On Mahapatra’s “Hunger”

The pun on the word “hunger” in the poem of the same name has a caustic effect. The poem’s evoking of the erotic is poignant. The bodyscape motif figures from the outset: “It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back” (Mahapatra “Hunger”). Mahapatra’s self-reproaching speaker reminisces some past crime. The speaker’s abhorrence for his own body and bodily desire is evident. He seems to refer to his derriere in order to express his sexual hunger, the first connotation of the title. His libidinous desire appears to be anomalous and serve as the context of some impending atrocity. The next line introduces a fisherman whose offhandedness somewhat surprises the speaker: “will you have her, carelessly” he says. While speaking, the fisherman seems “trailing [not only] his nets” but also “his nerves.” The fisherman’s body is represented in surreal terms: “I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.” Mahapatra is known for applying expressionistic techniques conjuring such complicated images. The speaker can trace the origin of the fisherman’s offer: it is the hunger for food that compels the fisherman to offer his pubescent daughter to the speaker. However, this fact is revealed later. Meanwhile, the reader can only surmise that something heinous is about to happen, and expressionistic representation of the fisherman’s body enables the poet to punctuate our surmise with an image of violence: the white bone thrashing the eyes. The white bone—a reference to the fisherman’s sclera—seem to point at his boney physique, a signifier of his penury. The perceptive speaker not only sees the hunger lurking beneath the fisherman’s offer, but is perturbed by it.

Accepting his offer, the speaker follows the fisherman “across the sprawling sands.” The line is also marked by the poet’s first reference to the landscape. The speaker’s desire is again represented palpably and pejoratively: “my mind thumping in the flesh’s sling.” Here Mahapatra evokes the conventional mind-body dichotomy in which mind or intellect is prioritised over body or libidinous desire. His disapproval of the hunger of the body is evident in his semi-masochistic desire: “Hope lay perhaps in burning the house [or body] I lived in.” The body of the fisherman seem “clawed/at the froth his old nets” have brought from the sea. The expressionist Mahapatra describes the fisherman’s thin hands as claws, and thereby, underscores the dehumanising effect of poverty.

The bodyscape and landscape are fused together in the image of the fisherman’s “lean-to” which opens like a “wound.” The fisherman’s existence is perhaps seen as a wound in humanity. It is incurable. It undercuts everything we can be proud of. At the time he enters the shack the speaker feels as invisible and powerful as the wind. Probably, he has been feeling the same during “the days and nights before”. However, the “sticky soot” of guilt crosses the space of the poet’s mind. When he progresses toward the fisherman’s shack the palm fronds scratch his skin. The leaves serve as the speaker’s conscience, his reproaching self. At last, the reason for his self-reproach is revealed. The fisherman trades his fifteen-year-old daughter’s body to the speaker:

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.

The eroticism implied in the fisherman’s speech has a disconcerting effect on the speaker. Moreover, probably the fisherman promised him about an older girl. Hunger for food is the cause of the fisherman’s “wile.” Noticeable is the description of the limbs of his daughter. Her physical immaturity to sexual intercourse and her malnutrition are highlighted simultaneously: “Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber. / She opened her wormy legs wide.” The word “fish” is perhaps an innuendo to the speaker’s penis. The girl child craves for food, for a fish to eat, but the “fish” that she has gratifies the sexual hunger of its owner only.

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