A Different Kind of Hunger by Mimille Guzman

When one thinks of India, what usually comes to mind are pop culture references like the film The Three Idiots or spontaneous Bollywood dancing. However, beyond the chance to bop our heads to the catchy tune of Jai Ho is a country that prides itself for the richness of its cultural identity and history. One of the ways we may get in touch with this is to scrutinize the abundance of English poetry that has been written by a growing number of contemporary poets.

One example worth mentioning is the literary contribution of Jayanta Mahapatra. Known as the first ever Indian poet to win the Sahitya Akademi award for English poetry, he has authored over 27 books for poetry and has earned literary acclaim abroad. As one of the best known Indian English poets of his time, scholars set him apart due to his “wordy lyricism and quiet, tranquil poetic voice.” His poem Hunger has been regarded as a classic in modern Indian English Literature. We may find a copy of it below:

Hunger

By Jayanta Mahapatra

It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back.

The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly,

trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words

sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself.

I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.

I followed him across the sprawling sands,

my mind thumping in the flesh’s sling.

Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in.

Silence gripped my sleeves; his body clawed at the froth

his old nets had only dragged up from the seas.

In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound.

The wind was I, and the days and nights before.

Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack

an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls.

Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind.

I heard him say: My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen…

Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.

The sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile.

Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.

She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,

the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside

The first thing we may notice from his work is the lingering tone of foreboding in the words of the speaker. Making use of a first person perspective, the opening line already indicates a feeling of heaviness on the speaker’s back. The conversation with the fisherman begins with an offer. And although one may assume it to be a harmless one, what seems more telling would be the preceding actions of the characters in the poem. The reader is given a sense that within the narrative, there is something more to the trade that is taking place between the fisherman and the speaker.

Mahapatra integrates tension in his subtle use of language by likening the fisherman’s motion of trailing his “nets and nerves” in a metaphor. His choice of verbs seems to be no accident with words such as thrash, thumping, gripped, and clawed to depict the inner dilemma masked within the guise of the men’s silent gestures. A fascinating line that hints at the gravity of the exchange may be found in, “Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in.” This makes the reader wonder what kind of trade would be so grave yet seemingly necessary for both these men.

The wind was I, and the days and nights before.

Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack

an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls.

Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind

As the two make their way into the fisherman’s shack, even the narrator’s description of the place paints the scene with a sinister dimming that reflects his current state of mind. The poet also uses the concept of time to indicate how his struggle seems to distort time in this space.

I heard him say: My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen…

Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.

The sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile.

Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.

She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,

the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside

In the end, the speaker confirms that it is indeed a scene of a father trafficking his own child to a foreigner. Upon the fisherman’s mention of his daughter’s age and his invitation to the other man, we feel a drop in the poem as all clues click to a concrete image. Here, just as the sky drops on the speaker, heaviness falls on both the reader and the characters in the work as we are faced with this dark scene. Mahapatra seals the moment he presents to the reader with a quiet series of actions from the girl as she complies. He goes back to the metaphor of hunger as he describes the slithering of a fish. This may be open to several interpretations. One of which may be the speaker’s manhood that ironically accentuates the dilemma he had been experiencing prior to this. Another may simply be how the symbol of fish as nourishment seems to reveal why this act seems necessary in the first place.

One cannot walk away from reading this piece without a feeling of discomfort. Here, Mahapatra positions himself into an unlikely point of view by presenting the reality of the speaker’s moral struggle. He then juxtaposes this with the actions of the fisherman and the reality of poverty. A personal observation of what makes this piece great is how it had succeeded in cutting across the cultural divide. By bringing us into the moment, Mahapatra has turned a local scene one may simply skim over in a news article to an authentic human experience that seamlessly invokes empathy. The subtlety of Mahapatra’s manner of storytelling makes one forget that it is a moment in a country like India, but rather convinces the reader that this is a moment in our humanity. At this, readers may agree that Mahapatra’s Hunger tastefully reveals a darker but realistic dimension of Asia.

Works Cited

Bildir, Hata. Jayanta Mahapatra. 19 March 2016 <http://www.poemhunter.com/jayanta-mahapatra/biography/ >.

PoemHunter.com. Hunger – Poem by Jayanta Mahapatra. 19 March 2016 <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/hunger-71/&gt;.

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