Monday, December 27, 2010

Spring

In this sun-weary city
December is spring
When we like to shiver
In the cold air,
Find use for the sweater
Buried under the pile of summer wear,
For once in the year
Not complaining
About the weather,
Sitting up at night
Listening to the silence
Like to an unearthly song
When even the dog's barking
Seems like singing,
Then wishing one could sleep longer
Letting the dream run some more
Keeping the day waiting at the door,
Looking with pleasure
At the noiseless shower
Coming from somewhere
And trying to make things disappear.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Racist

The skin colour
Is what
You are born with
It is not something
You can choose
Off the rack
Like a shirt,
The lighter
Your complexion is
The vainer you are
You crow
"I'm so fair
That everyone
Thinks I'm high-caste"
Making the dark-skinned
Blanch as if they have sinned
No wonder they want
To skin you alive.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Moon, kite and wind

The wind
Loosens
The moon
Trapped
In the tree
Watching this
The boy
Wonders
Why it cannot
Free his kite;
Only the wind knows
It is tired
Of the sky
And other kites.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hunger

It is something
That throws a tantrum
Every few hours
Like a child
So angry
Because he is so hungry
That he cannot wait
Cries and kicks the air
Before the bottle can be sterilised
Before it can be filled
And he can be fed;
I cannot howl
My head off
Like him
As I break into a sweat
And fall
Upon my food
Like an animal,
Taking bigger and bigger morsels
Literally fighting
With this unseen beast
Bucking me around like a bull
High on arrack,
Before the fire is finally fought
I can feel my heart thud
Like during a fever ---
I know why the poet
Seeing the empty pot
Wanted to set
Something on fire.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mother

I was afraid,
The eyes were
Like someone else's
The band came off
Leaving the hair
Like that of the ghosts
In the stories she told
The vermilion
Was wiped off the forehead
The voice turned harsh
Like a man's
Or like someone
Who's caught a bad cold
It was as if the weather
Had suddenly turned stormy
Just inside our house
A local phenomenon
Like the Met office would say ---
The little girl in pigtails
Left me that day

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Witch-hunting

I thought the witches
Were all dead
That they had been dismembered
And buried so far apart
That they wouldn't
Resurrect themselves.
It seems they vanished
Only to reappear,
As the daughter-in-law
Who worked her magic
To make the son quit smoking,
As the doctor
Who drove the devil away
From the neighbour
With just a month of medication,
As the single woman
Who showed she could live
Happily without a man,
As the teacher
Who taught the students
To question God's existence,
As the actor
Who advocated love with protection
Knowing the young no longer
Wait till the wedding night,
As the poet
Who spoke of the tug of lust
Instead of a longing for the divine,
As the dissident
Who cried foul
When her country
Waged a war
On its poor ---
How I wish I could say
They have cast such a spell on the world
That they are not
Tortured, exiled or torched anymore.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New arrival

Every time I wake up
When he howls with hunger
I cannot believe
I have at last a child
To take care of
Not born to me
Not my blood,
Where his parents are
I do not know
I silently thank them
For giving me this gift
But I can hardly wait for the day
When he will call out to me
And I will be reborn.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Democracy

The leader's darshan
Is not easily had
You must learn to wait
Before you enter
The shrine
You must remind yourself
Not to meet the eye
Supplicants cannot do that
Better you tie your shawl
Around your waist
Cross your arms
Keep one hand across your mouth
Lest you talk out of turn
If you do not mind it
Do not swear by self-respect
You can fall at the feet
Those who surrender
Are those who are saved.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Artificial

You do not have
To water them
Hunt for manure
Keep them in the sun
Look out for the buds
Pluck the flowers
Before they fall
Before someone else gets them,
They will never grow, fade, wither or die
If you have to leave them in a hurry
You will not have to worry or feel sorry.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Estranged

The house is still there
If you want to go, you know where
It is where we came from
Where we huddled in
Against the wind
I go in and look at them
Reenact for me
What we've been
What we've seen
Some names I do not know
They may even have died
There is this scene
Of two children
Huddled inside warm blankets
Cosy on the cot,
Hearing the thunder crash
The wind shaking the doors
Like a wild beast
Yet they are hardly frightened
For mother is cooking something hot
And father is on his reclining chair.
There are four of us
In that scene
Now, only I am left
If you go there
Maybe, you'll find your way here
Then there will be two of us left.

Sibling

As I step out
Of the shop
Three carry bags
In either hand
I cannot but
Think of you
Three years elder
Now light years away...
Our shopping done
You used to say in jest then
Looking in either direction
Loud enough
For every one to hear
"Where's the driver?
He's never here
When you want him!"
I was helpless with laughter
As we did not have a car...
As I trudge to the bus-stop
I wonder if you have one now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Survival

I cannot go out
Like I used to
On household chores
Or social visits
Swinging my hands
Taking just my wallet
Hopping from bus to bus
Travelling long distances
Just a coffee or two midway
With the past
A remembered song
And the passing scenes
For company.
Now I need a knapsack
With water, snacks or fruits
To nourish me on the way
The fear of hunger
Shadowing me like a pickpocket.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Last wish

