Indian poet NIRANJAN MOHANTY, interviewed by Jaydeep Sarangi

The following interview with a reputed Indian English poet has appeared in
POINTS OF VIEW, vol xiii, no-2, WINTER 2007, GHAZIABAD, INDIA.

AN INTERVIEW WITH NIRANJAN MOHANTY

Interviewer: Jaydeep Sarangi

Dr Sarangi teaches at the Department of English, Seva-Bharati Mahavidyalaya
(Vidyasagar University), AT+PO-Kapgari-721505, Dist.-Midnapore West, West
Bengal, India e-mail: sarangij@rediffmail.com
He edits three research journals in English including a refereed journal-
Seva-Bharati Journal of English Studies.

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Niranjan Mohanty (b. 1953) spent most of his life in the eastern Indian
state of Orissa. Presently, he teaches English in an ashramik environment
at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan(Birbhum), the abode of Rabindranath Tagore
.He has published six volumes of poems (Silence the Words, On Touching You
and Other Poems,Life Lines, Prayers to Lord Jagannatha,Oh This Bloody Game!
and Krishna). His poems have appeared in magazines in India, UK, USA, and
Canada, such as Chandrabhaga, The Illustrated Weekly of India, Indian
Literature, Journal of Literature and Aesthetics, Kavya Bharati, JIWE,New
Quest, South Asian Review, Toronto South Asian Review, Hundred Words,
Tandem,International Poetry Review, Suns Stone and Ucon Directory.He has
been awarded with Honorary Writing Fellow at the International Writing
Program, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA in 1994. His poems have
been translated into Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese and Urdu. Inward-looking,
and at the same time, deeply rooted in cultural and interpersonal
realities, his poems speak to us with frank generosity and the mystery of
life come through the linguistic mélange of his creative utterance. His
willing leap into the pool of memories creates a sense of presence through
the metaphors of absence. The haunting presence of the metaphor of death
invests his poems with a sense of mystery, a sense that is unverifiable,
and non-negotiable by reason or intellect. An absence continues to haunt
the poet since childhood. The fleeting nature of TIME always chants a
sweeping sense of absence. He speaks for the mystery of love, the mystical
element embodied in the man-woman relationship. His poems record and
celebrate “blue whispers of hearts, immaculate,” the innocence ingrained in
our sense of mortality, in the immaculate sense of things passed by.

