"Kalahandi" is perhaps the best known poem of Dr Tapan Kumar Pradhan, the Indian poet, writer and activist, and 2007 it won Kendriya Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature Golden Jubilee Award for Poetry in 2007. The poem received critical acclaim following its publication in the journal Indian Literature in December 2007.
- In the shifting shadows of lantern light
- Her hollow contours become yet more pronounced
- Against the pitch darkness of the impatient man
- As he advances she struggles with the suffocating stench
- Of empty sacks stained with kerosene smoke
- Smell of hooch, of sweat, of flesh, the man's
- Drunken half-smile, look of vague desire, the dark
- Hollow of her dry hung elongated breasts, the dark
- Gaping cleavages of paddy fields throw a mocking sneer.
- Erratic fingers, nails digging into the skin -
- Haggard looking crows swooping down in haphazard trajectories.
- Twisting of bodies, arms clasping, unclasping
- Emaciated naked children fight over a loaf
- Of dark bread snatched from a tired dog :
- silhouettes of puppets in a drollery
- A woman wails by the body
- Of husband crushed under a sack of relief rice
- his breath, her breath, hot, mingling together :
- Dry leaves rustle in the mid-afternoon air.
- She cambers up, indifferent, like a crab, in spasms
- As the hairy-chested man prepares for a decisive thrust :
- Look of tiredness in the eyes,
- ready to bite, but unable to move the underjaws.
- Her body, breathing, lies exhausted -
- A gleam of compromised content in her eyes
- Having added two rupees to the forty she earned last
- week by selling off her daughter.
Origin of the poem
The poem was first written by Dr Pradhan in his mother tongue Oriya in 1992 when he was a university student at Bhubaneswar, Odisha. It was subsequently translated by the poet himself into English and got published in Vani Vikas, the literary journal of Utkal University in 1994 under the author's pen-name of Helios El Sol. In the words of the poet, the single event that prompted him to write the poem was "a news-item published in the daily Samaja in 1992 which described the story of a poor tribal woman who was compelled to sell off her six-months old child for a paltry sum of forty rupees in the face of starvation..." The poet had spent a few years in Kalahandi in his early childhood as also during his adult years as a researcher and investigator.
Allusion and symbolism
The poem depicts the scenes of squalor, poverty, starvation and economic exploitation of poor illiterate people in Kalahandi symbolically through the suffering of a woman being forced into prostitution due to starvation. The poem is notable for its very subtle use of onomatopoeia, stark imagery, symbols, and allusion. For example, the rhythm in the words smell of hooch, of sweat, of flesh, the Man's... is suggestive of the sounds produced during an act of sexual intercourse. The repetition of the words "the dark" at the end of the second and third lines of the second stanza has an allusion to the idea of "darkness" suggested by the word Kalahandi, which in Oriya literally means a "black pot". The imagery is at its best when the dark cleavage of a woman's dry breasts is juxtaposed with the gaping cleavages of paddy fields throwing a mocking sneer. The noted Oriya writer Sashibhusan Rath comments that the stark symbolism in this poem sets it apart from other similar poems, including Kalahandi : Then and Now published by Kumar Hasan in 1980.
Comments and criticism
The renowned Oriya short story writer Bhupen Mahapatra has commented that Kalahandi along with the poet's other poem Equation are peerless in their genre in modern Oriya Literature. The critic Nageswar Patnaik believes that Kalahandi is a revolutionary poem echoing the sentiment behind the Naxalite movement in western Odisha. However, Sundeep Waslekar in the Forbes India Magazine argues that Pradhan's Kalahandi poem actually paints the "loss of human dignity" which was a precursor to the Naxalite "storm of terror". The English version is not a literal translation, although it successfully reproduces the rhythm and cadence of the Oriya original. It is regarded as one of the best poems in translation from Oriya language. The English version has become much more popular than the obscure original poem in Oriya. Commentators have observed elements of catharsis in the Kalahandi poem.". This acclaimed poem has been widely cited in various journals, websites and discussion forums for its unique way of depicting human misery.
- Kalahandi poem - Readers' comments
- Kalahandi poem discussion forum
- "Best Indian Poems"
- Kalahandi poem by J P Das
- Indian Literature
- Indian Poetry
- Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi's Bi-monthly Journal, Volume LI, No. 6, page-47. New Delhi ISSN 0019-5804.
- "Dashing Weave - Times of India article on Naxalite Movement".
- "Forbes India :- The Manual of Counter Terrorism".
- "Lyrics of Life - Kalahandi poem in translation".
- "Discussion forum - Kalahandi poem".
- "Catharsis in Modern Indian Poetry".
- ""All About India - Kalahandi"".
(1) Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi's Bi-monthly Journal, Volume LI, No. 6, page-47-48. New Delhi ISSN 0019-5804.