Summary and Critical Appreciation of Poem Hunger by Jayanta Mahapatra

Introduction to the Poem: 

The poem entitled Hunger describes a certain experience of the speaker with a fisherman and the fisherman's daughter. It is a very heart touching poem. It reveals the feeling of hunger in two senses. At first it means the sharp desire to eat caused by starvation and secondly the insatiable hunger for sexual satisfaction. It is based on the theme of prostitution which is the result of poverty, social and economic injustice. This poem shows how the father gets ready to be an agent of his daughter under the impact of utter poverty and how he gives up the way of morality in order to fulfill his vital needs of his life . It also presents the attitude of the human beings living in a society, but they do not come forward to help a man who passes a miserable and pathetic life due to utter poverty. In fact it is a social injustice that everyone who is strong wants to suppress the weak and the poor.

Summary and Critical Appreciation of Poem Hunger by Jayanta Mahapatra
 Summary and Critical Appreciation of Poem Hunger by Jayanta Mahapatra

Summary of the Poem:

The speaker suffered with a compelling desire of sexual gratification with some girl or woman. He felt extreme hunger of making sexual intercourse. He was unable to resist his sexual desire. In other words he was experiencing an urgent desire for sexual satisfaction. He came to learn from some sources that the fisherman's daughter was involved in the profession of prostitution. The fisherman served his daughter to sex hungry men against payment. Due to experiencing the intense desire for sexual gratification, the speaker made contact with the fisherman. After a short conversation, the fisherman asked the speaker if he felt an urgent need of the girl. By doing so, the fisherman wanted to confirm the speaker's eagerness and depth of the sexual feelings. Without giving any importance to the speaker, his talks and his sexual feelings, he kept on dragging his fishing nets behind him. It seemed that by ignoring him (the speaker), the fisherman was trying to dig his mind and his inner feelings. In the company of the speaker, the fisherman walked towards his humble cottage. On the way of his house he gave no sign of his anxiety, sufferings and poverty to the speaker. He remained completely indifferent towards the speaker. It seemed as if the fisherman intended not to show his inner feelings but to awaken the desire of his customer. While dragging his nets to homewards, the fisherman seemed also to be dragging his nerves behind him, meaning that he was trying to keep his nerves or his mind under control. When the fisherman asked the speaker whether he would like to have sex with his daughter, he (fisherman) had no feelings of remorseless and shame. The fisherman spoke his words elegantly as there were an as of sanctity and solemnity in his words. (Actually, his purpose was far from being sacred.) The speaker observed that the white teeth shining in one side of his mouth seemed to be chiding him silently.

The speaker, who had strong desire to make sexual intercourse with the fisherman's daughter, followed him (the fisherman) across the extensive stretches of sand on the sea beach. The speaker overpowered with the feelings of sexual gratification moved to the fisherman's cottage in his company. There was great agitation in speaker's mind. His heart was throbbing or beating fast. His skin was performing the function of a sling. That is, as a sling supports a fractured arm; likewise the instinctive feelings of the skin helped fight back the apprehensions of the mind. Under the great temptation of having a woman's flesh for his sexual gratification, the speaker's mind was experiencing a strong agitation. Though his flesh or body was supporting the mind, the mind could not regain tranquility. Through sexual gratification the speaker could not get peace. A desire of this kind and the effort to find some means of satisfying it always create some kind of agitation and restlessness in the mind. One always feels guilty about this kind of desire. Hence the speaker felt that the only way to get peace was to burn himself with the feelings of redemption and guilty at his house after sexual gratification. The speaker, in spite of having a sense of guilty, was not able to suppress his extreme sexual desire. He found himself speechless. He felt as if his tongue had been paralysed, and therefore he says that even the sleeves (of his shirt or coat) were seized by silence. The fisherman's nets had some foam on them. It was quite natural that the nets, which the fisherman was dragging behind him, should have some foam upon them because he had been casting the nets into the sea to catch fish. The fisherman was laboriously dragging his foam covered nets behind him. It was now getting dark.