You do not expect
The old to die suddenly
Or you would heed their words.
When you see what they have become
You know what you'll become
If you live that long,
You silently wish
You do not last that long
As if exits can be obtained
Like a bill from the waiter.
You did not expect her
To have any desire left
For someone who denied herself
Good clothes, flowers and jewellery
After her first child died.
During her rambling monologue
About people she only referred to
As he and she,
"I always wanted to wear that one
What she came to visit us in"
She suddenly said
To no one in particular
"Buy me a blue silk saree
With double-side border!"
She was not very insistent,
Though the saree was frequently mentioned.
There were other wishes
To be fulfilled
Of others who were not old
But who cannot be so told,
She finally had her wish
But only on her bier,
So, remember
The old can die suddenly
And it could be your mother.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The sky

Once you draw the curtains
You can shut out
The spotless road
The green lawns
The strange trees
The faces so dazzlingly pink
The hair the colour of hay,
You can still feel
You are in mom's place
In your country of birth
Looking at
The objets d'art
Brought from home
Or listening on ipod
To the rustic voice
That breathes of jasmine and neem
Something you can never grow out of
Though you have shed the city
You grew up on the other side of the earth
And shed friends,causes, icons, and passions
Along the way,
If you still feel alone
You can look up at the sky
And tell yourself
You are still on earth
Under the same sky.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Power

Like the child which goes to bed
With his new shoes on
I turned in for the night
With the day still switched on
All the suns I had seen
Kept rising and setting in my head
Seas I had never seen
Swelled and crashed on my shores
Colours like in a saree shop
Swirled like smoke before me
The hundreds of trees
I had swished by
Marched as if in a rally
The red soil stretching to the skyline
Looked hungry for more blood
Goats bleating yes, yes and yes
Stepped off the road
As our motorcade passed,
I slept with my shoes on
Smiling at the heads nodding.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Monologue

Am I talking to you?
If you understand
What I'm saying
You may be the one
I am talking to
Wherever you are
Though others may think
I am talking to myself
Because they are yet
To pass where I've passed,
If they have overheard a little
And remember what they have heard
When they arrive there
They'll know what I've said.
Those who've loved and been requited
Those who've loved and gone unloved
Those who've loved only gods and goddesses
Cry like only the betrayed can
Finding they've been abandoned
Like all others,
When they know, they wish
They had not learnt
Something as bitter as this
At the last breath.

2
When you wake up
In the strange place
The sun rises on the wrong side
The neem tree is not at the window
The wall colour is something else
The distance to the door is different.
When you were travelling
The trees, houses, places
Thoughts, images, kept coming
Closer, then receded
Then everything was swept out
As far as the skyline
And there was very little left of you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Matrimony

What kind of boy
Does the girl want?
Handsome, fair-skinned
Highly paid professional
Owning house, car, property
Parents preferably dead
Single child
Knows to cook
Loves to do
Household chores
Respects in-laws
Doesn't mind hosting them
As long as they want
Asks no questions like
How much she spends
Why she turns in late
Let's her do as she pleases
And always says
My mate, right or wrong.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Walls

Walls can move
Come closer or recede
Fall in or keep away
Change sides
Go to sleep in front
Wake up in the back
Wail, smile, laugh
Listen, pout, stare back,
As they have not long seen paint
Reveal where you rest your head
Opposite the pin-up posters
Of your dream-girl, your dream-bat,
Tell you when they seep
How heavy the rain has been
When you come in
From the storm
Close the door
Look at their familiar faces
You are grateful to them
For what they keep out
As much as what they keep in.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Stories

I wonder where they were
Before they came to
In those unforgettable books.
All those characters
So real that their tears sting
And eyes still shine
The school boy
Standing alone on a railway platform
Unable to bid goodbye
To an estranged friend
He may never see again
The father who wanted to be well-liked
Dying unloved and heart-broken
His great dream turning out to be a big lie
The woman who pretended to be in love
But only wanted the man to hurt,
When the end came
You did not want it to end
Though you knew stories never end
Only they are not all told.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Between cities

When I travelled
Between the two cities
I used to know where home was
I could tell you
Where I was returning to
Where I was leaving for
I could sigh with relief
That I was back
To my dialect and dust
When the temple towers
Bobbed into view
As the train chugged in.
It all ended
When my daughter
And grand-daughter
Relocated to the other city
What can I tell you now
Am I coming home
Or going home?

Gods in the way

When I saw you I became blind

To the world, lost my tongue

When you spoke, stood still

If you walked

Forgot where I was going

As you crossed

The smiles you tossed I caught

And stored in my heart

Sighed I couldn't walk by your side

Share what you thought and sought

Yet when you entered temples to pray

I knew I had to walk away

For your gods came in the way

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Childless

In our minds
You are still the child
Throwing a tantrum
When we visited your place,
Only when we see you now
We know how old we are,
Even when we enquired about you
With our common friends
It was always
"How's the child!"
Not realising that
So many years had passed
Refusing to admit
You were in college
Or that you were working
Or that you were married
Or that you had children
Of your own
Perhaps wanting time to freeze
In our best moments
Where you will forever be the child
Where we will be just married
Looking forward to the addition
To the family
That never arrived.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Night

