Mahapatra wrote many poems on the themes of poverty, hunger, starvation, sexual exploitation and bestiality of males. Hunger by Jayanta Mahapatra reveals the plight of a fisherman who can’t make both ends meet. The poignancy of the situation is that ‘hunger’ imposes tragic compulsions – the poor father kills his conscience and entices clients for his daughter, who has become a prostitute.
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
In the course of the poem, we can vividly feel the pain and anguish of the father as also the guilt of the narrator. Depicting the tragic compulsions which abject poverty can impose on a man, this poem describes the plight of the fisherman.
Interestingly, it’s not just the father who is constantly fighting his conscience, but the narrator as well. Yet the narrator is moved to perform the sexual act to gratify his sexual hunger, starkly burdened by his guilt. The tragic irony is that this sexual act in a way sanctifies the ‘purpose’ (brings provender and food for the fisherman) and on the other hand, it satisfies the sexual appetite of the narrator. No doubt the poet depicts the predicament of the fisherman and condemns poverty, there seems to be a hint that one may to resort to any means of survival.
It is the fisherman who contacts the speaker walking along the beach to lure him to have sex with his daughter, telling him that she is very young, just turned fifteen. Of course, these words arouse sexual urges in the speaker. The speaker, though feeling guilty inward, is overpowered by his sexual urge and follows the fisherman to his shack. It is the sight of the shack and the conditions prevailing their it and its inmates that convey the speaker about the miserable plight of the fisherman.
Mahapatra uses a few words to suggest much more than what the words literally mean. The speaker’s mind feels heavy; he realizes that he is doing something wrong, but the fisherman’s words have aroused sexual desire which becomes more and more intense as he follows him to the shack. As they approach, the fisherman opens the small gate which is represented by a wound and tells the speaker to ‘feel her’; he goes away promising to return after some time.
When the speaker enters the shack, neither does he ask the girl anything nor does she speak a word. The only thing she knows is that the stranger who has stepped in is a customer. The speaker looks at her and she opens her legs wide, inviting the speaker to perform the act.
The most striking feature of the poem is the realistic portrayal of the three characters and their behavior. The only person who speaks is the fisherman and the rest of the characters, i.e. the narrator and the girl remain mute, though they do act.
The narrator walks behind the fisherman, feeling guilty as well as feeling an intense sexual urge. The fisherman knows what his daughter has to do and she acts mechanically, by opening her legs.
Mahapatra has succeeded in conveying many things in a short poem by the deft use of words which carry both literal and metaphorical expressions.
The poem is a consummate work of art where the words seem to gain life and speak to the readers in many voices.