It was to be that monsoon’s first shower in Cuttack. On my way from Bhubaneswar, across the Mahanadi I could see the silver-grey clouds sprinkle their light on everything around. By the time I alighted in front of Chandrabhaga Jayanta Mahapatra’s home at Tinikonia Bagicha in Cuttack, which is named after a river in Odisha – it was pouring. In the air was a smell of cow-dung, washed away by the downpour. Walking straight ahead, into the compound, I kept going until arriving at his door.

It was my first time at his home. My eyes scanned the door frame, the walls adjacent to it, the little crevices, but I could not spot an electric bell. How else could I let him know of my arrival? As I was thinking of going back, I noticed a window, which was now to my left, open. On a bed, his back to me, I could see a man reading.

I must have stood there, getting drenched in the rain, watching Jayanta Mahapatra read that day. Slowly turning the pages, unfazed and untouched by the world outside, he was scribbling on a piece of paper. A while later he rose to his feet to for a drink of water, and, sipping it, he turned and noticed me. There was concern in his voice, he didn’t want me to fall sick and catch a cold.

Later, he showed me the tiny doorbell. It had a beautiful red and black string attached to it, and it made a sound resembling a dancer’s foot in motion, which would “beckon to him to stop reading” when someone came to visit him, he told me.

A reader first

That was a definitive moment for me in the process of getting to know the man I was meeting. Even before he was a gentle heart, an old man who lived in loneliness, or a teacher, even before he was a poet, Jayanta Mahapatra was a reader with one window open to the world, welcoming any touch and every hand that sought his, and he lived life with this practice.

Mahapatra left me alone for a while to settle in the cool shade of his drawing room. When he reappeared, there was a delicate smile on his face. In those couple of minutes, he had put on a T-shirt and closed the book he was reading. A large part of our conversation that day was about the book: Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman.

I gathered that he had first come across that book in the Khuda Baksh Memorial Library about 70 years ago, while studying for a degree in Physics at Patna. Fortunately, I had read Zweig earlier, and we sailed into a journey of savouring his words. Later, Mahapatra told me it was a newer translation that he had come upon. In his voice was a sense of joy – as he would later say, he was fortunate to “find it again.”

This was the practice of Mahapatra’s reading: one that went beyond – as Roland Barthes would say – “the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us ‘throw away’ the story once it has been consumed.” For his perceptive readers, too, this cannot go unnoticed. In his autobiography composed in Odia – Pahini Rati, literally “The Night is Yet to Dawn” – Mahapatra demonstrates the relationship between his “readerly” and “writerly” self with much precision.

More often than not, he understood the self and the events attached to it in terms of metaphors drawn from a vast array of literary sources. For instance, he taps into the deeper recesses of the sexual desire that he had once felt as a young man by invoking Alice in Wonderland. He wrote that “his mind’s hunger” was turning into a “rabbit-hole” – attributing a sense of tactility to matters that are ephemeral.

In another part of the memoir, he resorts to describing the loneliness of life as a Physics teacher in Sambalpur with a book he was reading at that time, Walden. Thoreau’s quiet abode fuses seamlessly with the forests of Odisha in his consciousness. Mahapatra carved out his own experiments, perhaps from his days of training as a physicist – he tested the limits of literary truth throughout his life. Or maybe his love for Mahatma Gandhi, whom he once met in Patna, influenced him to start out on that path of scrutiny. In other words, Mahapatra’s quest for life was intricately tied to the meticulous reading of literature and translating its experience.

Striding between these two domains, knowledge and experience, was what made Mahapatra arrive at pain – the wealth that he so carefully nurtured throughout his life and in his works. About two years ago, I received a pack of nearly a dozen books from him. It carried a note, in one of those books, which I would discover much later. It was yet another experiment of his – one which I would become a part of. In it was a denouement of another facet of his relationship with literature, more so of objects that carried it: books. A significant line in the note said:

“I feel so possessive about my books. Once, I didn’t lend a book to my father...But I don’t even feel a little sadness because I’ve given you my books.”

And then, he added:

“I would like to read Alice in Wonderland again. I must have missed so much from that book.”  

It was, I believe, his attempt to part from his sense of possessiveness – on which he worked slowly, perhaps while he was reading the very books that he parted with. However, his reliance on memory is part of ot. His capacity to exist fully in the domain of literature without the need for books, anymore. Particularly one of them: The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

This book, which he had bought ten years earlier, as his signature with a date shows, did not age for Mahapatra. His readerly imprint – straight lines beneath the words drawn delicately with a wobbly hand – testify to the fact that he was once again putting to use the sense of his own mind through literature.

On page 25 of the book, he marked:

“A person doesn’t have to do anything but die.”

And on 118, was an even more emphasised double underline beneath:

“I was alone, I’d been left alone, there was no longer anyone between me and my own death.”

The imagination of death

Left with these notes to make sense of, after Mahapatra’s death, I am convinced that reading for him was a practice of locating himself in the history of literatures. He was keen on entering the protocols followed by various minds, finding out what suited him, engaging with diversity, and formulating the familiar out of the vast unfamiliarity of cultures. Wasn’t this Goethe’s dream of the “cosmopolitan” reader that he so naturally imbibed? And was it not the reason he could speak so easily with the world at large, coming as he did from the “village-like city” that Cuttack was?

Mahapatra’s re-reading was a protest against the sense of time that we so unthinkingly embrace in today’s world. He was, also, in many ways, able to redefine the loneliness that befalls humankind with grace and humility. By turning to the books that he so loved, or adored again and again, he demonstrated the desire to remake “chronological time” into “mythic time” – as Barthes put it. Mahapatra’s poems too, are set in this prolonged nostalgia, where he belongs to the (w)hole of time: of a nation, a religion, a race and language, and its before and after. After all, he wanted to be burnt on a funeral pyre, and not be buried: a choice that states how deeply the past beckons to him, rather than the present, while he steps into the future.

Mahapatra must have begun his tryst with death much before it arrived. He must have lived in its imagination and looked for it in his living days. In the times that passed, he was aware it was coming and took it in his stride – he chose to read through the finality of life, too. He mentioned in a text message, this past summer, days before he would go into the hospital from where he would never come back, that War and Peace had caught him then. I wonder what lines he might have marked in it.

When I look back eight years ago, to a time when I was studying for a degree in English literature at the University of Delhi, and my chance discovery of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Rain of Rites – a collection of his poems – in a bookshop, I remember being smitten by the usage of his imageries. I met him then in the pages of a book, as a reader, not knowing what he looked like or where he lived. I remember having to put the book back on the shelf because I couldn’t afford it. I discovered later it was published by University of Georgia Press, Athens in the year 1976 and was one of his first books.

Here in the University of Georgia library, where I received the news of his death, there are several copies of the same book, and I am free to pick them up. However, today he is simply a name on the page once again, and I become only a reader of his. For my “aged friend” (as he would describe himself in relation to me) has no place where he lives anymore, nor a face. He is obliterated. But there is a sense of ease in being his reader, for that is whom I befriended – the most sensitive reader who had a line to quote for every beat of the human heart.

Jayanta Mahapatra's home in Cuttack. | Image courtesy: Abinash Dash Choudhury.

Abinash Dash Choudhury is a Doctoral Student at the University of Georgia, Athens. He hails from Bhubaneswar, Odisha.