In the state of mental agitation and under the pressure of compelling desire of sexual gratification with fisherman's daughter, the speaker accompanied the fisherman to his shed. Though he felt a sense of guilt and a violent commotion in his mind, he was unable to get the peace which he had lost under extreme sexual desire. Now he was overwhelmed with the sexual feelings. It was getting dark. In unsteady darkness, the speaker observed that the fisherman looked very lean and thin. His body seemed like a wound. It was an inevitable wound that poverty had gifted him with. At the current moment the speaker felt that he was as free as wind. The palm leaves scratched his skin, leaving marks of guilt. He saw that inside the shack, an oil lamp was burning. It was spreading light within the walls of the cottage. It seemed to him as if the time stayed within the walls of the cottage and the hours were bunched upto the walls of the cottage. The smoke of the oil lamp seemed to the speaker to be penetrating his mind. He felt that the space in his blank mind was filled with root from the lamp. It indicates that by making sexual intercourse with fisherman's daughter, the speaker was going to commit a sin. The soot image is a customary suggestion of sin which alerts us to how the blackness of the predicament of the father pimping his daughter is a condemnation not of the father but of the society where such a tragedy comes to pass. The soot covers the shack of the fisherman, but it is the speaker's mind on which the soot can be seen. Question arises about the justness in society from which sanctity has disappeared. The society does not come forward to help those who suffer from utter poverty and are forced to sell the flesh of their wives and daughters in order to sustain their lives. In this way immorality enters in the society. Both the sufferers and customers commit sin.

While entering the cottage, the speaker heard the fisherman saying that his daughter had recently got the age of fifteen. In fact the fisherman was playing a trick on the customer so that he might be able to allure his customer to get enough money. The speaker felt that perhaps the fisherman had already served his daughter to other customers by telling them attractive features of his daughter. He told the speaker the age of his daughter only fifteen because he knew it very well that the age of fifteen is generally supposed to be an age when the girl is fully grown and looks fresh in her beauty and the man who is sexually hungry can derive great joy and pleasure from his sexual intercourse with that girl. The fisherman, then, went on to say that he would go out for a little while and that in the meantime, the speaker (or the customer) could feel her body as he liked. He further said that the speaker (on the customer) would have to end his sexual work exactly at nine when he would return to his cottage from outside. On hearing such words from the mouth of the daughter's father, the speaker was greatly stunned at his shamelessness. He felt as if the sky had fallen on him. He experienced an indescribable shock. The speaker thought that this father had been employing different tricks with different men so that his store of tricks has been exhausted by now. When the speaker came to the girl, he found that the girl was lean and thin. He felt that due to utter poverty, the girl had become the victim of malnutrition. The girl got ready for the sexual process and she opened her legs wide in order to make it easier for the customer to commence the sexual act. Her legs were very thin. They were humble and low like an ordinary insect. The speaker felt a kind of contempt for the girl to see her degradation due to utter poverty. Her body was as cold as rubber. She was entirely indifferent towards sex. Although the speaker yearned to have sexual gratification, yet he felt a sort of dislike for the girl who was doing all this under compulsion of poverty. He felt that it was the hunger of the belly while the customer's hunger was that of sex. He also felt that it was sheer poverty which had driven the father and daughter to adopt this method of earning money. The fisherman found that the occupation of fishing was not very profitable. He could not make both ends meet by depending on this occupation.

Critical Appreciation of the Poem:


The poem entitled Hunger shows how the poet shifts the focus from his own act of using a prostitute to the fisherman's poverty; how the fisherman's daughter has neither voice nor any agency, and how the hungers—sexual desire and poverty— are collapsed so casually. In the poem the poet uses the word   ‘hunger’ in two senses. In the first sense, the desire to eat something is felt in, or by the belly. The belly demands food; and eating is necessary if a human being wants to live. Food is indispensable for the belly. This desire is a most compelling one. After the belly has been satisfied, the desire for sexual satisfaction is the next strongest to be felt. The poem depicts a certain experience of the speaker in the poem with a fisherman and the fisherman's daughter. Although the speaker himself does not give us any details about the financial plight of the fisherman, we can infer from the account giving by the speaker that the fisherman was having a very hard time in the financial sense. 