There is a night
You do not want to end
Like the one before you leave your home
For the wedding with a stranger
Knowing it will never return,
You cannot sleep,
You do not want to,
Sitting all by yourself
In your room
With a slight tremble
Wondering what you are
Letting yourself into
Wondering why you cannot go on
As you have been so far
In the little corner of the world
You have made into a paradise
The walls lovingly decked up with your own hand
Funny stickers, hangings, flowers
The colour scheme your very own
A sanctum very few were allowed into --
You wished you could go to sleep
And wake up years after
Still the same
But on a happy night
You did not want to end.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Evening

If you have lived
In a place for long
And wait for your daily bus
At a particular stop
Sometimes you don't know
If it is yesterday or today
Especially if you are setting out
When the birds are coming home
It is as if you are caught
Between day and night,
You try to remember
What number you took the previous evening
Whether you switched routes
Got down at the signal
Walked to work
What time you logged out
Trying to find certainty
In what you've done
Then think the better of it,
What is there to recall in routine
When one day is just like another?
Out of sheer habit
You look over your left shoulder
At the ageless mango tree
Beautifully silhoutted
Behind the hardwares shop
And watch almost with an ache
A weary crow land on a darkening branch.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Time

It never gets done
When you think it's done
Dawns come too fast
Tumbling over one another
Like children.
Before the dreams arrive
The alarm goes off
Like a wakeful child
Wanting company.
The broom seems
To have hardly left your hand
When you picked it up
So many years ago
To help your mother.
How nice it would be
To sweep time away
Like this
And draw a new kolam
After your heart.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mullai

I must be carrying in me the silence
Of the forests
My forefathers have lived off
Tended their cattle by
Keeping an eye out
For the striped man-eater
Too old or injured to hunt its natural prey.
I must have a memory somewhere
Of the fragrance of flowers
No hand has plucked
No woman has worn
No deity has been offered
I must know the calls of strange animals
And songs of birds no more seen
And may even have died.
I may have once sat entranced
Under a tree
Listening to the flute
That only a god could have played.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Success

When your child triumphantly says
She has secured the 34th rank
In a class of 35
She doesn't know that
Sometimes more is less
And she shouldn't feel sorry
For her friend
Who has got only the first rank.
Soon she is taught that her best friend
Is her arch rival and she must catch up with her
That only podium finishes matter
That to be 'also ran'
Is something shameful
That the 'joy of participation'
Is a loser's line
That to fail is to lose
The love of those you love
And make them cry
Like you have died.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ghosts

The dead flit in and out
Of our daily lives
They follow us
Live with us
Years after, generations together
Evoking memories
In the shape of a nose
In a gait, posture or colour of eyes
Some still blessed for the riches shared
Many hated for their foibles
Travelling with the genes
Things you cannot break off
Some cursed again and again
With eternal damnation
By the heirs
For the diseases bequeathed
For their implacable hatred
That has driven progeny
To distant climes
Where they still live
Like ghosts
In shimmering limbos

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The window

At the time
When girls were
Not allowed to be seen
Confined to the kitchen
And the backyard
Till they were married off
They saw the world
Only through the window
They lived in the dark
Moved in the shadows
If they had to come to the front door
They had to switch off the lights
Many hardly went out
Did not know
What it looked like
Beyond their street
Where the railway station was
What a train looked like
What it ran on
Where it went
They only knew that
It travelled
Long distances
Visited new places
And envied it for that.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Visitor in the dream

I woke up and found my father
Rummaging among his things
Like he used to
When he was alive
When it was too early
For him to be up
When there was no need to
As he had retired long back
And had the whole day
Ahead of him
To search for anything.
He apparently did not find
What he was looking for
As usual cursed mother and me
For the way we messed up things
How difficult it was
To find anything in this house
Where what was lost remained lost.
Was he looking for something
He did not remember
As he often did
Hoping to remember, as he went along?
He emptied the bookshelf
The drawers
The suitcase
Keeping the light on
As we tried to sleep
Without uttering any words I told him
"I'll search for whatever it is you want
In the morning, now let me sleep."
He didn't listen
Only muttered, without turning
"Some things disappear with first light
You can find them only at night."
Suddenly he turned, his face still young
Whispered in my ear
"One of our clan
Bare-handed killed a tiger
When it attacked him,
Then dragged it to the village
All the way from the side of the canal
Where he fought it.
He refused the cash award
For his valour
Instead secured the title Tiger Alwar
For himself and his descendants.
I'd written down his original name somewhere
I can't find it."
When I woke up, he was gone.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Predictions

Mary came to me
Before any class exam
Pleading that I choose
The chapters she must study,
She had immense faith
In my divining abilities.
"Your tongue is full of black dots
Such people have mystic powers!"
I couldn't disabuse her of her superstition
As luck would have it
I had picked out the right lessons
The first time
Making her my ardent devotee.
She was very deferential to me
Afraid I would curse her,
Like those ancient rishis
Quick to take offence
And swift on the draw.
I never did that
I played the angel
We had read of,
Forever granting boons
Wishing people well
Saying nice things
And watching their faces bloom
Invoking a shower of petals
And set flowing
A river of smiles.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reflections

