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

Complaint

So only now
You have found
The way to our house
All these years
You did not even care
To find out
What happened to us
Whether we were alive
Or dead.
Then my aunt started crying
Recalling my uncle's death.
I could have pointed out
That they hadn't visited or called us either
But there was no point
In visiting a blood relation
For old time's sake
And getting embroiled in family logbooks.
Suddenly time thundered between us
Like a non-stop train
Drowning out every thought.
After the sniffles subsided
I listened to her complaints
Against her son, daughter-in-law and grandson
Who lived close by
But rarely visited her.
I remembered my mother
Who had similar grievances
Against me
Though I lived so far away
That I couldn't visit often
And had other serious reasons
I could not tell even her.
I promised to persuade
My cousin to visit her
"Don't expect your daughter-in-law
To shower affection on you
It is just against nature."
This made her smile
I gave her the sweets
She was once fond of.
"Once in a while
You can have them
Without worrying about your sugar level."
When it was time for me to leave
I stood up with an apology.
"I've booked my ticket on the night train
I've just about enough time to pack.
I'll talk to him, don't worry."
I began a silent prayer
For all of us
Then stopped at the sheer absurdity of it
Nothing would change
I saw myself years hence
In her position
Like others before her
Complaining against life
But blaming someone else.

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.