December 1 – Two Poems

Nota Bene: For proper scansion, hold the phone horizontally (rather than vertically)! Or, better still, read it on a tablet or a computer.

December 1, 2020

It is the evening of the first day
of the last month of the year –
and it is cold; almost as if the month
wanted us to know that it was here.

A little past twelve a.m. last night
(for once remembering), I flipped
the pages of the calendar that hangs
upon the stout, paint-covered nail –
November’s picture-lights fell back;
in their place, the jewellery of December.

It will get colder as the night goes on,
the water from the tap will chill rather
than wet the fingers and the hand. (I can
almost feel the icy water as I type.) But
I will huddle within my jacket’s wool
and the gooseflesh will be a cosy thrill.

Somewhere outside, not far from here,
others will huddle too – in corners of the
house they work to build; the mongrel strays
will curl up too – let’s hope that there’s a fire.

(I came back home with plumeria in my hand;
fallen flowers, I’d picked them off the ground.
Picking up these flowers has turned routine;
stooping’s become part of my evening rounds.)

My wish is that this December’ll bring
a wealth – of writing, goodness, discipline.
Winter is not the time that earth-trees fruit –
perhaps the mind-tree Bendre sang of will.

‘It is the first day of the last month of the year’ –
this phrase occurred to me sometime before;
I hoped then I could make something of it –
though at the time the cold had not yet bit.

For December 1, 2021

It’ll be a year tomorrow, to the day,
since I wrote ‘December 1, 2020’.
January 1 is New Year’s Day,
but a new year’s starting all the time:
each second’s newer than the last,
each minute’s the future – present – past.

My mind’s somewhat awry today;
it’s been like this for a few days;
is mind enough to mind the mind?
The Gita says ‘to mind the mind is like to bind
the wind’. I do not wish to bind the wind or mind.
Let the mind-kite roam its endless skies;
let me have a hand upon its strings.

The sky is toggling between blue and white;
some blue means sun, all white just cloudy sight,
though the white is not a white that’s loud:
it’s like the quiet of someone when they’re sad.

(‘A good day for coffee and a book’ some think,
slouched behind a computer in their house.
Outside, the labourer bends his back –
he cannot afford thoughts like that –
his form holds up both house and sack.)

I try to think back on the year that’s gone;
I have not kept a diary track.
But days are slippery; like river-stones
they smoothly slide out from the grasp.
Most stones have slid but some remain –
rem(a)inders of the year’s variety …

… and one year older now, I see
that it is discipline begets variety;
and so I pray to things I believe in –
for variety’s richness and sober discipline.

Afterword:

A few years ago, I attended a session conducted by Christ College’s ‘Kannada Sangha‘. I believe the occasion was their annual celebration of ‘kavi dina‘ (~ poet’s day), Da Ra Bendre‘s birthday. The details of the session esape me, but I do remember something one of the speakers said, in the context of the unprecedented volume of writing that is being published today. The chief editor of a now-defunct Kannada literary magazine, he spoke about the necessity of “letting a piece of writing dry” – ಒಣಗು (oṇagu) was the word he used, which in Kannada means “to dry” – and the advantages of doing so. (I think he compared it to the drying that needed to be done to develop non-digital photographs…and if he didn’t, well, I’m doing it now.) What he said struck me – and has stuck with me – not simply because of the interesting metaphor but because it resonated: I too have mostly been cautious about sharing a piece of (serious) writing no sooner than it’s been written; of making it public without returning to it (after having put some space-time between us) and possibly revising it; of presenting it without “letting it dry”.
Why is this relevant? Because the second of these two poems was written yesterday (November 30, 2021) and, being less than a day old, has had hardly any time to dry. But, as I’m sure you see, today’s date is the reason I am sharing it.

Once Upon A Story

Note: There’s a glossary below for those who’d like it.

Once Upon A Story


I remember how I wished to tell
of an old, widowed village woman
as she passed through every season
of the calendar, seasons with Sanskrit
names all vaguely familiar. I hoped
to limn the heat of greeshma with
my pen, and catch in salient words
the earthy whiff of a humid wind
that made the dust swirl lyrically;
before I sketched how sharad’s cold
(that knifed her skin with consummate ease)
was the child of an unfeeling ocean-breeze;
and how even watery varshā’s rains
could hardly help her feel less alone.

