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.

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…

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…

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.

 

I HAD A FATHER

Image

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

clods

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.

Tranquillity

 

Tranquillity is the scent of pines

rain sodden… 

                               
Image

leaves

nodding to the wind

in silent camaraderie

blades of grass

slicing the air

soundless as light.

 

Banana fronds

tangling

separating

binding

loosening

in a dance

to an unheard song.

 

Black clouds upon white

pale sky

scattering sunlight

in innumerable motes of light

touching my face

with a warmth

so deep

that it remains with me forever…