The Ghost of Christmases Past

 1.

One day, Papa said, he decided

to give up cigarettes. From forty a day,

he came down to none. Only

on Christmas Day,

when the swarm of visitors has diminished

to a select few

sipping their rum in the exhausted drawing room

does he pick up a Capstan Navy Cut

from the carved Kashmiri box

and blow smoke rings for our delight.

While a lonely piece of cake

sits on a chipped plate

surrounded by indifferent crumbs.

 

The Big Day has not ended we know

we have yet to negotiate the rocky path

to the brightly lit room

where Santa Claus will distribute gifts

for a price:

poems squeezed from reluctant minds

mimic songs that have long forgotten their tune

but I cannot, I will not parrot ‘Daffodils’

not even to earn a gift. Rejected, it lingers

under the Christmas tree,

another lonesome participant in a festive rite

lies there accusingly as I lurk sullenly in the shadows.

 

Ishwar chho mero gwalo

kai baate ki kami raunli

The Lord is my shepherd

I shall not want.

but I want, I want, I want

an unconditional gift, Lord

from the night which sucks up fading carols

and flings them among

the silent pines. Already

a ghost, Christmas is slipping away

searching for its past,

amidst the cake crumbs, gift wrappings

and the cigarettes in the carved Kashmiri box.

 

We will smoke them my brothers and I

alone on New Year’s Eve

we will blow foetal smoke rings

aborted by choking coughs

which drift heavenwards to join

the Christmases gone. And

the New Year arrives stamping in on frozen feet

singing,

Ishwar chho mero gwalo

The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall never want, I hope

for unconditional gifts.

 

2.

Papa decided to give up cigarettes

I have given up sugar for brief intervals

even forsworn alcohol—moving around

in a haze

batting away invisible smoke rings

that coil like persistent ghosts. Like

the ghosts of Christmases which live

only in the past. Without any future.

 

3.

But will any sacrifice help a child

who shivers in the alien dark

too distant and too alien

for mortal eyes

does the Lord accept trade offs

as they say? Or does he cheat,

as I suspect? A fast for longevity

a fast for good health

but can a hollow belly

bring joy to a marooned child?

 

Questions cluster like smoke rings

stinging my eyes.

I cannot ransom the marooned child

I cannot return to the smoke filled

drawing room with its scent of rum

the chill warmth of its glowing embers

turning to ash, grey

as Papa’s hair.

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WHERE IS GLORY BETTER SOUGHT?

When I have finished irrigating the country’s soil with

my fertile blood. Seeding new warriors.

I will turn into fodder for famished screens. Millions of my faces

will bloom upon the idiot box

increase, multiply and feed countless starving eyes.

My blinded gaze will face compassion boredom

horror terror sympathy and disgust

my 15 seconds of fame glide across the microscope’s glass

and evaporate before the arc lights’ glare

as gyrating limbs and thumping breasts

overtake my fleeting image and

leave it far behind.

What race is this I lost before it began?

or did I win it standing still? Watching

my opponent’s heels kick nakedly at the oncoming dusk.

Synthetic dusk born from the smoke of guns

as irrational as my night which lingers on and on

while indolent dawn snuggles beneath the covers

waiting for someone else to switch on the light.

But. Where is glory better sought

on green grass or in slime?

facing the gritty winds of summer

or winter’s shroud of fog?

which does blood stain brighter

desert sand or mountain snow?

And. Who lights an eternal lamp for me

as I float, an anonymous cloud

carrying the rain child of glory in my womb

a child which refuses to be born

till the storm settles.

If it ever will.

A PEARL WITHIN AN OYSTER

There is a place

where jewelled cobwebs

dot the hillside

my father’s smile

never wavers

and the rocks

feel solid beneath my feet.

The mist swirls in the valleys

a potent sea

spewing stories

which my brother

conjures out of the vaporous void.

A magician

spinning a different web each day.

And yet it is I

who tell tales now.

Fishing in that timeless sea

of the past

finding

old shoes

a rotted corpse

but sometimes

a pearl within an oyster…

Secret of Success

Why do we send our words out into this public space? Share some of our most painful moments, our most intimate thoughts with people who are strangers, whom we are not likely to encounter in flesh? We reach out to connect,  to hear someone say, “I have listened to your voice, I feel the same way, I share your views, I empathise.”