J.S.- When did you start writing poems ?
N.M.- That was in 1971. The death of my nephew, Raja. Raja , at the
age of two, died by drowning in a pond. The tragedy resulted in the
composition my first poem ‘Honey Child’. It was published in the North
Hostel Magazine of Fakir Mohan College, Balasore, Orissa.
J.S.- Did your family speak English ? Why did you start writing poems
in English ?
N.M.- No. My family language was Oriya. After Intermediate in Science I
was attracted to the Romantics and the Modernist poets. My early education
was in West Bengal. I started reading English from class – II. I was good
at English from the beginning. It matured gradually. I was a science
student but later on changed to English Hons. I was moved and touched by
the English authors. That possibly, tangentially rather, forced me towards
reading more English poets. When I felt that I was confident in English I
started writing in English. By this time, I didn’t come across any of
Indian poets. I was drawn to the beauty of language, the felicity of
expression in English. If you ask me who were the poets influenced me most
– Eliot, Yeats, Whitman and Stevens.
J.S.- How was your early education ?
N.M.- I studied in a Bengali medium school at Beleghata, Calcutta.
After class V, I went to Orissa. My medium of instruction changed from
Bengali to Oriya, from Corporation School, Calcutta to A.B. High School,
Basudebpur, Balasore.
J.S.- Did your education in English Literature help you write poems in
English ?
N.M.- Obviously, my training in English Literature helped me a great
deal to become a poet in English. For my training in English literature I
was fortunate enough to read the great poets of the West. They continue to
attract me since my college days .I can never ignore the influence of
Shelley ,Keats, Donne, Shakespeare, Eliot and Yeats when I was first
introduced to them.
J.S. – Do you rate yourself as a bilingual poet ?
N.M.- Not necessarily, even if my First language is Oriya. I wrote some
poems in Oriya, published in Jhankar and Asanta Kali. I also recited my
Oriya poems for All India Radio, Berhampur and Cuttack.
J.S.- Who are the contemporary Oriya poets you like?
N.M.- I like the poems of Ramakanta Rath, Sitakanta Mahapatra, Hara
Prasad Paricha and Bipin Nayek. But, I am always reminded of another
significant voice in Oriya poetry – Bibek Jena, who is no more.
J.S.- Can you tell me the poets who influenced you ?
N.M- In the formative stage of my creative career I was influenced by
Eliot. Pablo Neruda and Wallace Stevens also influenced me. The intensity
in the lines of their poems hypnotised me. The seer magic of words and the
rhythmical beauty they created in their poems were the sources of my
inspiration. Keats and Donne became my favourite in a later stage.
J.S.- Why most of the Indian poets in English like Neruda ?
N.M.- The sincerity of a poet lives in the expression. The sincerity
and simplicity of expression occupy a larger space in the mind of a reader
than any other crafted mode of expression. One obviously can fathom the
sincerity and simplicity with which Neruda not only looked at or looked
into the objects outside the self. His authenticity to create a
camouflaging effect through the canopy of words, I believe, attracts the
Indian poets generation after generation.
J.S.- What are your strong themes ?
N.M.- There are no strong or weak themes. To me, life itself is the
central theme in my poetry. The mortality we live in and breathe in and
whatever shapes or moulds punctuates –time, death, Absences, loneliness,
the inner struggle and the burdens of uncountable dreams constitute the
themes of my poetry. Like Neruda, I can say, “I am the professor of life
and a very vague student of death.” To write poetry in any language, for
that matter, the poet has to love life in its multiple voices and forms.
This way of comprehending life into the fold of one’s creative vision
enables one to discover order out of disorder; meaning amidst apparent
meaninglessness. In this context, I am remained of the celebrated Bengali
poet, Jibanananda Das, more particularly, the way he legitimizes his right
to celebrate as well as to condemn whenever necessary. A poet cannot do
that without developing a relationship with life itself. I believe, this is
another form of bhakti that attracts the poets—the bhakti that refines the
experience and intensifies the expression.
J.S.- Would you like to pick out a few poems that express or reveal
what you would have said ?
N.M.- ‘Tiger’, ‘Am Encounter with Death’, ‘Sshh ! The Tiger is Asleep
, ‘On Touching you’, ‘My Table’, ‘Digging’, ‘Grief Once Again’ and ’ the
series of Tiger poems which I am writing now,sections from my Prayers and
Krishna.
J.S.-Do you use symbols in your poems?
N.M.-Possibly, the important symbols in my poetry are ‘tiger’, ‘house’,
‘family’, ‘journey’ and ‘absence’. Every tiger poem uses ‘tiger’
differently. Tiger is synonymous with destruction. It also stands for life
force. ‘Tiger’ in my poems can be read as hunger, sexuality, death and
silence—a meaningful silence. Tiger, an animal when turned into symbol,
records the graph of my experiences—the multifaceted dilemma of existence,
leading to the certitude of silence.
‘Home’ and ‘Family’ occupy a large space in my poetry because of
their eternal and abiding capacities for love, security, and peace.
‘Journey’ remains a significant motif in my poems. The journey
through words takes me to every corner of life and allows me to understand
the secret recesses of my sense of modality.
I remain preoccupied with absences (italics interviewer’s) from
since my childhood. This may be because of the loss of my near and dear
ones: my brother (1958), sister (1958), grand mother(1964) and my
father(1994).Absence is inevitable in life. One can never recover from
absences. The knowledge of absence makes the presence meaningful. I make my
