natural that he would grow fond of us and be most happy – if I may overstate just a little bit – in our company.

As for us, Jayantada remains an endearing icon. It will not be an exaggeration if I say that, among all the Indian poets writing today, he is, for us, the best-loved. We adore him additionally because – as a woman friend of mine once exclaimed after meeting him for the first time: “He is so sweet.” That, as Carl Jung might have said, is a rare combination, for to Jung, the “lives of artists are as a rule so highly unsatisfactory – if not tragic – because of their inferiority on the human and personal side...” But Jayantada is truly more than a poet writing great poetry; he is a great soul.

If only I could see him again before the sun sets and the “wild geese / [are] lost in cloud”!