Sometimes even the note of dissent can be stimulating. At least someone listened and responded.

Frankly, response to any form of writing, whether it’s my blog or my books is my measure of success. Those words touched a chord somewhere, which means these outpourings have some meaning, are not mere self-indulgence.

Yes, I am striving for this kind of success as a blogger. If I wasn’t I’d confine my thoughts to the diary that is meant for my personal private perusal…

Anarkali

Anarkalli.jpg

When “Anarkali”, the popular movie about the tragic romance between Prince Salim (later Jehangir) the son of Mughal emperor Akbar and the court dancer Anarkali finally arrived in our small town, I got a summons from my aunt,

‘You will come with me to see a film today,’ she said.

I was shocked. I had never known my somewhat stern aunt to ever watch a movie. But I had never had the guts to disobey her either, so I dutifully agreed. Of course, I was curious to find out too, about the movie that could make her act so out of character.

It was a two mile walk to the dilapidated cinema hall. I must add here that not having any other form of conveyance, we relied on our own two legs to transport us everywhere.

I’m not sure how old I was then, definitely below ten. But the movie, particularly the last scene in which, condemned to death, Anarkali is being walled up, left a strong impression on my mind. So strong, that years and years later this poem emerged from somewhere…

ANARKALI

When the walls rose up

Around Anarkali

Her heart unfolded

In paeans of joy

(So the movie says)

Celebrating love

Her song soared up

Higher, sweeter

Even as the last patch of sky

Was bricked out

Salim mourned

But life is long

And love short

And finally

There was consolation…

There was Noor Jehan

The slave girl

When she dared to love

Little knew

That

The walls of love

Press close

Fatal

They shut out the sky

And once

The air inside

Is breathed up

Nothing remains

But the song

And even that

Is often lost

Scattered, dissolved

By the winds of time…

Dealing with Loss: the Chimaera of Hope

The young woman struggles to maintain her composure as she talks about her parents, who have gone missing in the cataclysmic flash floods that occurred in June in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand. A month has gone by and the government talks about abandoning the search for the approximately 6000 people who are unaccounted for, devastating for their families.

‘They might have sought shelter in some remote village,’ she says in a tear drenched voice. ‘Why can’t they ask the army to search?’

In the end she adds her own message to the numerous others people have put up on a wall for their missing loved ones. In a beautiful, rounded hand she writes: ‘Mummy-Papa, jaldi aa jaana. Hum intezar kar rahe hain.’ (‘Mummy-Papa, please come back soon. We’re waiting for you.’)

Her story, like that of the other affected people holding up photographs on the TV show is heartrending. A father who has lost his son along with his wife and grandchild, another who has lost several members of his family. These are the ones left behind, who are engaged in a search made cruelly frustrating by the inefficiency of the bureaucracy handling the disaster.

As I watch, their belief that their dear ones might be alive somewhere seems unrealistic.

Then suddenly I’m reminded of the time my older sister Shanta was reported missing in a cyclone that hit the east coast of South India. She had gone to Chennai on official work and the car she was travelling in was swept off an inundated road some distance from the city. When we got the news, I refused to consider the worst.

‘Someone must have rescued her. She must be in a hospital somewhere…’ I told my husband confidently. And I firmly believed it. How could my sister die?

When her body was recovered, however, I was forced to accept that she was gone.

Affectionate, ever cheerful despite her many problems, Shanta di had been an enormous support in the confusing early years of my married life and now she would never come back. It was extremely difficult to come to terms with this fact. The worst was she left an eight-year-old son behind, a child for whom it was hard to comprehend what had happened, and a shattered husband.

We grieved and as time passed we came to accept the inevitable. We were compelled to find closure and move on with our lives.

But what if her body had not been found? We would have gone on hoping and waited for her to reappear miraculously. It would have been too difficult to give up.

This is the predicament of the families of the missing persons in the Uttarakhand disaster. One hopes that some are indeed alive and safe somewhere. But till they are found or it is established that they are no more, their families will remain poised between hope and despair.

That I think is the cruellest thing that can happen to anyone. And I pray sincerely that their ordeal is not prolonged and they can find solace somehow.

Do Not Weep Lonely Mirror

The mirror in which I sought myself once

sought me in turn, when spurned,

its emptiness grew too vast for it to face.