Thought - Content: 

The speaker contacted the fisherman in order to have a sexual experience with the fisherman's daughter and thus to satisfy his sexual craving. The fisherman took the speaker to his shack close to the sea shore and, after telling the speaker that the girl had just turned fifteen, left the shack so that the customer could have his satisfaction. As soon as the fisherman had left, the girl opened her legs wide so that the customer could have his pleasure. At that moment the protagonist perceived that it was the hunger (or the sheer economic need) of the fisherman and his daughter which had driven him and the girl to adopt this means of earning some money.

Heart Moving and Satirical Elements: 

The poem is a very touching poignant and highly moving. The poet ironically reveals that the feeling of hunger which has been used in double sense, first it means the sharp desire to eat caused by starvation and secondly the insatiable hunger for sexual satisfaction. The poem is a highly moving mordant satire on the object poverty and social injustice in India. The penury of the fisherman father compels him to let his fifteen years old daughter to resort to prostitution for earnings. It is a profoundly human document and its former depends mainly on the authenticity of human experience. 

The Use of Symbols and Images: 

The fisherman was ‘trailing his nets’.  The symbolism is apparent as he was laying out the net for customers. The fisherman's net had froth from the sea. Perhaps it may be symbolic of the fact that wrong that wrongdoings may leave apparent traces behind. The fisherman's lean body in the flickering dark appeared like a wound. The inevitable wound symbolises his utter poverty. At the current moment the poet felt he was at will, as free as the wind. The palm leaves scratched his skin, leaving marks of guilt. Hours in the shack are portrayed as stacks bunched up to those walls splayed by the burning oil lamp. It signifies that all the hours were similar confined to the small shack. The space in his blank mind was filled with soot from the lamp. The age fifteen symbolises the freshness of the beauty of the girl. The bus symbolises the tourist's journey who came to stay in the fisherman's cottage for some time. The poet uses the term ' wormy ' for her legs as she opened them wide. The word reflects the speaker's perception of the girl as abject as a worm, thin and slimy.

The poem primarily has two structures of images: flesh related and poverty related; hunger emanating from the flesh and that from poverty. What makes the poem impressive is the way these images entangle one another, some abstract, all building the irony of the two urges. The vividity of the images builds a word portrait of the place, graphically relating the manners of three characters. The image of wound is prepared to by such images as the ' bond thrashing in his eyes ' , ' mind thumping in the flesh's sling ' , ' burning the house ' , ' body clawing ' . The actions indicated in these images portray the human effort that is rather desperate, fruitless and hurting. The ‘wound’ image gathers them all together in a place where the combined force of all these previous images together hits the reader hard and jump him / her out of complacency. It must be borne in mind that the tourist searching for sexual gratification implicitly holds the place of the audience as the reader is a voyeur like the tourist. The soot image, a customary suggestion of sin, alerts us to how blackness of the predicament of the father pimping his daughter is a condemnation not of the father but of the society where such tragedy comes to pass.

Communicative Value of Silence: 

The poet here achieves his eloquence through silence. Silence, incidentally, is a word that gets endlessly repeatedly, one might say consecrated, in 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 exploits 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 the poet on a similar theme, The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street. 

Style and Language of Poem: 

The poem is in the form of dramatic monologue. The speaker in this poem narrates his experiences with a fisherman and his daughter. It is also remarkable because of its compact structure. The whole account has been given to us in a very concise and succinct manner. Three different persons have been portrayed in the poem, and each portrayal is perfectly realistic. The poem also deserves praise because of Mahapatra's highly commendable choice of words and his skillful arrangement of the words. The diction here is highly satisfactory; and there is something very pleasing about the poet's phrase - making and sentence - construction. A profoundly human document this poem is; and its power depends mainly on the authenticity of the experience established by the words and their arrangements. Every word is telling, is in its proper place. The happy blending of the literal and the metaphorical is achieved in expressions like the flesh 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.