From Our Archives Revisiting Orissa

A writer revisits the Orissa (now Odisha) of his youth, and is delighted to meet poet Jayanta Mahapatra, who resides in Cuttack
Puri beach at sunset              Abir Roy Barman / Shutterstock
Puri beach at sunset Abir Roy Barman / Shutterstock

Early last year, it occurred to my wife and me that neither of us had seen India for more than 30 years. We&rsquod been living in India, certainly we&rsquod gone to Bombay and Delhi on visits and even when we&rsquod lived in England in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, we&rsquod returned to India frequently, sometimes for four, even five, months in a year. But to travel through India with no object but to see it &mdash this we hadn&rsquot done since we were children, as helpless, if willing, participants in the care of our parents. The memory hadn&rsquot gone away of horizons, milestones, trees marked by a single white stripe, the table-tops in dining rooms in guest houses, the front seat of the Ambassador, the temples and inviolable tanks, tangerines being peeled open by someone else, the dark glasses worn by a man getting on to a train. All this had added up, for some reason, to leave an astonishing impress upon us, such as few other countries have done.

No one in their right senses, it seemed, would forgo a journey to a hill station or to Bangkok or even further away for a holiday in Orissa &mdash an hour&rsquos journey away by air from where we were, Calcutta. But Orissa was part of our itinerary as children I&rsquod retained very little of it except the long redstone corridor of the BNR hotel in Puri, the violence of the waves, and arriving one evening in Bhubaneswar and stopping at a stall, lit by an electric bulb, selling trinkets that were made of shell and bone. (After 35 years, I noticed those stalls and those trinkets again.) It was as if we were trying, my wife and I, to reassemble the elements of a puzzle different childhoods, during which we were unaware of one another, but the same inexhaustible, restless affection for their common remnants as we began travel out of home through &lsquoour&rsquo country. To travel was to recognise our pasts had converged several times unwittingly it was to remember for, and against, the other.

A little more than an hour after we &mdash my wife, I, and our eight-year-old daughter &mdash had set out from Calcutta &mdash and 35 years away from my last sighting &mdash I was in Bhubaneswar again, this time when it was still daylight, soon inside a Maruti Omni going down the wide governmental avenue from the airport to the town, confronting once more the allotments of cows, traffic policemen, intersections, and clusters of vehicles of which so much of our lives and our first arrivals in India are constituted. The combination of patrician, Nehruvian planning and vernacular disorderliness feels at once new and ancient as we return to it in our towns we&rsquove been here before, something in us will say and &mdash Why are we here again And yet, in the right kind of light, at a certain moment, it can appear deeply suggestive &mdash this kinship and slight antagonism we feel for what is our country, and what has been, for several decades, our nation. It&rsquos fading, though, this nation, as it unfolds in a partly comic spectacle through the road from the airport, with its frayed edges, its imposing width, its hoardings, signs, and instructions. The eye began to drink in, as we saw more of the city the next day, the tranquil sanctums in which the recent five-star hotels had sprung up, the looming fa&ccedilade of a hospital for the rich, the glass hives of IT companies, the slow, luxurious patios of Café Coffee Days. Bhubaneswar from pilgrimage town to capital city to, now, another, increasingly familiar transformation.

I won&rsquot describe, here, our next two days there, the trip to Konark and further on to Puri, the rediscovery of the BNR hotel in its mournful, mysterious abeyance, awaiting purchase. I&rsquove spoken of some of these elsewhere. Let me mention, in passing (it&rsquoll soon become clear why) that, returning from Puri, we stopped before the white, living current of the Chandrabhaga, a name that was familiar to me because of the literary magazine of the same name I&rsquod read with excitement in my late teens (such was the bookish, metropolitan shape of my youth, that an ancient river was less real to me than a journal of Indian writing in English). Back in Bhubaneswar, we&rsquod tried to change the date on our airline tickets, and leave a day earlier. But we couldn&rsquot cancel. We had one extra day now &mdash a Sunday. I asked my old friend Jatin Nayak, who&rsquod shown us every generosity during our visit, if we&rsquod have time to visit Cuttack.

Part of the reason for my curiosity was my brief acquaintance, many years ago, with Cuttack in Jatin&rsquos own writings. Jatin is a translator of distinction, and a teacher of English literature at Utkal University but he&rsquod started out as a gifted short story writer, and had also been an abortive memoirist. It was in the handwritten pages of an incomplete memoir he&rsquod begun in Oxford (where I&rsquod first met him) that I&rsquod read about his Cuttack, mainly about Ravenshaw College, where he&rsquod studied. I&rsquod never forgotten the vaguely remorseful but droll immediacy of that account, which had made Cuttack seem like a nerve centre nor the fact that Jatin had told me then, at the end of the 1980s, that it was already a marginal city, a great colonial town and a centre of culture that had paled &mdash like so many others, like Allahabad, Dehradun, Ajmer &mdash alongside the rise of the major metropolises, especially Delhi and Bombay, after independence.

The other reason for my desire to go to Cuttack was Jayanta Mahapatra. Part of that generation of poets who&rsquod begun to work in English in the 1960s &mdash perennially youthful, perennially in transition, without any proprietorial claim to either canon or tradition or language &mdash Mahapatra was one of its most unusual practitioners neither a romantic nor a modernist, direct and veiled at once, he&rsquod created a private, sensuous diction that had changed little over the years, but had remained strangely resilient and tenable. He was in his seventies, recovering from an illness from which, I heard, there had been little hope of recovery. At the age of 18, I&rsquod innocently sent him, in his capacity as the editor of Chandrabhaga, a few poems he&rsquod replied from his fabled address in Tinkonia Bagicha &mdash a long letter, full of kindness and warmth, promising, too, that he&rsquod publish four poems. That letter had meant a great deal to me, and it still does.