It was so funny
The face staring back at me
In the shop mirror
The bags under the eyes ill-concealed
The streaks of grey in the thinning hairline
The waistline with a will of its own
The eyes not too bad
But needing focal correction
The shop was full of people like me
And my college mate
Looking with envy at the new designs
Only their daughters could wear
It seemed like the night had arrived early --
As if the heroine roles
Had been taken away from us unfairly
And elderly roles forced on us
When in our mind we were still in college
Poking fun at our ageing teachers
Who resented our hairdo and wear ---
As we caught ourselves
Looking at our unflattering reflections
Shamima nudged me
"What will our former admirers say
If they see us now!"
We were back in the campus again
Laughing at our ageless memories.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A dog's life

I am glad for you
That you have got a leg-up
And a hefty raise to go with it
A private vehicle to drive you around
To make you feel important
Removed from the rest
I guess, you have to be away from home longer
Tethered to the phone more
Keep awake even when your eyes cry for sleep
It'll soon get to be so
You'll feel like a slave
Existing solely for your master
Who never seems to be satisfied
With what you're doing
And keeps cracking the whip
And wants you to run faster
Jump faster, and bark louder.
You soon start feeling like a dog
Looking to please and loving the attention
Tirelessly wagging the tail
I know, I have been through the hoop too.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Scary

I need a list now
To go to the provisions store
I can't remember
More than three items at a time
I'll buy the monkey mark appalam
Instead of the broom of the same brand
Forget the oil,
Then have to make another trip.
Even when I have written them all down
The shopkeeper can miss one or two
Forcing me to visit again.
("Thank you, but not so soon!")
I have better luck with the vegetables
Once the menu is decided
I can bring home the ingredients
All by myself, without any prompting.
Suddenly a scary thought arises
What if I can't remember who I am
Do not know
Where to go
How to speak or write
When I am somewhere
Surrounded by strangers.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Immortality

Don't believe the man
Who says he has no desire left
That he has no regret
That he has packed his bags
Ready to board the last train.
Watch his eyes leap to life
When a pretty woman passes him
The flicker of smile
On his lips
The dip into a secret memory.
Speaking for myself
I still want to be young
Though I know I cannot
I envy the youth
Who can still hope
For whatever they want
Look forward to everything.
There is plenty of time left
The friendship can still be mended
The house built
The job changed
The love declared
The apologies made
The forgiveness sought
The debts paid,
Will the elixir be found
In my time
So that I can go on and on?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Travelling alone

When travelling alone
For the first time
I was at the railway station
An hour ahead
Sat on the platform bench
With the suitcase
Between the legs
Looking suspiciously
At everyone passing by
Or sitting beside me
Imagination running wild
With scenes of being mugged
And wallet, bag snatched
Though on second thoughts
It was obvious
That a thief worth his salt
Would feel ashamed to rob me
Go to all that trouble
For a change of clothes
And a purse
With more pictures of gods and goddesses
Than Gandhi notes.
So after ruling out
The threat of robbery
It required relentless questioning
Of passersby, officials and semi-officials
To confirm what time
The train arrived
On which platform
When it departed
What to do in case you got down midway
And the train left you
While you were filling your bottle with water
As seen so often in the movies.
I didn't know why all of them
Were smiling at my questions.
I want to try out a plane sometime soon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Transit

Long after the journey
Has ended
The feet are stll walking
In the distant hill
Where you even waited for the mist to lift
To catch a glimpse of the city
You wished you need not have to go back to
Pointing excitedly at the landmarks seen --
Patches of green and brown
The river merely a puddle
Foreshortened tiled buildings
Interspersed with a few taller ones
The temple towers distinct
The cow hill and the elephant hill
Looking a little out of focus.
It takes a while
For the eyes to revert
From the cottages, slopes and valleys
To the traffic, tumult and dust
For the ears to shrug off the train and bird song
For the lungs to stop aching for rain
The damp air and the smell of greenery.
It's like being in a half-way house
Half-dreaming and half-awake
But on Monday morning
When the alarm rings
You are fully awake
The kitchen light is on
And the cooker is whistling again.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A silent wind

Every time we made the train journey
To where my father grew up
I never wanted it to end.
It was fun to watch the trees run
With you and stand panting
Unable to catch up with you
The explanation that they were still
And it was only you moving
Seemed like the lie adults usually tell.
The wind played with you
As you sat by the window
Filling your sleeves
And keeping it fluttering like a flag
You wondered if the unseen friend
Was the same that flew your kites
Would they believe you
If you told them
You could hear him laughing?
The wind doesn't laugh anymore
For you have grown up
And the others have got off.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Classroom

That was where I found myself
When teaching, I learnt
What I didn't know
Facing questions
We were never allowed to ask.
I never pretended
To know everything,
Promised to come back
With the answers.
The doubts were signs
That the children were listening,
Thinking, trying to break through,
It was like lighting candles in the dark
To watch the light spread
And the sparkle in the faces
Was like chancing upon
A bush full of glow worms
When trudging homeward
All alone at night.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Illusion

This world is not an illusion
For millions, who would wish it were.
When they wake up
They find it is still there
Cannot be wished away
Folded like the mat
And put away in the corner
Brushed, gargled away.
They would wish
Hunger was a passing ache
That would disappear
Without a pang
Money just paper
Not really needed
To keep you afloat
In a world
Where more and more things
Vanish into thin air
Jobs, houses, people
Races, languages, siblings
Parents, lovers, gods, leaders,
Trees on the roadside
Vendors on the pavement
Farmers from villages
Girl children still in the womb
Like the smile when you visit
Like the scars shown no more
Like the tears
No longer shed
Like the alms
Which are no more given
Like hope
No more offered
To someone
Looking for a rope.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Iconoclast

If anybody deserves
To be remembered
It is he, the iconoclast
Who broke idols
To exorcise the fear
They held for the slaves
Who had been told
On the authority of books
Claimed to have been revealed
That it was fate that put them in chains
To punish them for their sins
And if they behaved
Doing the roles
Assigned to them by birth
They could move up the ladder
Before being liberated
From the vicious cycle
Of birth and death.

