Hunger is one of the best known poems by the internationally acclaimed Indian English poet Jayanta Mahapatra. The poem is widely anthologised in most important modern Indian poetry collections and is the most widely analysed piece among his works. The poem explores the informal child sex trade lurking in the social fabric, and is unique in its bold treatment of sexuality unlike a typical poem by him.
The poem was originally a part of the poet's collection "A Rain of Rites".
In the poet's own words, the poem is based on a direct real life experience. But it is not clear whether the poet as the protagonist was the visitor to the fisherman's daughter. The poem is an expression of the poet's loneliness as a youth, as Mahapatra had a disturbed childhood.
Structure and criticism
The poem is notable for its directness in approaching the taboo topic of the sexual trade involving a father and his daughter. In the very second line, the fisherman asks casually "will you have her?". However, the exact intention of the father is couched in subtle and ambivalent imagery:- "trailing his nets and nerves" and "his white bone thrashing his eyes". A wide range of poetic devices has been employed to bring out the mind's trappings in the flesh.
The vivid imagery of the seashore in the poem depicts the circumstances that compel a woman to sell her body through prostitution.Some commentators have pointed out the brutal treatment of sexuality in the poem
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
Puri is an eminent town in the state of Orissa. It is distinguished for its religious associations, particularly the annual festival held to honour the deity, Jagannatha.
Dawn at Puri
The poet ruminates on the beach premises at Puri. The endless cawing of crows catches the speaker’s attention at the outset. He then notices a skull on the beach where bodies are normally cremated. The skull is a part of a cremation that has not been completely burnt by the funeral pyre. This skull is emblematic of the abject poverty and spiritual handicap of Puri, in spite of all the religious connections and connotations. The skull represents the hollowness of life and the inevitability of death. It symbolizes the spiritual stagnation and pseudo-existence of Orissa. Puri here, functions as a miniature metaphor of India in. The term ‘empty country’ emphasizes the same, the nihilism in a non-productive life. The hollow skull points to the irrational superstitions prevalent taking man back to primitivism.
The speaker then notices a number of widows adorning white saris all ready to perform the customary rites and rituals. These women are depicted as “past the centre of their lives” They have whiled away a significant portion of their lives, implying they are past their prime. The word ‘centre’ may also signify that they have crossed the peak of their lives. Again, the word centre may point to their spouses who are no more, and were the centre of their lives. They appear serene and solemn. There appears an expression of austerity in their eyes, as they are divorced from all worldly concerns. The white color that they adorn is as symbol of their purity and tranquility. They are like creatures caught in a net. The creatures caught in a net having nothing more to lose as they remain captured. The widows too have nothing more to forgo, as they stand in spiritual submission. The force that anchors these women to be steady in their approach to life is their undeterred faith in God. They dreamt with the hope that religion equipped them with. As they stand in a group, their uniting factor seems to be their timidity .They are a “mass of crouched faces” possessing no individuality. They are presented as a common noun. Women are relegated in a patriarchal society; and this marginalization is more pronounced, if it is a widow.
At the break of dawn as the poet looks at the single funereal pyre burning, a sudden thought occurs to him: that of his mother’s last wish. The phrase “And suddenly breaks out from my hide” echoes the thought springing out; just as the poet sprung out from his mother’s womb(hide). His aged mother wished that she be cremated at this particular place. It comes across very strongly to the poet. Rites and rituals are mandatory. However, perhaps, performing one’s mother’s last wish is far more important than these obligatory dictates of religion and doctrines of custom. It ‘dawns’ on him all of a sudden. The symbol of Dawn is thus also one of realization.
Dawn at Puri
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
Their austere eyes
stare like those caught in a net
hanging by the dawn's shining strands of faith.
The fail early light catches
ruined, leprous shells leaning against one another,
a mass of crouched faces without names,
and suddenly breaks out of my hide
into the smoky blaze of a sullen solitary pyre
that fills my aging mother:
her last wish to be cremated here
twisting uncertainly like light
on the shifting sands