“Hunger’, according to Jayanta Mahapatra was an expression of his solitude. He writes in this regard: “Hunger” was written twenty-five years ago. I grew up in Cuttack, close to a temple. There were two rivers close by. The ways of life there were different. I was into religion. My poems today don’t have those old images. I’ve taken the temple out of my system. I had an unhappy childhood. I had an abnormal relationship with my mother. I owe a lot to my father, though. He put me in a missionary school. The school had a British headmaster… I was trampled upon in my childhood. That still remains with me. I’m not deliberately holding on to tensions. I ran away from home thrice. I’m shaped by factors beyond my control. Now I’m at peace with myself, but this wasn’t the case ten years ago. Perhaps as a result of that childhood I always feel alone, alone when I’m with my family or part of a crowd. There’s a chasm inside which can never be bridged. In “Hunger” I was writing from experience.”
The title of the poem ‘Hunger’ may therefore reflect the poet’s need for company, and spiritual intimacy. He asserts that he had an abnormal relationship with his mother. Therefore, he primarily desires the maternal love that he was deprived of; he searches for a substitute owing to attention-deficit.
The speaker at the outset of the poem asserts that “the flesh was heavy on my back”. He experienced an incredible urge for sexual gratification. He finds himself before a fisherman, who is willing to ‘compromise’ on his daughter. The fishermen puts forward the question ‘carelessly’. The word ‘carelessly’ might point to ‘callously’, and to the fact that he did not put the question across with a sense of propriety. “Will you have her?” was the question as though the girl in question was an item or commodity. Her individuality was relegated, and what she wanted was not of significance.
Even a prostitute has a command over her own sexuality, and who her customers ought to be. The fisherman was “trailing his nets”. The symbolism was apparent; he was laying out a net for customers. The insensitivity in his words were set out to erase the guilt from his purpose, that of sacrificing his daughter. He affected ‘ignorance’, as if the quality of ignorance seemed to sanctify the purpose itself. The white bone seemed to thrash his eyes, as though his very inner being wanted to thrash out against his vision.
The Body vs. the Mind
The poet followed him across the extensive stretches of sand. He heart was throbbing rapidly. His skin is said to perform the function of a sling. That is, as a sling supports a fractured arm; likewise the instinctive feelings of the skin helped fight back the apprehensions of the mind. Redemption from his sins perhaps lay in burning the house that he lived. Silence seems to consume his self, as though they tugged at his sleeves. The fisherman’s net had froth from the sea. It is symbolic of the fact that wrongdoings may leave apparent traces behind.
His lean body in the flickering dark appeared like a wound. The inevitable wound that poverty had gifted him with. At the current moment, the poet felt he was at will, as free as the wind. The palm leaves scratched his skin, leaving marks of guilt. Hours in the shack are portrayed as stacks bunched up to those walls splayed by the burning oil lamp. It signifies that all the hours were similar in being confined to the small shack. The space in his blank mind was filled with soot from the lamp.
I heard him say: My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen…
Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.
He could comprehend the tricks the father employed to allure customers. He views this stock of tricks as exhausted because probably most of them were already used numerous times to suit his needs. ’Fifteen’ was an age that marked the blossoming of a girl into a woman, an age where her beauty is fresh and fragrant. Nevertheless the years felt like cold rubber owing to impoverished malnutrition. He uses the term ‘wormy’ for her legs as she opened them wide. The word reflects the speaker’s perception of the girl as abject as a worm, thin and slimy perhaps, something that was revolting to him at the moment.
I felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slitheri
For the first time, the poet understood the real meaning of the word ‘hunger’. Not owing to sexual displeasure but that driven by dismal poverty. The feeling of the empty stomach, as though the fish turned inside. Devinde Mohan states:”He is at par with European poets who are obsessed with the modernistic impulse for man’s finitude: his physiology, his economics and culture. His poetic focus transforms what is regional in culture, myth and thought to a universal predicament. His poems “Hunger”,”Myth”,”India” and “Accusation” are flawless examples.”
© Rukhaya MK 2012
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