But, tell me, what does privilege know
of village and woman, old and widowed?

(written ca. 2015)

Glossary:

1. greeshma (greesh-maah): One of the six seasons of the Hindu lunar calendar. It is (roughly) the equivalent of summer.

2. sharad (shuh-wrudh): Another one of the six seasons. Its closest equivalent is winter.

3. varshā (whurr-shaah): The season of the monsoon or the rains.

 

For these (covid) times

This afternoon, a well-wisher and a friend
asked for a poem for these ‘covid times’.
I was flattered by her faith and said I’d try,
but, really, what she’d said was as good
as asking me to not think of an elephant.
So as I walked briskly on my evening walk,
my mind began to formulate a poem.
With my taste being both rhythm and rhyme,
the poem’s opening was metred;
end-rhyme is not easily unfacile
but a rhythm is a lot easier to find.
Six lines into my thought-poem (that I
meant to write after my walk was done),
it struck me that corona’s devastation
was without both rhyme and reason;
and how its contribution, as it were,
was to upsetting the whole world’s rhythm.

‘Poetry must disrupt’ is a worthy slogan
(often used unworthily by poets
whose poetry is their only disruption),
yet, at its best, can be a way to see
what we only ever look at mindlessly.
But how can poetry (itself) deal with a dis-
ruption, what must it do and say to remain
current? What must it lose what must it gain
for what it says to outlive the sayer?
Think –
if corona had to take a poem’s form,
what would it be?
would every comma in the poem mean ‘tested positive’,
a semicolon spell seriousness;
and a full stop take the place of death.

The lockdown’s done, people are free (if masked)
and the road no longer stretches on, lonely.
I followed the news when it first raged but
now I cannot say I really care; I’m comfortable –
I have a house, food, water, snacks, a mask, a stiff-backed chair.
I know no one that covid’s killed – it’s like that
man-eating tiger you read about that’s killed someone
who knew someone (who knows someone) you know.
The direness of poverty’s
a paper-pic, a facebook-post, last evening’s news –
something you’d like to prick at you
but that you know you will forget.
Privilege and death are kindred –
either you or a close relative must be involved
for you to know it.

Ten days into the lockdown my ajji died,
what took her was not the virus but time; not locked.
At 93, it’s hard to say she wasn’t due –
though the suddenness of it came as a blow.
(The doctor who came home was a leech. Not a bad man –
but greedy for the money he could strip
without damage to his and to your dignity.)
The rites, the rituals, the mantras were performed;
the rhythm of the chants remained
but several other rhythms failed –
the crowd that gathers to mourn
an elder’s passing could not obtain; tradition,
prepared for this, said six months later would be okay.
(On the obverse side, weddings were infected too.)

Last year this time, I ran and walked the Institute;
my childhood place, my stomping grounds, my grace.
The gulmohar flowers are now upon a different tree –
the Institute is temporarily closed to me.
But the flowers’ happy red remains – reminding me
not everything can be locked down;
life’s disruption has its limits too –
even the best dictators can control
just other men and their families.

Exaggeration is the old game’s name,
but its shelf life too is limited.
2020 may go down as ‘corona year’
but 2021 will have a different theme,
vaccine or no vaccine;
the simple truth’s that death is such
a part of life, it can only distress so much.
Remember what Yudhishṭhira told the yaksha
the most wonderful thing in the world is this:
‘that a man can see men die all around
yet think that he’s beyond it.’

(Composed on 18th and 19th June, 2020; revised slightly on August 20, 2020)

Note: This one’s for Aruna, a friend, well-wisher and sahrudaya-rasika. After all, it was her request that got me started.

By the way, if you’re reading the poem on a phone, holding it horizontally would be the best way to ensure correct scansion.

Glossary:

1. ajji – the Kannada word for grandmother

2. The story of Yudhisthira and the Yaksha: go here to read the whole story. If you’d rather just go straight to the question, scroll down to pg. 8, Q33

Myth and the World

There’s a glossary below. Clicking on the asterisk by a word will take you to it.

