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


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



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?


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.



Rain in childhood

falls without explanation

simply pouring out of the sky

we do not dance in it (like my children will one day)

but don raincoats and unfurl umbrellas

stoically set out for our Saturday evening walk.

hand in hand

two by two

a twisting navy blue crocodile

creeping between two green slopes

one stretches upwards

draped with silver sheets which reach down

like Rapunzel’s hair inviting us

into the castle of the sky

the other tumbles down

into a shrouded sea, daring us to

surrender to its shadowy embrace.

the navy blue crocodile wriggles on

postponing the moment of decision

waiting for the sun to shine and the mist clear.



Father’s Day was unknown to me when I was a child. All I knew was that my father’s smile never wavered and that I adored him.

Here is an old, old photo of my parents when I was just a few months old. Unfortunately the only picture I had with my father vanished, I don’t know how. But there are many memories to treasure.



When I was young and had a father

like any other child… I

clutched his hand.  Walked

by his side.  Hung on his smile

watched the crow’s feet fan out

from the ends of his eyes.

Felt love

a velvet cushion

a tight roof against the rain

a warm hand to hold

and melt the ice of fear

But one day—

the roof blew off

the hand grew cold

and nothing was left

but leafless trees

stretching wan fingers

that tore at my hair

as I walked through the darkness.  The bell

tolling in my ears constant…insistent.

The moon, a dented globe.

Washed out, spreading

rancid, milky light

that filled my mouth with sourness.

I heard the sound of weeping

and wailing.

White walls of grief

arose about me

smelt fresh earth

felt the horror of


hitting him.  Boxed in wood

lifeless, true.  But I shuddered

to think of the clods hitting him.

Later, woke on my own, nights

airless, feeling the weight of the earth

squeeze out my breath

engulf, absorb me into itself

Earth, mother

what makes you so hungry

so desperate to swallow me whole?

Digest, ingest

make me a part of you again?

I that would walk on air

and water.

Resist your pull

live on forever

freely riding the wind.  Not

bogged down in earth bound clay.

Live till the day when

the grave will empty

and he, they, will come forth whole again

when mud, when clod

will yield forth

flesh and blood

bone and hair

breath and laughter.


Today, as my grandaughter Adya and I made a little garland of jasmine flowers together, I was remined of a poem I wrote a long time back. Flowers have always given me pleasure, reminded me of nature’s harmony and brought peace as I contemplate them in any form.

Flowers, they are simply amazing,DSC02212

They can bloom everywhere. Nod

sedately beside my patch of lawn,

spread luxuriously on the grass on the hillside,

even astonish an arid desert with their wanton colours.

They can waft their scent through my window

as they wind around a pillar

working their way up to the sky perhaps,

where no doubt they will turn into stars.

Sometimes they spread themselves beneath my feet

ornamenting a carpet. Or

wrap themselves around me

brightening the kurta I carelessly pluck from my cupboard. December 06 001

Sometimes they alight on the cup from which I sip tea

or nestle on my daughter’s gleaming locks, containing

a wayward curl. They

have even been known to march up the walls of a room

or engrave themselves on a box of wood or marble.


Bejewel a necklace, an earring, even a bracelet,

disembodied, they squeeze their essence into a perfume bottle

or scent the sighs of a desperate lover.

Flowers they are simply amazing

they turn this mundane world into a magical garden.


The one who has to come will come

the one who has to leave will go away.

I cannot choose, they say. It

has all been written, they say.

The words chosen, the path mapped.

The time of arrival, the time of departure

and you must wait on the platform

not knowing when the train will arrive or depart.

Or where it’ll take you.

There will be no announcements

true or false

about its arrival or its departure

but nothing will stop you either, from

supping a leisurely cup of tea. Or

one so hasty that it scalds your tongue. Stop you

from sharing a joke with the stranger who perches on her trunk

or from browsing at the book stall

poring over titles. Turning

a desultory eye on the pictures that illustrate a tome,

even imbibing some fleeting textbook wisdom.

Or from

buying a book you’ll leave behind on your seat

when you disembark. For the next traveller to enjoy or deride,

perhaps. Or for the beggar

who’ll enter the vacant train in search

of the scraps that remain

mute testaments of your last meal. The

empty water bottles that will fetch a few coins.

The book might be sold for scrap

or its pages lovingly turned.

What difference does it make?

The words were not your own. As

you thought when you read it.

Someone else had chosen them.

So what if they seeped into your mind and became yours.

The words were the writer’s. The

one who writes all our lives

Not yours, hopeful reader.

And perhaps

when the train stops and it’s time to disembark

knowledge will streak through your mind

like lightning illuminating the evening sky

and you will realize they were always there,

floating in the wind

unseen microbes, biding their time.

waiting for the fogged microscope of your eye

to clear and find them.

While countless trains came and went

describing endless journeys to God knows where.

Then you will learn

it matters not who the writer is or who

the reader. It is enough that words exist

those golden grains gleaned out of the mind’s dust

to nourish a famished moment.

And when this knowledge confronts you

as you step off the train

you have everything and yet have nothing.

The words and the book

the music and the song

you have them and you leave them

with no regret

or sense of loss.

Because they will not be orphaned

as you once feared.

Another will claim them, nurture them.

Another who paces the platform

waiting to mount the train.

Not knowing the time of its arrival or departure

not knowing its final destination

yet eager for the journey which promises

everything and nothing.