presence felt through absences. We don’t need to be present (italics
interviewer’s) always. Nor can we…How feeble are we!
J.S.- What are you trying to achieve when you write a long poem like
‘Krishna’ ?
N.M.- Nothing. Only orienting my creative idiom with a sense of
humility and ecstatic expression of my sense of mortality.
J.S.- Some of your poems contain a devotional tinge to it. Is there any
specific reason behind this ?
N.M.- Possibly, yes. My access to Oriya poetry is limited. But, while
translating some of the devotional poets of Orissa, more particularly,
Salabeg – a 17th century Oriya devotional poet, I was drawn towards the
sheer degree of innocence with which one offered prayers to God. These
devotional poets impressed me with their cult of ‘Bhakti’. I believe, I am
spiritual at the core, as a human being. But, I am reluctant to go to a
temple, always –the rocky ways, the distance, the crowd, the rituals….
J.S.- Do you inherit the technique from T.S. Eliot ?
N.M.- As I already told you that in the initial stage of my career in
poetry I was enchanted by the rhythmical quality of Eliot’s lines. The
alliterative habit possibly still available in my creative idiom. But, I
believe, when I grew up both as a man and as a poet, I could discover my
idiom and my own voice – to be entirely myself. It is entirely on the
readers/researchers to discover whether I have left behind the earlier
formative influence or not. They are the best judges I rely on.
J.S.- You are the single largest contributor of critical
articles/essays on Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry . What makes you attracted to
his poems?
N.M.- During my M.A, days when I was exposed to Mahapatra, the man–
affectionate, innocent, humble and wise – I was drawn towards him as a
student. When I was exposed to his poetry I began to read with interest and
enthusiasm. It was not a biased reading. His personality didn’t influence
my reading of his poems. My reading of Mahapatra, the poet was independent
on Mahapatra, the man. When I realised that I am capable of writing
critical essays on his poetry as well as on other poets too I began to
devote my works on him. Whenever, Mahapatra volumes were being published I
was lucky enough to get a copy either from the poet or from the market. In
fact, I saw the growth of the poet in him and the growth of his poetic
vision. The trajectory of a poet’s vision in Mahapatra enabled me to write
so many articles on Mahapatra’s poetry.
J.S.- How would you rate Jayanta Mahapatra among other Indian English
poets ?
N.M.- Undoubtedly, he is one of the great poets in India writing in
English. The other poets I like most is A.K. Ramanujan. I also like R.
Parthasarathy. These three poets, more particularly, Jayanta Mahapatra,
created a distinction through the use of the creative medium. When one
reads Jayanta Mahapatra’s poems he or she gets a different kind of flavour,
a different kind of orchestration – a fruition of metaphors and images. The
autonomy of the images demands a negotiation between the poet and the
reader. Apparent reading of his poems may give us the feeling that the
poems are on meditative reflections, but as we go deep into his poems we
realise that there is an organised impulse that governs the poems. The
other reason that propelled me to read Mahapatra is the way he establishes
a deep-rooted relationship with the place he is born, to the cultural
tradition he belongs to, the system of values he adheres to and the fabric
of his relationship with the past. I find a rare sensibility, which is so
real, in his poems. I like Ramanujan’s poetry from another angle – the way
he joins one image with the other and the way he juxtaposes one emotion
with another. His style seems to be unassuming and the narrative flow in
the poems is unidirectional. But, like a true magician he synthesises words
and images with meticulous care, without being fastidious about them that
captures the seeing eye of the poet. Between Mahapatra and Ramanujan the
difference lies not only in the act of ‘seeing’ but also the act ‘saying’.
I believe, both of them are great in their own ways.
J.S.- You differ with Jayanta Mahapatra, both in themes and style. Why
does so happen?
N.M.- If you think that I differ it is rightly so, because my
perception about the world, about myself and about the use of the creative
medium are different from him. My mind has a different shape. My feeling of
things are different. And obviously, my saying things are different. That
is why, possibly, my poems differ from Mahapatra’s.
J.S.- How would you rate Indian English poetry with other poetry in
English ?
N.M.- The most surprising phenomenon about Indian English poetry is
that even without proper patronage and sympathy, in a world dominated by
fiction-reading and fiction-publishing, more poets have started publishing
their volumes. All poems are not great. It is agonising to look at the
proliferative nature of publishing poetry. This cannot be called to be an
unhealthy sign. Yet, care should be taken to objectively evaluate the
quality of poetry, ingrained in its quality of saying. Over all, the
Indian English poetry can compete with the poetry of English from other
countries.
J.S.- Are you satisfied with contemporary trend of poetry in English in
India ?
N.M.- Indian English poetry is so diverse that one is reminded of the
situation of poetry in the U.S. This diversity adds richness to Indian
English poetry. The diversity springs from the existence of different
locales, different cultures, different traditions and different attitudes
to living the life. One cannot really categorise the poems under one
umbrella, one theoretical framework, for good poetry, I am sure, would
emerge from this inordinate diversity.
J.S.- Would you mention a few names whom you think good enough like any
other established poet in the West?
