ARRIVAL OF THE MONSOON

Excerpt from the book ‘Arrival of the Monsoon’

“…Word and thought
chase each other along
wire and parapet
seeking a common vine.”

– Squirrels

CONTENTS

The time to love
is when the heart says so.
Who cares
If it is muddy august
or tepid april?-
for Love’s infallible feet
step daintily
from vantage to vantage
to the waiting salt-lick.
If Spring
has any significance
it is for us,
the rhymesters,
who need
a bough to perch on
while we sing.
Love is a country
with its own climate.

The wind howls about the house
like a cat mourning its young.
We have crept early into bed,
for though it is six by the clock,
it seems much later than that.
The electricity is dead;
and a single candle deputizes
between encyclopaedias
Wind, wind, what have you lost,
that you wail like this in the streets?
Doors and windows are bolted;
even so, the curtains are wild,
for the wind insinuates itself
through the keyholes and crevices.
It plays with the candle-flame
which cowers in a corner,
and awaits its chance to strike.
Postman wind, what have you
slipped under the door tonight?
Something falls in the next room;
but we do not get up.
As long as our bodies touch, we are safe.
The north may blow himself
black in the face, or put
his shoulders against the walls,
here he will get no satisfaction.
Let him choose bachelors to frighten,
or those whose business
keeps them out-of-doors at this hour.
Oh what was that?
Howl, wind, howl.
You bring us closer together.

there she was
tall and straight
as a sugarcane stalk
and I who needed
a measure of grace
to see me through
these long parched days
saw her standing there
straight and tall
laving the air
with such a sweetness
it was almost more
than a man could bear

The screaming wind transplants the soil
particle by particle. The roar of the sun
is silenced by distance, but its muscular rays
crack the most stubborn rock like a nut.
And yes, the sea: biting into the beachhead
with an ancient rasping sound. All the forces
of nature crowding man off his perch
so that the land can return to its ways.
In this city of scarce sweet water and little rain
each man protects his rood of greenery
with panicked care. The municipality plows
the heart of the road for a strip of grass
and jealously counts its trees on week-days.
The bald sparrow scrounges in the dust-bin;
only the spendthrift gul-mohur spills its gold
in the pitiful spring that time allows.
We wear our features to suit the landscape,
and malice moves like a rainless cloud
over the brown cliffs of the teeth.
From opposite the terminus l stare
at the commuters storming the gates, and see
where the roof bulges the effeminate rise
of a dune, and where the lamp-post stands
the arms of the cactus lifted in prayer.

 

Children understand him,
and only this has kept intact
his pride and self-respect.
Otherwise he is a dry stream-bed
living on memories
and an inadequate pension,
and the hospitality
now given, now revoked,
of his sons and daughters.
An old man, who must be humoured,
and sent to his room
when there are guests about,
but always to be relied on
to keep the children upstairs and
out of mischief.
Yes,
they understand him.
From man-roar, and friendly
punches to the chest,
and damp kisses on scrubbed cheeks,
they sail to the harbour of his knees.

Once upon a time I had beautiful teeth,
and every now and then
I would laugh into the mirror
so I could admire them.
But that was long ago.
I have lost a molar since,
a great gap
my tongue uneasily confirms,
and cheap cigars have given
the stragglers an unhealthy tan.
Teeth that cracked a walnut in half
ache at the touch of too-cold water.
Their whiteness has travelled north
to a spot in the centre of my head.
Now the only time I look in the mirror
is early morning
when I have to shave.
I’ll be thirtynine in October,
which is a roundabout way
of saying goodbye to my youth.
Nearing forty I feel
like a marathon runner
hearing the bell for the last lap.
So while I still have the strength
let me take a good look at myself.
l am glad to note
that apart from the white forelock
by which Time has caught me,
l am greying decently
round the ears.
A very fine nib has drawn
a network of lines
growing outward from the eyes,
and then disgusted
with all that delicacy
made one bold stroke
on either cheek.
Tufts of hair plug each ear
permitting entry
to such sounds only
as I wish to hear.
And my nose
straight and thin as ever
has acquired the imperviousness
of a tannery worker.
And when l frown
that power-house of love, the eyes,
affect a mild hangdog look,
a prerequisite of poets.
All in all, a face
still capable
as recent experience has shown
of launching a bicycle or two.
Behind the looking-glass, however,
the landscape is more alarming.
The body's decay
is a tangible thing;
but what barometer can tell
the mind's falling weather?
just as l use prosody to bolster
the sagging roof of my verse
any success l expect in bed
is a matter of skill, not natural stamina.
l have profited, of course,
from experience, and assume
the vertical, on being cuffed,
like a balancing doll;
but I'm wondering oftener now
if my background--bank-clerk,
oilman, insurance salesman, toy-maker,
father of a growing family-
has brought me any nearer
to the only thing
l’ve ever wanted to be:
A hermit in a mountain cave.

Having hauled down my pyjamas
they dragged me, all legs and teeth,
that fateful afternoon, to a stool
before which the barber hunkered
with an open cut-throat. He stropped it
on his palm with obvious relish.
l did not like his mustachios, nor
his conciliatory smile. Somehow
they made me sit, and two cousins
held a leg apiece. The barber
looked at me; l stared right back,
defying him to start something.
He just turned aside to whisper
to my cousin who suddenly cried
‘oh look at that golden bird’,
and being only six l looked up;
which was all the time he needed
to separate me from my prepuce.
‘Bastard, sonofapig’ l roared,
‘you catamite’, while he applied
salve and bandaged the organ.
Beside myself with indignation
and pain, l forgot the presence
of elders, and cursed and cursed
in the graphic vocabulary
of the lanes, acquired at leap-frog,
marbles, and blindman’s buff.
Still frothing at the mouth they fetched
me to bed, where an anxious mother
kissed and consoled me. It was not
till l was alone that l dared
look down at my naked middle.
When l saw it so foreshortened,
raw, and swathed in lint, I burst
into fresh tears. Dismally
I wondered if l would ever
be able to pee again.
This
was many many years ago.
I have since learnt it was more
than a ritual, for by the act
of a pull and downward slash,
they prepare us for the disappointments
at the absence of golden birds
life will ask us to look at
between our circumcision and death.

One by one the neighbours’ lights go out;
the street surrenders to the night completely
except for the glowing tip of my cigarette
as l stand at my window looking down.
Nothing stirs, not even a cat. I wonder
how the people l know in this locality
react to aloneness; or, if not alone,
to privacy. For instance (I choose at random)
that portly lawyer below: does he lay aside
his dignity and bon vivre with his jacket?
I have often watched him in the Courts greeting
criminals and friends with an equal smile.
lt is impossible to think of him
as a successful lover; that he, like us,
can be taut and foul in the act of love.
Yet it must be so, for he can summon
five red-cheeked infants to testify
on his behalf, alike to the last dimple.
And talking of love, what of the crazy two
who live on opposite sides of the street
persecuted and ridiculed by all,
but have found ways to see each other?
Next door, the thin pale clerk resides
who cashes my cheques, a different man
without visor and stool. He’s a poet too,
and beats his wife. Do the beatings inspire
the frequent orgies in verse or vice-versa?
Up there is my bachelor friend who sells
insurance. Was that book in his pocket
pornographic as usual? Did he read it,
and is he stretched out on his sofa, unsleeping?
And is there someone behind those blank walls
sobbing on his knees because he rejected
his father’s faith and now has nothing,
not even the faith in himself or his art
which warmed him many a luckless winter?
A slow lad turns the corner, singing aloud,
as he comes back home from a late movie.
He shatters the dark with his raucous voice,
and l pinch my cigarette out. The eyes
return to the manuscripts on the desk.
And, suddenly, the mouth is full of teeth.

As soon as you enter, the room's poverty
strikes you like a blow. The mohri carpet
may have been priceless once; now its worst
patches are hidden by strategic placement
of occasional pieces. You sit stiffly
on the sofa’s edge to avoid the stains
at the back where many an oily head
has rested. On the mantelpiece
an aluminium tiger is ready to spring,
and on the wall a set of three geese
carved in a dark wood, their wings fully
extended, diminish towards the ceiling.
What am I doing here? Ostensibly
a neighbourhood call, but the real purpose
is to judge the suitability of this house
for a cousin to be married into.
The host is effusive. His collar
is as frayed as his carpet. I cannot
meet his eye. Instead, I look over
his shoulder at a girl in Sindhi costume
smirking from an airline calendar
torn to a December three years gone.
Tea is served. This is too much like home.
I fidget as I balance the cup on my knee,
and hear his version of the latest joke,
and laugh politely, as anxious as him
to appear respectable and to please.

Too many houses! The view
is terrifying: far as the eye can see
roofs telescoping into each other
all the way down the hill,
till it seems one could slide
to the bottom without touching ground.
The man who first built here
in the wilderness, must have watched
with pride the second house grow--
his choice vindicated ----
and then in anguish as the houses
attacked the hillside in a swarm
and stung it to shapelessness.
Pioneer and follower are both buried
side by side in the Christian cemetery,
and we who come a hundred
years after, use these structures
as sleeping places only, from which
we strut each elegant evening
to see and be seen by other.

This mound, barely thirty feet high,
which could be comfortably fitted
into half a football field,
is all that survives, they tell me,
of a town 5000 years old.
Archaeologists say the town
had a highly developed culture.
The fragments of pottery, painstakingly joined,
and tools littering the museums
indicate the skill of its craftsmen.
Potter's wheel, grain jar, ploughshare,
and the many ornaments and beads
(not a weapon in sight)
prove they were a peace-loving people,
tillers of the soil, sculptors, artisans,
who had no use for moats and palisades,
their only enemy the drought.
But this is mere hypothesis.
The historian has by-passed the mound
for some reason known only to himself;
the fastidious hands of the excavator
have not yet reconstructed here
another Mohenjo Daro.
To the unpractised eye
the occasional outcrop of slim bricks,
a type no longer in fashion,
is the sole evidence of its antiquity.
Still, they are all there, l suppose:
The wide lanes and sensible houses,
and a marvellous system of drainage
that did not poison the rivers and the sea;
and, miracle of miracles,
only the one temple for the populace.
What cold-eyed bravoes from the North
on restive horses, desolated them,
only the wind knows.
On the top
of the knoll a banyan tree
protects the giant grave from the sun;
while endless acres of water-logged fields
have pushed to its very hem
a village of two-score houses of mud.
A sluggish drain runs down its middle
into which all the children defecate.

A positive region, almost smothered
by confident pines, and bursting-over
with green springs at every nook.
Away in the background a waterfall
rests like a white tie against
the mountain’s heaving chest. The road
descends steeply, and the automobile,
its engine shut off, masterful, sleek,
coasts to a five o'clock appointment.
What could such a place deny?
Not sustenance, surely. Everywhere
grass, impossibly lush; sunny terraces
of rice; and the occasional patch
of maize; see how the sweet-sour apricots
growing wild by the way-side insist
not a living thing shall be hungry here.
Bushes brim with birds, the slopes
are littered with shaggy, sure-footed goats,
apparently untended. And the trees
are functional--each pine is belted
low at the waist and buckled with a cup.
And certainly not health. The breeze
with a hint of rain makes one cavil
at the stink of upholstery and petrol.
Oh to be young again, to have the courage
to disembark at will, and with a shout
slither down to where the stream
among the smooth pebbles at the bottom
sparkles like soda. Here everyone
has Mr. Universe calves. And the women
need no brassieres.
At various points
along the route, the road-menders stand,
indolent, cheerful, yet overwhelmingly
industrious as each vehicle turns
the corner before them. Not a sickly
face have l seen all afternoon. The
children salute smartly as we pass,
and the old women gathering faggots
have a smile to spare for the stranger.
A positive place, indeed. Each hill
has its quorum of tin-roofed dwellings,
while here and there, a cypress
stands like an exclamation mark.
A gust of rain overtakes us, makes
the wipers frantic, and is gone
as suddenly, leaving no puddles
or flooded gutters. Even as we sigh,
the road levels and straightens out,
the tall pines have dwindled to shrubs.
With one last long backward look
we resign it to the uncomplicated
men, the cicadas, and the Iordly eagle.

The squalor in which some people live
disgusts me, and when l see a man
pissing on the road, it makes me mad.
Dear God, have l forgotten so soon
my own beginnings?
The oblique house
in Shahalam where my mother was born
is no longer there; in its place
stands a dry fountain, a symbol of
the act that severed a continent.
But it inflames the eye of memory
like a mote: room piled upon room,
and not a ventilator anywhere
to let the stale air out. Down one side
a gutter ran like a sore; the other
shared with a Hindu dealer in brass.
My grandfather, splendidly moustached,
boisterous, semi-naked, who turned
from mashing bones to mending them,
the most skilful bone-setter of his day,
with a certificate from Lord Kitchener
to prove it, still young at eighty,
held court on the ground-floor, surrounded
by the appurtenances of his trade
and the patients’ relatives. l can see him
cajoling a wayward bone into place
cannily aided by a burst of invective
so fierce it makes me shudder still.
As we stood by at a respectful distance
memorizing his words, he pointed us out
to his neighbours proudly as the children
of a millionaire, hastily adding,
of course, he did not care a damn.
ln that smell of oil and lint and dung
and unaired quilts, how carefree we were,
for a few ecstatic weeks each winter
like the barna tree, all flower
and no leaf. The filth was part of us,
as we grew tall in that time of love.
The hands of the clock in moving forward
are moving back. The family business
slides downwards imperceptibly
while l bandy words in a foreign tongue.

Bunched, like an embryo, in a trench,
while shells are wailing overhead,
l am really afraid.
Because
We have been sitting here a long time,
and conversation is impossible,
it seems an appropriate moment
to examine the origins of fear.
Do l tremble for my children
too young yet to fend for themselves?
They sit rigid against our sides,
hands clapped to ears, too terrified
to complain of the heat and hunger.
But this, I realize, is vanity,
for it makes me greater than God,
who, it follows, has not the power
to save what He created.
And in any case why should l worry
for the same shell will get them too.
Or is it that my wife is young and beautiful,
and l cannot bear to think
of another man sprawled over her
making her moan and heave for him
as she has done for me a thousand times?
But l like this thought even less,
for it proves me a cad.
lnstinctively, I duck
as a shell bursts not ten yards away,
and the north wall is poxed by shrapnel.
The next one may search me out
(Oh hear that whine)
so I can afford to be honest.
Consider what the world stands to lose
if I die now:
The poems yet unwritten, the millions
still to be made, the lips unkissed
which I have marked for my own.
And even as I weep to think
how my friends will receive the news,
l hear people calling my name.
All is quiet; the shelling is over;
and I rise from the trench, triumphant.

When the telegram arrived
l was combing my hair in the sun
and gossiping with the servants.
lt said the Government were sorry
my husband was dead, killed in action.
For two days I did not know
what had happened. Then I woke
to mother's voice in the next room
comforting a weeping neighbour
(as if she were the bereaved one).
Slowly, full consiousness returned.
I dressed for the first time as a widow.
l ate my first meal as a widow.
When l was resigned to thinking of him
as lying scattered in a rice-field,
a thighbone here, a breastbone there,
the rest gifted to the vultures,
they printed his name in the papers
and a photograph of his bachelor days.
He had died a hero.
The friends trooped in again
this time to congratulate.
l heard my father accepting
the tributes with a tired mouth.
I was invited to the ceremony
where the general gave me a medal
and patted my son on the head.
For an entire week the little fellow
strutted around the bazar
with the medal pinned on his shirt,
and the neighbours gave him sweets.
Now the medal is lying in its box
and is taken out less and less.
What shall l do with it?
A medal has no hands, no lips, no penis;
it is exactly what it looks like:
just another piece of bronze.

I
We wander curiously through the lanes
of the re-occupied village,
if you can still call
it a village, for roofs, doors, windows,
of each house are gone, giving us
the appearance of
tourists in an excavated
site. Yet only six months ago
this was a thriving market-square.
Here ordinary men
haggled for a pile
of mangoes, or a yard of silk.
The beams of the low roof blackened
by winter fires
before which squatted
four generations of story-tellers,
have ended in a camp-fire, round
which drunken soldiers
have told each other
tales of real and imagined prowess.
And doors through which have entered
brides weeping, and seen
grandfathers leave lamented
have been chopped up to warm
the shaving water of some lieutenant.
And the best quilts hoarded
for guests lie stained
with the blood of ravished daughters.
Now picture them, if you can,
watching in terror
the deliberate advance
of the green and greedy centipede,
who clutches them in its hot embrace
to appease a lust
that has festered there
for more than a thousand years.
Such hate only those can understand
who have felt the rank breath
upon their necks or seen
the mad eyes drawing closer and closer,
while legs hold trembling legs in thrall,
and hard hands fumble
for the knot, and with
one jerk foul sense and innocence.
No matter which way the eye turns, there
is nothing, nothing,
which the evil
of their minds has left untouched.
Here where the line curves, the railway
track is like twin snakes
with their shining backs
broken with the passage of tanks,
which have also churned up the fields
the way wild boars do.
A mosque stands with
minarets down, like an armless beggar.
They have poisoned all the wells,
or filled them with muck,
and along the roads
hastily cut down the shisham trees
which gave shade to the lunch-bearing wife,
the creaking cart, and
the traveller to town.
These ravaged stumps will bear witness
to a civilisation just as surely
as the topless stupas
and mangled buddhas
that punctuate our northern valleys.
ll
For those who return to the village
the war is not yet over.
They will always remember
the unending weeks spent in exile
tormented with guessing the fate
of their unattended fields,
their cattle, their women,
whom (they are shamed to recall)
they left in panic; also weeping children
separated from them
by the length of a trench.
Now they know: the houses are gone,
the cattle eaten, the women raped and killed.
Houses will be re-built,
fields ploughed again,
but who can re-build a broken heart?
Whenever eyes look eastward, their minds
will fill with hate,
as a foot-print
by the river-side fills with water.
For many the war is not yet over.
Unwarily tilling
the fields, an overlooked mine
will blow man and oxen into the sky.
And any unexpected sound could
light the short fuse of
their nerves. The future
now means the day after tomorrow.
There is a woman’s body in the well.
Who can say if she
was guiltily despatched
or whether she jumped in to hide her shame.
And there are many more women here,
or what remains after
the jackals have taken
their share; the agonised flesh
is gone; but the bones remain;
skeletons flung at
all angles to prove
the tragic theorem of death.

Observe this man with the brindled hair
and moustache, doodling naked women
on a magazine cover. He answers
queries on the phone automatically
from behind the safety of the counter.
He was a classmate for several years
and a neighbour and close friend.
We met an hour ago on the tarmac
warmly, embraced, and patted each other
on the back. After the first do-you-remembers
and enquiries about wives and children
we have nothing to say. Desperately
I rack my brain for subjects. He doodles
and is inaccessible.
ls he the one
who was the life and soul of each party,
who dominated the class by his size,
a natural monitor? Whom the girls
from the adjacent convent elected
as the handsomest boy of the school?
They smuggled messages to him, and screamed
go, go to his bow-legs as they churned
to little purpose in the annual sports.
Addicted to politics, he organized
societies on the lines of the Gestapo,
complete with secret signs and rituals,
and, of course, was always president.
Now he sits behind an airline desk
in a foreign capital, disinterested, vague,
old at fortythree. His eyes light up briefly,
I note with relief, when a pretty girl
passes; then he reverts to his doodling.
l could almost weep for him. Before
the tragedy of his ruined promise
the fact of my own disordered life
no longer seems real or important.

A drought means a pitiless sky,
wilted crops, and naked boys, all ribs,
rummaging in each new heap of refuse
left behind by the municipal truck.
These platitudes well may bring
tears to the eyes of a school matron
as she sips her Sunday tea and newspaper
while pudgy hands stroke a well-fed cat.
Famines, however, are facts, not vague
happenings in a far away country
that deserve our pity. ln mosques
of this town, and in every village,
special prayers are being said
for God’s ruth. They are sacrificing
sheep and cows doomed to die of hunger
anyway. ls there something, after all,
in voodoo? The witch-doctor, saint,
palmist and faith-healer thrive
on our frustrations. Later, the crisis
over, there is no need to know
with certainty it was their intervention
that tipped the scales in our favour.
Next year’s ills need next year’s cures.
The level of water in the well
sinks daily; there is a clear ring
of moistness to show where once
the free descending bucket plonked.
Just so. This is an image
that satisfies both sound and sense.
But how is one to describe
the gradual drying-up of love?
The first moment of inattention
is not a grinning buffalo skull
half-buried in leukemious soil
as proof of lack; a disloyal thought
does not stay menacingly in the air
like a vulture; yet both are real enough.
Rain-clouds may come and bless
the old earth whose make-up has cracked
and give it a wholesome look again;
or lightnings flagellate a penitent sky;
but no prayer or talisman can halt
the drought spreading in the eyes.