  I would have liked to live forever within

  the opaque glass walls of your love.  Seeing the world

  through misty eyes.  The sun’s heat

  softly tempered to my back.  The rain,

  a distant, soothing patter.  Not a drenching torrent

  churning rivers of mud and slime

  to drown in.  But

  the mist holds demons. Their cries

  will not be stilled.  And glass is fragile

  Even a single stone‑‑carelessly flung

  can shatter this sanctuary  we built

  You and I—

  out of the power of our dreams

  this vaporous castle

  which can stand—

  only till the magic lasts.

  Loving, my faltering steps take root

  reaching, touching

  my heart, a wing, a feather  

  caressing you.  All night…

  your warmth filling me.  Battling

  the shuddering dark

  that waits, a patient hungry dragon


  love, that timid bird

  that flighty djinn.  Comes

  to roost only when it wishes

  Not in response to my call

  or yours

  No matter how urgent the need

  No matter how desperate the hour.


Oleander GirlOleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the young are brave and committed, life will reward them with knowledge. In Oleander Girl,  seventeen-year-old Korobi uncovers many truths, palatable and unpalatable, in the course of her quest to find the father who remained a mystery.  She learns the hard way—as most of us do, to judge between true and false and comes to terms with the ground realities of human existence.
Korobi’s story takes hold of you right from the haunting opening paragraph. Her voyage is itself extraordinary, in the sense that a young Indian girl who has led a sheltered life can prevail over convention and persuade her guardians to let her to embark on this journey. As this determined young girl travels from Kolkata to the U.S.A., facing a series of challenges, the reader eagerly waits for the mystery of her parenthood to be revealed. The timeless appeal of the orphaned protagonist finds compelling play here, and the clash of cultures heightens the drama. However, this is not just the tug-of-war between east and west, but also their coming together. The author explores numerous facets of the global, multicultural experience with ease, and her mastery of craft is apparent in the wide range of narrative voices she employs so effectively to add depth and texture to Korobi’s story.
I particularly liked the portraits of assertive women—from Korobi herself to her grandmother Sarojini, Jayashree her future mother-in-law, and best of all, Pia her fiancé Rajat’s little sister. While Rajat comes across as the somewhat confused modern Indian male, it is Bhattacharya the politician who surprises us with his yearning for the past with its well-defined values, symbolized by the old temple in Korobi’s grandfather’s house. For him: “…the gates that shut out the twenty-first century…” are invaluable and irreplaceable, as they stave off the demands of a new age that has still to evolve a respectable code of conduct. A bemused Sarojini wonders, “…how many layers there are to a man’s heart, tender spots beneath the calluses, hidden even from himself.” The interplay between tradition and modernity is another important point of conflict skillfully explored by the author—the faceoff between the old and new Kolkata, starkly outlined as well in Rajat’s struggle to resist the seductive Sonia’s siren song and embrace wholesomeness as represented by Korobi.
The reader is held in thrall as the problems pile up and secrets unfold. However, Oleander Girl is much more than a tale of suspense; it is also a story of tender relationships that reach beyond race, religion and class. Apart from the primary narrative strand of Korobi’s mixed parentage, there is the chauffeur Asaf Ali’s attachment for Pia, which prevails against his employers’ prejudice and his friends’ conventional warnings.
These are the special touches in this book that make it so heartwarming, by reinforcing your faith in human nature.
Towards the end I did find the rapid unfolding of events a tad overwhelming. However, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s consummate storytelling carried the day and this poignant tale remains one of my favourite recent reads. 

View all my reviews

I Am A Woman

I am a woman

I am soiled paper rupees I am shining gold coins

I am a diamond of glass I am an emerald of paste

a handful of earth flung on the highway

by a contemptuous gardener as rubies course through my veins

and the salt of the sea irrigates the timbre of my voice

a sea deep beyond any submarine’s reach.

I am soiled paper rupees in the vegetable vendor’s pouch

keeping company with scraps of tobacco.

I am shining gold coins nestling in the bridegroom’s lap

waiting to be sold.

I am a diamond of glass glittering in the ruler’s crown

maintaining his gloss.

I am an emerald of paste in the queen’s necklace

awaiting the evaluator’s frown.

And the salt of the unfathomable sea irrigates

the timbre of my voice

producing a song too deep for the shallow framework of words.

I am a handful of earth thrown on the highway

and inside me the seed seeking silence crouches

sheltering from the clamour of the earth.


pushes forth again, bearing jewels

to brighten kingdoms of toil.

Beneath the mask

Researching a book can lead you to unexpected places at times. Mining for gold you might well uncover a gem. Some years back while I was looking up books on Tibet for my historical adventure novel Caravan to Tibet I uncovered an intriguing fact in Amaury de Riencourt’s book Lost World Tibet (published 1950) that while travelling, wealthy Tibetan women wore painted face masks of yak hide to protect their complexions from the sun. This odd little nugget could only provide background details for a particular scene in my book. But the oppressive thought–to what lengths the pursuit of beauty could lead women nagged me till I expressed it in a poem.



Beneath the mask

my face melts like a jaggery cake in the sun

Mercifully, I can see

even as I preserve the pink of my skin.

But what’s the use?

my sisters remain strangers behind yak skin cheeks

that cannot exchange smiles

to lighten the tyranny

of the road to Lhasa. All

blinding earth and searing sky

bleached bone and rubble

hung over a chafing saddle

feeding fleas.

Only when night’s black tent

enfolds the enemy, sun,

can I breathe. Let

chilly air soothe broiling skin

let laughter flow free…

as I shed the mask.

Hard it is for a woman far from home. And

endless the road to Lhasa

beneath a mask.

Note: Jaggery is a kind of unrefined sugar.