LAND AND IDENTITY IN THE POETRY OF STEPHEN GILL AND JAYANTA MAHAPATRA. By Dr. Jaydeep Sarangi. India

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The Canadian nation consists of a multiplicity of cultures that is rarely found outside the Commonwealth. From time to time, a variety of people from different socio-cultural backgrounds have sought refuge in this country of the English and French sp

Multiculturalism is an essential aspect of the Canadian scene that is reflected in the words of the writers of this land. There is a great variety in the Canadian immigrant experience as recorded in literature. During the last hundred years, many writers of Indian origin, once or twice removed from their first homeland, have gone as immigrants to Canada. The literature of these writers reflects clashes. In an interview with Bruce Meyer, Neil Bissoondath talks of his personal experiences regarding the clash of socio-cultural and socio-linguistic values in a sentimental way :

I grew up in a culture that restricted me; a culture that imposed its values on me and that had little regard for my personal feelings and desires. From this point of view, I identify with that Japanese girl (in “The Cage”) very closely – the girl can’t escape her past. When I left Trinidad, I knew I was leaving for good – the girl in this story was incapable of saying that.

1. Immigrant writers reflect these clashes and talk of their displaced geo-national and socio-linguistic identity. While explaining the role of immigrant writer, Stella Sandahl (1985) says :

He is the one who can convey experiences from different worlds, being himself part of different worlds. Complexity does not mean schizophrenia. We can and should contribute to the common culture and still remain ourselves.


2. One of such immigrant writers is Stephen Gill. A Canadian citizen, Stephen Gill was born in Sialkot, Pakistan, grew in India, and settled permanently in Canada. Canada and India are separated not only by thousands of miles but also by different histories, social and linguistic traditions. In spite of this, both these countries have similarities, especially in terms of language, polity and multicultural ethos. Stephen Gill, a multi-talented and sensitive Indo-Canadian writer depicts also the Canadian immigrants’ experience in his writings. His novel Immigrant waxes eloquent over the trials and tribulations of an Indian in Canada. According to P. Parameswari “Raghunath’s existence in Canada signals a shunting between a willful regression to India and a forced progression towards Canada”. Canada has been described as “the land of opportunity”3 Stephen Gill projects the identity of an immigrant:

I came here

some thirty years ago
long before you
you are not that old.”


I would have said.

I came here
Carrying the lily of my dreams.
I have offered
The boon of my life
To my new mother
Where would the whites go ?
How about the Mohawks and Inuit ?
If you know Canadian history !4

The poet is aware of his new geo-national identity. Gradually he comes to terms with an alien culture. He does not want to go anywhere :

Do not tell me to go anywhere
My friend
This is our land
Where our father lives
We are all in exile.


Canada, a nation with too much geography and no particular history, posses a grave challenge to all immigrants, that of charting a cultural territory of one’s own or to be doomed with a hyphenated identity forever. An immigrant is always troubled with the thought of going back to his motherland. The apparent similarities between two homo sapiens from two parts of the world are often obliterated and over powered by the differences in their attitudes :

My children are of this earth.
You want me to go back.
How insensitive !
My bones crack
In pain of despair.

The poems of Stephen Gill depict the basic loneliness / emptiness of the people in exile. Language and culture fabricate a cumulative metaphor for the identity of an individual writer or a poet :

He views golden gates
Displaying the dances
of the dragons of disharmony.
Under the clouds of emptiness.

The man who settles abroad as an immigrant finds himself suffering from basic emptiness and rootlessness. Then which is his home ? Is it the new land of opportunity he has dreams or the one he has left behind? In this context, I think of Katherine Mansfield, originally from New Zealand but settled in England. She said that “Wherever I live I write with New Zealand in my bones.”

Salman Rushdie points out “…..our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indians of the mind.”

Writers in Stephens Gill’s position, exiles, emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being “mutated into the pillars of salt.

