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…
When the walls rose up
Her heart unfolded
In paeans of joy
(So the movie says)
Her song soared up
Even as the last patch of sky
Was bricked out
But life is long
And love short
There was consolation…
There was Noor Jehan
The slave girl
When she dared to love
The walls of love
They shut out the sky
The air inside
Is breathed up
But the song
And even that
Is often lost
By the winds of time…
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,
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.
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.
Once there was a princess who wept pearls,
and once there was a princess
who laughed flowers. Both died, I heard.
One of weeping
and the other of laughter.
But not because one’s eyes went dry
or the other forgot how to laugh.
One died of suffocation
entombed in pearls. The other choked
on a surfeit of flowers.
The pearls were sold for a fortune, I heard.
But the wilted flowers brought no gain at all.
Since then, I have heard
A woman’s tears have become
far more precious than her laughter.