Amrita Pritam had once said that her life story could be written on the back of a stamp. I may say that my life could be written on the head of a pin. As for my brief life-story, I was born in an Orissa village, grew up and did my school and college, in the small town of Cuttack. I went to Allahabad for my postgraduate studies, and after my Master’s there, I served as a lecturer in the Allahabad University for a year. I then joined the Indian Administrative Service. I did various odd jobs in Orissa and in Delhi. After 20 years of service, I took two years off to research for a book on Orissan Paintings. When one is in service it does not give one time to think about oneself. During the two years of my research I started reflecting on my life – with a capital ‘L’ – and decided to quit. I left the IAS when I was forty-seven, and have always felt that I should have done it a few years earlier.
On the literary front, I wrote poetry, like everyone else, when I was in school and college. The poems appeared in magazines and, a while I was still in my teens, I had the audacity to bring out the juvenile outpourings in the form of a book! I stopped writing when I joined service perhaps the work overwhelmed me – but resumed writing after a gap of nearly 15 years. My first collection of poems, Pratham Purush, came out in 1971. Like many first collections of poetry, it was published not by a regular publisher, but by a friend, who never published a second book.
As I have said, I spent the best part of my working life in government service which absorbed most of my time and energy during that period. Before I talk about that life, let me answer a FAQ – frequently asked question. Why is it that in Orissa most bureaucrats write poetry? For one thing, it is not statistically correct, for there would be many times more college teachers in Orissa who are poets. Secondly, it is not that they started writing poetry at a time when I was not aware of such a thing as the IAS, much less think of joining it. Perhaps the job availability in Orissa being what it is, many writers joined government service. Gopinath Mohanty, the doyen of Oriya writers and a prolific one, was also a bureaucrat. So the question should be: Why do so many Oriya poets join the bureaucracy?
Let us look at it another way. Since a writer cannot live on his writing, especially when he is writing in a language like Oriya, he has to have some other profession for livelihood. There is nothing like an ideal other job for a writer. If he is a good writer, no job he does other than writing can harm him. Once William Faulkner had been asked about which profession is best suited to a writer. For him it was playing the piano in a brothel, because the hours are easy, the company nice, and there is plenty of opportunity for interesting conversation. I think the bureaucracy also has many of these advantages, though I would not quite go to the extent of equating government service with playing the piano in a brothel. Kautilya states in his Arthashastra that the court poet in the Mauryan society received the same fee as third-rate courtesans. But perhaps I have answered the question why poets join the bureaucracy.
Coming back to my own professional career in government service, I consider the three years I had spent in Kalahandi in a field job as Collector, forty years ago, as the most rewarding for me. Today people are familiar with the name of Kalahandi as they are with Biafra and Somalia, but forty years ago when I went there on a posting, it was the back of beyond even for Oriyas. It was in 1965-66 that Kalahandi first came to national notice when a famine hit the district. For the first time a Prime Minister visited this god-forsaken land. Since communication to this place was very poor, Indira Gandhi had to come in a helicopter.
Orissa had gone through a severe famine hundred years earlier in 1866, when a third of its population had perished, and people said that it was going to happen again after a century. The 1866 famine was a manmade disaster, for the administration had wrongly believed that there was enough food grain available in Orissa and refused to stop export of grains or to bring grains in, on government account.
In Kalahandi in 1965, by the middle of August it was felt that a scarcity situation was developing due to failure of rains. So I sent a report to Government. “It is apprehended that sufficient stocks of rice cannot be procured to meet the food situation this year if the dispatch of stocks from the various railheads of this district is not completely stopped…. I have restricted movement of food grains outside the district and have also issued instructions to the railway stationmasters not to honour any indent for dispatch of stocks from Kalahandi.” The Government reply shows how higher-ups in government do not understand the situation in the field: “I have no doubt that there is more rice in your district than you imagine and further, that the crops of the current year will suffice for the year’s supply. You must on no account interfere with legitimate trade, either import or export.”
This letter was not addressed to me but to the Collector of Balasore who had made a similar request a hundred years earlier. I had come across this letter when I was researching for a book on 19th century Orissa. The letter was written in 1865 by the British Commissioner Ravenshaw. The reply I got in 1965, a hundred years later, was a little more detailed. It said: “It had been decided by Government to continue dispatches of rice from Kalahandi district. It is further decided that movement of rice through free trade channels should not be restricted. The instructions issued to the civil supplies staff and the railways authorities should be withdrawn forthwith.”
There was a complete failure of crops that year, and by March 1966, the situation had become grave. The report I had sent highlighted the distress caused by the drought in terms of an abnormal increase in crimes, starvation deaths and cases of death due to malnutrition, desertion of children, a heavy influx of beggars, crippled and diseased persons to towns and big villages in search of alms. That prosaic report may be followed by a poem I wrote a few years later:
Put away the road maps now.
To go there.