At the same time, writers in Stephen Gill’s position enrich the Canadian letters because of the uniqueness of their experiences. In his paper presented at the seminar organized by the Canadian Urdu Writers Association on the 9th of January of 1993, in Kingston, Ontario, he said:

The material that new Canadian writers possess is unique and individual, because of their struggle as newcomers. In their writing, there is a blending of the experiences, traditions and values of the countries of their birth and adoption. This mosaic nature has and will enrich Canadian literature, giving it a universal dimension that it lacks at present. He further added, Canada is in the same situation in which Alexandria and Byzantium stood which helped them grow culturally wealthy. Byzantium flourished for more than a thousand years from 330 AD to about 1400 in Eastern Roman Empire. The location of Byzantium provided the city with some excellent advantages. Byzantium emperors gave a home to refugee scholars and found time to build up lending libraries. It was a cosmopolitan society full of vitality, a half-way house between the East and West.

One of the poems of Stephen Gill that concerns directly with Canada is “The Meechlake Fish” that is about the Meechlake Accord (in 1987) when Canada was badly divided over constitutional amendments. That division could lead to the territorial division of the country. He refers to “racial disharmony” that enters in his land “in the guise of Meechlake fish”. It disturbs the “Crystal flow of life.” History and its associated teleology have been the means by which the concepts of time have been naturalized for post-colonial societies. Gill maintains a fine balance between hope and despair. At times, his hopes borders on morbidity as he says in “The Meechlake Fish” : “Why does autumn lurk on the banks ?”

The poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra, on the other hand, is the cross-section of an exotic culture :

Endless crow noises
A skull in the holy sands
Tilts its empty country towards hunger.

White-clad widowed Women
Past the centers of their lives
Are waiting to enter the Great Temple

The ‘holy sand’ is the long sea-beach where the funeral pyres go on burning. The ‘Great temple’ is certainly the Temple of Land Jagonnath(a)11 which is one of the great spiritual centres of India. India is a multi cultural country where different religions exist side by side. Lord Jagannath(a) is one of the presiding deities, who is worshipped almost all over the state of Orissa. “White-clad widowed women” gives us a picture of widows. In this part of India, widows wear dresses in white to express their sense of loss and bereavement for the death of their husband. The sea-scape runs parallel to the mindscape to give a composite wholeness in the subject. There lies the mastery of Jayanta Mahapatra :

…her last wish to be cremated here twisting
Uncertainly like light on the shifting sands.
Over the soughing of the sombre wind priests chant
Lauder than ever, the mouth of India opens.

Jayanta Mahapatra sometimes adds notes to communicate with his readers better. About Dawn at Puri he adds: It is the wish of every pious Hindu to be cremated at Puri. Swargadwara (Gateway to Heaven) is the name of that part of the long sea-beach where the funeral pyres go on burning.

Indian natural setting or topography is vividly expressed in Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry. When he describes the places or rivers he uses regional register, as in Way of the River, “The river crosses the forests of Sal and Deodar in a gleam”. ‘Sal’ and ‘Deodar’ are distinctly regional trees and very familiar to Orissa.

Distinctly regional in the poetry of Stephen Gill is snow and the broad highways for which Canada is known. He refers to them when he says in “Recollections of Texas,” When I stare vacantly/ along the frozen banks/ of my land’s silent highways in the winter of my visions.13 He builds a scene of the snowflakes falling :

White and soft
Like the wings of a dove
They are.

….they fall silently


on the trees
slanted roofs
deserted roads
and windy paths…


In “Songs of a New Canadian,”15 he talks of seasons and other aspects of nature, including springs, summer and fall and skies and joyful birds, and also rivers and lakes/wide and long highways. In “Spring is Around”, he describes the beauty of the summer when Canadians are caught in the web of spring madness. In this season, “snow frees life”, “life will breathe again”, “as snow yields warmth.”

One feature of Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry is socio-cultural deterioration of the present generation. In a state of fix, he tries to go deep into the problem. He is concerned about the present state of India:

What is wrong with my country ?
The jungles have become gentle, the women restless.
And history reposes between the college girl’s breasts:
the exploits of warrior-queens, the pride pieced together.