My countryside is not
pine-forest or paddy-fields
(though I have lived among such);
it is miles and miles
of sand and nameless scrub.
The palms have a whipped and sorry look;
yet even these
and the glossy shishams
are not our trees.
In this scorified land,
only the skeletal cactus
is wholly at ease;
It can raise its arms in supplication,
but never bend its knees.
The wildberry is my fruit;
my bird, the snipe.
My countryman is not
a key-swinging merchant,
or wrestler in loincloth
wielding a mace;
but an itching moron who can drub
his wife, and stubbornly tills
a handkerchief plot
between eroded hills,
And my women
(though l have always found
one or two to praise)
have hairy legs,
are top-heavy,
and lack grace.
Beyond my nomad fires
Jackals howl at the moon.
My tenement is not
a bungalow
in a seven-acre lot;
But an ancestral hovel
with a roof
which has snouts for the wind.
Look how in this single curtainless room
l manage to copulate
among my sleeping children,
who at dawn
rush to the still-wet fields
to relieve themselves.
Afterwards, they rub
their bottoms on the ground.
A salt-death gnaws at my roots;
my vultures soar.
Senses are ravished by
a lady-of-the-night, unseen,
on a midnight walk;
but l could tell the seasons better
by sand-dunes weeping
their gritty tears.
And if I were asked to chalk
an emblem none could doubt,
it would not be:
a wild board rampant
or a crouching tiger,
but a goat--
resting its forefeet lightly
against a shrub.
No god or milkmaids out there;
only the dust-devil.

l bear my cousin to his grave
at the head of a slow procession
to be laid beside our common grandfather,
dead these fifty years,
and a host of half-remembered
or long-forgotten relatives.
His dirge is the shuffle of feet,
and the hissing of gas lanterns.
Even as we walk he eludes us.
He is not the weight we carry,
but the one who planted the silver oaks
in the courtyard; who could never
make up his mind; a white-haired army contractor
we half-expect to meet on our return.
He is dead certain now,
and properly contracted.
ls this the end of the ancestral home?
Friends will not come here in the evening
to hear the news and discuss the crops,
or the neighbours to settle their disputes.
A place survives as long as its keeper.
We reach the grave; it is not yet ready.
The night is cold, and we are thinly clad,
ill-prepared for this delay.
The shivering irritates us, so does talk
of business, sex, and politics.
The mask of sadness has slipped.
ln a field hard by, a tractor sputters
into life. Each time it turns
it catches us in a pallid trance.
The diggers give the signal at last.
We rise from the mounds we’ve been sitting on,
and dust our clothes.
lt is just as well my cousin cannot
hear the sighs of relief.
We hand him down gingerly
to the two men standing in the grave,
then cut off the sky.
A fistful of dirt, a fistful of prayer,
are the last salutes.
We turn our back on the graveyard. Now
he is really alone.
Seeing this death we think of our own,
and real tears start to the eyes.

To see fruit ripen
by the weather’s connivance,
eyes bud and flower again,
be scorched in June
and shrunk by the northeast wind,
is to become complete.
Can we come to terms
with our deciduous love
until we have seen
the mulberry in its bare
essentials – trunk, branch,
and twig - the X-rayed tree?
A lone ignited leaf
downsailing, from the moment
it takes to air
till it touches ground,
has a significance
no jet can imitate.
And a flight of geese
rising from our marshes at dawn
drives a wedge
into history more deeply
than a prophet fleeing to a cave
or an ultimatum.

Kitchens were places
we grew up in.
High -roofed, spacious,
they attracted us
with the pungency
of smoke and spices.
From December beds
we hurried to the cheer
of wood-fires, above
which sang black kettles.
Once there, we dawdled
over last night’s curry
and fresh bread dripping
from the saucepan, eggs,
and everlasting bowls
of tea. Discussions
centred on primaries:
births, deaths, marriages,
crops. Mother presided,
contributing only
her presence, busy
ladling, ladling. Noise
was warmth. Now in these
cramped spaces, there is
no time for talk. A
stainless homogeneity
winks back our sneers.
Chairs are insular;
they do not encourage
intimacy like slats.
The table tucks bellies
in. We would not dream
of coming to this place
to savour our triumphs,
or unburden our griefs.
Chromium and Formica
have replaced the textured
homeliness of plaster, teak.
Everything is clean
as a hospital. The surrealistic clock,
where once the eloquent
grandfather swung,
clicks forward, stiffly.
We are deferential
to the snap pleasures
of electric toast, and take
our last gulps standing up.

Bird or hovercraft, your angling skill
proclaims the confidence
of repeated success; you flash
rainbows as you plunge to kill.
The luckless minnows in their drifting know
only when the beak is home.
No sound or shadow warns that death
is poised, and pointing below.
But what about tomorrow? Will they hiss
and boo from the sidelines
as you find, pause, fold, and dip towards
the horror of your first miss?
l’ll learn to love you then, for lost
causes link all temperaments.
What drains my speech of sap will blunt
your keen iridescent thrust.

Gracious living is gone along with the high-vaulted roof.
Sheerness, where once were fluted column and filigreed dome,
stained glass, arabesque, mosaic.
Instead of gargoyles, straight black drain-pipes.
We no longer sit on lion’s paws or walk on fabled menageries.
Now temperature conditions our lives in rooms where
the ceiling is barely half-a-man above our heads;
it presses down on us, reminding, in a burst of short
lines and cliches,
of other pressures waiting to be lifted.
There was a time the inky sun provided a companionable shadow
as we ran home from school;
now the shortening shade
of a palm seems
a hand on a
bony wrist
pulling
us to
Zer
o
All night a prophetic rain has fallen
on the steady slanting tiles, till sometime
towards morning the roof begins to leak.
The electricity has, as usual, failed.
The baby starts crying and will not be hushed.
As l slosh around in the dark
for a dry spot, guided by a running
commentary from the wife, I discover
new dimensions of feeling: physical
comfort is peace; that love can only
thrive under a dry roof.
Cold, or ailing, or reluctant, we are never alone.
The elbow digging into our side is insistent.
Beneath the quilt our tomorrows count us with precision;
through some chink
the wind sneaks in
with its cold nose.
Slowly a drizzle of self-pity sizzles on the brain.
ln the dawn air, a cacophony of loudspeakers distort
the muezzin’s call, triumphantly echoed by the crowing cock.
Awake
says the toothbrush on the wall,
and the gleaming razor beckons from the bathroom.
Awake says the moans of yawning children.
The sun the sun the sun
buzzes in the skypane now.
Only a streetcar’s dying rattle
as it lurches past my first-floor apartment,
and the song-cum-static of the radio
disturb this peace. A liquid noise
rises slowly till it is knee-deep, chest-deep,
and then right over my head, to leave me
wholly suspended in a sea-weed silence.
Here is no question of acceptance
or denial. Across the cave-mouth
(the room's a grotto where the relics shine)
love has thrown a screen of glass.
What filters through is a nameless music
caressing the ears, and the glowing softness
of borrowed light. Time whispers, dies.
l stand alone on a breakwater deafened
by my thoughts. The ocean's restive tongue
flicks its saliva against the wall,
and what it touches is scoured and renewed
Night ends, as the day ends, without a sense of achievement.
Consider the dining-room
now breakfast’s over. Not a crumb
on the gleaming shisham table;
the napkins neatly quartered again,
and leftover foodstuff whisked away
by a dexterous servant in canvas shoes.
The mound of toast has disappeared
carefully consumed by clamped mouths.
Two cups lie in front of us, only
a hint of tea at the bottom,
while we discuss yesterday's events
and today ’s chores. The abstract paintings,
waxed floor, sideboard, and the bowl’s
precise arrangement of flowers and twigs
make the creation of disorder unthinkable.
l am dressed and ready to go to office,
cheeks shaved with a timed dexterity
(six and a half minutes, the extra
half-minute because of a pimple
on the awkward part between chin and lip)
and mustaches trimmed with the precision
of a silversmith hammering foil;
the grey striped suit is pressed
reverently as becomes the cloth;
the tie negligently right; and the shoes
like black glow-worms coming to a point.
The clock strikes nine. Ceremoniously
l compare it with my wrist-watch, and
rise from the table under her clinical
eye, and fortified by the morning peck
and last minute instructions, l leave feeling
the solitary soiled thing in the room.
The June sun turns each asphalt road to a glue-pot.
Eyes straining through dust, the legacy
of a passing car, and ears tuned to the squelch
of wheels, it is ridiculously easy
to develop a summer conscience.
Even poetry, through long practice, becomes
part of us, just as a steady flame
seems a bright extension
of the candle’s self,
and not the wick burning.
Why then does the intelligent mind shy away from prayer?
There is something apt about old women
beads; but beyond that we are not prepared to go.
Racing past a tannery and a chemicals plant, we
note civilization has a bad smell.
The siren hoots and brings the day to a halt.
The factory gates burst outwards pressed by an
anonymous humanity drawing our pay.
Already sweepers are tidying up for the next shift;
but the eye this whimsical evening, looks right through
the walls to a place where stands
derelict man:
pigeon siftings accumulate on the rafters of his brow,
and a careless wind whistles
through the disused chimney of his nose.
After the performance is over
l turn from her and light a cigarette.
lt seems such foolishness now:
the animal sounds, the dirty words,
and as the excitement mounted
the raging urge to destroy, destroy,
destroy.
on prayer mats
turning
automatic
beads; but beyond that we are not prepared to go.
Racing past a tannery and a chemicals plant, we
note civilization has a bad smell.
The siren hoots and brings the day to a halt.
The factory gates burst outwards pressed by an
anonymous humanity drawing our pay.
Already sweepers are tidying up for the next shift;
but the eye this whimsical evening, looks right through
the walls to a place where stands
derelict man:
pigeon siftings accumulate on the rafters of his brow,
and a careless wind whistles
through the disused chimney of his nose.
After the performance is over
l turn from her and light a cigarette.
lt seems such foolishness now:
the animal sounds, the dirty words,
and as the excitement mounted
the raging urge to destroy, destroy,
destroy.
Just a minute ago
the encircling arms and thighs
were the one sure thing in a heaving world.
Now I ruefully feel the place
where she bit me.
The limp time’s come,
and reason slowly clambers back
to its well-worn seat, and from the shadows
the deceptions one by one emerge
to surround the bed accusingly.
l must make do with this.
The time of cobwebbed miracles is over;
rams will not appear again to save
this neck from the knife. But there is hope
still, and cause enough for gratitude,
if I sometimes question myself,
if every goodnight to the mirror
reveals the darkness
gathering slowly under the eyes.

Out of the next cotton patch
a partridge calls in reply
to another. We halt
in midstride, and greedily
turn to listen to that rich,
wild, triumphant lilt.
The December countryside
flaunts this one warm note. Even
the elephant-grass he adores
is not the anonymous heaven
it seems; chilled steel each blade
like the guns on our shoulders.
Joyously, the bird,
while the warned beaters congeal,
rehearses his boldness. From
the low bushes on the hill,
an irrepressible third
joins the chorus of doom.
Having unburdened his need
to celebrate, and unbare
his soul to the slanted sun,
l can imagine him there
strutting after seed,
refreshed, and undone.
On a prearranged ges-
ture we move to that death
in a shrill arc. The pain
takes wing when from the sheath
of love the bird rises
to a merciless rain.

Before the thrust of this liberating wind
whatever is not fixed, has a place to go,
strains northwards to the coniferous lands.
And drunk with motion, clothes on the washing-line
are raised above themselves; a flapping sheet
turns a roof corner into a battlement.
Gliding days are over. The birds are tossed
sideways and back, and lifted against their will.
They must struggle to achieve direction.
A welcome darkness descends. Harsh contours
dissolve, lose their prosaic condition.
All the sounds we have loved are restored.
And now the rain! In sudden squalls
it sweeps the street, and equally sudden
are the naked boys paddling in the ditches.
Alive, alive, everything is alive again.
Savour the rain's coolness on lips and eyes.
How madly the electric wire is swinging!
From brown waters eddying round their hooves
the drenched trees rise and shake themselve
and summer ends in a flurry of drops.

Karachi is the only city l know
where barbers solicit like whores, and papayas
are considered fruit. Sandwiched between
the desert and the sea, it swells by reclamation,
and points to its belly shamelessly.
A windy instant burg, it lionises
artists whose chief merit is a big mouth.
There is no weather here as we northerners
understand weather. The season telescopes
a sort of summer into a sort of winter,
topped by a mini-monsoon. Each new morning
brings no hope of change. Generally the clouds
are sexless, mute, and above our affairs.
A splitting sky announces a jet not rain.
No, l do not think l shall come to terms
with this grey place. lt shortens my breath
and pinches my eyes. On bad roads automobiles
smelling each others’ rears jostle their way
to the beach. A manure truck leaves its trail.
At 2 a.m. the whirling airport searchlight
brandishes its sword over the hushed city.

Having come to these fields, this pond,
to brood on early death, l remain
to praise the lavishness of Nature.
Other seasons may be niggardly,
not autumn; it gives and takes
with abandon. lnto its slot
shishams will one by one insert
all their green coins, while the wind
riffles its currency of rice.
Dear lovely girl, you ride the
rainbow of our prayers, and give us
strength to face the coming chill.
Shadows lengthen softly. ln the seepage
reeds and the nurse-like lilies stand,
rooted in coolness; and a gnarled
wildberry tree tests the water
by trailing a broken digit there.
Now acceptance settles on the mind
with the nicety of a dragonfly.
And even as I fling up my arms
in an excess of pity and love,
the pebble of my presence breaks
porcelain herons into blurred flight.

When Gautam reached the spot
called Sattapanni,
he was tired, but happy.
He walked further up the hill
and sat down on a boulder
still warm with the sun,
and looked north:
Smoke curled lazily from
a clearing in the grove, below,
where his disciples were busy
preparing the evening meal.
From that eminence
with his perfect vision he could see
the towers of Kapilavastu
where abandoned wife and child
still waited;
the tree in whose shade
he had received intimations
of his destiny;
and the deer-park in Benares,
the place of his first acclaim.
The path from there to here
was clear. All was orderly
on either side. People debouched
from barn and sty to walk that lane.
Gautam smiled. Some he knew
would exaggerate what he had done,
others renege, and a lucky handful
follow to the radiant conclusion.
But he was satisfied
with what had been done.
Then he faced the East:
Here was nothing but wilderness,
jungle piled upon jungle,
and snowy wastes, and not
a track anywhere to be seen.
Undeterred, Gautam rose,
impatient to begin again
what only he could begin.
He judged what light there remained,
and with the sun behind his head,
he began his descent.

A sheep, hennaed like a bride,
follows a curly-headed child
as innocent as itself
to death lurking in the festive house.
Poor child, poor beast, they do not know
how an act thousands of years ago
has complicated their life.
Call forth your wisest man
to explain to them tomorrow
the cold ethics of mercy,
and tenderly show
the love shining on the uplifted knife.

For Autumn, a ceremony all its own;
for it is the season of truth.
The first glimmerings of decay
impinge on the senses. ln subtle ways
the landscape alerts:
already the deciduous trees
are a different shade of green from the rest.
Subtly, the mind alters too.
Winter’s nudity has not yet replaced
the flamboyance of summer.
Everything is in-between.
The rice-fields soon will be ready for harvest.
There is a hint of cold in the wind.
It is something to know
this new feeling of lack
is not fatigue, or lack of practice,
but a leaf by leaf withdrawal of power.
At this moment of sadness,
it is something to know
that your eyes hold promise of a kindly season,
and what is lost through time can be gained through love.
You have entered my life when all seemed safe
and I was resigned
to the brief ritual in the bed.
Above all, l am grateful to you
that for once words are irrelevant.
For there is nothing really to be said
these long autumn evenings.
Much ripens, nothing is ripe.
But we are not an in-between people.
Only the whirling sun of June,
or January hail can extract from us
spontaneous speech.
For the moment, gestures.
From such unquestioning immediacy grows
the sense of belonging
that keeps the nail glued to the thumb.

Thinking of Mohenjodaro
Alexandria and Rome,
I note how time curves
back upon itself
like an acrobat.
This year's harvest is late.
The archaic sun
has been playing
like a poem
on the farmer’s nerves.
The ink dries slowly
on the half-written page.
Who will read this?
Stranger, the crumbling fort
you pass is your home.

There are rumours of another war.
All day, from the border villages
a steady trickle of refugees
has seeped in, leaving behind
a tilted landscape, drained of feeling.
Their particulars are heaped on carts,
women and children on the heaps,
and they themselves walking alongside.
Cousins in town who saw them before
at funerals, are yet unaware
of their luck, for they will be
playing host till the scare is over.
I am high up on the balustrade
of the fort that umbilically
overlooks the town. It is more
than a thousand years old. Only
a fraction of one corner retains
the character of a fort. From it
stone, arrow, bullet were launched.
Though elevated as an insignia
it is not so belligerent now.
The city fathers malfunction in it,
and a sprawling police station where
pickpockets are given a drubbing.
This is my town. Memories choke
its brick-paved arteries, and more
than double my fund of being.
To the south, there, two miles away,
is the house grandfather built,
where father and l were born. Beyond it
on clear winter nights one can see
enemy lights blink on the horizon.
That is why the town stagnates.
Those who make their money here
invest it elsewhere. This is my town.
It gives me a sense of belonging
and peace no other place provides.
I feel the pulse of the town quicken.
It was once the centre of things.
Neglected and poetic, it broods
on the jealousies that pushed it aside;
and one wonders if these slow carts
are nudging it again into history.
lt is possible; but for the moment
l am back with myself. Maybe
l shall die here and be carried
to the family plot. lt is possible,
and apt that things grope forward from
the same root to which they wither.

The time to love
is when the heart says so.
Who cares
If it is muddy august
or tepid april?-
for Love’s infallible feet
step daintily
from vantage to vantage
to the waiting salt-lick.
If Spring
has any significance
it is for us,
the rhymesters,
who need
a bough to perch on
while we sing.
Love is a country
with its own climate.

The wind howls about the house
like a cat mourning its young.
We have crept early into bed,
for though it is six by the clock,
it seems much later than that.
The electricity is dead;
and a single candle deputizes
between encyclopaedias
Wind, wind, what have you lost,
that you wail like this in the streets?
Doors and windows are bolted;
even so, the curtains are wild,
for the wind insinuates itself
through the keyholes and crevices.
It plays with the candle-flame
which cowers in a corner,
and awaits its chance to strike.
Postman wind, what have you
slipped under the door tonight?
Something falls in the next room;
but we do not get up.
As long as our bodies touch, we are safe.
The north may blow himself
black in the face, or put
his shoulders against the walls,
here he will get no satisfaction.
Let him choose bachelors to frighten,
or those whose business
keeps them out-of-doors at this hour.
Oh what was that?
Howl, wind, howl.
You bring us closer together.

there she was
tall and straight
as a sugarcane stalk
and I who needed
a measure of grace
to see me through
these long parched days
saw her standing there
straight and tall
laving the air
with such a sweetness
it was almost more
than a man could bear

The screaming wind transplants the soil
particle by particle. The roar of the sun
is silenced by distance, but its muscular rays
crack the most stubborn rock like a nut.
And yes, the sea: biting into the beachhead
with an ancient rasping sound. All the forces
of nature crowding man off his perch
so that the land can return to its ways.
In this city of scarce sweet water and little rain
each man protects his rood of greenery
with panicked care. The municipality plows
the heart of the road for a strip of grass
and jealously counts its trees on week-days.
The bald sparrow scrounges in the dust-bin;
only the spendthrift gul-mohur spills its gold
in the pitiful spring that time allows.
We wear our features to suit the landscape,
and malice moves like a rainless cloud
over the brown cliffs of the teeth.
From opposite the terminus l stare
at the commuters storming the gates, and see
where the roof bulges the effeminate rise
of a dune, and where the lamp-post stands
the arms of the cactus lifted in prayer.

 

Children understand him,
and only this has kept intact
his pride and self-respect.
Otherwise he is a dry stream-bed
living on memories
and an inadequate pension,
and the hospitality
now given, now revoked,
of his sons and daughters.
An old man, who must be humoured,
and sent to his room
when there are guests about,
but always to be relied on
to keep the children upstairs and
out of mischief.
Yes,
they understand him.
From man-roar, and friendly
punches to the chest,
and damp kisses on scrubbed cheeks,
they sail to the harbour of his knees.