Did you knów the fragrant flówer
was once the fláme of a fiery stár?
Did you knów a woman’s milk
is but nectar stráined through silk?
Did you knów the Dionýsian* dance
was bórn of a sōma*-induced trance?
Did you knów the human heart
has a place in the Múseum of Cosmic Art?
Did you knów the vaidic* fire
once lit unstáined Baldur’s* pyre?
Did you knów the Arctic sea
was fórmed from the frost of the Yggdrasil* tree?
Did you knów the sweetest fruit
is seéded in wise wisdom’s sight?
Did you knów the bányan tree
fálls to the ground in ecstasy?
Did you knów the sweat of toil
is nectared-ráin to the drought-dry soil?
Did you knów the song for the deaf
spríngs from the kàlpataru’s* leaf?
Did you knów each cloúd above
once carríed water to a thirsty love*?
Did you knów that in the earth
lives a wórld of unheard mirth?
Did you knów that myth and man
are as rávelled as the chaff and grain?


(written ca. mid 2015)

For more about the context of and history behind the poem’s creation, see notes.

1. Dionysius (die-oh-nisi-yus): A figure of Greek mythology, considered the patron god of drink and revelry.

2. sōma (so-maah): A fabulous kind-of-nectar (distilled from a plant) that is supposed to have been drunk by the vaidic priests.

3. vaidic: Relating to the véda-s, the oldest extant Sanskrit literature.

4. Baldur (bald-er): In Norse mythology, the son of Odin and Freya. Killed, as a result of Loki’s machinations, by his own (blind) brother Honir.

5. Yggdrasil (ig-drus-il): The giant tree of Norse mythology that straddles the three worlds.

6. kalpataru (cull-puh-thuh-rue): The wish-tree of Hindu mythology. Located in swarga.

7. thirsty love: a reference to the “Mēghadūta (The Cloud Messenger)”, the famous Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa’s celebrated work. The premise of the poem is of a deliriously lovelorn yaksha (a demigod-like creature) speaking to a cloud above and telling it the message it should take to his equally lovelorn beloved hundreds of miles away.

To Her Tormentors

What do you mean she’s barren?
Does she not send forth a tide
of blood each month,
that blood you call impure
and quarantine within the dark?
That blood you fear with all your heart,
that blood is the blood of her heaving heart.
(That heart you treat with disregard
and force so brute,
it dries and desiccates the root.)

So listen, you people whose tongues malign!
Do you know what churns within her loins?
Do you know if milk streams through her breast?
Do you know what it is to be childless?
(And if you do, more shame on you.)
Her womb is womb no less than
womb that bore you, her breasts
no less that those you milked;
nor she more cursed
than those of you most blessed.

So don’t waste your breath to simply say
that’s she’s a barren field.
Go back instead and wield
the malice of your tongue
upon your unfortunate child.
Go now, for I stand here as her shield.


(written in 2015)

Afterword:

I wrote this poem in 2015, during the most prolific creative spell I’ve experienced. However, as quick as the poem’s emergence (on the computer’s screen) was, it was really the culmination of thoughts and ideas I had been pondering – and even writing about – for some three years previously. Not a woman myself, I’ve no doubt this poem was influenced by women’s stories; by various things I’d heard and read and been told about and that had permeated my consciousness in ways too intricate to pinpoint.

Childless women among my relatives; an observation by a relative about how her’s uncle’s childless marriage had been unquestioningly attributed to his wife’s infertility (though she thought it more likely that a year-long sickness that left her uncle bedridden was the reason); a woman’s direct, personal perspective who felt having a child helped a woman ‘feel complete’ (she had a child); a true story told by a well-known Kannada writer in Kannada about a woman who, unable to conceive herself, had thrown her ōragitti‘s (ಓರಗಿತ್ತಿ), i.e. co-sister’s newborn down a well; the idea – universal in its scope – of the ‘woman as field‘, who, like a field, could expect nothing less than indifference and disdain if she was ‘unproductive’; stories of the subtle and unsubtle jabs a woman could face from her in-laws for not being able to conceive; the story of a friend – only 25 or so at the time but already married for over a year – who, upon asking her mother what she wanted for her birthday, was told that a ‘grandchild’ would be best possible gift; stories about men choosing (or being told to) make a second marriage because their wife couldn’t conceive; the account by a childless woman – who’d taken years to come to terms with her childlessness – about the impending arrival of her friends’ grandchildren and her helplessness regarding the feeling of loss that (she feared) was bound to return.