He moves even deeper: “...hiding jungles in her purse, holding on to her divorce, and a lonely Ph. D.”

Things have changed over the years. Now new women are free to get into higher education. They can even go on for research and can mark their contribution. But what troubles him is the flexibility of the husband-wife knot in the conjugal life. Economic freedom strengthens the women folk to stand on their own. In his poetry, the present persistently appears grey, barren and morally corrupt. Those who live today are not alive in their own way. They are only “the grapping noise in my earth.” Their courage has failed, their sexual vitality is sapped, and like the poet’s one time friends, or the women in his poetry, they have betrayed the nation and the vision:

The present opens its toothless mouth wide,
the earth seems loose, feet are cold
the dignity we had relied upon
stares at us from the bottom of the sea.19

Stephen Gill also bemoans some losses due to the modern education. However, his bemoans are not confined to one nation. They are universal. One poem that expresses this attitude of the poet is “Contemporary Humans”; another is “A Ph.D. Says”. Both are from Songs of Harmony.20 In “We Are Proud,”21 he says that the educated person of today has not learnt to touch the moon of human heart, though he has learnt enough about the distant planets.

Life in Indian slums are pathetic and pitiable. Jayanta Mahapatra portrays them in his poem, “Slum”:

Your madness catches me:
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Scarred shacks nights begin,
and full orange fires
so dreadful on women’s faces.

Only that I must summon courage to be in,
spits of wind chawing at the flame,
that keep burning here, from the dark mirror
resting on pain and plain despair.22

He photographically projects ‘a lonely girl, beaten in battle’. The girl is a representative who are like cushed flowers and feel sad. She feels limp, bruised, tired and crushed. Her sensibility is shaped by the Indian environment and climate:

….there stand
only a lonely girl, beaten in battle, all mine,
sadly licking the blood from my crazed smile.22

The poetry of Stephen Gill has not much to do with the local geography of Canada, except the Canadian dream of peace. With the exception of a few poems, he is largely a globally oriented poet. In the words of Dr. John Gorman, Stephen Gill’s “poetry concerned with racism, violence, famine, war, ecological pollution, greeds and madnesses and every sort of exile, finds itself coming to rest every once in a while in New York—at the United Nations.”23 This aspect of Stephen Gill’s poetry that is based on world consciousness has been confirmed by other critics.

The recurrent theme in Gill’s poetry is peace, and a recurrent theme in Jayanta Mahapatra is the sculpting of Konarak(a). “Konarak” exhibits a great tradition of Indian sculpting:

I must carry the stone I found
In the late afternoon light
me not think of myself only,
and my pain which possesses
these last breaths of my life……24

The sculpting of Konarak(a) casts a deep impact on the visitors. In his poem, he refers to “proud Konaraka of the soul”. Konaraka is a true symbol of Indian heritage and culture. “the red stone walls/of konarak/Bhubaneswar and Puri” come again and again in his poetry.

Within the ambit of his poetry, the past holds us down. In the process, India is invoked in the generic. The timeless sculpting to Konarak remains abstract, untouched by generation after generation. His language reinforces this effect:

Konaraka, black is sleep cold become of my silent land
messenger of death.
here the little boy in a dream waved to the Man once and
death hund its peace;
an indifferent time of stone marks the burnt-out funeral 7

pyre and the Sunrise that journeys again and again to call this grief of man its own.25

India is a land of myths. Jayanta Mahapatra often refers to these myths to establish his point. In “Performance” he deliberately refers to Kurukshetra: Now is the instant when I can not recognize myself,/ amazed by the silence after Kurushetra.26

Linguistic multiplicity and cultural diversity in India may apparently contribute to a poet’s identity; but in reality, these forces remain committed to defining, and authenticating a distinctive identity. Jayanta Mahapatra is a Christian, living in a Hindu society – a society which pay maximum homage to Lord Jagannatha, the presiding deity of Orissa. Jaynta Mahapatra’s grandfather accepted Christianity out of compelling forces of famine and poverty. There is always a sense of insecurity and alienation in his poetry. He perpetuates his quest for identity and he is keen on the assertion of his self-emanating from a veritable part of his holy land and its rich socio-religious traditions.