Emptiness, that black hole into which we must fall

each one of us. The mirror pursued me

even as I fled it

time’s wrinkles embedded deep in the

coils of my being. I fled the truth

imprinted on its shining glass.

The truth of countless lies

that rustled like the fugitive wings of birds

evading the trapper,

not knowing how futile my flight. Because

the world might be large

but mirrors are everywhere. And truth,

the chameleon, finds many places to hide itself.

In the starlit eyes of a lover perhaps…

the trusting warmth of a child’s palm,

the adrenaline burst of the winning post,

or the murky pool of failure. Even in

the flashing pane of a neighbour’s window

or the reckless flow of your pen across a page.

I could not escape, and yet how long is it

since I have known that the face in the mirror

is not my own. Not the girl who wept in the dark

once. Or boarded a train on a winter morning,

basking in the sun’s warmth.

The woman who found babes in the wood

under a coverlet of fallen leaves

or listened to the urgent summons of a conch

bellowing in the dark behind hidden doors.

8

Who knows where it is, the face I would call my own

if not in the mirror that faces me?

It is enough that it exists.

Whether flowing secretly in the veins of a leaf,

blowing in the dust of a storm,

or gleaming in a sunset cloud…

So, do not weep lonely mirror

Nothing is as complete as emptiness

Nothing as loud as the silence that speaks.

ROBBEN ISLAND

Robben Island

We visited South Africa some years ago.  It was a unique experience–so much natural beauty and what a breathtaking abundance of wildlife! But the trip to Robben Island added a sombre note.

 

Another place of the skull

Another Golgotha

Clean neat bleached to the bare

necessities of existence

belying the flagrant thrust

of arum lilies

blooming in random clusters.

Extravagant trumpets

large, full blown, secure in their whiteness

rooting themselves where they will

unlike the baby penguins

huddling in bushes

before our alien onslaught

The wind outlines the bleakness of the sun

as a silent prison

willingly unlocks doors

and secrets flutter free.

Dues paid

the toiler in freedom’s mill

is now permitted the luxury

of endlessly reliving hunger and pain

anger and hate.

While courteous hordes

listen

wrestling with what and why

and who and which

and right and wrong

wondering how deep

they might insert their

delicate probes

beneath the armour of calluses

How deep burrow

before their dentist’s drill

encounters the unguarded nerve

In the end

one thinks

he has a tale to tell at least

and eloquently too.

If not would hasty bank notes pile

up on the dignified palm

eager to repay someone else’s debt?

To buy absolution for another’s crime?

In the end

what remains

but the naked skull of truth

even a free man needs to eat

and the heat of youthful rage

cannot flame far enough

to disperse the chill of age.

The wind is curiously dry

as we sidle away from the limestone quarry

thanking God for the good karma

that kept us secure in distant climes

for the screen of designer glasses

that saves our eyes

for the watered milk of human kindness

that did spurt at last from skull dry breasts

while the black coated penguins

carefully measure their mincing strides

earnest as lawyers arguing a case

lost long before they crawled out of their eggs.

The ocean shimmers all the way to the mainland.

There are drinks to be sipped on the ferry

the wonderful wildness of wind on your face

the curio shops beckon

and Mandela’s smile soothes.

But somewhere we know

a man waits

smoking a quiet cigarette

outside the dispossessed prison

waits for the next bus load

for the guilty caress of notes

on the expressionless palm

whose lines have bound him to Robben Island.

Words Like Pine Seeds

Image

Words

let loose on the air

like pine seeds

lofted by playful summer breezes

that coax them from the mother cone

as she opens her womb

to free her offspring,

despatches them

to seed another world,

new and hopefully brave,

sends them to launch pristine forests

to perfume the air

and whisper arcane secrets all day.

But lost, forgotten

when a plundered kernel

strays to lose its sweetness

squanders it on a gluttonous tongue.

Its taste might linger

like the memory of tearing

gossamer wings apart

the expectant crack that yielded

a momentary sliver of joy.

But how minuscule the guilt,

of forests consumed

before they could sprout?

How brief the regret

for words cast by the wayside?

words

plump with promise once

compelled to dissolve

into the non substance of memory.

Yet sometimes, persistent as echoes.

Persistent as the aftertaste

of long consumed pine seeds.