N.M.- The names immediately strike me are obviously Ramanujan, Jayanta
Mahapatra and Kamala Das.
J.S.- Are you satisfied with the recent trend of criticism on Indian
English poetry ?
N.M.- A poet never banks on the kind of criticism that would be written
on his poetry. But, I am sure, objective critical insight is absent, both
in terms of identifying quality and legitimising a historicity of the genre
of criticism. Literary historians in India have a tendency to ignore the
poets who have not achieved any distinction. But, a literary historian has
to include the poets who experience a marginalised status in the scenario.
J.S.- Senior critics like John Oliver Perry has written a significant
number of critical essays on Jayanta Mahapatra. He is silent on any one of
the New Poets. How do you look at this problem?
N.M.- To me, this is not a problem. A critic has the right to respect
his own sensibility and his own personal equations. Poets in India should
not lament over the absence of Prof. Perry’s indifference to their poems.
There may be other critics to champion the cause to bring them to clear
focus.
J.S.- Your poems are rooted in Orissa – the abode of Lord Jagannatha,
its tradition, etc. How do you reciprocate feelings for the land and its
people?
N.M.- You are absolutely right in stating that I’m rooted to Orissa.
Unless a creative writer establishes an impassioned connection with his own
culture, land, spiritual tradition, he wouldn’t discover a meaning either
in life or in his creative process. One’s own gods and goddesses
constitute, the center of awareness. As a poet, I cannot ignore the land
and its people. They occupy a significant space in my popery. I’m fully
aware of my rootedness. In some of my poems Calcutta figures eminently.
This may be because of early childhood and of my frequent visits to the
city of joy.
J.S.- Do you write in Indian English ?
N.M.- I don’t know. If by Indian English you mean the kind of poems
that Ezekiel (‘Railway Clerk’ for example) wrote – No. I write like an
Indian.
J.S.- Stylistically you don’t inherit the narrative mode like Keki
Daruwalla. You don’t seem to create polyphony of voices – you tend to write
in the First person. Do you accept my observations on your poetry ?
N.M.- I accept your sensitive observations. It is a modernistic
technique to use the First person in the body of the text. When I use the
First person I try to be myself—both as a seer and sayer. It leaves me
with the feeling that I am not creating a smoke screen to distance myself
from the readers –—this is how I can be. I trust in the sincerity of
the expression. I don’t have any space between what I experience and what I
propose to say. I’m aware of the fact that language is a limited medium. It
doesn’t accurately represent the hidden nuances of feeling always. There
remains a sustainable gap between what one longs for and what one
achieves. Through my poetry I try to minimise the gap between the first
hand experience and the expression through the creative medium. The degree
of success rests on how my readers/researchers ‘read’ the lines of my
poems,and reach the core.
J.S.- “The poem is the creation of a mind in despair.” Do you consider
this statement as ‘true’ to your poetry ?
N.M.- No. Not al all. Despair is in one’s existence. It’s there in
one’s sense of mortality. I think, despair should not marginalise other
prime facets of life.
J.S.- Do you have the habit of going back to your poems again and again
?
N.M.- No. If I remember correctly very few words in Krishna were
changed. In most cases, my first draft becomes the final. I don’t go for
editing. This is the only way I happen to know.
J.S.- How do you situate a poem? Does it come automatically?
N.M.- Not necessarily. It depends on the kind of the poem that is
being framed somewhere ‘within’. I believe, even without a movement, a
movement takes place in the mind. That is where the creative process begins
and ends. The poem never begins or ends. It breathes and it pulsates into
life.
J.S.- How did you write a long prayer poem, Prayers to Lord Jagannatha.
What was the chief force behind this creation ?
N.M.- It took me five years to complete the poem. It took four years
to complete ten sections and about a week for the next five sections.
Writing this long prayer poem was a kind of journey for me – journey into
the self, into my land and people, into the cultural nuances, into the
deposits of my religious faith, into the dark eyes of the round-eyed Lord.
It is a poem, which tries to locate the poet in diverse facets of life –
existential, realistic and imagined. It also harps on the inner problems of
a creative writer: the problems of mastering a creative medium.
J.S.- What about the publishing industry in India?
N.M.- Most of the publishers have shut the shutters of their sympathy
for the poets. They say that poetry books do not sale. But poetry has not
dried up – it cannot experience death in any situation ,in any clime or
time. We all know that “poetry of earth is never dead.” I’m sure; this
scenario would change within a decade.

J.S.- Are you satisfied with the standard of journals / magazines in
India ?
N.M.- One has to be satisfied because journals/magazines do not receive
any financial patronage to maintain the quality of printing and to compete
with international standard. Most of the journals in India have become the
products of individual efforts; almost one-man show. The editors run their
journals through personal contacts and associations. They are not in a
financial position to make payments to the contributing authors. There are
a few quality journals around for example, Kavya Bharati, Indian
Literature, JIWE, Chandrabhaga.
J.S.- What’s your immediate wish?
N.M.- I wish to write as long as I could and to inhale the fragrance
of words and silences.
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