You do not need
helicopters any more:
wherever there is hunger,
there Kalahandi is.
The god of rain
turned away his face.
There was not one green leaf left
on the trees to eat.
The whole village a graveyard
The ground, cracked
River sand, dried up.
All the plans failed;
the poverty line
Wherever you look,
There is a Kalahandi:
In the sunken eyes
of living skeletons,
in rags which do not cover
the frail bodies,
in the utensils
pawned off for food,
in the crumbling huts
with unthatched roofs,
in the exclusive prosperity
of having owned
two earthen pots.
Kalahandi is everywhere:
in the gathering of famished crowds
before charity kitchens,
in market places where children are
in the sighs of young girls
sold to brothels,
in the silent procession
of helpless people
leaving their hearth and home.
Come, look at Kalahandi closer:
In the crocodile tears
Of false press statements,
In the exaggerated statistics
Of computer print-outs,
In the cheap sympathies
Doled out at conferences
and in the false assurances
presented by planners.
Kalahandi is very close to us:
In the occasional contrition
of our souls,
In the unexpected nagging of conscience,
In the rare repentance
of the inner self.
In the nightmares
appearing through sound sleep,
In disease, in hunger,
In the abject fear
of an impending bloodshed.
How could we then walk
Into the celebrated portals
of the twenty-first century,
leaving Kalahandi behind?
Kalahandi still appears in the newspapers today with similar reports, even after forty years.
I find it rather ironical that some people may know me for the poem, but the relief work I did in Kalahandi is already forgotten. This makes me wonder about the writer’s role in society and its problems. What can or should a poet do in a situation like Kalahandi, or, the more immediate situation that confronts him in Gujarat? Can the poet take an activist’s role? Should he go to Kalahandi or Gujarat, and will his presence there be of any use? One is reminded here of Baudelaire taking part in the French Revolution, in 1848. Unfortunately, the poet as activist is not a happy picture. This is because such casual activism presents certain inane features: the touristic impulse to visit the action and join in, the cheerful ignorance of the issues involved, the brevity and the futility of the participation, the painful consequence, and the cheerful confusion of the personal with the public.
So, then what does a poet do? So far as the problem is concerned he can do no more or no less than any ordinary sensitive person. But he can also write about it. It is sometimes expected that a writer must also offer solutions to the problem in his writings. But as Chekhov once said, between the solution of a question and the correct setting of a question, the latter alone is obligatory for the artist. So, if the poet can present the true situation in Gujarat in his writings, he would have done his duty. It is enough for the poet to be the guilty conscience of his times. I have tried to do this in the Kalahandi poem. There is, however, a lot of expectation from poetry which, to my mind, is rather misplaced.
So, that is what poets and poetry are all about. It is true that life is getting more poetic. It is true that there is difficulty in finding publishers for poetry. But no one has yet written off poetry as a gone case, and though they talk of the end of history and the end of civilization, no one has suggested the end of poetry. New poets are born and poetry books are published every day.
Some complain about the incomprehensibility of modern poetry. They must know that the poem is like a picnic: the poet brings the words, the readers bring the sense. The reader not only construes, he also constructs. He not only decodes a poem, he makes it. So, if a reader fails to make sense of a poem, he has only himself to blame!
From poetry let me now move to some other forms I have tried. I wrote my first full-length play in 1972. This play had only four characters. It is said that every playwright has a repertory in his head with so many actors and actresses. Shakespeare had a repertory of about 20 characters, Tennessee Williams 5 or 6, and Beckett only or two; in some cases, Beckett’s second character was a clone of the first one. So far as I am concerned, I have a cast of only 4 to 5 characters in all my plays. On the stage, a play is only as good as its director and actors. I may add that the production of my play Before the Sunset had gone off very well in its Hindi version in Delhi since it was fortunate to have Ramgopal Bajaj direct it and Om Puri play the role of the protagonist.
I think I should say something about other productions of the play. It was first staged in its Bangla version in Calcutta in 1972, the same year it was written. A friend in the Calcutta All India Radio had translated it and the script was picked up by Shyamal Sen of Theatre Guild. In 1974, it was produced on Cuttack AIR in Oriya, and as it won some award or the other, it was translated into Hindi and sent to Delhi. Dinanth of AIR gave the script to Bajaj, who produced it in 1976. The play had its first production in Oriya in1977 only. Enact magazine published an English translation, and other languages showed interest. I wrote my last play in 1994 – it is a historical play about the early missionaries in Orissa in the early 19th century. That play is yet to be staged.
I started writing fiction rather late in life. My first short story Words was called Shabdbhed in the original and it was about a poet and poetry. The Daffodil is the title of one of my poems. You may wonder about this: why a vernacular, bhasha poet should be writing about this exotic flower? All of us who have read some English in the classroom are quite familiar with Wordsworth and the flower, and as a matter of fact, my poem is about the English language in India.