Once upon a time I had beautiful teeth,
and every now and then
I would laugh into the mirror
so I could admire them.
But that was long ago.
I have lost a molar since,
a great gap
my tongue uneasily confirms,
and cheap cigars have given
the stragglers an unhealthy tan.
Teeth that cracked a walnut in half
ache at the touch of too-cold water.
Their whiteness has travelled north
to a spot in the centre of my head.
Now the only time I look in the mirror
is early morning
when I have to shave.
I’ll be thirtynine in October,
which is a roundabout way
of saying goodbye to my youth.
Nearing forty I feel
like a marathon runner
hearing the bell for the last lap.
So while I still have the strength
let me take a good look at myself.
l am glad to note
that apart from the white forelock
by which Time has caught me,
l am greying decently
round the ears.
A very fine nib has drawn
a network of lines
growing outward from the eyes,
and then disgusted
with all that delicacy
made one bold stroke
on either cheek.
Tufts of hair plug each ear
permitting entry
to such sounds only
as I wish to hear.
And my nose
straight and thin as ever
has acquired the imperviousness
of a tannery worker.
And when l frown
that power-house of love, the eyes,
affect a mild hangdog look,
a prerequisite of poets.
All in all, a face
still capable
as recent experience has shown
of launching a bicycle or two.
Behind the looking-glass, however,
the landscape is more alarming.
The body’s decay
is a tangible thing;
but what barometer can tell
the mind’s falling weather?
just as l use prosody to bolster
the sagging roof of my verse
any success l expect in bed
is a matter of skill, not natural stamina.
l have profited, of course,
from experience, and assume
the vertical, on being cuffed,
like a balancing doll;
but I’m wondering oftener now
if my background–bank-clerk,
oilman, insurance salesman, toy-maker,
father of a growing family-
has brought me any nearer
to the only thing
l’ve ever wanted to be:
A hermit in a mountain cave.

Having hauled down my pyjamas
they dragged me, all legs and teeth,
that fateful afternoon, to a stool
before which the barber hunkered
with an open cut-throat. He stropped it
on his palm with obvious relish.
l did not like his mustachios, nor
his conciliatory smile. Somehow
they made me sit, and two cousins
held a leg apiece. The barber
looked at me; l stared right back,
defying him to start something.
He just turned aside to whisper
to my cousin who suddenly cried
‘oh look at that golden bird’,
and being only six l looked up;
which was all the time he needed
to separate me from my prepuce.
‘Bastard, sonofapig’ l roared,
‘you catamite’, while he applied
salve and bandaged the organ.
Beside myself with indignation
and pain, l forgot the presence
of elders, and cursed and cursed
in the graphic vocabulary
of the lanes, acquired at leap-frog,
marbles, and blindman’s buff.
Still frothing at the mouth they fetched
me to bed, where an anxious mother
kissed and consoled me. It was not
till l was alone that l dared
look down at my naked middle.
When l saw it so foreshortened,
raw, and swathed in lint, I burst
into fresh tears. Dismally
I wondered if l would ever
be able to pee again.
This
was many many years ago.
I have since learnt it was more
than a ritual, for by the act
of a pull and downward slash,
they prepare us for the disappointments
at the absence of golden birds
life will ask us to look at
between our circumcision and death.

One by one the neighbours’ lights go out;
the street surrenders to the night completely
except for the glowing tip of my cigarette
as l stand at my window looking down.
Nothing stirs, not even a cat. I wonder
how the people l know in this locality
react to aloneness; or, if not alone,
to privacy. For instance (I choose at random)
that portly lawyer below: does he lay aside
his dignity and bon vivre with his jacket?
I have often watched him in the Courts greeting
criminals and friends with an equal smile.
lt is impossible to think of him
as a successful lover; that he, like us,
can be taut and foul in the act of love.
Yet it must be so, for he can summon
five red-cheeked infants to testify
on his behalf, alike to the last dimple.
And talking of love, what of the crazy two
who live on opposite sides of the street
persecuted and ridiculed by all,
but have found ways to see each other?
Next door, the thin pale clerk resides
who cashes my cheques, a different man
without visor and stool. He’s a poet too,
and beats his wife. Do the beatings inspire
the frequent orgies in verse or vice-versa?
Up there is my bachelor friend who sells
insurance. Was that book in his pocket
pornographic as usual? Did he read it,
and is he stretched out on his sofa, unsleeping?
And is there someone behind those blank walls
sobbing on his knees because he rejected
his father’s faith and now has nothing,
not even the faith in himself or his art
which warmed him many a luckless winter?
A slow lad turns the corner, singing aloud,
as he comes back home from a late movie.
He shatters the dark with his raucous voice,
and l pinch my cigarette out. The eyes
return to the manuscripts on the desk.
And, suddenly, the mouth is full of teeth.

As soon as you enter, the room’s poverty
strikes you like a blow. The mohri carpet
may have been priceless once; now its worst
patches are hidden by strategic placement
of occasional pieces. You sit stiffly
on the sofa’s edge to avoid the stains
at the back where many an oily head
has rested. On the mantelpiece
an aluminium tiger is ready to spring,
and on the wall a set of three geese
carved in a dark wood, their wings fully
extended, diminish towards the ceiling.
What am I doing here? Ostensibly
a neighbourhood call, but the real purpose
is to judge the suitability of this house
for a cousin to be married into.
The host is effusive. His collar
is as frayed as his carpet. I cannot
meet his eye. Instead, I look over
his shoulder at a girl in Sindhi costume
smirking from an airline calendar
torn to a December three years gone.
Tea is served. This is too much like home.
I fidget as I balance the cup on my knee,
and hear his version of the latest joke,
and laugh politely, as anxious as him
to appear respectable and to please.

Too many houses! The view
is terrifying: far as the eye can see
roofs telescoping into each other
all the way down the hill,
till it seems one could slide
to the bottom without touching ground.
The man who first built here
in the wilderness, must have watched
with pride the second house grow–
his choice vindicated —-
and then in anguish as the houses
attacked the hillside in a swarm
and stung it to shapelessness.
Pioneer and follower are both buried
side by side in the Christian cemetery,
and we who come a hundred
years after, use these structures
as sleeping places only, from which
we strut each elegant evening
to see and be seen by other.

This mound, barely thirty feet high,
which could be comfortably fitted
into half a football field,
is all that survives, they tell me,
of a town 5000 years old.
Archaeologists say the town
had a highly developed culture.
The fragments of pottery, painstakingly joined,
and tools littering the museums
indicate the skill of its craftsmen.
Potter’s wheel, grain jar, ploughshare,
and the many ornaments and beads
(not a weapon in sight)
prove they were a peace-loving people,
tillers of the soil, sculptors, artisans,
who had no use for moats and palisades,
their only enemy the drought.
But this is mere hypothesis.
The historian has by-passed the mound
for some reason known only to himself;
the fastidious hands of the excavator
have not yet reconstructed here
another Mohenjo Daro.
To the unpractised eye
the occasional outcrop of slim bricks,
a type no longer in fashion,
is the sole evidence of its antiquity.
Still, they are all there, l suppose:
The wide lanes and sensible houses,
and a marvellous system of drainage
that did not poison the rivers and the sea;
and, miracle of miracles,
only the one temple for the populace.
What cold-eyed bravoes from the North
on restive horses, desolated them,
only the wind knows.
On the top
of the knoll a banyan tree
protects the giant grave from the sun;
while endless acres of water-logged fields
have pushed to its very hem
a village of two-score houses of mud.
A sluggish drain runs down its middle
into which all the children defecate.

A positive region, almost smothered
by confident pines, and bursting-over
with green springs at every nook.
Away in the background a waterfall
rests like a white tie against
the mountain’s heaving chest. The road
descends steeply, and the automobile,
its engine shut off, masterful, sleek,
coasts to a five o’clock appointment.
What could such a place deny?
Not sustenance, surely. Everywhere
grass, impossibly lush; sunny terraces
of rice; and the occasional patch
of maize; see how the sweet-sour apricots
growing wild by the way-side insist
not a living thing shall be hungry here.
Bushes brim with birds, the slopes
are littered with shaggy, sure-footed goats,
apparently untended. And the trees
are functional–each pine is belted
low at the waist and buckled with a cup.
And certainly not health. The breeze
with a hint of rain makes one cavil
at the stink of upholstery and petrol.
Oh to be young again, to have the courage
to disembark at will, and with a shout
slither down to where the stream
among the smooth pebbles at the bottom
sparkles like soda. Here everyone
has Mr. Universe calves. And the women
need no brassieres.
At various points
along the route, the road-menders stand,
indolent, cheerful, yet overwhelmingly
industrious as each vehicle turns
the corner before them. Not a sickly
face have l seen all afternoon. The
children salute smartly as we pass,
and the old women gathering faggots
have a smile to spare for the stranger.
A positive place, indeed. Each hill
has its quorum of tin-roofed dwellings,
while here and there, a cypress
stands like an exclamation mark.
A gust of rain overtakes us, makes
the wipers frantic, and is gone
as suddenly, leaving no puddles
or flooded gutters. Even as we sigh,
the road levels and straightens out,
the tall pines have dwindled to shrubs.
With one last long backward look
we resign it to the uncomplicated
men, the cicadas, and the Iordly eagle.

The squalor in which some people live
disgusts me, and when l see a man
pissing on the road, it makes me mad.
Dear God, have l forgotten so soon
my own beginnings?
The oblique house
in Shahalam where my mother was born
is no longer there; in its place
stands a dry fountain, a symbol of
the act that severed a continent.
But it inflames the eye of memory
like a mote: room piled upon room,
and not a ventilator anywhere
to let the stale air out. Down one side
a gutter ran like a sore; the other
shared with a Hindu dealer in brass.
My grandfather, splendidly moustached,
boisterous, semi-naked, who turned
from mashing bones to mending them,
the most skilful bone-setter of his day,
with a certificate from Lord Kitchener
to prove it, still young at eighty,
held court on the ground-floor, surrounded
by the appurtenances of his trade
and the patients’ relatives. l can see him
cajoling a wayward bone into place
cannily aided by a burst of invective
so fierce it makes me shudder still.
As we stood by at a respectful distance
memorizing his words, he pointed us out
to his neighbours proudly as the children
of a millionaire, hastily adding,
of course, he did not care a damn.
ln that smell of oil and lint and dung
and unaired quilts, how carefree we were,
for a few ecstatic weeks each winter
like the barna tree, all flower
and no leaf. The filth was part of us,
as we grew tall in that time of love.
The hands of the clock in moving forward
are moving back. The family business
slides downwards imperceptibly
while l bandy words in a foreign tongue.

Bunched, like an embryo, in a trench,
while shells are wailing overhead,
l am really afraid.
Because
We have been sitting here a long time,
and conversation is impossible,
it seems an appropriate moment
to examine the origins of fear.
Do l tremble for my children
too young yet to fend for themselves?
They sit rigid against our sides,
hands clapped to ears, too terrified
to complain of the heat and hunger.
But this, I realize, is vanity,
for it makes me greater than God,
who, it follows, has not the power
to save what He created.
And in any case why should l worry
for the same shell will get them too.
Or is it that my wife is young and beautiful,
and l cannot bear to think
of another man sprawled over her
making her moan and heave for him
as she has done for me a thousand times?
But l like this thought even less,
for it proves me a cad.
lnstinctively, I duck
as a shell bursts not ten yards away,
and the north wall is poxed by shrapnel.
The next one may search me out
(Oh hear that whine)
so I can afford to be honest.
Consider what the world stands to lose
if I die now:
The poems yet unwritten, the millions
still to be made, the lips unkissed
which I have marked for my own.
And even as I weep to think
how my friends will receive the news,
l hear people calling my name.
All is quiet; the shelling is over;
and I rise from the trench, triumphant.

When the telegram arrived
l was combing my hair in the sun
and gossiping with the servants.
lt said the Government were sorry
my husband was dead, killed in action.
For two days I did not know
what had happened. Then I woke
to mother’s voice in the next room
comforting a weeping neighbour
(as if she were the bereaved one).
Slowly, full consiousness returned.
I dressed for the first time as a widow.
l ate my first meal as a widow.
When l was resigned to thinking of him
as lying scattered in a rice-field,
a thighbone here, a breastbone there,
the rest gifted to the vultures,
they printed his name in the papers
and a photograph of his bachelor days.
He had died a hero.
The friends trooped in again
this time to congratulate.
l heard my father accepting
the tributes with a tired mouth.
I was invited to the ceremony
where the general gave me a medal
and patted my son on the head.
For an entire week the little fellow
strutted around the bazar
with the medal pinned on his shirt,
and the neighbours gave him sweets.
Now the medal is lying in its box
and is taken out less and less.
What shall l do with it?
A medal has no hands, no lips, no penis;
it is exactly what it looks like:
just another piece of bronze.

I
We wander curiously through the lanes
of the re-occupied village,
if you can still call
it a village, for roofs, doors, windows,
of each house are gone, giving us
the appearance of
tourists in an excavated
site. Yet only six months ago
this was a thriving market-square.
Here ordinary men
haggled for a pile
of mangoes, or a yard of silk.
The beams of the low roof blackened
by winter fires
before which squatted
four generations of story-tellers,
have ended in a camp-fire, round
which drunken soldiers
have told each other
tales of real and imagined prowess.
And doors through which have entered
brides weeping, and seen
grandfathers leave lamented
have been chopped up to warm
the shaving water of some lieutenant.
And the best quilts hoarded
for guests lie stained
with the blood of ravished daughters.
Now picture them, if you can,
watching in terror
the deliberate advance
of the green and greedy centipede,
who clutches them in its hot embrace
to appease a lust
that has festered there
for more than a thousand years.
Such hate only those can understand
who have felt the rank breath
upon their necks or seen
the mad eyes drawing closer and closer,
while legs hold trembling legs in thrall,
and hard hands fumble
for the knot, and with
one jerk foul sense and innocence.
No matter which way the eye turns, there
is nothing, nothing,
which the evil
of their minds has left untouched.
Here where the line curves, the railway
track is like twin snakes
with their shining backs
broken with the passage of tanks,
which have also churned up the fields
the way wild boars do.
A mosque stands with
minarets down, like an armless beggar.
They have poisoned all the wells,
or filled them with muck,
and along the roads
hastily cut down the shisham trees
which gave shade to the lunch-bearing wife,
the creaking cart, and
the traveller to town.
These ravaged stumps will bear witness
to a civilisation just as surely
as the topless stupas
and mangled buddhas
that punctuate our northern valleys.
ll
For those who return to the village
the war is not yet over.
They will always remember
the unending weeks spent in exile
tormented with guessing the fate
of their unattended fields,
their cattle, their women,
whom (they are shamed to recall)
they left in panic; also weeping children
separated from them
by the length of a trench.
Now they know: the houses are gone,
the cattle eaten, the women raped and killed.
Houses will be re-built,
fields ploughed again,
but who can re-build a broken heart?
Whenever eyes look eastward, their minds
will fill with hate,
as a foot-print
by the river-side fills with water.
For many the war is not yet over.
Unwarily tilling
the fields, an overlooked mine
will blow man and oxen into the sky.
And any unexpected sound could
light the short fuse of
their nerves. The future
now means the day after tomorrow.
There is a woman’s body in the well.
Who can say if she
was guiltily despatched
or whether she jumped in to hide her shame.
And there are many more women here,
or what remains after
the jackals have taken
their share; the agonised flesh
is gone; but the bones remain;
skeletons flung at
all angles to prove
the tragic theorem of death.

Observe this man with the brindled hair
and moustache, doodling naked women
on a magazine cover. He answers
queries on the phone automatically
from behind the safety of the counter.
He was a classmate for several years
and a neighbour and close friend.
We met an hour ago on the tarmac
warmly, embraced, and patted each other
on the back. After the first do-you-remembers
and enquiries about wives and children
we have nothing to say. Desperately
I rack my brain for subjects. He doodles
and is inaccessible.
ls he the one
who was the life and soul of each party,
who dominated the class by his size,
a natural monitor? Whom the girls
from the adjacent convent elected
as the handsomest boy of the school?
They smuggled messages to him, and screamed
go, go to his bow-legs as they churned
to little purpose in the annual sports.
Addicted to politics, he organized
societies on the lines of the Gestapo,
complete with secret signs and rituals,
and, of course, was always president.
Now he sits behind an airline desk
in a foreign capital, disinterested, vague,
old at fortythree. His eyes light up briefly,
I note with relief, when a pretty girl
passes; then he reverts to his doodling.
l could almost weep for him. Before
the tragedy of his ruined promise
the fact of my own disordered life
no longer seems real or important.

A drought means a pitiless sky,
wilted crops, and naked boys, all ribs,
rummaging in each new heap of refuse
left behind by the municipal truck.
These platitudes well may bring
tears to the eyes of a school matron
as she sips her Sunday tea and newspaper
while pudgy hands stroke a well-fed cat.
Famines, however, are facts, not vague
happenings in a far away country
that deserve our pity. ln mosques
of this town, and in every village,
special prayers are being said
for God’s ruth. They are sacrificing
sheep and cows doomed to die of hunger
anyway. ls there something, after all,
in voodoo? The witch-doctor, saint,
palmist and faith-healer thrive
on our frustrations. Later, the crisis
over, there is no need to know
with certainty it was their intervention
that tipped the scales in our favour.
Next year’s ills need next year’s cures.
The level of water in the well
sinks daily; there is a clear ring
of moistness to show where once
the free descending bucket plonked.
Just so. This is an image
that satisfies both sound and sense.
But how is one to describe
the gradual drying-up of love?
The first moment of inattention
is not a grinning buffalo skull
half-buried in leukemious soil
as proof of lack; a disloyal thought
does not stay menacingly in the air
like a vulture; yet both are real enough.
Rain-clouds may come and bless
the old earth whose make-up has cracked
and give it a wholesome look again;
or lightnings flagellate a penitent sky;
but no prayer or talisman can halt
the drought spreading in the eyes.

My countryside is not
pine-forest or paddy-fields
(though I have lived among such);
it is miles and miles
of sand and nameless scrub.
The palms have a whipped and sorry look;
yet even these
and the glossy shishams
are not our trees.
In this scorified land,
only the skeletal cactus
is wholly at ease;
It can raise its arms in supplication,
but never bend its knees.
The wildberry is my fruit;
my bird, the snipe.
My countryman is not
a key-swinging merchant,
or wrestler in loincloth
wielding a mace;
but an itching moron who can drub
his wife, and stubbornly tills
a handkerchief plot
between eroded hills,
And my women
(though l have always found
one or two to praise)
have hairy legs,
are top-heavy,
and lack grace.
Beyond my nomad fires
Jackals howl at the moon.
My tenement is not
a bungalow
in a seven-acre lot;
But an ancestral hovel
with a roof
which has snouts for the wind.
Look how in this single curtainless room
l manage to copulate
among my sleeping children,
who at dawn
rush to the still-wet fields
to relieve themselves.
Afterwards, they rub
their bottoms on the ground.
A salt-death gnaws at my roots;
my vultures soar.
Senses are ravished by
a lady-of-the-night, unseen,
on a midnight walk;
but l could tell the seasons better
by sand-dunes weeping
their gritty tears.
And if I were asked to chalk
an emblem none could doubt,
it would not be:
a wild board rampant
or a crouching tiger,
but a goat–
resting its forefeet lightly
against a shrub.
No god or milkmaids out there;
only the dust-devil.

l bear my cousin to his grave
at the head of a slow procession
to be laid beside our common grandfather,
dead these fifty years,
and a host of half-remembered
or long-forgotten relatives.
His dirge is the shuffle of feet,
and the hissing of gas lanterns.
Even as we walk he eludes us.
He is not the weight we carry,
but the one who planted the silver oaks
in the courtyard; who could never
make up his mind; a white-haired army contractor
we half-expect to meet on our return.
He is dead certain now,
and properly contracted.
ls this the end of the ancestral home?
Friends will not come here in the evening
to hear the news and discuss the crops,
or the neighbours to settle their disputes.
A place survives as long as its keeper.
We reach the grave; it is not yet ready.
The night is cold, and we are thinly clad,
ill-prepared for this delay.
The shivering irritates us, so does talk
of business, sex, and politics.
The mask of sadness has slipped.
ln a field hard by, a tractor sputters
into life. Each time it turns
it catches us in a pallid trance.
The diggers give the signal at last.
We rise from the mounds we’ve been sitting on,
and dust our clothes.
lt is just as well my cousin cannot
hear the sighs of relief.
We hand him down gingerly
to the two men standing in the grave,
then cut off the sky.
A fistful of dirt, a fistful of prayer,
are the last salutes.
We turn our back on the graveyard. Now
he is really alone.
Seeing this death we think of our own,
and real tears start to the eyes.