Note: The ‘quarantine’ mentioned in the poem is a practice followed to this day in parts of India (and, very likely, in several other places where science is forced to genuflect before tradition). It is the practice of ‘social distancing’, of banishing a menstruating woman (or several menstruating women) to an “outhouse” until they are done bleeding and are no longer considered ‘undefiled’ or ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’. Not surprisingly, the conditions in this “outhouse” are unsanitary and dangerous. Rising female education and awareness campaigns are helping the situation improve, but I remember a newspaper report from about a year or two ago that spoke of the death of one such banished woman. It’s past time such atrocity was stopped.

By the way, I think it worth noting that such vilification and ostracization of women is not in any way peculiar to India. Like I say here, woman has been discriminated against by man – in some way or the other – in every culture around the world. Within the present context, it is illuminating to note the origin of the word hysteria or even the original meaning of the word menstruate. (‘A Brief History of Misogyny’ by Jack Holland offers more detail.)

P.S: This is one of my favourites among the poems I’ve written. It’s also one I’m proud of.

Lines Begun After Sundown

All sadness does not lead to song,
all gloom cànnot make a poem;
there is too much sadness in the world
for that, and too much gloom.

Most misery cannot be told,
most torment cannot shed a tear;
they lie simply in the breast:
wordless, soundless, unremarked.

Let them live there if they must,
do not mine them for a song;
there is sorrow beyond reach —
to speak of it would be wrong.

Sing, instead, some happy song
you listened to when you were young;
let all immured sorrow know —
outside there is delighting.


(written ca. late 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

When The Heart Blooms (or Why Poetry?)

Because –
is it not enough if poetry
can make you happy
and push the borders of the heart
a líttle further apart
so that the joy that grips the soul,
(a joy that cannot be told),
turns the rhythm
of the breath into a hum
ming bird, that shooting like a charge
throughout the blood
both fills and floods
the being with a boundless surge.


(written ca. 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

The Dancer Asks

And let me dánce, Natarāja*
to the rhythm of your drum;
and let me flów, Natarāja,
like Gangé* from your locks;
and let my límbs spread smóothly
and my waíst slide shyly
and my ánklets tinkle
and my brácelets jingle
and my sáree rustle
to the echóes of your drum*.


(written in 2015)

Glossary:

1. naṭarāja — literally, king of dance but perhaps better translated as ‘Lord of Dance’. An appellation of Shiva’s, one of Hinduism’s major gods. His dance – the cosmic tāṇḍava – can be various and can signal both creation and destruction. The joyful form of his dance is the ānanda tāṇḍava.

2. gangé — the way Gangā, Hindu culture’s most sacred river, is written and pronounced in Kannada. Here’s some more detail about the mythology concerning Shiva and Gangé.

3. drum — the ḍamaru is Shiva’s “drum”, one he uses to keep time during his cosmic tāṇḍava. A mythological story tells of how the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are the sounds that emerged from Shiva’s drum as he danced his dance of creation.

Lament

My words of verse are not like ráin
stréaming from a water-burdened cloud;
nor like the blossom on the vine-tip
that fálls and reaches the ground
despite the absence of a wind.
Nor like the green ringlet that peeps
out from the seed-born stem;
nor even like the little bird
whose wings outspread
of their own accórd.
I seek instead for similes,
search nature with deliberate eyes,
(wearing a poet’s disguise),
to find and praise what must
be praised; what does not rust
(with words that I to rhyme entrust).
Yet all the while I wish so much
to write like I were heaven-touched.


(written ca. September 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

Happiness

happiness’s
a gulmòhar flower
cáught in the crosshairs of the sun
guarded by drawn-leaves of green
shaded by the blue of sky
within a wreath of wind;
happiness’s
the rising wave
crested by a froth of white
washing onto watered-shore
mágicked by the purple shell of sea;
happiness’s
the sunset-sky
coloured by the spilling bow of rain
mòving asymptotically;
happiness’s
a wickly-flame
casting shadows of its warmly light
into a halfly dark;
happiness’s
the koeling bird
rousing the pitchness of the night
into the daying light;
happiness’s
the well of words
flowing over heartly kerbs
to flood the paging white


(written on June 9, 2019)