A Covid Trilogy

NOTE: If you reading this on your phone, do hold it horizontally to ensure proper scansion. Better still, read it on a tablet or a computer.

Almost two years have passed since Covid upended all our lives. However, it’s spanned three (calendar) years – 2020, 2021, and 2022. Here are three poems I’ve written about what may be the world’s first true pandemic. Incidentally, each one was written in a different calendar year. Beneath each poem, I have mentioned the approx. date it was written on and the circumstance that prompted me to write it.

1. 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’s 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’s their only disruption),
that 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 can it say and do to remain
relevant? 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; inexorable.
At 93 years old, it’s hard to say she wasn’t due –
though the suddenness of her passing 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 both your dignities.)
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 not be late.
(On the obverse side, marriages 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 it limits too –
even the best dictators can control
just other men and their families.

Exaggeration’s 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 distress only so much.
Remember Yudhishṭira’s answer to 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.’

(Written on June 18-19, 2020, a little while after the first lockdown had ended and restrictions had been relaxed. The well-wisher I mention at the poem’s beginning is Aruna. Without her prompting, it’s unlikely this poem would have been written at all. I later revised the poem a fair bit on August 20, 2020.)

*****

2. Covid – Reprise (2021)

This lockdown’s lifted me up closer to
the sun; I no longer walk half-empty
roads and come home with some flowers for ma.
I stride, instead, upon the terrace stone,
the evening sun treks up my bare brown hands;
across, a boy grows fat on photographs.

The “second wave” they say; I’ve walked into
the sea and had the waves wash over me –
then watched them break upon the shore.
But covid’s second’s been a wave of grief –
rising – stumbling – tumbling, it’s broken on
the shore of life, the wet it’s left’s the wet of tears.

The gulmohar’s flowers are red again outside;
this time they do not seem like happiness.

(Written on June 12, 2021, almost exactly a year since the first poem and towards the end of the quite-deadly ‘second wave’ that began around late March, 2021. Again, it was an acquaintance I’d shared the first poem with who wondered if I’d considered writing a ‘sequel’ poem, in light of the devastation the second wave had wreaked. By the time I wrote this, I too had ‘first-hand’ experience, with at least two people I’d known well – a relative and a friend’s mother – having died from (what was alleged to be) covid. And I was hardly the only one. Naturally then, I considered writing another longish poem that incorporated these events…events that, in some ways, made the first poem seem a lot less “prescient” than it might have been when I wrote it. I think though that I felt there like there was too much to say…and ended up writing a sonnet instead.)

*****

3. Corona & Curfew – Twenty Twenty Two

It’s hard to stay afraid indefinitely;
especially when, looking round and thinking
for yourself, you fail to see what’s dangerous.
It’s not like being on a makeshift raft at sea,
jostled above the waters vast, aware fully
that deadly creatures swim beneath your feet;
it feels, instead, like being on a nearby street;
around you mills humdrum humanity.

It’s Jan again in Bangalore – the rain is gone;
the sky is blue, some trees are green, some flowery;
the sunlight’s calling like a therapy.
Corona, though, is off again; playing,
like a maestro, its variations on a theme.
In thrall to it, the world-mind’s stuck in loop;
testing – vaccines – protests – lockdown – curfew.

But you are sick (though not to death) of this,
this virus-string whose strains keep playing on;
for all you’d like to do after two torrid years
is wallow, bison-like, within the sunshine’s warmth,
forgetting about both delta and omicron;
stupid tags for a virus of Chinese origin.

And now the evening sky is filled with chirping sounds,
the orange sun falls slowly towards the horizon –
you love how you can look upon on its brilliant glow;
and though the curfewed streets are pleasant silently,
your mind goes to the bustle that it knew so well,
a bustle that boosted spirits like an arm-prick never will.

(Written between January 12-14, 2022, not long after the announcement that a “weekend curfew” would once again be implemented in Bengaluru. Having begun the year by going to watch a play and catch up with some friends on January 1 and looking forward to more such meetings in the new year, I reckon the frustration that the authorities had once again decided to let covid dictate our lives was what prompted me to write this. However, with the omicron strain spreading through the populace with the speed of a common cold – and, thankfully, with much less deadliness than the delta strain – I sincerely hope we are finally ready to “live with covid”…and that I will not be required to add another poem to the trilogy.)

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

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.

I want my poetry

to be as real as the fight between hot-headed boys
who are really truly angry;

to speak the language of the street
and the music of the flute
(and even mix them cleverly);

to learn to walk before it learns to run;

to run with the rhythm
and hunt with the rhyme –
idiomatically;

to echo – sound – resound
and then move on rather than wait
until a rhyming word comes by;

to look around and see
the tree – the dog – the smoking man – the fly
(and simply smile and let them be);

to play with English like a favourite toy –
(wind it up and send it forth
then leap in front and change its path
because it wants a rhyme for bath);

to see the world through others’ eyes –
then, opening its own, seek originality;

to be best friends with the dictionary;

to learn to wait,
to learn that it need not hurry;

to metaphor and simile
(but if it can’t, then just to say
the sky is blue and blood is red);

to sign a clause of non-compete
with other poetry
(and be so many different ships
upon a plural seas);

to feel it’s free to turn to prose
when it wants a break or clarity;

to skip article –
unironically

to go out in the sun and feel its warmth
and simply stretch all lazily;

to try its best to find
its way to self-express
and when it’s done (or hasn’t done) –
sleep happily;

to be simple and straight and free
(and shun the comfort of trickery);

to know that it’s all right to
watch the moon’s light silently;

to find a way to make Kannada Englishy –
and English a kannaḍi*

to make sure to think for itself –
and not just jump into chaḷuvaḷis*;

to know that poetry, like knowledge,
is replenished
by giving and by taking;

to speak the truth it knows,
to feel lucky to be free;

to be and being make me
be.


(written in Feb 2020)

Glossary:

1. kannaḍi — the word for “mirror” in Kannada

2. chaḷuvaḷi — a Kannada word with meanings like agitation, revolution, movement, etc.

He Dreams of Dreaming

Spine straight as pine, breath slight as breeze, he sits
at ease, legs folded like some ancient sage.
He dreams of all the world’s infinities
that men of every age have tried to gauge.

Once wild as toppling cataract,
his mind’s now tranquil as a tree;
but to reach for eternity, he knows
those grand, sinuous roots must be set free.

Light floods over light as the mind dissolves
into an oyster-pearly, sea-foam white;
The soundless skies embrace the sounding seas
and all his eyes can see is bright.

Something wákes and walks him to the shore;
he strides now on the bottom of the sea.


(written in 2012)

For more about the poem, see notes.