The speaker in this poem, “Hunger” narrates his experience with a fisherman and the fisherman’s daughter. Having learnt from somewhere that the fisherman provided his young daughter to sex-hungry men against payment, the speaker contacted him because of the intense desire for sexual gratification which he had been experiencing. After a little talk, the fisherman asked the persona (or the protagonist) if he would really have the girl. The fisherman was dragging his fishing nets behind him as he walked towards his humble lodgings in the company of the protagonist. The fisherman gave no sign of any anxiety and, in fact, seemed to be indifferent whether the protagonist would say yes or no to his question, even though inwardly the fisherman was feeling an intense anxiety.
The protagonist walked on with the fisherman over the sandy shore of the sea towards the fisherman’s shack (or cabin) with his mind in a state of great agitation. His sense of guilt had almost paralyzed his tongue, and he could hardly speak. Meanwhile the fisherman was laboriously dragging his foam-covered nets behind him. It was now getting dark.
Inside the shack, an oil lamp was burning, and the smoke from it seemed to the protagonist to be penetrating his mind. He had this feeling only because of his sense of guilt and shame. The fisherman said that his daughter had only recently attained the age of fifteen. He then went on to say that he would go out for a little while and that, in the meantime, the protagonist (or the customer) could feel her body. He further said that the customer’s bus would be leaving at nine o’clock and that he would come back by that time.
The protagonist felt as if the sky had fallen down upon his head. The fisherman’s invitation had seemed shameless to him; and he therefore felt stunned by it. However, he could judge that this father had been using all kinds of tricks to persuade possible customers to agree to his proposition. Even the father’s saying that his daughter had just turned fifteen must be a trick. Anyhow, after the fisherman had left, the girl opened her legs wide in order to make it easier for the customer to commence the sexual act. The girl’s gesture made the protagonist feel that it was sheer poverty which had driven the father and the daughter to adopt this method of making money.
In the opinion of one very discriminating and sound critic”, the simplicity and strength of this poem, namely Hunger, have made it one of the great peaks of Indian poetry in English. A profoundly human document this poem is; and its power depends mainly on the authenticity of the experience established by the words and their arrangement. Every word is telling, is in its proper place. One could hardly wish to upset any sequence in it. The happy blending of the literal and the metaphorical is achieved in expressions like ‘the flesh was heavy on my back’, ‘trailing his nets and his nerves’, ‘the white bone thrash his eyes’, ‘burning the house I live in’, ‘the flickering dark’, ‘his lean-to opened like a wound’, ‘a father’s exhausted wile’, ‘her years were cold as rubber’, etc. The protagonist, the fisherman, and the girl have the clarity and hardness of figures in bas-relief. The complexity of the human situation is not sacrificed for the sake of any sociological formula.
The poet achieves his eloquence through silence. Silence, incidentally, is a word that gets endlessly repeated, one might say consecrated, in Jayanta Mahapatra‘s poems; there is no doubt that it has “gripped his sleeves” too. But nowhere has he made silence more eloquent than in this poem. The young man does not speak; the girl also does not speak; even the fisherman speaks in a matter- of-fact tone which has the ominousness of silence. The poet here is exploiting in full measure the communicative value of silence. It makes this poem singularly free from the kind of grandiloquence which used to be the badge and bane of Indian poetry in English for quite some time. However, the same controlled silence is not to be found in another poem by Mahapatra on a similar theme, The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street. The choice of the title and the length of that poem point to a different orientation.
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