Going down the Calcutta-Chennai Highway (National Highway 5), it takes about 45 minutes on a Sunday afternoon to reach Cuttack from Bhubaneswar. It&rsquos flat land you pass through, half-heartedly industrialised, unconvincingly agricultural, touched everywhere by light, by human endeavour (belatedly abandoned in some places, tentatively resumed in others), by poker-faced state intervention. Entering Cuttack and straightaway taking the Ring Road, we discovered a vista of real majesty an interminable line of colonial bungalows facing the waters of the river Katjodi, which is a branch of the Mahanadi. Each house is distinct from the other, so that you feel you&rsquove hardly had time to take them in as the car goes by like all residences that face water, they have an air of looking upon, indeed configuring, something intangible but immediate &mdash like the future or the past. It would have been the future once. This first glimpse of Cuttack plunges you at once into what can neither be grasped nor forgotten into, essentially, a history. Some of the bits of information tantalise and conceal as much as they give away that one of the houses had been Naba Krishna Chaudhuri&rsquos, an important figure in the freedom struggle that some of the bungalows were owned by Bengalis.

Leaving these houses and turning, we came to a long, intermittently built up road that ran past the Mahanadi vast, uncanny expanses and scrubland now, since the &lsquogreat river&rsquo was dry. I thought of Kurosawa&rsquos Ran, the windswept plain on which the mad, homeless king wandered, enraged and inconsolable. The dry bed of the Mahanadi invoked some extraordinary theatrical episode Jatin used to come here once, cycling from Ravenshaw College, to dawdle and daydream. From there he&rsquod go up to where the Katjodi and Mahanadi merge, to contemplate, presumably, the immense body of water which was now, we found, as we stood on a low wall the British had built, watery only in parts. This was Apu&rsquos world, out of Aparajito its bleak magic and epiphanies hadn&rsquot absolutely vanished, but the sort of human being who&rsquod been in transit through it &mdash nameless, giving it value &mdash had mutated into ourselves.

By the time we returned to the Ring Road and found ourselves in the town &mdash driving past the stadium and the 150-year-old Cuttack Club, asking for directions to Tinkonia Bagicha &mdash it was dark. We&rsquod reached a square we were very near Jayanta&rsquos house, but didn&rsquot know where it was. A procession went by &mdash working-class women holding what looked like chandeliers &mdash a wedding procession. And then, in a tiny bylane, on the border of all this activity, but &mdash as is the case with such places &mdash ensconced and distant, we found it the house in Tinkonia Bagicha, the home of Jayanta and Runu Mahapatra, as well as of Chandrabhaga, which had been given &mdash with the help of the poet Rabindra Swain, who dropped in that evening &mdash a second lease of life.

Jayanta, too, in spite of his frailty, had had a fresh lease and, slightly mortified at first because of the illness, but genuinely happy, it seemed, to see us, he was soon in full flow and no longer a sick man. My wife and I marvelled at the house. We marvelled, too, at Jayanta&rsquos exceptionally beautiful and gracious wife, Runu. Both house and wife were living emblems of a world we&rsquod adored as children &mdash the genteel, hospitable spaciousness of the first two or three decades of independent India &mdash and whose exact moment of passing we&rsquod never pinpointed or even noticed, except at moments such as these. Had that gentility and spaciousness ever been real It was not for us, now, to go deep into that question, but to record that, in some way, those impressions had been formative to us.

The house, with its courtyard, its book-lined sitting room, and Runu Mahapatra were related to each other in a simple and practical way it was hers. Tea and biscuits arrived and, as Jayanta told us of the hesitancies of his first attempts at poetry (he&rsquod been, after all, a student of physics), and took out a volume of Contemporary Authors that contained a short memoir, Runu Mahapatra &mdash especially as we were exclaiming over a wedding photograph in the book, and also enquiring about the house &mdash explained how she and her mother-in-law had never got on, and how they&rsquod moved to this house (which was her family&rsquos) some years into the marriage. This made sense Jayanta inhabited the house, and had left his mark upon it (the books, the visitors), but Runu, to me, suggested the whole milieu, now invisible, it had belonged to.

After 40 minutes, we reminded Jayanta he had not been well. We rose embraced shook hands. I had no premonition of when I&rsquod be in Cuttack again. Runu Mahapatra saw us off to the car, and stood in the shadows, waving. As we emerged from the congested heart of town, Jatin pointed out the dimly lit exterior of Ravenshaw College.

On the Calcutta-Chennai Highway, our car had a puncture, and we took shelter in a ramshackle but clean and lit tea shop in the midst of a universe that was quite dark, except for the headlights of the mythic, minatory lorries hurtling past somewhere, there is a photograph of that moment inside the tea shop, taken by my wife. Can one claim to have properly explored this variegated country without experiencing a puncture Moreover, travel, inasmuch as it is movement, is also parting and death, predictable forgetting and unexpected recall as I write this, news comes in of Runu Mahapatra&rsquos passing last week.

This is odd, and, like many other things, couldn&rsquot have been foreseen next to her happy but ailing husband, she had looked bright and self-possessed, and, of course, protective of her companion. Life, like a new place, misleads and surprises us and gives us a few snatched moments where, for a while, we believe we know where we are.

Over the past decades, Outlook Traveller has gathered together a wealth of outstanding writing from the world's most celebrated writers, historians, and adventurers. This series will take a look at some of the most memorable, enduring features from our archives. Here, award-winning writer Amit Chaudhuri talks about revisiting the Orissa of his childhood.

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