To see fruit ripen
by the weather’s connivance,
eyes bud and flower again,
be scorched in June
and shrunk by the northeast wind,
is to become complete.
Can we come to terms
with our deciduous love
until we have seen
the mulberry in its bare
essentials – trunk, branch,
and twig – the X-rayed tree?
A lone ignited leaf
downsailing, from the moment
it takes to air
till it touches ground,
has a significance
no jet can imitate.
And a flight of geese
rising from our marshes at dawn
drives a wedge
into history more deeply
than a prophet fleeing to a cave
or an ultimatum.

Kitchens were places
we grew up in.
High -roofed, spacious,
they attracted us
with the pungency
of smoke and spices.
From December beds
we hurried to the cheer
of wood-fires, above
which sang black kettles.
Once there, we dawdled
over last night’s curry
and fresh bread dripping
from the saucepan, eggs,
and everlasting bowls
of tea. Discussions
centred on primaries:
births, deaths, marriages,
crops. Mother presided,
contributing only
her presence, busy
ladling, ladling. Noise
was warmth. Now in these
cramped spaces, there is
no time for talk. A
stainless homogeneity
winks back our sneers.
Chairs are insular;
they do not encourage
intimacy like slats.
The table tucks bellies
in. We would not dream
of coming to this place
to savour our triumphs,
or unburden our griefs.
Chromium and Formica
have replaced the textured
homeliness of plaster, teak.
Everything is clean
as a hospital. The surrealistic clock,
where once the eloquent
grandfather swung,
clicks forward, stiffly.
We are deferential
to the snap pleasures
of electric toast, and take
our last gulps standing up.

Bird or hovercraft, your angling skill
proclaims the confidence
of repeated success; you flash
rainbows as you plunge to kill.
The luckless minnows in their drifting know
only when the beak is home.
No sound or shadow warns that death
is poised, and pointing below.
But what about tomorrow? Will they hiss
and boo from the sidelines
as you find, pause, fold, and dip towards
the horror of your first miss?
l’ll learn to love you then, for lost
causes link all temperaments.
What drains my speech of sap will blunt
your keen iridescent thrust.

Gracious living is gone along with the high-vaulted roof.
Sheerness, where once were fluted column and filigreed dome,
stained glass, arabesque, mosaic.
Instead of gargoyles, straight black drain-pipes.
We no longer sit on lion’s paws or walk on fabled menageries.
Now temperature conditions our lives in rooms where
the ceiling is barely half-a-man above our heads;
it presses down on us, reminding, in a burst of short
lines and cliches,
of other pressures waiting to be lifted.
There was a time the inky sun provided a companionable shadow
as we ran home from school;
now the shortening shade
of a palm seems
a hand on a
bony wrist
pulling
us to
Zer
o
All night a prophetic rain has fallen
on the steady slanting tiles, till sometime
towards morning the roof begins to leak.
The electricity has, as usual, failed.
The baby starts crying and will not be hushed.
As l slosh around in the dark
for a dry spot, guided by a running
commentary from the wife, I discover
new dimensions of feeling: physical
comfort is peace; that love can only
thrive under a dry roof.
Cold, or ailing, or reluctant, we are never alone.
The elbow digging into our side is insistent.
Beneath the quilt our tomorrows count us with precision;
through some chink
the wind sneaks in
with its cold nose.
Slowly a drizzle of self-pity sizzles on the brain.
ln the dawn air, a cacophony of loudspeakers distort
the muezzin’s call, triumphantly echoed by the crowing cock.
Awake
says the toothbrush on the wall,
and the gleaming razor beckons from the bathroom.
Awake says the moans of yawning children.
The sun the sun the sun
buzzes in the skypane now.
Only a streetcar’s dying rattle
as it lurches past my first-floor apartment,
and the song-cum-static of the radio
disturb this peace. A liquid noise
rises slowly till it is knee-deep, chest-deep,
and then right over my head, to leave me
wholly suspended in a sea-weed silence.
Here is no question of acceptance
or denial. Across the cave-mouth
(the room’s a grotto where the relics shine)
love has thrown a screen of glass.
What filters through is a nameless music
caressing the ears, and the glowing softness
of borrowed light. Time whispers, dies.
l stand alone on a breakwater deafened
by my thoughts. The ocean’s restive tongue
flicks its saliva against the wall,
and what it touches is scoured and renewed
Night ends, as the day ends, without a sense of achievement.
Consider the dining-room
now breakfast’s over. Not a crumb
on the gleaming shisham table;
the napkins neatly quartered again,
and leftover foodstuff whisked away
by a dexterous servant in canvas shoes.
The mound of toast has disappeared
carefully consumed by clamped mouths.
Two cups lie in front of us, only
a hint of tea at the bottom,
while we discuss yesterday’s events
and today ’s chores. The abstract paintings,
waxed floor, sideboard, and the bowl’s
precise arrangement of flowers and twigs
make the creation of disorder unthinkable.
l am dressed and ready to go to office,
cheeks shaved with a timed dexterity
(six and a half minutes, the extra
half-minute because of a pimple
on the awkward part between chin and lip)
and mustaches trimmed with the precision
of a silversmith hammering foil;
the grey striped suit is pressed
reverently as becomes the cloth;
the tie negligently right; and the shoes
like black glow-worms coming to a point.
The clock strikes nine. Ceremoniously
l compare it with my wrist-watch, and
rise from the table under her clinical
eye, and fortified by the morning peck
and last minute instructions, l leave feeling
the solitary soiled thing in the room.
The June sun turns each asphalt road to a glue-pot.
Eyes straining through dust, the legacy
of a passing car, and ears tuned to the squelch
of wheels, it is ridiculously easy
to develop a summer conscience.
Even poetry, through long practice, becomes
part of us, just as a steady flame
seems a bright extension
of the candle’s self,
and not the wick burning.
Why then does the intelligent mind shy away from prayer?
There is something apt about old women
beads; but beyond that we are not prepared to go.
Racing past a tannery and a chemicals plant, we
note civilization has a bad smell.
The siren hoots and brings the day to a halt.
The factory gates burst outwards pressed by an
anonymous humanity drawing our pay.
Already sweepers are tidying up for the next shift;
but the eye this whimsical evening, looks right through
the walls to a place where stands
derelict man:
pigeon siftings accumulate on the rafters of his brow,
and a careless wind whistles
through the disused chimney of his nose.
After the performance is over
l turn from her and light a cigarette.
lt seems such foolishness now:
the animal sounds, the dirty words,
and as the excitement mounted
the raging urge to destroy, destroy,
destroy.
on prayer mats
turning
automatic
beads; but beyond that we are not prepared to go.
Racing past a tannery and a chemicals plant, we
note civilization has a bad smell.
The siren hoots and brings the day to a halt.
The factory gates burst outwards pressed by an
anonymous humanity drawing our pay.
Already sweepers are tidying up for the next shift;
but the eye this whimsical evening, looks right through
the walls to a place where stands
derelict man:
pigeon siftings accumulate on the rafters of his brow,
and a careless wind whistles
through the disused chimney of his nose.
After the performance is over
l turn from her and light a cigarette.
lt seems such foolishness now:
the animal sounds, the dirty words,
and as the excitement mounted
the raging urge to destroy, destroy,
destroy.
Just a minute ago
the encircling arms and thighs
were the one sure thing in a heaving world.
Now I ruefully feel the place
where she bit me.
The limp time’s come,
and reason slowly clambers back
to its well-worn seat, and from the shadows
the deceptions one by one emerge
to surround the bed accusingly.
l must make do with this.
The time of cobwebbed miracles is over;
rams will not appear again to save
this neck from the knife. But there is hope
still, and cause enough for gratitude,
if I sometimes question myself,
if every goodnight to the mirror
reveals the darkness
gathering slowly under the eyes.

Out of the next cotton patch
a partridge calls in reply
to another. We halt
in midstride, and greedily
turn to listen to that rich,
wild, triumphant lilt.
The December countryside
flaunts this one warm note. Even
the elephant-grass he adores
is not the anonymous heaven
it seems; chilled steel each blade
like the guns on our shoulders.
Joyously, the bird,
while the warned beaters congeal,
rehearses his boldness. From
the low bushes on the hill,
an irrepressible third
joins the chorus of doom.
Having unburdened his need
to celebrate, and unbare
his soul to the slanted sun,
l can imagine him there
strutting after seed,
refreshed, and undone.
On a prearranged ges-
ture we move to that death
in a shrill arc. The pain
takes wing when from the sheath
of love the bird rises
to a merciless rain.

Before the thrust of this liberating wind
whatever is not fixed, has a place to go,
strains northwards to the coniferous lands.
And drunk with motion, clothes on the washing-line
are raised above themselves; a flapping sheet
turns a roof corner into a battlement.
Gliding days are over. The birds are tossed
sideways and back, and lifted against their will.
They must struggle to achieve direction.
A welcome darkness descends. Harsh contours
dissolve, lose their prosaic condition.
All the sounds we have loved are restored.
And now the rain! In sudden squalls
it sweeps the street, and equally sudden
are the naked boys paddling in the ditches.
Alive, alive, everything is alive again.
Savour the rain’s coolness on lips and eyes.
How madly the electric wire is swinging!
From brown waters eddying round their hooves
the drenched trees rise and shake themselve
and summer ends in a flurry of drops.

Karachi is the only city l know
where barbers solicit like whores, and papayas
are considered fruit. Sandwiched between
the desert and the sea, it swells by reclamation,
and points to its belly shamelessly.
A windy instant burg, it lionises
artists whose chief merit is a big mouth.
There is no weather here as we northerners
understand weather. The season telescopes
a sort of summer into a sort of winter,
topped by a mini-monsoon. Each new morning
brings no hope of change. Generally the clouds
are sexless, mute, and above our affairs.
A splitting sky announces a jet not rain.
No, l do not think l shall come to terms
with this grey place. lt shortens my breath
and pinches my eyes. On bad roads automobiles
smelling each others’ rears jostle their way
to the beach. A manure truck leaves its trail.
At 2 a.m. the whirling airport searchlight
brandishes its sword over the hushed city.

Having come to these fields, this pond,
to brood on early death, l remain
to praise the lavishness of Nature.
Other seasons may be niggardly,
not autumn; it gives and takes
with abandon. lnto its slot
shishams will one by one insert
all their green coins, while the wind
riffles its currency of rice.
Dear lovely girl, you ride the
rainbow of our prayers, and give us
strength to face the coming chill.
Shadows lengthen softly. ln the seepage
reeds and the nurse-like lilies stand,
rooted in coolness; and a gnarled
wildberry tree tests the water
by trailing a broken digit there.
Now acceptance settles on the mind
with the nicety of a dragonfly.
And even as I fling up my arms
in an excess of pity and love,
the pebble of my presence breaks
porcelain herons into blurred flight.

When Gautam reached the spot
called Sattapanni,
he was tired, but happy.
He walked further up the hill
and sat down on a boulder
still warm with the sun,
and looked north:
Smoke curled lazily from
a clearing in the grove, below,
where his disciples were busy
preparing the evening meal.
From that eminence
with his perfect vision he could see
the towers of Kapilavastu
where abandoned wife and child
still waited;
the tree in whose shade
he had received intimations
of his destiny;
and the deer-park in Benares,
the place of his first acclaim.
The path from there to here
was clear. All was orderly
on either side. People debouched
from barn and sty to walk that lane.
Gautam smiled. Some he knew
would exaggerate what he had done,
others renege, and a lucky handful
follow to the radiant conclusion.
But he was satisfied
with what had been done.
Then he faced the East:
Here was nothing but wilderness,
jungle piled upon jungle,
and snowy wastes, and not
a track anywhere to be seen.
Undeterred, Gautam rose,
impatient to begin again
what only he could begin.
He judged what light there remained,
and with the sun behind his head,
he began his descent.

A sheep, hennaed like a bride,
follows a curly-headed child
as innocent as itself
to death lurking in the festive house.
Poor child, poor beast, they do not know
how an act thousands of years ago
has complicated their life.
Call forth your wisest man
to explain to them tomorrow
the cold ethics of mercy,
and tenderly show
the love shining on the uplifted knife.

For Autumn, a ceremony all its own;
for it is the season of truth.
The first glimmerings of decay
impinge on the senses. ln subtle ways
the landscape alerts:
already the deciduous trees
are a different shade of green from the rest.
Subtly, the mind alters too.
Winter’s nudity has not yet replaced
the flamboyance of summer.
Everything is in-between.
The rice-fields soon will be ready for harvest.
There is a hint of cold in the wind.
It is something to know
this new feeling of lack
is not fatigue, or lack of practice,
but a leaf by leaf withdrawal of power.
At this moment of sadness,
it is something to know
that your eyes hold promise of a kindly season,
and what is lost through time can be gained through love.
You have entered my life when all seemed safe
and I was resigned
to the brief ritual in the bed.
Above all, l am grateful to you
that for once words are irrelevant.
For there is nothing really to be said
these long autumn evenings.
Much ripens, nothing is ripe.
But we are not an in-between people.
Only the whirling sun of June,
or January hail can extract from us
spontaneous speech.
For the moment, gestures.
From such unquestioning immediacy grows
the sense of belonging
that keeps the nail glued to the thumb.

Thinking of Mohenjodaro
Alexandria and Rome,
I note how time curves
back upon itself
like an acrobat.
This year’s harvest is late.
The archaic sun
has been playing
like a poem
on the farmer’s nerves.
The ink dries slowly
on the half-written page.
Who will read this?
Stranger, the crumbling fort
you pass is your home.

There are rumours of another war.
All day, from the border villages
a steady trickle of refugees
has seeped in, leaving behind
a tilted landscape, drained of feeling.
Their particulars are heaped on carts,
women and children on the heaps,
and they themselves walking alongside.
Cousins in town who saw them before
at funerals, are yet unaware
of their luck, for they will be
playing host till the scare is over.
I am high up on the balustrade
of the fort that umbilically
overlooks the town. It is more
than a thousand years old. Only
a fraction of one corner retains
the character of a fort. From it
stone, arrow, bullet were launched.
Though elevated as an insignia
it is not so belligerent now.
The city fathers malfunction in it,
and a sprawling police station where
pickpockets are given a drubbing.
This is my town. Memories choke
its brick-paved arteries, and more
than double my fund of being.
To the south, there, two miles away,
is the house grandfather built,
where father and l were born. Beyond it
on clear winter nights one can see
enemy lights blink on the horizon.
That is why the town stagnates.
Those who make their money here
invest it elsewhere. This is my town.
It gives me a sense of belonging
and peace no other place provides.
I feel the pulse of the town quicken.
It was once the centre of things.
Neglected and poetic, it broods
on the jealousies that pushed it aside;
and one wonders if these slow carts
are nudging it again into history.
lt is possible; but for the moment
l am back with myself. Maybe
l shall die here and be carried
to the family plot. lt is possible,
and apt that things grope forward from
the same root to which they wither.

As he moves the knife across the neck of the goat
I can feel its point on my throat;
and as the blood geysers from the jugular,
a hot and sticky sweat breaks out on my body.
We are laying the foundations of a friend’s house.
After a brief prayer that all who dwell here
may be blessed, we stand in a tight circle
around the animal to be sacrificed; it has
a civilized and patient look. The glare of the sun,
the heat, and the smell of blood make me dizzy.
The knife is with my friend; it is a necessary
part of the ritual that it is his hand only
which should draw the blood. How keenly it cuts!
The movement is a little unsteady, perhaps,
but forgive him, this is his first butchering.
Four calloused hands imprison my jerking legs.
The children are animated by the tableau,
and watch in fascination the blood flow
into the hastily dug hole. Two spadefuls of dirt
will cover me up for ever. A white-bearded man
chants something holy, and feebly thrusts the pick
into the virgin ground; the cameras click.
We are not laying the foundations of a house,
but another Dachau.

I am awakened by a thunderclap.
Sensing a change in weather, I stir uneasily,
and wonder if I should get up now
to bolt the windows, or wait
till the storm breaks. It is hot and close;
the rain may hold off till dawn;
so under the ineffective fan
l try to drift back to sleep.
When another sound intrudes; the tap-tapping
and purr of the mohalla’s self-appointed
chowkidar, inevitably a Pathan.
He goes past on the hour
with whistle and stick, both of which
he uses softly, not so much to scare
away evil-doers, as to let the residents know
he’s awake and doing his job.
How he got here no one knows. One night
we heard him making his rounds
with the now familiar accompaniments.
Since then, we’ve had him on our hands,
summer and winter, year after year,
except each June when he goes home
and leaves one of his ‘cousins’ behind
to patrol the mohalla. Unlike
other servants he never comes for a loan,
but is satisfied to work
for a reward of two rupees per house,
which, when you come to think of it,
adds up to quite a sum.
This, l suppose, is regularly sent
to the wife who must be consoled
by his prolonged absence, with cash.
I do not choose to label him
a mercenary who has deserted
the barren hills and interminable blood-feuds
of the tribal belt for a sinecure.
There must be easier ways than this
of making money. Think of the winter nights.
Think of his abstinence. And overlook,
how in spite of the noise he makes,
the murders, thefts, and abductions go on.
Indeed some say he is the finger-man,
though no one has the guts to question
his credentials, or ask him to go.
As for myself, I had rather he stayed,
for to note that figure of two rupees
Armly entered by my wife in her accounts
gives me a vague sense of security.
Unable to sleep, l amuse myself
by wondering what his wife does for sex
during the eleven months he is away.
Does he have a large family? Perhaps
my wife can answer this question
for she must engage him in small-talk
when he comes to collect his fee. l am tempted
to wake her up, but desist. I listen
to his receding footsteps as they near
the last house. Here the fields begin,
freshly planted with rice. In my mind’s eye
I see him glance apprehensively
at the sky where the monsoon flexes
its muscles, snarls, and shows its teeth,
and with a black mask hiding its face
prepares to terrorize and loot our lane.

Now that the first fury
of the monsoon
is over, and evenings
are cool again,
I can pay attention
to the neem tree
dying slowly
outside my window.
All the other trees
in the garden
are flourishing,
but not this one.
It should have been
cut down long ago,
but being sentimental
we let it throw
its network of twigs
around our lives.
A vague sorrow is needed
to twist the knife
in us each morning
when we wake
to find the world slipped
a little further away.
The mind panics, but
the old languid
urge to leave things alone
is too ingrained.
A diehard koel comes
to the same branch
always at dusk,
and being staunch
and gifted, he gives
purpose to the tree.
We who love decorating
tombs, breathe freely
again, as we see him
tie the cheerful
banners of his notes
to that sapless hulk.

Certainly, not will alone can keep
us safe from indiscretion, nor sense
inform our actions or correct our taste,
for the heart at forty has its own ways
of laying the mind waste.
Which all our fund of experience can-
not alter. Precedents are overwhelmed
sometimes through the eyes, sometimes touch,
and guilt corrodes us as we gasp
‘This affair means nothing much.’
But it isn’t so, for it takes something
out of us, and though we refuse
to believe it, we are growing old.
Hair and teeth have begun to dwindle;
the wind outside is cold.
And the heartbeat returns to normal
a lot more slowly. Inadequacy looms.
After all that bitterness and pain
we catch our ears and say ‘Never
again, never never again.’
But the very next day an upturned breast
will fill the mouth with saliva.
We scratch our head for image and rhyme
to begin a campaign piece. A sonnet,
perhaps? Or a lyric this time?

You have to see it with your own eyes:
How at a particular time each day
hundreds of these tiny birds arrive
on the polo-field
near the spectator’s stand.
Then to follow their sinuous weaving
each time the horses come that way.
Oh the pressed keys of their undulations
as whitely they rise and darkly fall,
and the bobbing in the trampled grass.
One almost forgets
the strategies of the chukker
for the enraptured eye shuttles between
their shiftings and the well-struck ball.
Returning home in the ice-dipped air,
we wonder which was the lovelier sight:
The synchronised unsettlings of the late
come birds, or the
six-goal hero who swung
an infallible stick as he galloped
towards the goal like a juggernaut.