Contrary to this, the poetry of Stephen Gill discovers a different metaphor for identity. “As an ethnic writer and poet, Stephen Gill enriches the mosaic-tapestry of Canadian culture and values with his Indian background and Asian learning. The immigrant sensibility of the novelist Gill extends into the poet Gill, whose creative negotiation absorbs the conflict of cultures without being bitter.”27 Gill’s poetry traces the nature of cross-cultural encounter and cultural-shock syndrome. Stephen Gill’s poetic vision is that of a home-bound pilgrim. “His immigrant consciousness and sense of alienation are at the core of many of his poems. The Canadian in me/ works harder day after day/ to pay his bills/ hoping one day/ he would be free. He has retorted and reassured his commitment to his adopted country in the poem Go Back.”28

If at all there is any religion for the poet, that religion must be peace. Peace is the center of his creative activities. It may be due to his experiences when he was growing in New Delhi. He witnessed people killing one another in the name of religion and he hears about such killings even now. In the preface to his collection Shrine, he says:

In my early teens in those days, we used to live in Karol Bagh, New Delhi. Every time there was a stir caused by the wind, a car on the street, the bark of a dog, or the mew of a cat, we froze inside our house. Every time there was anything unusual, unseen tragedy was expected. The nights were nightmares and the days did not bring any hope. Often, the mornings dawned with more lamentable events. It was not easy to sleep when night after night the ghosts of fear looked straight into our eyes. It turned into an obsession that afflicted me every minute of every hour that whom to trust and to take in confidence. Passers-by and neighbours appeared to be the possible killers. Apparently to me, the dragons of religious terror for minorities roamed around freely.29

It was this fear that forced him to get out of that atmosphere of religious fanaticism. This fear tormented Stephen Gill his entire life. He took poetry as a mission for peace. He writes articles and poems against religious fanaticism. In Songs for Harmony, he touches peace when he asks in one poem, Angel/ if you lend me your heart/ I shall also embrace patience/ and feel the flesh of peace; and in another, Refreshing winds of the morning/ shape my pen into a plough/ that will prepare my land/ for sowing harmony/ wherever its blade touches.30 In his poem “Discriminators” he calls fanatics smiling shylocks, who rest 8 in rusted tombs. In Shrine, fanaticism is bearer of deformed urchins/ in the ruins of assumptions. It grows/ on the babel of confusion/ in the lap of/ the blinding dust of vanity/ by the arrogant prince of ignorance.31 In “Terrorists,” he asks,

Why
Do they promote
The twisted agenda
Of insanity.

Why
Do they love
The catechism of ruin.
Why do they commit outrages
Which are futile.32

The poet seeks refuge in the “Isle of Art” :
Away from the life-stifling smoke
From the heartbreak house
Lies a lonely isle of art
Where I have carved
An Eden…..

In this garden
No more ice of silence
No doors, no locks, no keys.
The logs
In my soul’s fire-place
Burn the bigotry beasts.

No haste, no worry, no malice
No dark prejudice lurks here
Eyes set on the horizon
A new Adam I breathe33.

Stephen Gill seeks the help of the Dove to spread his message of peace. He also seek the help of the Prince of Peace. His last poem in Divergent Shades is addressed to the Prince of Peace who is “Strength of the weak and who shall awaken/ the season of blossoming. His first poem in Songs for Harmony in the form of a prayer is also to Prince of Peace. Stephen Gill has written several poems about Dove and often mentions Prince of Peace in his poetry. The poem “Dove of Peace” in his collection by the same name, and “Seeking the Dove of Peace,” in Songs for Harmony, and “To Dove,” “Flight of a Dove,” “My Dove,” are just about this bird in his collection Shrine.