Kings

If you knew
How many died
Building this temple,
Went hungry
To feed its ritual fires,
How many women were enslaved
As the deity's consort,
You wouldn't want to enter it,
The king of kings
Praised to the skies
For its erection
Would lose his halo.
You would stand no more
Marvelling at the tower
Built to glorify god and emperor
No more than you would
The sky-scraping shopping malls
Paying homage to Mammon.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Retirement

The day after
My father began acting strangely
Woke up at dawn
For the first time
In twenty years --
I know, I get up early
To be ahead in my studies --
Then went out for a walk
Came back in an hour
Made his own coffee
Created such a ruckus in the kitchen
That my mother who goes to bed at 1 a.m.
After washing the vessels
And tidying up
Got up in alarm,
Only to be greeted
With a warm cuppa.
"Are you allright?"
She asked anxiously.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hands

While waiting for the bus
Standing in the public gaze
You feel like a stage actor
Who doesn't know
What to do with her hands.
Being a girl
The fingers keep
Adjusting the half-sari
All the time
Conscious of prying eyes.
When wearing a salwar
It is the stole
You keep worrying.
If it is the unplaited hair
Made famous by female film ghosts
Keeping the ears free of it
Makes you feel less awkward
Till transport arrives.
The cell phone is a godsend
For the hand-conscious
You can clutch it to your ear
And engage all you want
In real or imaginary conversations.

Book

This book stops me at the door
Like in a club
Enforcing a skin code
Dress code or whatever.
After a few pages
The link is lost
Like in my computer
Which blocks me often
Saying this page
Is not available or something.
It is much praised
By the cognoscenti
Who look down upon
Those who have not read it.
When I press my friend
Who knows about these things
For directions
He tells me loftily
"You cannot, if it will not.!"
After several attempts
Like reading from the end
Beginning in the middle
And trying to work my way
First left and then right
I finally gave up.
However I do not confess
Anymore like I used to.
Everytime I look at it
Lying with a supercilious smile
In the shelf
I avert my eyes.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shop talk

I tag along
Without much zest
Shaking my head
Looking in vain
For a place to rest
In that mall
Called the Shoppers Ball.
I think of their overflowing wardrobe
As my grandchildren go on a binge
Buying more and more
Of the same, I think.
"No thatha, this is a new brand
And the rage in town"
They buy me a pair too
Perhaps to silence me.
My wife gives me a stern look
Which means
"No one asked for your opinion
Son-in-law will take offence."
I try to rationalise things
Like Sammler would
"Being right is merely
A matter of explanation."
When others buy
Can you stand by
Watching them, with a sigh?
Don't you feel rich and powerful
When you go home with three bags full?
I only pray that they will have something left
When the big bubble bursts.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Desert city

When you come home
From the desert city
The rise and fall
Of human voices
In the words
You grew up with
Have the feel of
Your favourite song.
Neighbours you have
Quarrelled with
Over kolams
Before the door
And leaving footwear
In the way
Look like angels
You could pour your heart out to.
For the first few days
All you do is talk
Talk and talk and talk
Drag your mother out
Just to walk
Through the streets
Full of people.
The fruit cart
With the vendor
Resting in the shade.
The flower girl
At her stall
Stringing jasmine buds.
The slow-moving traffic
Buses, cars, autos, bicycles
Jostling for space.
People, people, people
Faces, faces, faces
Smiles, frowns, anger
Whistles, shouts, claps
This symphony, this pageantry
Is what you cannot have
In the opulent, sand-blown, slave city
You pretend is heaven.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ping pong

I have not played this before
Putting a ball one bounce
Across a low net
On a narrow table.
The ball too small
The racquet
So light you hardly feel it.
Taking a cricketer's contempt
To an indoor game
Demanding a different skill set
I was soon put in my place
Beaten by all and sundry
Paunchy, puny, tall and short
All split personalities
So friendly outside
But turning into terrorists
Once into the game
Smashing your tame
Serves back at you,
Spinning the ball
Like a Muralitharan
Making a fool of you
As you reach out for the ball
And it spins the other way,
As if it is an elfin
Sent to teach you a lesson.