One remembers the monkeys at Hardwar
in the good old days when Bharat was India,
who snatched food from the hands of the unwary.
Being sacred, they plundered whatever they liked.
We were children then, on our way to Lahore
for the winter break. When we reached Hardwar
we anticipated the monkeys, who perched in rows
on the train-roof, solemnly awaiting their chance.
We could not see them, but knew they were there
from experience, more sudden and dangerous
than those who chattered on the crowded platform.
There were temples too. Since then, in my mind,
monkeys and temples have been synonymous.
The only monkeys one sees now
are in the zoo, or at the end of a chain,
but they are a scruffy lot compared
to those bold, religious monkeys.
One also remembers, with a twinge of regret,
lone Englishmen in first-class carriages,
remote and godlike, and firmly entrenched
behind three-month old newspapers from Home.
They kept their teeth clenched on cold pipes
as they carried Empire to ungodly districts.
Even in the hottest weather their windows
were shut; they took no notice of the monkeys.
Whenever we wanted to appear superior
we mimicked their Ur-doo, and secretly lusted
for the memsahibs who came to kiss them goodbye.
They were clean solid fellows in sola hats
who knew how to keep us out of their hair.
The only sahibs one sees now
are the back-slapping oil executives,
or the sleazy christs from Europe
who infest our zebra-crossings.

The snake-charmer does his real business
with a cobra; but he has a python too
with which to attract the pedestrians, who
are mostly faceless peasants on their way
to the District Courts. They are gullible,
and have time and money on their hands
after the harvesting, to spend on snakes.
In any case, they welcome the excuse
to loiter an half-hour in the shade.
Life all the others living by their wits,
the snake-charmer is a psychologist.
He picks up the python whose smooth length
he handles with such a sexual fondness
that it seems the loveliest creature of all,
a godlike ancestor.
I halt inspired,
resurrecting Kamdhenu and Ganesh,
and a monkey-host descending in anger
on Lanka.
The charmer’s drone prevails
over the clatter of chariot wheels,
and the mind returns to reptiles.
The cobra is secretive, venomed, and kills
with a sudden stab, then draws away

I asked to see God, and now I see Him,
and do not understand what I see:
a thousand suns whirling about my head
as if a juggler tossed them to amaze me,
which is, of course, the case.
You cannot stare at the sun,
and yet my spellbound eyes can follow
a thousand suns without flinching.
Strange shapes of man and beast
drift past celestial curtains;
unknown colours and smells;
and a continuous symphony baffles my ears.
The thread that worked time’s pulleys
is snapped; the wheels spin at random
telescoping cycles and seasons
till mind and matter are interfused
like a body on a funeral pyre.
All instants melt into this instant.
This will appear a dream tomorrow
I could not dare repeat to others
for none will believe me.
They will marvel at the number
of warriors I shall slay today
and never know whence the power came.
How shall I bare my agony: that arguments
have not convinced; that revelation
has been used to overawe my judgment.
As a mortal who must contend with mortals
I am troubled if I shall ever
be really human again.

I do not know the name of the tree
they have planted all along the canal.
Its roots keep the banks firm;
but to me it has a more delicate purpose.
On each homely bush a hundred
bottle-birds have nested: strange pear-
shaped fruit, pendant from every branch,
and yet there’s no sign of strain.
At this time of the year, there are
more nests than leaves on the tree.
So much ingenuity and sense of form
in a bird too small to be noticed.
When I see him enter his craft
I long to know such completeness.

It is always the natural thing
that binds us most firmly to love.
Seeing a quail rise
by our intrusion, alarmed,
I am filled with a sense of wonder:
It needs-no miracle greater than this
to transcend the prosaic.
And when my oblivious friend
points his gun at the bird,
I cannot stay his arm; this too
is consistent, for I am spun
on the wheel of illogic
that merges moon and sun.
I do not hear the shot, nor the call
of the beaters, exulting.
Knee-deep among words,
I can only see
a startled shape take wing,
then fold and fall.

When I am clumsy with words
and say they waddle like ducks,
you who are trained to believe
remark ‘that is precisely
how words behave at forty’.
We are trapped in the same illusion.
The mind is giddy with parables.
Innocent meaning is dead.
Layer by layer we descend
to a point where the crafty hand
opens to show there is nothing.
The absurdity of our symbols
defines how far we have travelled
since man first spoke to man.
Language has made us unreal.

Leaves scurrying out of mind
as we hurry home
before a cross wind
that penetrates bone and dream.
Winter is really here.
It smells of snow in the north.
We cannot visualize
summer except as a myth
that once burned our eyes.
Winter is really here.
What holds the seasons in place
will crackle and leap
as we lean on the mantelpiece.
Words tinkle in the cup.
Winter is really here.

The striped merriment
of squirrels, as they chase
each other up and down
the vines, nudges me
to the verge of a poem.
If it could recapture
Mansur’s felicity;
If it could send
sympathetic currents
up and down the spines
of a few listeners!
If it could only…
Mind, be done
with these endless quarrels.
Echo and overtone
inhibit your song.
Open your eyes to beauty
as once, a face
or a waterfall sent
you headlong into verse.
Time enough to worry
on a frigid morrow
as to where this is headed
or where that came from,
and the value of symbols.
Now in the creative dark
intuitions
are phosphorescent;
word and thought
chase each other along
wire and parapet
seeking a common vine.

After jeep, ferry, and horseback, the last stage
is on foot. The warm and facile territory
of quail and partridge is behind us. Marshes,
and what one presumes are marshes further
ahead, right up to the shifting foot-hills.
This, such as it seems, is the last level stretch
before the Himalayas. No one comes
to these treacherous flats except the committed.
We dismount, and in the pre-dawn iciness,
stomp, and blow into our fists, as the servants
unbuckle the equipment which is mostly
things for breakfast. Guns pointing downward,
we pick our way towards the only
camouflage the place affords, three scrawny plants
pretending to be trees. A faint smell persists,
as if something died here a long time ago.
The only visible movement is our man
on a dun lazily heading for the reeds
where the geese lie hidden. Old with knowledge
we wait for him to reach the exact spot
when to the birds’ indignation he will be
transformed from a peasant to a hooligan.
Now he stops, raises his arms, and shouts,
and in a blind panic the birds rise.
No magnet works so well. To the armed
bushes they come, their wings tied to our sights.
In an air heavy with low-flying geese
and cordite, what we see and smell
is not success, but passion. The instant
drops its death-white verticals. Beyond
the curtain of these plumaged beads, the
horizon labours to deliver the sun.

What is that stupid cock doing
crowing at two o’clock?
Has the uncertain weather
we have had this summer
dulled his senses?
Or is it just exuberance?
Some there are who revel
in this sort of weather–
mosquitoes, frogs, and poets—
so that the noises they make
can continue a little longer.
Otherwise, it is not good.
For the wheat has been harvested,
but not yet threshed.
All this month, and the next,
the farmer wants on his back
the sun, and hot winds blowing.
When on the horizon
a cloud appears like a snake
he trembles, and is devout.
When we are out of luck,
cocks crow at two o’clock.

Now all your love is concentrated
on keeping the head-stone from falling.
Not from any sense of pride, for you
were the humblest woman that ever graced
this selfish city; but simply because
you could not bear to see things awry.
I wonder if you are undismayed
by what you see, or cannot see:
the confusion and distrust in our hearts,
and think us worth the saving. We drift
from one sad camp to another. Love
outpaces us when we glimpse its face.
None of your children visits. I am here
to repair the grave; someone reported
it had crumbled badly. You lie
hemmed in by your husband’s ancestors
who pack this cemetery in the way
their off-spring packed your gilted days.
To all who still live in the house
you are a vague absence, a photograph
on the mantelpiece, to be looked at
in passing. The sole part of you
that survives is in the keeping
of neighbours whom you secretly helped.
In the two years since your burial
the grave has shrunk to half; its belly
is wrinkled and masculine with weeds.
No one has thought to leave you a petal.
Even your brief head-stone is not clean
who kept the house scoured like a saucepan.

Some trees, like some men, are early
in their declaration of summer.
And much the earliest of all is the
impatient mulberry: it begins to fruit
aImost as soon as it begins to leaf.
Already boys on their way to school
give it a casual, knowing look.
Now mango trees are in full bloom
presaging a ripe monsoon;
and certain impolitics in our garden
are forthright in their intentions.
The jacaranda daubs a corner of the sky
an unexpected mauve. The air reeks
with the cheap perfume of limes.
On the road, outside the garden wall,
a tardy pipal with its varicose roots,
still holds its allegiance to winter.
In its topmost branches the ragged nests
of kites are exposed; but the inmates
have absconded, are giving to the sun
their first, slow, tilted thanks.
Only the shisham reflects our doubt:
Spring’s green is generously sprinkled
among its sere leaves, even as we
waver between the discarded woollens
and unpacked tropicals. As the sun
prods us to the shade, we say (and hope
we are wrong) ‘Summer is early this year’.

The electric wire from house to pole
is swinging.
The bird that lately sat on it has flown
and left it swinging.
I wait for the wire to settle. Just when I think
it will soon be still,
and begin to feel the terror of stillness,
another bird, from out of nowhere, comes,
and strums it again.
The mind responds to that movement
with so many of its own,
some atavistic, some known,
in endless permutation;
for at intervals, unexpected, sure,
birds are drawn to the wire
to keep it swinging.

On the last day of the war
they attacked our railway station,
so they got the bus-stand instead
which is just across the road,
and with it three bus-loads of
civilians, mostly women and children
and old men.
The attack came
during the busiest part of the day,
ten o’clock in the morning, when all
who are thinking of travelling
converge on the city’s exits.
There were a hundred casualties.
I mean a hundred dead. I do not know
the number in hospitals. One week
after the raid the Civil Defence
were still exhuming bodies. They found
two more today.
A volunteer tells me
they have identification problems.
Most of the passengers were refugees
from the ravaged border villages
on their way to a safer place.
No one has come forward to claim them.
This particular boy has not slept
since the bombing; he keeps remembering
pieces of meat of pasted on the walls,
and the screams of the wounded.
Death has such a casual approach.
Unhurriedly, the planes leaned
on their wing-tips, then straightened out
at a convenient height to drop
their load. One would think the pilots
were on a Sunday jaunt.
The passengers
are gone, though not to the destination
they set out for, and have taken with them
the attendant train of peanut vendors,
coolies, and beggars. Now the rubble
is being cleared, and other buses
are herded here, shouting their routes.
Business is brisk.
Our neighbourhood
has a relic of that grim journey.
One bus has been dragged on its hubs
by a bullock-cart to a vacant lot
adjacent to the house of its owner.
What does he want with it? Children
use it as a playground, for children
and maggots love wrecks. They swing
from the two ribs left of the rib-cage
that held the roof; scramble for the right
to occupy the sole seat remaining.
I would be content to stand in the sun
and watch them squirming in and out
of the carcass, and philosophize
on the good that comes of disaster, if
they did not make so much noise.
Their laughter sets my teeth on edge.
I place my hands against my ears
and want to disrupt their game,
but remember it is Christmas day
when some have the right to be happy.

Coming down from the mountains where everything
is cool and clean
to the obscene
flatness of the plains, we discern how
the dictatorship of the tropical sun
has brought these
men to their knees
time and time again. Alexander was
by no means the first of the conquerors.
Some tribe without
women or food
trudged up and peered over the northwest hills
and saw the amazing greenness and the temples
with real gold tips;
it licked its lips
and came swooping down to begin a trend
which has not yet ended, perhaps. Only
it is no longer
loot or hunger
which drives them, nor is the north-west
the sole source of danger. Russia, India,
China are hot
or friendly; but
we know their looks. This is our history. So
like a tethered goat we wait for the next
marauder.
With the radar
cage we turn this way and that, sniffing,
anticipating the sequent gambit, and
while we wait, are
much too aware
of the vulnerable sap that floods our veins.

The hallucinatory leaves of winter
brush my sleeves as I walk abstracted
among the crows,
which are draped
in their black suspicions, a step away,
cannily matching my stride.
A litmus wind
which turns my red lips blue has burnt
and launched the leaves
with a human
perpetuity; its slick and whorish arms
caress me here and here.
Now the ground
burns with the littered five-pointed
glory of the maple,
and the pond
is picked up by the edges abruptly
and shaken like a rug.
Such alchemy
as the time and my mood commands
recurs each day
impatient for
the coded knock. If I could revive
that earlier burning
against a cold
background, while the wind catapults
its birds,
and momently prolong
the present one, the smoke and tang
of it with an
acerbic phrase,
there would be hope a granite experience
may outlast these lichened days.

Difficult to visualize
how, two months back,
dark it was at this time, and cold.
The trees were innocent then, too bare
for the finicky parrots,
but the die-hard owl still hooted there.
With the quilt pulled upto my chin
I gustily re-lived
all the summers on the bygone hills.
Now the heat is unabated;
from the light’s angle
we squeeze such solace as we can
along boundary-walls, between trees.
Somewhere in the north
a leopard is padding through snow
snaking his way past boulders,
up, up, till he stands
as motionless as his quarry
revealed at last on a crag.
The leopard withdraws
into himself, then is launched into space,
with a practiced, yet spontaneous ease.
This should be slow-motion,
a wilderness settling into place.
I think of that marvellous leap,
and looking up, discover
the sun snagged on a crooked horn.

The light-bulb dangling from the ceiling
is fit subject for song,
no less evocative
than a clay oil-lamp near a grave,
or a candle guttering
in a grotto full of relics.
In its light
a doorknob gleams
with a brass superstition.
And that pile of books
untidily heaped on the table
has the tranquillity
of a sanyasi
growing into a pose
beneath a timeless banyan.

The marsh-birds—ousel, bittern, and snipe—
have outlasted this summer, the hottest
in fiftyone years. Hunched and patient,
they watch the rain spurt
across sated fields, stolidly waiting
for it to settle into the timeless rhythm
of a monsoon. They could be statues,
they are so still. Hard to envisage
gods more appropriate to this place.
The trees are respectfully bent.
Into one another the rice-fields flow
like one age into the next. Then the rain
eases off, and in slow-motion
the effigies melt to a music that alternates
between bullfrog-bass and insect-shrillness.
Infected, the marsh-birds lose their godhead.
Ho ho booms the sarcastic bittern;
the snipe is a voluble dissident.
But as the light improves, all discord
is reconciled. The birds are finally seen
as lovers, ignorant of caste, embroidering
an august afternoon with
their thin delicate movements. Away
to the right where the mountains are,
the latest cloud rests like a hand
on a peak, kneading it gently,
and the roused land moans in response.

One dropped stone dead. The other wounded
in the wing fluttered and sank
to an island-bush farther up the slope.
I signalled to the others to go on; carefully
marked the spot from there, then drawing
a deep breath, went rushing up the hill
careless of thorns and the sharp stones
that littered the path endangering
ankle and toe and the path was steep
with my eyes not wavering from that bush
hoping to reach it in one burst of speed.
Vain hope! Cigarettes and an easy life
had played havoc with my stamina. I
stopped, ostensibly to get my bearings.
Ah, there, it, was, distinct. Reassured,
I was on my way again, relying this time
on a useful trot rather than a sprint.
Despite such careful husbanding of strength
I was breathing heavily towards the end.
The bush was leafless, squat, and not
too big, yet that sly bird was invisible
as only a partridge can be invisible
in even the unlikeliest place. But I knew
he was there, all right. I checked all exits,
and planned my counter-moves in advance.
Then breaking off a branch, I prodded
the bush, here, here, here, till at the sixth
attempt, he was out in a flash and away
on his good legs. I yelled like a madman,
and ran after him to the next bush, and
prodded to the next and yelled to the next,
and the next, brandishing the stick and yelling
till he was cornered against a sheer bluff
trying to shrink into nothingness, and I
took in great gusts of breath as I stood
there, leaning on my stick, and he still
evaded me a few times, but I had him
at last, and shouted to my companions,
and held him up for them to see, breathless.

A seller of vegetables
stopped me on the road this morning
as I was returning from a walk
and said ‘Sahib,
can you help me with this basket?’
I was in a hurry to get
back home for my first cup of tea,
but I can never refuse a polite request.
And it didn’t look too heavy.
So I bent down
and caught one end of the wicker-basket
while he caught the other
and, simultaneously, we heaved.
I don’t think a man of fortyfive
can afford to be a gentleman,
for I nearly sprained my back
and skinned two knuckles of my right hand.
Somehow, we got the load
onto his head, and he sauntered away
calling ‘Pumpkin, radish, and cauliflower’.
I did not look at my hand
for two little boys were watching.
But when I reached home
I flexed my fingers a couple of times,
sucked the raw knuckles,
and did some back-straightening exercises.
My son brought me his homework
and I scolded him roundly
for not solving such a simple sum.
Lunch was so bad, I spat it out,
and the wife, instead of apologizing,
first started to sulk, then to shout.
And all this had to happen
on a day when I nearly broke
my back helping a silly street-hawker
who should have known better
than to load his basket with
more wares than a man could carry.

That night, I was telling
a bedtime story to my son
curled up against me for warmth
of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
which he already knew by heart
when, half-sleepily, he asked
‘Why do we make a roof?
Is it to keep the rain out?’
It was not raining then,
nor had it rained a long time.
I was so startled by the
irrelevance of the question,
all I could say was ‘yes’.
Later, when he was asleep, I thought,
child, you have discovered early
half the truth; the other half
will discover you in time.
It is not so much what we keep out
as what we try to keep in,
that makes us what we are.

The wind that lays waste homes
has entered the house of my friends.
Such a happy couple I thought.
But they had dazzled me with mirrors:
generosity, warmth, good cheer,
broadmindedness. The only thing
that disturbed me was the late hours
they kept. Used to a small town
where life halts abruptly at dusk,
I was first alarmed, then amused,
to see how night after night
they danced and sang till 3 a.m.
God, what vitality! I said.
The woman left for another town.
I believed what the husband told me–
she needed a change of air.
It was at a party of mutual friends
many weeks later, I learnt
of the separation. They whispered of
strange goings-on right under my nose.
No, I said, no, this is impossible,
and scolded them for scandal-mongering.
They looked at me in wonder.
Now I know the whole shabby truth:
the web of deceit they wove
in laughing rooms; the playful sitting
on laps of guests in crowded cars,
the fraternal squeezing of fingers
in dark corners.
Their divorce is final,
but they still meet by appointment,
and are helpful and friendly to each other.
They call it civilized behaviour.

for Mistri Noordin
One by one they have gone
the skilled old men we used to know
who brightened our lives
by simply creating
out of themselves, and a stack of seasoned planks,
an endurable synthesis.
They made utility serene.
There are some lucky homes
here and there in the country
where a sideboard or a dresser
gleams in grained perfection,
its joints invisible but strong,
its drawers opening at a touch.
On it are displayed
the paraphernalia of our expeditions:
those cutglass raptures, those brassy whims,
admired so much by the casual.
And there are places still
if one will look for them
where such a maker can be found
bent quietly over his work
in total concentration,
careless of recognition
or reward, fashioning the
usual commodities with love.

A cousin of mine, a kind woman,
on a brief visit to her parents,
left her son to play in the car,
and went indoors. The little boy
sat at the steering for a while
and was utterly happy.
He took turnings at breakneck speed,
and bent with the turns.
Then he wearied as boys will,
and looked for other amusement.
His eyes lit on a box of matches
the chauffeur had forgotten,
and he was happy again.
The boy had long brown hair
a fond mother had let grow
in the fashion of our times.
He struck one match, then another,
and had almost finished the box
before the upholstery caught fire.
Scared, not so much of the fire
as of a reprimand, the boy jumped
to the back, and hid behind the seat.
His hair caught fire first.
In minutes the car was an inferno.
He crouched behind the seat
groggy with gas; his fists were
at his eyes to keep the smoke out.
And that is how they found him
when someone noticed the flames.
And that is how I would have him appear
before God, bald and eyebrowless,
his overdone body bunched
like an embryo, and little fists
driven into his cancelled eyes.