Because he was forced to leave the land of his birth by fanaticism, he has made Canada his home that is the symbol of peace for him. He has presented papers in international conferences on his belief that Canada provides a blueprint for world peace. He presented such a paper in 1999 at a conference of the Himachel Predesh University that was chaired by the assistant embassador of Canada in India. The gist of this 9 blueprint is the acceptance of multiculturalism. He adores the country of his adoption for accepting this concept of diversity. He believes that home is where our feet are and we had better place our heart where the feet are.34 Canada is his home that is clear from his poems, particularly from “Song of a New Canadian,” in The Dove of Peace and “Meechlake Fish” in Songs for Harmony.

The realization of a necessity to identify with a specified place along with its social, geo-historical and traditional background is obviously the epicenter of a matured creative writer’s consciousness. Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry celebrates the essence of an Indian sensibility – a sensibility fostered by “The rain and the sun who seem to do nothing new to the earth”. (“Summer Dusts” ), a sensibility moulded by a reckless innocence, and a sensibility so exquisitely tethered to the belief that things happen as the consequence of things that happened before, and the nothing can change the entire sequence of things, amidst temples and shrines, with their festivals, feats and fasting. His identification with Orissa is total. Orissa has been a most pleasant and painful experience for him. Orissa is the hub of Jayanta Mahapatra’s iconoclastic perambulation. Jayanta Mahapatra’s penetrating eyes don’t leave any aspect of Orissa’s culture unvisited. The temples in ruins, priests behaving like crows, lepers clotting at the gate of the GREAT TEMPLE, widows standing outside the temple in a queue for ‘darshan’ of the deity, rearing of the cows, the great car festival in puri, the ghastly effects of the kalinga was rituals of marriage all these images appear amply.

Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry reveals the vast range of his outlook, the multifarious themes and above all his distinct style. The use of private symbols and seemingly opaque image demand a thorough and close reading. He has consistently struggled with language to develop and use a human language in his poetry. His uniqueness as an Indian poet writing details of landscape that come out alive in his poetry suggest the voice of a true insider.

Among the Canada-based Asian poets writing today, Stephen Gill is one of the few who speak of Canadian landscapes with the assurance of an insider. He makes humble acknowledgement to Canada, his second home :

O Canada !
My well of love
full for thee.
A peace-adorning dove ! (“The Dove of Peace”).

The generative power of the ‘dove’ is used to reveal the mystery. His ‘dove’ symbol stands for harmony in social order and in human mind. The ‘Dove’ symbol appears again and again in his poetry. There is a hint of Christianity in the use of ‘dove’ symbol. Like Jayanta Mahapatra, Gill is a Christian. His ‘dove’ symbol can be compared to ‘rain’ (symbol of unity) symbol in Mahapatra’s poetry. ‘Rain’ brings assurance to life. ‘Dove’ stands for totality in life. Stephen Gill reveals this complete vision of life in a harmonized Canadian identity. His Canadian identity is comprehensive.

Jayanta Mahapatra is a greatly respected Indian poet. He was born in Orissa, India, lives in India and writes about India, observing her closely. He is “India’s most 10 celebrated poet and one of its best known abroad.”35 Stephen Gill on the other hand was born in Pakistan. His parents moved to New Delhi after partition. He went to Ethiopia to teach for three years. After the expiry of his contract, he went to England and eventually settled in Canada. He has been to Italy, Germany, Sweden and the United States. He has studied in India, Canada and England. His experiences and studies have made him a citizen of the world. His poetry reflects his world consciousness. He “is an impressive poet because he is compassionate, and because of the beauty of his poetry which is the voice for those who are voiceless.”36 According to Prof. Dr. John Gorman “Stephen Gill’s is a visionary life that thrives among the unpredictable connections that make the characteristic experience of our odd century. From a small Canadian city on the banks of the St. Lawrence, he weaves a poetry of worldwide consciousness.”37

Jayanta Mahapatra is also a translator of poetry from Oriya and also write in this language. Stephen Gill writes poetry occasionally in Urdu, Hindi and Panjabi languages.

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