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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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…

Teachers’ Day

Yesterday was Teachers’ Day. Can’t remember how we celebrated it as kids (if it did exist then!) but of course there are some teachers who stand out in my memory. Recently when a magazine asked for a quote on my favourite teacher, I immediately thought of Mother Ositha. It’s funny when you look back and think of the people who have helped you along the way,how vivid those memories are. I remember how all the excitement of going to boarding school evaporated two minutes after my mother left and a deluge of tears swamped me. As I stood with my face against a handy wall and howled my heart out, a warm hand gently pried me away. I don’t know how I found myself in the midst of a game and it was miraculous how soon I was skipping around, my tears totally forgotten. As luck would have it, she turned out to be my class teacher and soon with her almost imperceptible encouragement I found myself climbing the class list of seven year old achievers. Interesting that my highest marks then were in composition, but I’m sure Mother Ositha had something to do with it.
Another teacher I remember for a different reason is Mrs. Hollow, who taught us in the 10th and 11th standard. An old school type, deaf as a post, she certainly did not spare the rod! A bad mood was enough reason to lambaste us! On the flip side she was a stickler for good writing and wouldn’t allow us to read anything but the classics. So I offer fervent thanks to Ma’am Hollow too–not for the pastings but for helping me to develop a style.