Like many other Indian poets, my first brush with Jayanta Mahapatra was through prescribed reading in college. At a time when most English literature courses mostly had British or American poets, Mahapatra was amongst the few Indian names one encountered. As a wide-eyed literature student, I distinctly remember how familiar he sounded and relatable to what I saw around me in my country. “Dawn at Puri” was one of his first poems that I read and loved.

Endless crow noises
A skull in the holy sands
tilts its empty country towards hunger.

White-clad widowed Women
past the centers of their lives
are waiting to enter the Great Temple

As I pursued writing as a career and poetry became a lifeline, I also came in close contact with many of the Indian English poets, but especially with Jayanta Mahapatra. As anyone who had met him would tell you, Jayanta da was special. Not only because he was one of the pioneers of Indian English poetry, but also because he was the last of the gentlemen.

A few years ago, as one of the organisers of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, I got in touch with Jayanta da in order to invite him to the festival. I remember that I had to prep myself for half an hour before actually making the call to invite him. For many of us, he was an icon, and for me, it was a fan girl moment. He had laughed and said, “I am too old for poetry festivals, who would come to listen to an old man? I can barely take care of myself.”

He finally gave in to my persuasion, but after many more conversations, I realised that Jayanta da didn’t want to use the email. “Send me a letter, Maitreyee,” he had said, and I did. To date, it is the only handwritten festival invitation I have sent out, but it felt special, even different.

Easily moved and sensitive to pain

Over the course of the last few years, we wrote many letters to each other. He was already in his nineties, but his letters while full of introspection, were also full of life – a childlike zest about them always. He would write about a new book that he had read, or a travel story that he had remembered, or a poem that he had liked, and about his home at Tinkonia Bagicha – “I had to cut a mango tree you know Maitreyee, I am sorry, I know how much you love trees. But I had to do a small construction within the compound...”

Around the month of July last year, he had called one day, excited and childlike, “It is raining so beautifully, I know how you love the rains. I thought I would make you hear the sound from here.” I had laughed, and then both of us went quiet while hearing the rain on his roof, with him, on the phone that day. Jayanta da was impulsive, even childlike in his laughter, easily moved, and sensitive to pain. In the year 2020, we spoke on the phone, just before his poem was published in The Paris Review, and he seemed excited. I had asked him how he managed to be excited after so many accolades and so many poems. He replied, “But it’s a new poem, like a new day.” The Paris Review carried Mahapatra’s poem, “After the Death of a Friend”, for its Spring Issue that year.

Over, the kite’s flight; and of a sudden
is the realisation of the morning overcome
by the echo of dark nights, silent witness
to the colorlessness crouching down before us.
Stealing time is what’s been happening all the time.
Is it because you’ve heard only your own cries,
fifty years earlier, too, as they went by, adulterated with death?
Or some shy, crumpled laughter carrying with it
the air of an unspoken but certain defeat?
Somewhere in my mind, I lose the ability
to disappear, as the morning air moves listlessly about,
indifferent to looks, or history, or roots. And here
if I died, like this, dying for the person I was,
or for the one I see coming in and out of your death,
would that be a way out to save me
from the solitude I’ve believed in and pursued
in the same way I pursue the rush of blood in my veins?

Death, relationships, rivers, and Puri have been recurring themes in his poetry over the years. But more and more he would speak about death, about those younger than him passing away. “At times I am weary, everything I have loved, slowly slipped away like sand.” And yet, our poet would read every day, and write too. “I wouldn’t know what else to do,” he would say.

Jayanta Mahapatra, one of the finest voices of Indian poetry has slipped away onto the other side. As his friend, I cannot but remember the man before the poet, but then in his case, both are inexplicably entwined in mind, memory, and his work. At the Bangalore Poetry Festival, Jayanta da received a standing applause after his speech. Poets had come to hear him from far and wide. He had spoken about the beginnings of the Indian English poetry scene, the difficulties he had to overcome, the various styles that he saw emerging and more.

It had been a good ride, this innings – full of love, beauty, and sensitivity. His legacy is scattered amongst the lovers of poetry whom his work touched. The wonderful thing about poets is that while they might die, their poetry lives on. And so it shall be, in the case of Jayanta Mahapatra too, long may his poetry live.