I would not have recognised him, but my friend
who is knowledgeable about such things,
nudged me and pointed him out. ‘What!’ I said
‘You mean our favourite childhood villain?’
‘Yes.’ From that one word came a succession
of echoes that crashed against my ears.
Though the house was packed to capacity
I suddenly felt alone and vulnerable.
I was hypnotised by the old actor’s back.
The egg-shaped head was bald except for a fringe
around the ears which on a college professor
or an artist would have been becoming. On him
it was an obscenity, a cold denial
of the meaningful way he threw back his locks
as he prepared to deal with the virtuous.
He was shrunk to half, and the awkwardness
of his movement as he gathered in his legs
to allow a late couple to pass down the row
proved him a paralytic.
Dismayed, I looked
at the curtained screen. All my carefree years
were focused on it. Titles struggled to be
remembered. It is not possible, I thought,
I could have forgotten them all. I lashed
out at the audience: Oh you blind people,
know him, applaud him, this was a famous actor,
a real man, not one of the squeaking villains
homosexual directors have foisted on us.
Lights were dimmed; the curtains parted slowly,
and as the first advertisements appeared
I looked at him again. No, I protested,
this is not he; this is a caricature.
The posters pasted on the walls of my mind
retain the original. That face nods approval
at the small schoolboy running through the rain
to a smoke-filled foyer, worried he is late
and will not get a ticket. He scans the queue
for an acquaintance. Money changes hands
and the first anticipatory thrill of horror
runs down the spine of that wet, cold boy.
I tried to concentrate on the film, but other
images overlapped it. When it ended at last,
I willed the old actor to stay in his seat
till I had gone, so I would not see him rise
in instalments, and limp away with my youth.

They are taking my girl away forever,
sobs the bride’s mother, as the procession
forms slowly to the whine of the clarinet.
She was the shy one. How will she fare
in that cold house, among these strangers?
This has been a long and difficult day.
The rain nearly ruined everything,
but at the crucial time, when lunch was ready,
it mercifully stopped. It is drizzling again
as they help the bride into the palankeen.
The girl has been licking too many pots.
Two sturdy lads carrying the dowry
(a cot, a looking-glass, a tin-trunk,
beautifully painted in green and blue)
lead the way, followed by a foursome
bearing the palankeen on their shoulders.
Now even the stragglers are out of view.
I like the look of her hennaed hands,
gloats the bridegroom, as he glimpses
her slim fingers gripping the palankeen’s side.
If only her face matches her hands,
and she gives me no mother-in-law problems,
I’ll forgive her the cot and the trunk
and looking-glass. Will the rain never stop?
It was my luck to get a pot-licking wench.
Everything depends on the ferryman now.
It is dark in the palankeen, thinks the bride,
and the roof is leaking. Even my feet are wet.
Not a familiar face around me
as I peep through the curtains. I’m cold and scared.
The rain will ruin cot, trunk, and looking-glass.
What sort of a man is my husband?
They would hurry, but their feet are slipping,
and there is a swollen river to cross.
They might have given a bullock at least,
grumbles the bridegroom’s father; a couple of oxen
would have come in handy at the next ploughing.
Instead, we are landed with
a cot, a tin trunk, and a looking-glass,
all the things that she will use!
Dear God, how the rain is coming down.
The silly girl’s been licking too many pots.
I did not like the look of the river
when we crossed it this morning.
Come back before three, the ferryman said,
or you’ll not find me here. I hope
he waits. We are late by an hour,
or perhaps two. But whoever heard
Of a marriage party arriving on time?
The light is poor, and the paths treacherous,
but it is the river I most of all fear.
Bridegroom and bride and parents and all,
the ferryman waits; he knows you will come,
for there is no other way to cross,
and a wedding party always pays extra.
The river is rising, so quickly aboard
with your cot, tin trunk, and looking-glass,
that the long homeward journey can begin.
Who has seen such a brown and angry river
or can find words for the way the ferry
saws this way and that, and then disgorges
its screaming load? The clarinet fills with water.
Oh what a consummation is here:
The father tossed on the horns of the waves,
and full thirty garlands are bobbing past
the bridegroom heaved on the heaving tide,
and in an eddy, among the willows downstream,
the coy bride is truly bedded at last.

They brought a boy to me, twelve years old,
his arm wrapped up in dirty bandages,
a quiet, well-mannered boy, who smiled
shyly when I tickled him under the chin.
He was from my ancestral village, the son
of a carpenter who was a cousin-by-marriage
of a tanner I traded with. It was, therefore,
natural they should come to me for help.
The story was simply this: The boy had fallen
from the roof while flying a kite. The damage
was negligible, just a shattered elbow.
From that height he could have very well
broken his neck. It was a miracle considering
he fell on a brick-pile. I looked at the boy.
He seemed quite modest about his achievement.
Or, perhaps, he was still thinking of the lost kite.
The only mender of bones in a village
is the local wrestler. They showed him the arm,
and without so much as a second glance
he got busy with oil and lint. It is truly
a miracle, he said, the boy could have broken
his neck. This is nothing but a fracture.
After pocketing the money, he patted the boy
on the head, and sent them away happy.
But the bone was stubborn, it refused to mend.
This is more serious than I thought, said the
wrestler. However, there is nothing to worry about.
In four or five weeks he will be running around
as good as new. So he set it again,
and scolded the boy for showing so much pain.
He pocketed the money. Satisfied, the relatives
went home. But the bone did not mend.
This much they told me. I guessed the rest.
The days of growing anxiety; the wrestler’s refusal
to admit his mistake; the unlimited optimism
of the parents. But when the limb blackened and began
to stink, they got frightened. They could sense
the fear in the wrestler too, through he insisted
it would be all right. The boy is in the power
of a djinn, he said. But he could not hide his fear.
So here they were, too late as usual, come at last
to their only contact in the city. I could not stand
the animal appeal in their eyes. My proximity
to the mission hospital was surely a passport
to personal attention. I changed quickly
and went with them. The mission surgeon, a greedy
tactless butcher, took one perfunctory look.
Gangrene, he said in English, the arm must come off.
In this case he was right, of course. I had
already guessed by the smell. Still, my heart
sank when I looked at the boy; he was watching
a flock of pigeons in the courtyard. How shall
I tell them, I thought, how shall I tell them?
In the end I did not have to. The tanner guessed
by my face. Tactfully, he took me aside.
I told him. He then went and talked to the father.
I have never seen anybody so indignant.
Instead of grief there was only anger, or
the anger was because of the grief. Amputation,
he fumed, was out of the question. What use
is a son with one arm only? I would rather
he died. Let us go, he said, we are wasting
our time. I am sure the wrestler can do it.
If we must stay, there is the other hospital.
I argued and pleaded; it was no use.
There is no time, I said, the gangrene
is growing like a storm. But they would not listen.
I saw them go with a helpless rage
burning inside me. As I left the hospital
it was a lovely spring day, fresh after rain,
and I felt ashamed of being so healthy.
I heard the boy died on the operating table.

The beautiful is beautiful anyway,
so why embellish it with words.
The eye, too long used to green
and fruitful movement, is parched
for a desert beneficence, seeking
subtleties where none seems to exist.
For instance, in Jhelum’s eroded hills
where we have stopped for a moment
to relieve ourselves. They always remind me
of a village crone, too seamed and bedridden
to be of value, yet somehow lingering on,
still spitting out the occasional proverb.
Surfeit has cloyed my vision. To understand
this waste, I must try and know myself
as I must once have been, and become,
and become, why even be… even if I have
to become…that, that stone-chat there,
almost lost against the no-colour background.
I would have missed him, but for his tail
vibrating with excitement. He hops up the slope,
held in place by a slab of sunlight,
to a ridiculous terrace of wheat
which does not seem worth the tending.
Once there, he bursts into song. Never
was anything so eager to survive!
Intolerant of excuse, he calls
this place home, has learnt to distinguish
between the various shades of grey
till the neighbourhood is a riot of colour,
and a ragged patch of wheat sufficient
cause to be mellifluous about.

It was summer in the hills
and I was eight. The cottage
we had rented for the season
was a hundred feet below
road-level, and a long
serpentine gravelly path,
pocked with stones, led to it.
On sunny days, I rolled
a ball down the path from
the very top, and I would
run after it, heel-weighted,
to try and catch it before
it got too far. The point
I had caught it earliest
was marked with a boulder
with white veins. I was furious
because the record still stood
at the first day’s attempt.
Afternoons, while the others
were away, riding, playing cards,
picnicking, I would take up
the ball and make my dozen
tries. I had limited myself
to this number to be fair
to the record. Half an hour
later I would come back
to my room, put away the ball,
scrape the mud from my knees,
and shouldering my roller
skates, start off for the rink.
Passing the boulder with the
white veins, I would give it
a baleful eye-cornered glance.
But this particular time,
it was towards the end
of our stay, the ball simply
kept rolling and rolling, and
I charged desperately after
it, heedless of the menace
of being tripped by a stone,
and in places I remember
it could have been dangerous,
but I was afraid of losing
the ball, and was perhaps
annoyed by its elusiveness,
anyway, I followed it
as fast as I could, when
the expected happened:
it missed a turn sharper
than usual, and disappeared
over the edge into a
khud. As luck would have it,
it was the deepest, darkest,
deadliest khud of all in the
high hill-town. But I was
so mad at that stubborn ball,
I only hesitated a moment,
then started down.
There was no path at all
for who would want to go
down that sinister hill-side.
Only a boy who has lost
a ball, or his mind, or both.
Gripping the nameless evergreens
which covered the slope
I kept going down and down,
and the slope seemed endless.
It was clammy and dark
like all khuds, but I was
blinded by passion, and even
forgot it was known
to be snake-infested.
I was there at last, at the
bottom of the khud, and began
to look for the ball poking
with a stick that I broke
off a bush, when a snake
slithered past me into
a cleft. It was dark there,
but not too dark to recognise
that slimy form. I was petrified.
I know I did not scream.
When life returned to my
limbs, I started clambering
up the slope with a haste
that made things worse,
forgetful of the ball,
forgetting everything, but
the desire to be out again.
Somewhere along the way
I must have wept, for
my cheeks were tear-stained
when I reached the top. Quickly
I entered the cottage
by the back door, went straight
to the bathroom and washed,
and after changing clothes
picked up my skates, and left.
When I reached the boulder
with the white veins, I wrenched
-it from its place like a
bad tooth, and carried it
painfully, for it was heavy,
to the spot where the ball
vanished, and heaved it
down to keep the lost ball
company for ever and ever.

The clouds have been ripening all day.
Any moment it will start to rain.
Every June we say
what a terrible summer it has been,
and, indeed, all summers are terrible.
It is no different this year.
For two long months the talk
has centred on maximums.
Slant-sided we walk
away from the glare
the eye sharp for oases of shade.
Indoors, it is worse.
All afternoon, we writhe naked
on the cool of the floor
in darkened rooms,
praying for deliverance.
But prayer must be specially keen
to penetrate this air
so yellow with dust suspended
we can hardly breathe.
All that is ended.
The weather is lovely now.
Clouds have blacked out the blow-torch sun,
and a background thunder croons
of a ricegreen future.
Any moment it will start to rain.

Husband and wife
on the carpet last night
inextricably knit
Tell me, darling, kiss,
have you ever done this
to anybody else, kiss,
honestly I won’t mind.
And he, poor fool,
in those sweet contractions
gratefully caught,
very nearly confessed.
What maggots, Oh what snakes,
would have crawled out from
the underside of the stone
had he lifted it.

There was a grave
in the middle of the park,
its brown rectangle
marking it off
from the expanse of ground
surrounding it.
The nearest tree
was a sixer away.
This was the grave
of a holy man
whom no one remembered.
Yet somebody cared
enough to light
a clay-lamp every night
in the lamp-niche,
black with use.
A lot of banners
festooned the shrubbery.
Its sides were brick,
but the top was soft
and covered with grass.
It reminded me
of lemon-tart.
I shivered with irreverence.
Its sides were brick,
weathered and broken
and unfashionably slim.
On it were drawn
and freshened every day
with charcoal or chalk
the sets of stumps
at which we bowled.
The saint, I was sure,
was a giant
who swallowed children.
Certainly, his grave
was the biggest
I had seen. To look
at the top
I had to jump madly.
Standing as it was
in a large bare patch
it dominated the landscape.
Its sides permitted
four matches at once.
Winter afternoons
we played there
till light lasted.
In the dark
I was scared of it.
Sometimes when I forgot
a bat or a ball
and went back to fetch it,
I would not go alone,
but take a friend,
or preferably two.
We all pretended
as loudly as we could
it was for company.
It was then we noticed
the oil-lamp burning.
Surely, some djinn
had come in our absence,
lit it, and vanished.
Coming back home
through the fourteen fields,
a shortcut,
we had to pass
through a Hindu graveyard
or burning ghat,
or whatever it was,
abandoned by its look.
As good Muslims
it was a matter of honour
we should piss on the mounds;
so unbuttoning our flies
with quicksilver fingers
we pissed a few drops
for the sake of honour
and left whistling
pissing the balance
in our shorts. Then
the family moved
to another town,
and that town was ours
for seventeen years.
In its excitements
I forgot the grave.
Till the break up
of a continent
brought me back
to my own home town.
I was surprised to
find it unchanged.
As soon as I could
I went to the park.
There was grass on the fields,
and a lot more trees;
the playing area
had been shifted north.
At first I could not
locate the grave.
Levelled, I thought;
but it was there all right,
navel-high,
of embraceable width,
and three strides long.
Lichen had covered
the stump markings.
Its single devotee
had long ago died
for the niche was cold.
The trees that were tall then,
are merely so,
and uncles have dwindled
to an amiable height,
and some have vanished.
We look eagerly
for familiar signs,
are disappointed,
and mock ourselves
for being sentimental.
This we expected.
But who can foretell
at which childhood site
that final illusion,
our particular mammoth,
will be laid to rest?

That there’s a bridegroom in the house
is incidental. That he is an elder brother
is the reason why you are here
in the ancestral town. All week
dozens of cousins have made a din
on the dholak, and caterwauled in chorus.
Nasty female things, they snatch
at you for a kiss. Exhalations of curry
from the kitchen. That is where you eat
sitting on slats, trying to hypnotise
the massive overheated woman
who presides, a poor relation.
Sleep four to a bed. Dress as you like.
Neglect your homework. All week, mother
has kept you well supplied with money
to keep you out of the way.
But in a world of grams and peanuts
and kulfi and chaat and marbles
and ten maund washerwomen and kites
it melts too fast. Think of other touches.
Blunder into grown-ups. Stalk jovial uncles
and soft aunts. When every honourable source
is gone, in desperation relent
and allow yourself to be cuddled.
And in the end be satisfied to know
all you have got so far are crumbs
compared to the big feast coming.
The wedding day! Rise sluggard,
and be harassed into bathing,
and a brand-new suit. Gobble your eggs,
and away. The sun’s still not high enough
to light the lane. Wander up
and down, marking the likely spots.
Forget the roof packed with neighbours;
you cannot get there in time.
The brass band is blaring. Out he comes,
the bridegroom, and is helped on to a horse
which shies. A bad omen. And then
with one special round for the house
the band is moving at last. Dart nimbly
to the rear. Keep an eye on the uncles
with the satchels. The first glittering shower
of coins. Fight your way in among
the others, down on your knees, quick,
and start grubbing. Shower after shower,
and you get your share. Feel carefully
in the black sluggish drains. Then anxious
not to be left too far behind, make for
the nearest municipal tap, wash,
and with hands stuffed into your pockets
to keep the coins from spilling,
half-run half walk after the procession.

Tore the letter across, perfect halves,
and the hands steady, held each half
for a moment. Oh, I was cool,
cool. And it was much too easy.
I then quartered it, slowly,
and with relish, but in spite of
my concentration, edges were jagged
as a crocodile’s open mouth.
I grinned to see how soon
perfection had reached its limit.
So I savaged it into eighths,
and finally bits so small
my thumbs were rubbing each other.
Such friction! Had the nails been harder
all would have gone up in smoke.
There was the letter and myself
and the coldness of an autumn evening.
I surrendered the bits to the wind:
a swarm of suffixes and conjunctions
that would never hive to a sense.

I was in the surgeon’s office
to discuss my son’s forthcoming
operation, when the doctor,
a friend, explained his dejection.
Yesterday, he said, there was
an explosion in the Walled City.
A flying brick bashed in the skull
of an eighteen year old boy.
One ear was gone: bits of his brain
were hanging out. There was nothing
to be done, nothing; but
a doctor must make the motions.
On exploring, a bone-splinter
was found lodged in the brain.
When tugged loose, it undammed
a tide of blood. All efforts
failed to contain it, so
a piece of cloth was stuffed
into the geyser. Now he lies
in the next room, he added,
wadded brain and all, in a coma,
half-paralysed, possibly deaf,
and certainly dying. Beside him
sit his parents, mumbling prayers.
How one wishes that splinter
had not been removed. What difference
does it make, I consoled, since
he had no chance anyway?
I don’t know, said the doctor, but
it was a bad decision. Before
I could unravel the logic of this,
he was summoned to the theatre.
I came out on the verandah
and peeked into the General Ward.
I spotted him straight away.
He was in the corner bed. An old
couple held his esctatic legs
(so much for the coma)
while a nurse tried desperately
to keep the drip in place.
Another nurse with her back
to me was bent over him
doing something to his head.
The parents’ eyes darted
from one nurse to the other.
I drew back stung, and tiptoed
back to the office to wait.
And today, I have come
to finalize the arrangements
for my son. A pleasant-faced
Englishman is leaving the office;
a lot of last-minute politeness
passes between him and my friend,
who then ushers me in, and
after excusing himself, begins
to write slowly. His table
is decorated with glass jars
full of a transparent fluid
in which float a pickled motley
of human ailments. Where they were
previously, I do not know.
During a pause I venture
to ask how the boy with the
bashed-in skull is. Still ticking,
he replies without looking up.
This object, he says soon after,
pointing to a coral-like substance
in the smallest jar, is a most
unusual tumour. Most unusual.
The English surgeon whom you saw
leaving, is taking it to London
to be presented to the Royal College.
I am writing out its case history.
My er little contribution to
medical science. He then remembers
the purpose of my visit, and
leans back to light his pipe
and says, you can bring the boy
in at about nine tomorrow.
Everything is ready for him.
Hearing which I leave in a hurry
to telephone my wife, so that
she can get together the things
one takes along to a hospital.