Community radio

When we bought a radio player
Our house became famous in the street.
On nights when new film songs were aired
Neighbours and strangers stopped by to listen.
Children looked at us with resentment
Pleaded with their father
To buy them one.
For the first few days
It was on round-the-clock.
"Magic!" someone said,
"A small box,
Talks, sings, counsels, gives news!"
Elderly people went away saying
How mysterious it was
Wondering what the world was coming to,
As the literates tried to explain to them
What they learnt from their physics books
Who invented it and how it worked;
Envy flashed like lightning
As someone whispered loud enough for us to hear
"He is a union leader (referring to my father)
He must have got it as a bribe!"
Only we knew how we saved money for months
To buy it and how we kept our end of the bargain
Topping in the class tests.
We ignored the remark
As mostly everyone feted us;
We were pointed at
When we went out,
The grocer attended to us first,
The milkman gave us less diluted milk,
The flower girl gave us roses free
And the servant maid was extra courteous;
We were celebrities for a while
Till our neighbour got a new, costlier set
And took the fans away.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Nativity

Home is what
You cannot lose
Like a dog
In a strange place,
Or shake off,
Like a burr;
It stays with you,
Like the dialect,
The dusky skin,
The swift temper,
The jingle of bullock-carts,
The smell of hay or cowdung,
Firewood burning in the backyard,
The rhythm of the Chithirai festival,
When the river floods,
And the village god sets out for the city,
With drumbeats that thud like heartbeats,
And talk to the feet.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Emptiness

I feel like someone
Whose memory has crashed
The blank page
With its howling vastness
Terrifies me,
As the blinding white space
Cries to be filled up, somehow
With gibberish, scrawls or doodles.
The swelling nothingness
Forms into huge bare walls
After the calendars and memories
Have been taken off,
The ice rink
Left to its resonant silence
After the dance of grotesque figures,
The cream-coloured house
Light bouncing off surfaces
Looking larger, barer and harsher
Without a human face or voice to soften its glare,
The highway screaming into eternity
Watched by the steaming desert sea.

Doctor with a choler

Her physician snaps at her
Refuses to share
What his diagnosis is.
"Just take these medicines
For five days
Come back
If you are not alright
I'll change the drugs!"
He will not tell her
What they are for,
Which is the antibiotic,
What side-effects it can have,
Which are the vitamin supplements.
"Why do you want to know everything!
Will you understand what I say?
These fellows who come on TV
Have spoilt you people.
You think I am here
To answer your doubts.
If you do not have faith in me
Why do keep coming back?"
Then why do you patronise him,
He is supposed to give you information,
But she pleads helplessness.
"How can I change my doctor
After 20 years!
A doctor is like a husband
You get used to,
Can you change him?"

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Coming home

When you let yourself in
In the early hours
Back from your shift
The first thing you do
Is to check quietly
If wife and children are asleep,
You say a silent prayer
That no one is ill
Or having trouble sleeping.
It is a beautiful sight
The little fellows in deep slumber;
You touch their cool foreheads
Know there is no fever
Watch how they breathe
Then turn away sighing
At the tinkle of anklets
As she stirs, turns
Moves into a foetal position
And recedes into the night again.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bereft

A house once had a heart
Brightened, turned gloomy
Swelled, shrunk
Was noisy, went quiet
Quarrelled, apologised,
Broke things, let rage flow over
Celebrated, mourned
Smiled, frowned
Laughed, cried
Exchanged greetings,
Savouries on festive days
Enquired about your health
When you fell ill
Cooked food for you
When you were bedridden
Kept your letters
When you were away
Shooed intruders off
Stood up for you
So when it left
You felt bereft.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Last semester

It is known as
The last semester madness
Where normal girls
Lose their heads
Talk in class
Wave to their classmates
When asked to go out,
Smile at boys
Blow flying kisses
Return admiring looks
Boldly receive
A love letter or two
Rag the poor fellow
When he comes
To learn of his fate
Send him away with dire warnings
Get into buses on the run
Sit on the steps
Barrack passersby
Make a nuisance
Of themselves in public
Dress outrageously
Set off crackers
Near the principal's office
Enjoy being rebels
Secretly hanker for a strike
So they can throw stones
Break a few windows
Go out with a bang.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Time travel

This song of yesteryear
Shot in black and white
Sung by your favourite actress
Slow, sad and haunting
Full of feeling
The voice, character and mood
Seamlessly weaving
Leaping from childhood
On prime time
Takes you back
To days you can never go back to
In that distant town
Where people are not
Strangers to one another
Know who you are
Do not care what you are.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Standing in the rain

The wiper draws semicircles
On the windshield
The drizzle trickles like sweat
To the driver's left
I stand by the front seats
In a mildly crowded Sunday bus
Breezing downtown
Through the empty college road
Now turned a Monet
With the early street lights
Running wavy orange strokes
Down its length.
I watch the tall trees
Tamarind, sleepy-faced and the nameless ones
Looking even more alluring
In the shower.
I look around
For an empty seat
For a better view
Of the familiar sights
In their wet attire.
As no one gets off
I resign myself
To my standee position.
My stop is still some way off
But I cannot complain
For the rain suddenly
Breaks into a dance
On the puddles.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Night fall

An ailing old man
Your friend's father
Now left in your care
Just about able to move around his room
Can't see or hear too well
Confesses to you
That he wonders every morning
Why he wakes up at all
That he feels he's past his expiry date
And someone forgot to take him off the shelf.
Pa, there is someone to take care of you,
Bring you food, medicines
I drop in on you, now and then
You do not have to sleep on the streets
Or go sick or hungry to bed
Like so many who have nowhere to go.
"What purpose does my life serve anymore
I am not of any use to anyone!"
No, don't say that, anyone who has known you
Will see what every one comes to
Lose some of his vanity
Watch his next step or word.
We do not know who put us here
Often, we do not know what we are saying
Who prompts us, what the cues are
What the exit lines
Or, when the curtain will ring down.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Friends