It is sometimes said that India is held together by the English language. This is a myth which should be debunked. As only about 3% of our people know English, it is preposterous to suggest that the basis of our unity is so narrow and fragile. Actually, English divides us more sharply than any other cleavage. Equally baneful is its cultural impact; even after departure, the colonial masters continue to rule our minds.
For the new unborn culture I am now quoting Aijaz Ahmed: ‘The only literary document produced in English is a national document. All else is regional, hence minor forgettable, so that English emerges in this imagination not as one of the Indian languages, which it undoubtedly is, but as a language of literary sophistication and bourgeoisie civility.’
When Rushdie writes off bhasha literature, we can excuse him his ignorance. But a convener’s we cannot forgive. A report on the recent so-called International Festival of Indian Literature states that “the festival was celebration of Indian writing which also (mark the world ‘also’) sought to showcase the work of bhasha writers”. It is as if English writing is the pace-setting front-runner and winner, and the bhashas are the ‘also rans’. This attitude needs to be condemned. There have been many studies which have shown how English literature was used as an instrument of colonization. As early as in 1881, Chiplunkar, the Marathi literary critic, had said: ‘Crushed by English poetry, our freedom has been brought out more graphically – and literally – by J.G.Farrel in his novel the Siege of Krishapore (1873). During the Sepoy Mutinty the embattled English are holed up in their cantonment and run out of cannon balls. They start using household articles like pots and pans in the cannons to fire at the sepoys. The most effective, however, is a metal head of Shakespeare which when shot through the cannon, ‘scythed through a whole platoon of sepoys advancing in a single file’. My poem is about English, which is still being used to colonise our minds.
Let me now move on to some children’s verses I wrote. They have been published in two collections called Odds and Ends. It is very difficult to translate nonsense verses and children’s verses because they use many linguistic puns, alliterations and onomatopoeic words in the original language. Besides, each language has its own way of expressing the sounds of animals. For instance, a dog says bow wow or woof woof in English, but in Bangla he says gheu-gheu, in Hindi bhon-bhon, and in Oriya bho-bho. The goat says may-may in Oriya and the owl says hoon-hann, which is also another name for the owl in Oriya. In Hindi, the frog says tar-tarr, in Oriya the frog says katar-kayn, and that creates problems in translation. It is like translating jafferwocky, which is a challenge to translators.
I have translated some of my own children’s verses and nonsense verses. I must add that I was encouraged to do this by Sukanta Chaudhuri’s translation into English of Sukumar Ray’s Abol-tabol. Some samples:
Twas brilling, and the slighy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves.
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Beware the Jabberwock, my son;
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock with eyes of flames,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came.
Line to line, going by the books
he must rhyme it by hooks or crooks
what results is rather odd
it’s neither monkey nor god,
a god-faced monkey is how it looks.
The crafty legislator caught in the defection game
Left party B and member of party A became
Not being made a minister
He imagined intrigues sinister
And said: ABCD – they are all one and the same.
A Night in the Dakbungalow
As soon as I had put out the light,
I saw a million mosquitoes alight,
They sure would have flown me to space.
but by good luck I was held in place
by a billion bedbugs who gripped me tight.
He, of Sarankul. Sadanand Satpathy
went off riding his brand new phatphati
The red traffic light
he crossed with delight
and thus did the babu attain sadgati.
A frequently asked question is: Is Delhi the right place for creative persons? How do you write in Oriya living in Delhi? I could simply quote from Rushdie’s famous New Yorker article and say: Literature has little or nothing to do with a writer’s address.
From my experience I feel a poet has to go through hells: The hell of emotional experience. In this, the poet is no different from others. The second hell is the hell of creation. This is the most difficult. For me, anything that is not writing poem is easy – like filling up the Income Tax Return, or doing a crossword puzzle. The third hell, which is the cruelest and severest of all, is the hell of assessment, evaluation and criticism, where the critics take great pleasure in tearing the poem to pieces. The Bangla poet Jibanananda Das was so hurt by criticism that he wrote a whole poem about such critics, where he called them scavengers feeding on the dead bodies of poets. Anyway, asking a poet about critics is like asking the lamp-post what it thinks of dogs.
I have a poem entitled ‘Fear’. In India, in its modern history, Partition was perhaps the only national trauma. We have not experienced the Second World War like the Americans or the Europeans. The Americans have been traumatized Orissa. For me personally, the only public trauma I have gone through is the Emergency. The poem is my response to that experience.
I think it will be in order to talk about my readers. In Oriya they are a rare commodity. A collection of poems in Oriya sells about 300 copies in five years, if at all. And mostly to libraries. Publishers jack up the price of books and are happy to sell 100 copies to the libraries. I believe they now print only one copy of the book and print 100 copies if and when it is approved for bulk-buying. The ordinary buyer cannot afford the book. A collection of poems can be priced as high as 150 rupees.
(From Pratibha India, April-June 2005; Vol XXII No.3)