;and
this they communicated to me
in a roundabout message
through a person with a round face.
I had never seen him before.
I have not seen him since.
So they could save their face
and mine. I could have taken
the easy way out and said,
yes, this is what I meant.
A soldier stands at the door
studying his fingernails.
He looks a kind man.
I am sure he would rather be
with his family right now
than shrink in a musty corridor
guarding a lunatic
who mumbles to himself
and begs for scraps of paper.
He has the slow mannerisms
of men who live to be ninety.
He will spring to attention
when they come to take me away.
I could use a cigarette now.
Boot-heels dragged
Sounds carry in the hills.
I heard voices and laughter
and saw two villagers talking
across a barley field
far down below
on a chequer-board of terraces.
As I climbed higher
their voices remained with me,
among the apricot leaves.
The sight of those shrubs
sassy with fruit
brought a sweet sour taste
to my mouth, so I sat down
on a stone with my legs
dangling over the precipice,
and lit, hands cupped against the wind,
my first cigarette of the day.
on the floor.
Every little noise distracts me.
Concentrate on the soldier.
He looks out the door
the one at the end of the aisle
and says it is raining.
My one barred window
confirms it. A sudden gust
rolls a few fat drops
down the steeply slanted sill
tracing a path through the dust.
The last rain of winter.
The eyes of the mulberry
break out on my body.
these papers from my pocket
and deliver them to a friend.
For a consideration, of course.
Our happiest memories
are of cool cloudy days.
I sat on my doorsteps
in khaki shorts and a singlet
looking up at the sky
encouraged by the low-flying birds,
And now
I am saying things
in spite of myself.
The place is not right.
Is this not real then?
The walls are solid enough
rough and damp to the touch.
Mid-sixteenth century?
The house where I live
and its street of sounds
and that natural turbulence
is more congenial perhaps.
It is a question of habit.
I never envisaged this role.
I am not given to heroics.
My poems were of ordinary people
in an ordinary landscape
trying to deserve
their happiness,
It is the sameness.
if I could turn the cot
to face the other wall.
How difficult
to discard a pose.
Stonegreycold.
A world complete: walls discoloured
in a hundred impossible patterns
never before noticed, made suddenly
possible and legendary.
Objects only come half the way.
You have to go forward to meet them.
A buzzard
is plotted on my graphic sky.
The movement is leisurely
and downward. Time. Time.
I should be thinking now
of my wife and children
and the few friends who matter.
But misty eyes make for poor vision.
Look rather at this soldier.
Between us throbs
a telephone line of ants.
When did it stop raining?
a nest with two eggs in it
on a ground-sweeping branch.
I tried to surprise
the bird at night
but it flew
almost into my face,
silently out of sight.
I gloated over the eggs.
One fell from my hand
and broke;
Well-wishers (how many
turn up at a time like this)
advised me flee the country
while you have the chance
and told me how,
but if I did not have this sun
to hide from, a monsoon
from the chattering south
to fulfil all prediction;
if I could not in the rain
sit naked in the countryard
beside a bucketful of mangoes
the juices running down my chin
The freshly turned earth
was cool between my toes
as I followed the potato diggers,
and no delight, real or imagined,
has ever equalled
the thrill of finding a few
the harvesters missed,
and no food has ever tasted
as good as those burnt
potatoes I roasted myself
I was only concerned
with the human angle.
That buzzard again. Nearer?
Not a bad country
for birds of prey. And jackals.
Too much offal in the open.
Oh it was a day like this one
pregnant with rain,
when they made me sit
beside my bride, and her head
so low I could not see her face.
For the first time I felt
a woman’s yielding flesh
and could hardly wait till nightfall.
Will I be brave
or only pretend to be brave?
At about this time my wife
is preparing for her afternoon prayers.
I was walking home
from office, with my daughter
of six firmly affixed
to my little finger,
when I asked her, tell me
are you mummy’s daughter or daddy’s;
and she looked at me
with impatience, and said
how can you ask such a question
on the road? Can’t you wait
till we get home?
I began in poetry
as others, I suppose, have begun
a sort of game, a seducer,
something that aroused
the admiration or envy of friends.
All that early nonsense.
The words are gone,
except an unmoored
sentence or two,
but the occasion remembered
with the vividness of hindsight
unforgettable
like one’s first glimpse of the sea.
Fragrance of tobacco. Fool,
he should not be smoking on duty.
And so near the hour.
I am sleepy, I said,
but she kept pestering me
so I lay face down
and every now and then
heaved sideways
to roll her off; but
she would jump right back
and straddled me firmly
trying to reach my lips
till I had to give her
two across the face,
I was really sleepy that night,
and dozed off. A minute
later I woke, dripping
from head to waist. She had emptied
a bucket of cold water
over me then stood in a corner
to see what I would do.
I shook myself like a dog
and dripped all the way
to the bathroom where
I took off my pyjamas
and towelled vigorously.
Then I slipped into her bed
and as soon as it was warm
tossed the quilt aside
and showing her my shrivelled
penis said I hope
it catches pneumonia.
that is what
it is about: a special
kind of recollection;
the significance missed
in a moment of terror
when as a child
you were chased by a snake.
The protagonists loomed
too large in the mind.
what I really know.
And feel. And only that.
Come in, wasp,
there’s a kind of shelter
here; and a grateful companion.
To me it has never come easy.
How can it be easy?
keep trying
to catch up with myself
the person I have become
the way I see things now
and if at this moment
words seem to be coming in a rush
it is simply because
I have spent a lifetime
grooming myself for this task
I hear footsteps a momentous
arrival it is raining again
a bus groans uphill no time
to complete the argument
no time to reconsider
or improve I hope you understand

A woman and a boy
have unrolled a straw mat
on the hospital lawn
in the late morning sun.
They sit close together, whispering.
I sense a bond between them
stronger than filial love.
The woman is middle-aged and thin,
the boy bespectacled and stout.
Beside them on the grass
is a thermos and two clean mugs
and a plate heaped with oranges.
The woman has said something funny
for the boy is shaking with laughter.
Looking down from a first-floor verandah
I think this is a scene
to make the most disturbed mind
tranquil; till a voice behind me says
‘l note your interest in that couple.
The woman is cancerous, and knows it,
and so does the boy, her son.’
After this, what can one do
but stare through the infirm
light of December at these strange creatures
who have taken time out from themselves
for a last picnic in the sun.

To those I really love
I do not know how to show affection.
I am afraid of excess.
Truth gets in my way, a clumsy dog.
I am abrupt with them,
and a moment later regret my abruptness.
And do it again.
Only when I am alone
as now, hands stroke invisible hair,
endearments break in a flood.

(for Shakir Ali)
Kite-flier, pigeon-fancier, wit,
and poet, landlord of six hundred
bighas of the richest land
in the district. Every afternoon
he sauntered down the lane
in an embroidered muslin kurta
with his favourite quail in his fist
and four or five companions.
His starched whiteness drew
the sun where he walked.
We suspended our game
of inedible walnuts or marbles
and hid them under our feet;
he pretended not to notice.
We would quickly finish
and follow to the common plot
outside the village from where
the kites were launched. Sometimes
he let me hold the spool;
it jumped like a live thing
in my palms as it unwound
after the deadly kiss of strings.
He was my maternal uncle,
the best kite-flier in the world.
Everyone said so, except
Mansab Khan, of course,
his wall-touching-neighbour, and rival,
that stubborn and jealous man
who laughed at my uncle’s skill,
and called him a novice.
Incredible as it seems
he had his followers too.
In the open they applauded
his triumphs loudly. In the baithak
they arranged themselves
in a reverent semicircle
around him, praising his verses
with haunches raised from the ground
and uplifted arms, and cries
of “encore”. A couplet
could set them swaying for hours.
My uncle was always amused.
Mansab, a poet? he would sneer.
My munshi can write much better.
But it was at the kite-tangles
that they really blossomed.
Naturally, they were much too good
to do any flying themselves.
Their henchmen, guided by a word
or a touch, paid out
the string. And the watchers
were eloquent: what garlands of praise
for their patrons, what synonyms
of sourness for the others.
And so time passed
in the way that went out of fashion
with our cloistered generation.
My uncle’s only son
was married to Mansab’s daughter
so he could instil some sense
into that family.
A run of bad luck followed.
Seven kites cut in a row.
Not a single victory, not even
a long tangle. Mansab roared
and challenged and booed.
Then he threw the ultimate insult.
“Just name the time” he said
“when you want the kite cut”.
By the time our last liberated
kite was gliding over the roofs
it was mercifully dark.
We dragged to a cold dinner
and an avoidance of eyes.
With clamped mouth and terrible eyes
uncle went back to his room
to bend and unbend the kites
and test the glass on the string.
But luck stayed with them.
How it would all end,
I did not know, but one evening
as Mansab roared in glee
he had a stroke. We carried him
to his house, and laid him
on his high four-poster bed.
Uncle pulled up a chair
and sat down beside him.
Mnansab opened his eyes.
and fixing them on uncle
whispered “I’ve won again.
I’m getting there before you”.
Those were his last words.
Returning from the funeral
uncle went straight to his room
where he ripped and burnt his kites
then going up on the roof
he smashed each trestle and cote
and freed all the pigeons.

There are swim-days, and days
for dangling legs
in water, thinking of nothing.
And there are days when only
the eye moves
straying to the meeting-place
of path and river, and fills
each pitcher slowly,
lingering there long after
pitcher and giggle are gone.
But when the water rises,
and rises, and will not be stopped,
then something in us responds
to that brown impatience,
and instantly summons
the roof-top philosophy
of bundle and cot and a few hens.
Someone with giant hands
is playing upstream.

Though there is a line
that divides the elements,
it cannot be wrenched free
like a poultice.
Between cloud and sea-bed
is gravity’s end,
it is sackcloth
of a treacherous blue.
Like a gossamer
I descend, and finally lie
quiescent on the point
which plots the sea’s heartbeat.
Beyond the limit of this thought
are shadows, a gentle
coming down among
old hulls, and the octopus
whose restless finger-ends
trigger dumb movements.
From sea-bed to cloud
it is a threshing
towards beak and talon,
an ever-increasing brightness.
The tide sluices
in and out of the hollows.
A bubble, I rise and break
against that intolerant skin,
and try to escape
on the feet of the curlew.

All the doors are open.
It is so easy to float
in and out of this room.
Never was sun so brilliant
as mercury light on lime-wash.
There are flowers in makeshift vases.
Newspapers and magazines piled
on a wonky table. They are full
of martian goings-on: the cease-fire
broken again in Beirut,
a new culvert, rape and thefts,
dispute over international waters.
No urgency here. To a vaguely
reminiscent tune, a sweeper
plies his antiseptic hessian
in somnolent arcs; doctors are affable;
and nurses drifting between the beds
are not immaculate and brisk.
This is a beautiful disease.
It blossoms slowly. In civilized
laboratories white-coated men
are prayerfully bent over microscopes
watching the lymphoias gleam
like goldfish in a bowl.

The room will eject you when your train is announced.
Used and emotionless. But there is still time,
according to schedule. So relax. Put your feet up
on the extra-wide arm of the extra-long easy chair,
and under dusty lights that are never switched off
open your book at the dog-eared page. Spend a minute
to recall the earlier scenes. Not that it matters.
Only some unusual sound can disturb you,
for the noise is continuous: reverberations of trains
that come from somewhere, have nowhere to go to,
a shifting of positions, the inevitable cough,
and first-class passengers trailing their luggage
into the room, while others, woken at last to importance,
preceding theirs to the obsequious door.
The attendant is attentive; the shoe-shine boy
expectant, and a waiter miraculously near.
But it is the barber who most deserves your respect.
He can start a haircut as the engine is whistling.
I have seen men tucked into sheets like actors
being barbered right up to the compartment’s entrance,
and closely finished on the steps with a flourish.
There goes the bell. Take off your spectacles, fold them
into their case, dog-ear the book again, look round
for the odds and ends such a pause accumulates.
No goodbyes, no regrets. Let the separated note
disappear discreetly. For all its fugitive
scruples, you will find the room has a permanence
as only the anonymous can be permanent.
In the cold interior with its hooded armless fans,
flies ripen on the ventilator cords, and among
framed monuments you always intended to visit
dreams burgeon: the old attendant has visions
of the ultimate guest who will tip him a fortune,
and as discordance swells to a sort of music, stride
business-like to a suddenly crowded platform.

The breath-taking poems
about gods
and godlike men
which incited
or consoled
those credulous generations;
and an unprecedented
lyrical love
vowing forever
as easy as now,
no longer exist.
Such belief
is historical only.
So what remains
to inspirit my song?
Content for years
to be masculine
and wayward,
I seek
a reasonable purpose
without the dissipation
of that ecstasy.
Somewhere
in this lucid air,
among these droll events,
is the immaculate poem
(l know it is there)
not in snatches
or separable lines,
but mood and thought sustained,
the whole fruit,
exactly ripe.
Always, before me
you sit
scratching your knee
as we talk
the day’s news over.
Can such plainness
be oracular?
Or grow to a vision
where all is consonant,
precise,
an overwhelming reality
the veriest cynic may enter
to stop, and listen,
and be satisfied?

My name is Nachiketa.
You must have met my father,
he is the big landlord of our village,
corpulent, tight, evasive.
In a bad time he prayed to the Lord,
if the weather improves
I shall give away all I own.
The Lord understood him, of course,
but He had something else up His sleeve,
so he opened the sluices.
Well, now, reasoned my father,
there is no point in prayer now,
so he gave away his nickels
and his barren cattle.
But I had heard him make his vow,
so I went up to him, and asked,
father, you promised to give away everything,
to whom do you give me?
He did not look up from the ledger,
and said, go away, go away,
why do you keep pestering me,
can’t you see I am busy?
But I asked again, and again,
till he looked up and shouted
I give you to Death.
Then he shook his pen a couple of times
and went on with his accounting.
That’s that, I thought,
you ask for trouble long enough,
you get it.
I looked for the house of Death.
First I searched in the mountains;
I saw many a temple
clinging perilously to cliff-sides,
but there was no sign of Death.
Then I wandered through swamp-land,
the jungle and the desert,
and all I saw were quicksands and whirlwinds.
I enquired of mendicants
wearing nothing but beads,
and sadhus half-buried in sand
staring the sun into blindness;
they could tell me something of life,
but nothing of death.
Tired, hungry, and discouraged,
I came back to the village,
and was about to enter my house,
when I looked across the street.
The house was no different to the others;
I had seen it many times before,
but never really noticed it.
The place was familiar; and strange;
it looked lived-in and deserted.
An astonished cry broke from me:
This is the house of Death,
I do not know it, but I am sure.
So I knocked on the door,
My name———- what does it matter?
I am the servant, hey you, boy.
Even the most kind-hearted master
in an unguarded moment will say,
you there, what’s your name.
By this, don’t think I am bitter.
It’s a fact of life
I’ve accepted like the seasons.
There was a knock,
and I let in a man.
He had a civilized face,
but the eyes, never have I seen such eyes!
He brushed me aside, and entered.
Where is your master? he said.
It’s no use arguing with such.
He is out, I answered. I do not know
when he returns.
But I knew he would wait.
For three days
he has wardered through the rooms
blind to their comforts.
At mealtimes, when the servants
come up to him, and ask
Sir, will you eat? he waves them away.
He is full of strange queries.
Now he is squatting in a corner
growing into it like a statue.
I wish Master would come home soon.
This man is getting on my nerves.
I am Death.
I have many pseudonyms.
I am the monosyllabic end to everything.
For three days and nights
I have been travelling
through my vast territory,
trying to keep up with man’s ingenuity.
I put the key in the lock,
but the door opened by itself.
I knew then something was up.
The steward met me with a grave face.
You have a client, he said,
who will see no one but yourself.
The heat comes from him in waves.
And he asks a lot of awkward questions.
Not another trouble-maker, I thought,
and I am so tired.
A few have just enough sense
to find my house.
But I know how to deal with them.
One look and I know
what temptations to offer.
Hallo, Mr. Nachiketa, I said,
sorry you’ve had to wait.
But business you know,
a spot of trouble in Kosala.
For form’s sake
we exchanged pleasantries,
and the granting of minor boons
though most would have thought them sufficient.
But not this man;
so we got down to brass-tacks.
The secret of immortality?
Come, come, I said,
you don’t seriously expect
me to answer a question
that will ruin me.
I’ll be damned, if he didn’t smile.
You’ll never be ruined, he said,
and you know that.
Your secret is safe with me.
So be it, I said.
First I gave him the differences:
good and pleasant, etc. etc.
the usual rigmarole,
and I threw in an aphorism or two:
If the slayer thinks he slays,
if the slain thinks he is slain,
neither of them knows the truth.
Now that sounds impressive.
But even a child knows the truth.
The senses are subject to decay;
Only the mind is immortal.
Rider, go ride your body,
with strong but merciful reins.
Go, and luck be with you.
But when you are on the road
you will discover
what an unmanageable beast you straddle.
You will fall again and again,
but as you dust yourself
you will be just a little bit wiser,
till at some unpredictable moment
when you think
your body can take no more,
you find the strength
to get back in the saddle,
the struggle will cease.
There will be peace. Then the death of peace.
I will be running somewhere behind you,
but you will not hear me call.
There will be nothing there,
nothing before, and nothing after.
Nothing. Nothing at all.

The floor of the house strains
to be rid of our weight. The trees
are not for us, or themselves.
They belong to the wind.
The candle is out again.
Your hands, your feet are cold.
Right now there is nothing
we can call our own.

This is one way to go:
with your head split open
like a pomegranate,
during a winter siesta,
face down, on a quilt.
You could be sleeping still, except
for the blood; it has multiplied
the roses on the quilt;
it has papered the wall.
You are a one-day wonder.
The neighbours are knotted in whispers
Flies and policemen
are your joyous subjects.
A line or two in the papers tomorrow.
Who did it, and why,
perhaps we will never know.
But you are lucky.
A boisterous search has revealed
there is nothing missing.

Shouts which carried faintly to him
confirmed that the vanguard had made contact.
A skirmish only. He had no illusions,
for his scouts were good; the real enemy
was mustering on the banks ofthe Guadalete.
The soldiers with him on the beach,
if they heard those ominous sounds,
gave no sign. With naked, sweating torsos
they were stacking the gear. Between this
and the safe African coast-line
stood his personal Rock. But sea and rock
were done with. All that remained
was to pick up a smouldering log
from the camp-fire, set it to the nearest
boat, and make burning proverbial.

I look down on France,
and there it is, waiting,
like a woman half-willing to be ravished.
And dark pockets
of the little dukedoms beyond
I can reach into, like that.
Nothing between me and the Baltic
except some broken-down fences.
I turn to tell my companion
how easy it will be
and the good that will come of it,
when I notice the frown on his face.
He is watching a horseman
coming up from the south.
That looks like a courier, I think.
He has come a long way
and his horse is tired.
The gradient is against him,
and a breasting wind,
but he pushes on as if
the world’s fate depends on his message.

Woken at midnight in another city
by the telephone ringing, I wonder
who it could be at this hour
so insistent. Wrong number, perhaps.
Still half-doped with sleep, I hear
considerate footsteps descending
to the lounge. Murmured responses.
Then the click of a receiver cradled.
Why am I so tense? The footsteps
coming up slowly, pause at my door.
A knock. I am wide-awake now,
disturbed. Mother is dead, I learn.
Nobody has found a way
to break such news gently.
I am unprepared, had feared
someone else. She was not even sick.
All I remember of the journey home
is that the flight was smooth. And the bus
much too slow, as if the driver sensed
mourners aboard. I did not ask him
to hurry, for time had slipped
that particular noose. Outside our gate
were people, waiting. A sharp cry of
“He is here” went up. I felt ridiculously
like a bridegroom. To soon,
I stood by her bed looking down
at the face bared specially for me,
her last son home. She was at peace,
as always. it would take more than a death
to shake her. Every relative from town
and country was watching me, noting
my reactions. So five seconds later
I turned, and joined the menfolk. God,
how am I supposed to pack
forty years of her into a look?

He has everything: the gift inborn,
intelligence, skill,
and a taste for words which keep him
faithful to his calling.
Nearly all his poems sound good,
and they look good on the page,
and yet they do not wrench,
or open unsuspected windows.
I look at him again, as he stands
in the exact centre of his circle,
smiling neatly. He reminds me
of a well-dressed boy on a stile
watching an impromptu
football match on a sketchy field
between boys of his age.
His eyes are bright with knowledge.
Now and then he forgets himself
and jumps down, shouting encouragement,
kicking in goals, but recovers quickly,
clambers back on the stile, and claps.
Fascinated, but afraid to join in,
lest he gets hurt, and the clothes messy.

Forty years. So far we have managed
to miss each other, somehow,
by the now all too familiar
she was here a minute ago,
an hour ago, last week.
Each time, instantly, she stands
before me: brown curly hair,
almond eyes, and lips with contours
as clear as a line-drawing.
Unless I see her again
I cannot tell if the shyness
of her smile so carefully cherished
these many years is a myth.
But the fact of her presence
is undeniable. Perhaps
I am stubborn about her
because of this sweet evasion.
When I look into the mirror
I imagine similar changes there:
the hair streaked with grey,
eyes gleaming behind spectacles,
and those clear lines roughed up
by another man’s kisses. Even
the thought makes me wince;
and that is why although
she lives in a nearby town
the desire to meet her is mixed
with the desire to miss her again.