During rush hour
We are just an hour away
By train either way
Yet we do not keep count
Of the number of times
We visit each other
Telephone, borrow or lend
We never measure ourselves
By our mutual usefulness
Never take offence
As none is intended
Know where the borders are
Never violate our sacred spaces
Listen, never judge
We laugh at ourselves
Admit our mistakes, illnesses
Never talk down
Or say you should have done like this
Wiser after the event
Often remember our teacher
Who taught a comedy
Like a tragedy
And was fond of saying
"Life's a dark comedy!"
Maybe, but we also keep reminding ourselves
"The curtain falls!"
"There are no curtain calls!"
And we do not know when we exit
Or what cues we'll get.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Perfect

I want to go back
To the time
When I sat on the porch
Watching the raindrops dance
With the radio playing some heavenly song
The aroma of the wet earth
And my favourite dish cooking
Filling the air
The very thought
That there was no school tomorrow
No homework to be done
No tests to come
Made things near-perfect
Then your day was made
When your father brought you
The sky-blue pencil box you had wanted
To go with your uniform and ribbons.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

An old student

If you can give
Why do I need to ask?
If you can open doors
Why do I need to knock?
I sit on the porch
Of the college chapel
With no prayer,
No service is on
All students have gone
Home, for vacation.
The gulmohurs
Bursting into flames
As if on cue
Intone the legend
Above the library entrance
"Purificatus non consumptus!"
They do not mind me
An outsider now
Without a roll number
Just stopping by
With a sigh
They do not ask me
Why am I here?
Sitting with a tear,
Thinking of yesteryear,
When there was someone else near.
They keep on the chant, only I can hear
"What cleanses, consumes not,
What's lost was not meant to last!"

Friday, July 2, 2010

Utthamar Gandhi Salai

This is a city
We are both unacquainted with
As we walk down this road
Named after the father of the nation
And lined with shopping complexes, boutiques
Showrooms of exclusive ready made wear
Non-vegetarian restaurants and star hotels
All oozing opulence and excess
We try to catch up with the past
Two friends meeting by chance,
Swimming through the flow of strangers,
Comparing notes, talking of losses and gains
A few lies on either side
Fudging salary figures, marks of children
Harping on how long it has been,
"Must be, more than 15 years, isn't it?"
"Ah, just a few more years, then my duties will be done!"
Both looking forward to a peaceful retired life
Swapping lists of books to be read
Films to be seen
Temples to be visited...
We stop for tea at the roadside stall
Suddenly we slip back into the temple city
Sipping tea outside the college campus
Laughing riotously as only students can
Tomorrow waiting deferentially in the distance.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Irrevocable

The dead do not come back
But as ashes
Even that has to be returned
To the elements
Leaving behind a howling wilderness
As if a twister
Had ripped away the roof and the walls
Showing you at whose pleasure you existed.
You can keep awake all you want
You will not hear anymore
His stealthy footfalls after a late-night movie
Or feel anymore the gentle tap
On your shoulder as you pretend to sleep
Accompanied by the secret whisper "mother, I'm hungry!"
The hockey stick rests impatiently in the corner
He will not pick it up anymore
To practise his dribbling skills
Inside the house
Ignoring his father's usual admonition
"Go out and play!"
Why can't we be still waiting for him to return
From a night out
Like an earlier day,
Undo fate's gaffe
At culling someone in his prime
By using some restore point,
As in the computer,
Not be staring at the wall like this
Knowing he cannot return
Knowing he drowned and has been cremated.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Stalker

Death wears many masks
It comes laughing like a wave
Takes you feet first
Into the water
Ducks you under
To see if you can remember
How you breathed when you lived there.
It lies waiting like a pond
Still and alluring
Reflecting the blue of the skies
Sometimes without even the whisper of a ripple
As weeds with a foot fetish
Dance in the bed.
It flows like a holy river
With a hoary past
Certain of its purpose
Mindful of its reputation
For washing away sins
And sinners
When it can.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stories at midnight

What stories do you tell your grandson
Who wants newer and newer ones to be told?
The stock of mythology is soon spent,
Adventure stories you were brought up on
Hardly enthuse him,
When you go autobiographical
You find little to excite even you,
Your days in the Army
Were preparing forever for a war
You were never for,
You cannot tell him
That you ran away from home to enrol
After a quarrel with your father.
As you make up another hotch-potch story
Smiling at the faithful listener
Eyes still shining bright, though it is past midnight
You wonder if your ill-tempered sire
Had someone like this to watch over him
And keep the ghosts away before the sleep angels arrived.

