When afternoon sun dripped lemon
yellow over charcoal black trees
and there was deception in the air
they knew it was time to go,
to move out of the double helix
of anger and inheritance.
In time they would be sighted
in faraway towns as waiters, porters,
wayside vendors, smalltime crooks.
One even made a name for himself
as a dog-catcher.
They were all given to sudden bouts of sadness.
But they were the ones who remembered
the village as it always was.
It unspooled before their eyes like a black and white
film: a swollen body slits open the slimy
green of the village pond, the afternoon
sun drips lemon yellow over charcoal
black trees and there is deception in the air.... more »
You have to look beyond the pigment
of paint to a point where the familiar falls away.
The trauma of the real cannot be tracked further.
Falling figures across the barbed wire
of a diagonal line: faces ignited
with the frenzy of fire-walkers.
A river is struck off the map with cranes,
pillars and dynamite.
A mob with petrol
bombs moves deeper into the eyes of a man
frozen in fear, his hands folded.
This is how the linear world turns in on itself.
And this is when you long
for the script of the slanted rain on the plains
to tell you the difference between a prayer
and a false affidavit.... more »
A Ghazal for Agha Shahid Ali
I hold on to your words like a child lost in transit,
The gestures of bodies invisibly marked "lost in transit".
You claim the land with the lens of your lines,
Give no name to it, when memories defrost in transit.
Echoes fill the frozen lake in the valley. The snowman
Moves up the mountains, like a ghost in transit.
In the big, bad wolf's tale retold, you speak of perfect
Timing: every secret agent has to pay the cost in transit.
The vigil has turned into a wake. Are birds killed
In civil wars martyrs? Why should they roast in transit?
A new script unwinds backstage as an actor breaks out of
His own last words: hell disowns this Faust in transit.
You moved houses but we still track you down to your
Dwellings. It is to home that we travellers toast in transit.
We are stranded. Bring us news, Shahid. Please stand guard
As we cross these war zones' wild outposts in transit.... more »
The cobbler sits under the neem, mending
shoes, humming to himself, unmindful
of the day coming to a close. I watch his
elegant hands weave in and out of my tattered
shoes. The pan-shop radio splutters into sudden
life: Gorbachev has resigned. Yeltsin
assumes control of the commonwealth.
The cobbler threads the frayed ends of
worn-out joints. He restores a sense of shape
to the ruins of my journeys from the plains
of Deccan to the palm-shade of my village.
I am glad he has given my trespasses.
Through the tip of his needle, the highways
of the homeland are stitched back into a map
of return journeys, ready for use.
Now the shoes belong to the road, to the vagaries
of the weather. The clamour of crows sucks up
the last drops of daylight. As he gets up to leave
he looks into the shimmering lights of this port-city
as someone about to renounce the world. He knows
at this very hour someone is stepping into history
with the prescience of a new pair of shoes.... more »
TERMS OF SEEING
On our way home from school
We often spent hours in that abandoned
Orchard of mango, cashewnut
And tamarind trees, where each season had
Its fruit and each fruit tasted different.
There we raided the hidden hideouts
Of bootleggers, and broke their buried
Mud-pots. The crematorium in the corner
Revealed an occasional roasted vertebra.
Once we went further and discovered
A disused well, and peeped into its
Vaporous depths: the water smelt like freshly
Distilled alcohol. Through the clotted branches
Of close-knit shadows floated white
Turtles with glazed, metallic shells.
Moving with monastic grace, they looked
Knowledgeable, like much travelled witchcraft
Doctors. If they cast a spell, it was
Unintentional. As we bent down, their
Shaven heads rose and met a shaft of sudden
Sunlight at an angle, tilting the sun
Into the sea. Still, the light lingered over the hill
Like an intimate whisper of something
Forbidden. By this time, the terms of seeing
Were reset: the well was watching us now.
Its riveted gaze pierced us and even went
Beyond us. In the dark cornea of the well
The white turtles moved like exposed optic nerves.
And as if a word was spoken, we stepped
Back into the world of gravity, in silence.... more »
THE TAMARIND TREE
You are the nearest we ever had
to a native manifesto.
An annual convention of parrots
on the sea-routes of the sky.
In your book of beginnings,
an earthworm speaks of how the rain began.
Your roots exhumed bodies from ponds.
Our past has never been the same.
You meet the south-west monsoon
on equal terms, in an uprising of rain.
Like a parenthesis that pre-empts the sentence,
you are a parallel world of slowness and light.... more »
THE UNWRITTEN SEQUENCE
Reader, this is the story of a sequence
I very much wanted to write:
An unwed mother
gives birth to twins:
a precocious child
who grows up to be a leader of people
and a mentally retarded one given to wandering naked.
The mother grieves for
the gifted and cares for the dimwitted.
Her agony is great but the whole village stands by her.
The weaver, the farmer,
the healer, the barber, the mason
and the carpenter were to be portrayed in detail.
There is also a policeman
who goes in search of the absconding
leader and returns with his missing brother.
Finally, and this was to be the climax,
the leader is killed in what looks like
a fake encounter.
At the burial,
The dimwitted brother wears a shirt
for the first time in his life.
I could never complete the sequence.
Perhaps what I knew of the weaver,
the farmer, the healer, the barber,
the mason and the carpenter was not
adequate or what I knew of the police-
man exceeded the needs of the poem.
I could never decide whether I was with
the precocious and the gifted
or with the dimwitted and the lost.... more »