Fear

It is when you
Climb the stairs
Late at night
Going home from work
That all the ghost stories
That you have heard
And the spooky films that you have seen
Pop up in your mind
With perverse timing.
It is then that the tap of chappals
Hitting the steps
Sounds like someone following you
The wind in the trees
Is like someone calling you in a whisper
The growl of the AC unit
Is like an angry spirit
Out to spite you ---
It is then that you see with a shock
That something in you
Still remembers the cave and the forests
Keeps you wary in the dark
Pricks its ears for the leap of animal
Hum of arrow or swish of sword.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mirrors are liars

I watch my son
Comb his hair
For the nth time
Still unsatisfied,
All the while
Spouting strange theories
About the rebellious curl;
I don't remember
How much time
I spent before the mirror
At his age;
He must believe
In the peer talk
That the way
To a woman's heart
Is through the crop
At the top;
I mean, if you can't take care of your hair
How will you look after her?
I am at a stage
Where I don't look at mirrors
But look through them
Fingers are enough
To dress those strands
That are few and far between;
Like an actor past his prime
I prefer the long shots
To the close-ups
The half-lit scenes
To the pitiless daylight exposures
The shadows to the sun.
I often fly into a rage
When people talk of age
I deny the presence of unwanted guests
That the 40-plus play host to ---
I glare at my heir
Still taming his hair.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Baby-sitting

When your voice tires
And your arms ache
And he still refuses to sleep
Like the sun on the longest day
And wants you to keep rocking
The cradle to a certain rhythm
And keep on singing,
Raising a whimper
If you stop
You wish you could be some goddess
With many arms and heads
That you can sing a lullaby
Rock the cradle
Get some sleep
And still watch over him.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Words

Do you remember who taught you
Your first word
Or what it was?
The universal one
Spoken must be "mother"
Followed by other kin,
Then birds come in,
They help you finish your meals.
Crows are your frequent companions
And eat half as much as you do
And raise a racket
While at it,
Sparrows prefer grains
You never saw such nervous eaters,
Moons, themselves looking so edible,
Like orange slices
Or ripe fruit or appalam
Watched you at dinner.
The fund of words keeps growing
Some you know you cannot use everywhere
Some you can only when you write.
Many words die from disuse
Many you have ignored, like once close friends,
Refuse to answer your call.
I'm now losing them
Like a deciduous tree.
I can only watch
As they leave and reappear
Like domestic help
At other homes.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Monsoon

When you hang out the clothes to dry
On the roof, you keep looking at the sky
Wondering if it will rain
And make you come running again
Like yesterday, when it came sneaking in
And caught you sleeping
At first you thought it was children playing
The familiar thud of footsteps in the evening
But when the neighbor kept his finger on the buzzer
And kept shouting 'rain, rain' to shake you from your slumber
You rushed up the stairs, cursing the weather
However, last summer's memories stirring
You told yourself, stop whining
Better this, than rationing
When water will have to be bought
And a nightmare is an empty pot

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Empty-handed

Like a child burying its face
In its mother's shoulders
On seeing strangers,
Like a son smoking on the sly
Trying to duck into an alley
On seeing his father coming his way,
Like a motorcyclist without a licence
Making a hasty U-turn
At the sight of a traffic sergeant,
Like a tailender inching towards
Square leg, as the paceman thunders in,
I feel like vanishing into the earth
When I see you swim into view, as delicious as the dawn
When I suddenly remember it's the day you were born
And I've brought nothing
But a heart bursting with love

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Playground

As you sit on the stone bench
Looking across the playground
Waiting for the school bell to ring
To fetch your son home
Your feet itch to run a lap
Try to catch your runaway youth by the neck
Hold him for a while before he gives you the slip.
When I bring him back for the cricket coaching class
My son's classmates, no bigger than the bat ask
"Uncle, were you a player once?"
"Did you play for your school, college?"
As they watch me play shots in the air.
"More than learning the game, or excelling in it
Or getting into the team or winning
Enjoy the feel of the ground under your feet
The sun on your face, the sheer joy of running,
The surge of blood as you hit a ball
Take a catch or a wicket
The sweating, the sweet ache of your body after.
You must love it so, you want to hit the ground again
If this happens, other things don't matter.
Someday you can sit on a stone bench as this
And look at a playground with love."
They didn't seem to understand
But the way they ran into the ground
Showed they already knew.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A tall order

I made this list
On a sleepless night,
Wanted to hang it on
My wish-tree,
Thought the better of it,
Knowing it was a tall order
No one could serve.
I want no one but you
To see this
But you must not make it your own!
You can read it now:
"I wish
To be understood
When I speak
To be consoled
When I grieve
To be repared
When I lose
To be pulled back
When I stray
To be fed
When I am hungry
To be given
When I want
To be forgiven
When I sin
To be mourned
When I die."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Room of the dead

It's not yet fourteen days
After her death
The closure ceremonies
Still some way away
The light has been kept on
In my mother's room
As in the hall
Verandah and backyard
The elders tell me
To keep the spirit away
The house overflows with relatives
The elderly ones have made it a point to come
Knowing this may be their last
And their best chance to say goodbye
To those they may not see again
I am unable to sleep
A hubbub of voices in the head
The segandi and the conch still going on
I cannot look that way
Without a shiver
The mattress has been put away
The cot out of sight
Circles made by medicine bottles
Are still seen on the sill
Can a room be emptied of
A person who is dead
Like a pocket
I suddenly hear her admonishing voice
"Take your meals on time!"
I get up and shut the door

Monday, March 1, 2010

A dream house

Is one you can
Only dream of
Never dream of
Should never dream of.

2
Where before you
Go to sleep can order
Dreams with happy endings
Dreams you don't remember
Tantalising ones you wish you would.

3
Is one
If it is foreclosed
You always dream of.

4
Where if you know
How to look
Can see the walls
Plastered with the dreams
Of those who build houses
For others to dream in.