I
is, well, this year’s April.
There was an August once,
a caesarian month,
and a December which halved us.
Ahd now this April.
These are the same lamp-posts.
How weather-beaten they are.
Unnoticed before, except in the dark,
the fused ones. They suck
their shadows inwards at noon,
then pay them out, inchly,
to the canted sun.
Is it the weather?
But the gul-mohur mints
as profusely as ever,
and still the jacaranda weaves
its mauve alluements.
April, be unhistoric.
Our calendar is filling up fast.
II
I insist I have nothing to do
with what has been happening
around me, these past few weeks.
Shouts; accompanied by splintering.
I am drawn to the gate
of the office where the staff
is assembled in a knot, silently
watching a group of teenagers,
they could be my sons,
who have invested a pick-up.
The driver and his mate
surrender at once. The wind-screen
is already starred. One youth
rolls the windows up quickly
only to shatter them
with the butt-end of a shovel.
Head-and tail-lights go.
Then the vehicle is overturned.
Now the gas-tank is exposed.
A lit match, and it is escalated.
All this in the name of God.
A jeep rushes madly up,
spilling policemen before it is
fully halted. The boys scatter
like quail. A potbellied officer
has his pistol out,
barks orders, and his men
take positions, kneel, then a shot.
The shovel-wielder, lean and athletic,
folds gracefully and falls.
More shots. Two small boys
run up the hillock opposite.
No use; they are spotted.
The officer dog-trots across,
levels his pistol and fires.
The sound is not unlike
that of a toy pistol.
There are so many trees
I cannot tell if he scores.
Behind a boundary wall
a youngster cowers
on his haunches, his palms
glued to the stone.
Our eyes are on him.
His eyes are on us.
This is just like the movies:
cops, pursuit, and bloodshed.
The good guys winning in the end.
III
To think a city can be so still
at eleven in the morning.
Privileged, I have the roads to myself,
maker of my own speed,
and take perverse delight
in crashing every traffic-light,
and going the wrong way round
the roundabout.
Even the pye-dogs have vanished.
I can almost feel
the weight of the dust
settling on pavement and awning.
Privileged, I have the roads to myself,
maker of my own speed,
and take perverse delight
in crashing every traffic-light,
and going the wrong way round
the roundabout.
Even the pye-dogs have vanished.
I can almost feel
the weight of the dust
settling on pavement and awning.
All shops are shuttered.
Only the chemist stands in his doorway
picking his teeth.
His customers today
will be cardiacs and kidney failures.
Windows of some of the flats
overlooking the street, are open.
No one leans down, curious,
for there is nothing to see
except this nuclear vacancy.
But I know they are there,
worrying about the next meal,
trapped in sexual bonuses,
or planning tomorrow’s sabotage.
I know they are there;
ears strained to catch
any giveaway sound, eyes glistening,
with the patience of animals.
The walls bulge with their heart-beats.
I am almost glad
when a soldier holds up his hand
to stop the car,
and asks for the curfew pass.
I smile; he does not smile back,
which makes me feel like a criminal,
and a stranger.
Where did my city go?
It is here, right here,
spread out before me,
halted in mid-stride,
a little tired now,
waiting to put its raised foot down.
IV
This year’s April,
says the astrologer,
will be decisive.
If it is really so,
why does he look
uncomfortable?
I see a lake,
he continues. Its colour
and smell puzzles me.
Yes, I can smell it.
Strange.
I am only supposed to see.
Next, the ace of spades,
the ace of clubs,
and the ace of diamonds.
But these are things,
I protest. What about people?
Do you see any people?
There should be a ladder here
with people ascending.
It is hidden by clouds.
Whispers, whispers,
saying one thing now.
now another. Then another.
But wait, I see something.
I cannot tell
if it is man or beast.
A counter-influence
is jamming the wave-length.
It comes and goes.
This much I can make out:
It is wounded.
It is seeking the dark.

The floor of the cave
is shin-deep in water,
clear cold water over rock,
scored by years, God knows how many years,
of this persistent rain
falling from the roof.
We lie on our backs,
eyes closed against the spray,
silent, content to listen
and feel.
Too soon, we are chilled,
and retrieving some mangoes
from the clear cold water
move to the ledge
where the sun, for a change, is welcome.
Slowly conversation returns,
and an awareness of others.
In our new animation, we toss
cupped words and mango-stones
into the mountain stream
twenty feet below.
It sinuates, dervish-like,
past boulders it cannot budge,
all foam and fanfaronade.
Just across the stream
is a small man-made pool
into which bubbles a sulphur spring.
It looks dirty from here.
A woman in a white sari
stands in the pool
scrubbing her kids, up and down,
up and down, lightly.
This medicine will not fail;
and even if it does
there is a temple at hand,
benevolent, judiciously sited,
overlooking both spring and cave,
to which she will climb for solace.
We come down too
and linger by the pool,
watching the woman, sidelong:
her breasts show
through the thin wet blouse,
the nipples strongly marked.
And when she leaves
we plunge in quickly to purge
present guilt and future sores.
But the staleness of a million sores
and that awful smell of sulphur
sends us scurrying back
to that earlier clarity.
This place is Sansandhara.
The sound dominates everything:
water dripping on water,
the caveshaped wind,
and the torrent below.

1
Springboard
Pain is the springboard to love. You are already
familiar with this in a thousand colonial ways.
It has always been there, in some forno or other.
So if it’s pain you’re after, you’ll be disappointed.
That’s the sadist in you, demanding satisfaction
for all the things you could never dare to be.
After some time, pain was the least of all
my concerns. That is something you can learn
to live with. It can be, it is more than possible,
the actuality of pain can even be welcome.
No, it was not the pain. That was expected, and willed
against. In the beginning all my time was spent
preparing for the pain to come, and recouping
from the pain that was: the waking moments contracted
to a single theme. But only in the beginning. Then
the world reasserted itself, a little slowly
at first, ready to withdraw to its former limits
on the least excuse. The mind looked this way and that,
seeking the breach. I tried to think, God knows
I really tried, to think of all the things
I had considered important, but they seemed
other-worldly, hieroglyphics on a monument.
And every monument that ever was, brought forth
its own monuments to bear: Faith, Honour, Love,
such capital abstractions as men delight in.
So I was forced to consider the difference
between what is and is not: someone else’s hunger
is someone else’s hunger; there are many definitions
of justice, truth. But teeth are real. The smell
of oil is real. Above all, darkness is real.
2 Faces
To live with one’s thoughts, that is the difficult
discipline. How long does the sound of a slap
last? One second? Ten slaps, ten seconds. But after
the correction, when you are back in the cell,
the greater chastisement of a whole night and day,
with only your doubts for company, lies before you,
more obdurate and ruthless than the ordeal
in the lighted room. Here expediency
is unacceptable if you scream yes, yes, yes,
every brick will scream back, no, no, no.
Hate is the best lover there is. Their eyes
locked with mine for hours, their breath on my face,
proves it again and again. It is a habit
easily acquired, so comfortable to live with.
Whenever did love, handicapped by requital,
spread fiercely and fast? And impersonal hate
is the greatest lover of them all. It grows
222
out of nothing. It feeds on nothing. It is
endless. We know this to be true, yet every age
must prove it for itself, with its own belsens.
I wish I could hate. Everything woulcl be much simpler
then. But every time I try to concentrate
on someone who has done more than his share,
his face merges with all the other faces beyond
these walls. God dammit, such a potent force
should have a face. Surely, there’s a weakness in me
which will not permit the focusing. The mind,
that unseasonable blob, slides off on a tangent,
and instead of burning with resentment, remembers
how the mangoes clattered in the monsoon yard.
3
The Visit
When you are too much alone, any interruption
is welcome, and although the fear was still there,
spasmodic, I began to look forward to
the interrogations. They were flesh and blood,
they had voices. I could wrap myself
in their presence, and ignore the words. I waited
for a smile, not caring where the smile went,
or what it covered. Fascinated, I watched
words dribble from their mouths, and answered
anything I thought would make them smile.
And eyes! I became a student of eyes. Nothing
tells so much as a look. All those poems about
eyes brimming with love! If I were a poet
I could tell them where poetry is: the victim’s eyes
unwaveringly fixed on the lover who revels
in his power. An unblinking exchange that deepens
and deepens. To this, every other attraction
is schoolgirl stuff. No blush is as tell-tale
as a captor’s face reddening with the expectation
of an entire afternoon of worming out answers.
And each visit is a renewal of love, dreaded
and desired at once. Anything, anything, is
better than the monastic fingering of self-pity.
They brought me my father once. I had nothing
to say. He looked for some sign of affection.
How could I tell him it was given elsewhere?
Forgive me, I said in my heart, forgive me
father, for my dumbness. Can I send you
something? he asked. Oh I could have cried then
for every platitude that love can offer.
4
Cat
The cat was something else again. It strayed
into my room one mangy shivering afternoon,
and curled to sleep, out of the wind’s reach.
Come morning it was gone. A chance visit
I thought, and blessed the occasion. But when I saw
a cracked bowl of milk in its corner, I knew
it would be back; the lapping was a homely,
reassuring sound. Till they placed that bowl
before me with my curry in it. I learnt
to keep the food in, as I must. And the cat
fell into place. Nothing is random; the questions
as inevitable as the answers that follow.
So you start with a lie. And the lie breeds
like a rabbit. And still they come at you
with their knowing looks; the haphazard questions
are coded to a pattern. You have the key,
and they know you have it; they are as vulnerable
as you. The pity that flowers is amorphous,
impartial. Your fruit hangs on their branches.
You are all trapped in the same dark web.
Each visitation propels you closer to the final
bewilderment. Nothing is random.
Not even the first lie implanted by you,
on reflex. Soon the lie is bigger than you,
bigger than all of them, and those who sent them.
It is the ground on which the edifice stands
in blurred light. It was my ignorance
imparted mystery to what was never mysterious.
These men, these events, were ordained. They glow
in my firmament with the precision of stars.
5
Motives
Somewhere along the way we lost sight
of why we were here, for torture becomes
its own reason. In some other world, in another
life it began. The motive, if there had been one,
was no longer real or significant. The one
important thing was our presence at this time
is such proximity. The hunter and the hunted
go round in a circle, depending on each other
to keep the excitement alive. The outside world
is a nuisance that will sneak in sometimes
with further rumours: schoolmates turned informers
in some dubious crime, more arrests, confessions
that grow organically out of the situation.
You strain to recall their opinions, their frailties,
but memory is acting up. Only the trivia
are remembered: the way one wrings her hands,
or another laughs. This they will not believe.
I wish I could help them, offer some tid-bit
to bring back the smile. What is your telephone number?
I do not know, dear God, I do not remember.
Now that I am elected to be their sole entertainer,
I labour to oblige. I think up fresh conquests,
and extract salacious episodes from every novel
that I ever read. I bask in their approval,
and elaborate, repeating such details as make
their eyes light up. Secret rendezvous and subversion
are all forgotten, even those mythical friends
up in the mountains whom a long martyrdom
has enbeasted, their ghostly typewriters busy
tapping out messages to an illiterate people.
6
Change of Season
Suddenly you discover it is spring,
you smell it in the air. The sentry bustles
to his post like a girl with jasmine in her hair
keys clanging sweetly beside him; his voice sings
directions; the shadows in the cell are orange
and yellow and mauve. You toss the blanket aside,
and taste the floor’s nakedness. The world
comes rushing in with its irrepressible
paraphernalia and rites that will not be effaced
by artifice. If they only knew how time
is on your side, they would falter. Fingerprints
on bars will be your witnesses, each dank stone
cries out to be heard. Even their batons
will desert them. If this were all there is,
it were enough, but once nature is incepted
it never knows when to stop. The world comes
rushing in, and every chance of love you missed
points an accusing finger, each selfish act,
every moment of indifference is remembered,
the needless pain that you caused to friends.
This is the one pain you are not ready for.
The scars have healed. Whatever still remains
to come will be borne well. There is forgiveness
for what they have done to you. But your own
transgressions are intolerable. How will they ever
know you are sorry? Such impatience twists
your arm, you cannot sit in one place,
tears run down your cheeks. Never did the bars
seem so solid-thick, and you are buried under
the glacial roof avalanching its stones.
7
Free
That season has come and gone. The otherness
of days impinges. New faces arrive
with the old questions. On whom will fall
the miracle they expect? A fresh round
of promises, and threats, and long confessions.
I sense they are getting tired. My imagination
is now aflame. I could keep them in lust
for years and years. Meanwhile my dossier
grows like a pregnant woman. They are happy,
unhappy. And still the rumours keep coming.
We are married to a fixed routine. Now the hate
is cosy in their eyes, and is curled up there
cat-like, warm with milk. Now the punishments
are less convincing. I can no longer tell
by their eyes how the world fares. Once they even
let me look at the sky. Are they softening
me up for the final try? I do not know
or care. Each day is sufficient to itself.
I know this is a dangerous attitude, but I’m
beyond caring. I have no tomorrow to care for.
And just when you are beginning to believe
it will never end, somebody opens the door
and leaves it open. You are too tired to resist
this latest trickery and leave the dungeon
expecting to be called back. Now I must live down
this feeling. Perhaps I am still there. Perhaps
I shall never really be able to leave it.
Thinking back on this conversation, I find
I was wrong after all. The pain, the pain
gets you in the end, one way or the other.

What is my shape?
It is not cylindrical or phallic,
but the shape of the flesh I shall enter.
Look, how perfectly I am moulded
in that yielding centre.
My thrust is prophetic.
If I have any colour at all
it is futuristic red.
I am not lead or brass
or crammed with powder and grape.
I am more ironic than you realize.
Do not err in thinking me dead
when I lie on your palm.
Then I am most alive,
a fleeting thought in a thoughtless head.
You will recoil at my exit.
You do not know it yet,
it is you who are inert.

Child and mother, I loved her
before she was born, and again
I call her my green one
in a panic of despair.
A cripple at twenty three
she has limped to the edge, and now
stares blindly at the sea.
Who are these secretive men
harnessing her where she stands?
Do I see feathers in the air?
Do I smell wax on my hands?

Flying across a continent
I’m pierced by the ingenuity
that keeps me at this height
in comfort. The occasional
twitch of the plane and engine hum
give a sense of flight,
otherwise I could be sitting
in a room full of strangers.
Even the scene below has a dream-
like quality: mountains
melt into hills, into plains,
and rise into hills again;
a plausible relief. Cities
are a one minute blur,
and the only dividing line
is between land and sea.
A woman sits next to me.
I no longer try to reach her.
The blank look suggests she
does not understand my language,
or resents my colour.
The plane
bucks suddenly. In unison
hands black and brown and white
reach for safety belts and snap
them on. My neighbour sits
up straight, hands tense in her lap.
Over the confusion of wild
tea-cups I’m tempted to say
relax, friend, relax, we are
together in this.

Belsen stuck in their craw.
They vomited in Auschwitz.
Dachau tnoved them to tears.
So for the sins of their enemies
the good Allies decided
to give the Jews a homeland.
Penalizing Germany
by carving out a portion of it
would have been too just;
and too humdrum to cede them Alaska
which nobody wanted.
It was ice-cold anyway.
The only logical thing that remained
was to turn back history
thousands of years.
That was it! It was truly Christian
to give them Palestine,
sunny Palestine. The unsettling
of a million silly Arabs
was a minor nuisance.
It was here Jewry began
in the dim past. And it is here
a thorn in the side of a continent
it should end.
An eye opens in the dark
near me. Who is it?
I whisper. An eye inflamed
and big with some meaning
beyond grief or anger.
It blinks slowly in answer,
then resumes its stare.
It has no mate. I imagine
a mouth below it
dumb with excess. Slow blink
and stare, slow blink.
Since it will not speak,
since it will not go away,
I close my eyes
and dress it in every black
possibility, and say:
what glows through the matted hair
of this enduring night
is a figment. Daylight
will douse it entirely.
It is not even an eye.

Here, after its mad rush from the hills,
the rivulet takes a quiet U-turn
following a cliff whose highest point
coincides with the bend. On its top
a scattering of sal trees, the same
we cycled through for miles. Real jungle,
grown heavy with indulging itself, flecked
with deer, singed by the occasional tiger.
The cliff is not sheer entirely. In places
it slopes at a giddy angle, but not
an impossible climb, with convenient
bushes: their damp green snake-like branches
never break which we use for leverage
to clamber half-way up. From there
we deliver ourselves to the silent air
and learn to enter the darkness cleanly.
The middle of the cliff curves in. The water
is deepest here, and best for swimming.
In the dark of the overhang, the current
has been charmed to a halt; sinister
the island rock within, a protuberance
like a buffalo’s back on whose slipshanks
two can manage by clinging. Why is it
some of us always choose this spot?
When we jumped down from our bicyles,
and undressed, having cached the hampers,
we naturally split into gangs, reuniting
at mealtimes only. As for us, in between
dips, we lie on our backs and discuss
cricket, or Gone with the Wind, or Tobruk.
From the other side of the U, the sunny one,
faintly come pretended shrieks of drowning.

There was this duck my son painted.
It was streaky yellow.
He worked at it laboriously for an hour
with the only crayon he had,
and when it was done,
he came to show it to me.
What is it? I asked vaguely
my mind on a troublesome poem.
It is a duck, he said
with the finality of an eight year old.
It looked like a bloated sparrow,
except for the beak. I placed it
at arm’s distance, beside him.
It could have been nothing else.
The outline was right, the colour right
for all ducks are yellow.
There was this duck my son painted.
It was streaky yellow.

Two I can call to mind: gentle, otherworldly
they were, living hundreds of miles apart,
Yet I like to think, familiar
with each other’s name,
though they worked in widely disparate fields;
a grammarian of a long-dead language, burrowing
for roots to formulate its laws,
so far leant back in time
for so long, he gave significance and grace
to that period; the other a critic and writer
fascinated by words in a
stinging immediate way.
I remember the one endearing contradiction
of their calling: the grammarian’s sly sense
of humour, how he liked to sit
outside in any easy chair
with thick volumes piled on the grass beside him,
often neglected as he paused to follow a bird,
while the other was only happy
in a book-lined study;
but each unconcerned with what concerns us now,
recognition. They looked up vaguely and nodded
when we disturbed them, the love
in their eyes undiminished,
and unbroken the stream of that particular thought.
It must be so, for they never scolded or sulked.
When the books were laid aside,
they answered our questions
with patience, and an overwhelming solicitude
to make things clear. Such precision must surely
summon us to knowledge, and breed
the doubts that keep us alive.
Both died while we were still in our teens, but
their slow clipped tones continue to ring in our ears.
White-haired they sit among us,
and whenever we fall
from discretion, or try to dilute our standards,
we are rapped on our knuckles by a pencil-stub.
Smiling they bend on us eyes
still rich in expectancy.

The first thing we shall learn
is a new definition of strangeness.
Between the angles of a hedge
an apple tree is in blossom.
Beside it, another apple tree
is in full fruit.
Strangeness, therefore,
stems from the seasons.
The flowering tree
will go on flowering for ever,
and the other one, will never
be an apple less.
2
When the perfect poem has been written
what will the poet do?
3
All these beautiful women
are available.
The words we speak to them,
if words are necessary
are of three
and five letters only.
4
When every thing is ideal
there are no adjectives left,
only superlatives.
5
We thrived on tension,
an overlapping of time.
How are we to cope then
with such smooth progression,
such clemency?
6
There is one language for everybody,
as everybody understands all languages.
There is no intermarriage.
7
An old man sat on a stump
in a corner of the garden.
An old man? A stump?
8
It is a pleasant afternoon.
It is a pleasant afternoon.
It is a pleasant afternoon.
9
I am in all places at all times.
That is God’s word.
It is, therefore, not surprising,
He is as manifest here
as on earth.
10
Milk and honey,
rivers of milk and honey,
and not a fly anywhere.
Avenues of date-palms.
Possibly, we shall learn
to love these things.
11
Every path is certain.
Every line is end-stopped.
12
I sat at the window
looking out on the peaceful scene.
I too was at peace.
If there was an expectancy still,
it was my own fault;
the overflow of an old habit.
13
In this endlessly beautiful weather
the only thing I can think of
is all the poems I have written
about beautiful weather
when I have been sweating like a dog
or shivering in winter rain.
14
Here, where there is no beginning and no end,
and the same thing goes on forever,
there is no question of creation.
15
I said everything begins in doubt.
What is doubt? they said.
I realised the question-mark
should have been after my statement.
16
Buttermilk and lemongreen chairs
in a smoke-filled room,
and the hum of conversation.
They could read our thoughts
and so disarm us.
17
There is something wrong
with these few thoughts.
Somehow, they do not sound right.
I look at them again, and wonder.
Then I say them out loud
and instantly am struck
by what is incompatible.
Only perfect metre and rhyme
can represent the chimes of perfection.
18
Surprise, surprise, said the angel
as he blew in our faces
our own particular brand of tobacco.
Heaven indeed! I cried.
19
The meats are cooked.
Who tended the flocks,
or sweated in the kitchen?
The wine is on the table.
It came from no vineyard.
And these fruits, so various
and abundant,
did some angel stand in the sun
for hours, pruning,
anxiously looking up at the sky?
20
I was looking for a word.
When I saw the way
the poplars leant toward each other
then swayed back, tossing,
I was reminded of
I was reminded of
21
Some hesitation there was
when I came down the steps
to the water’s edge.
I had hoped to find
reeds growing wildly along one bank,
and there they were;
so I did not look round to see
if the other things I wished for
were each in its proper place.
22
Angels are made tolerable
by the fact
they are in man’s image.

I hate father.
He beats up mother.
I hate him. I hate him.
I hate father.
He beats up mother.
He beat her up twice.
You hardly notice him
in the house, he is so quiet,
except when he beats up mother.
Twice he did it.
Father works in an office.
He is no good, mother says.
At five in the evening
he would come home, wash,
change, and demand his supper.
It would not be ready
because mother was always busy
doing something else;
so he would pick up a book
and start reading.
And she would say
why are you reading?
Why don’t you talk to me?
If you have nothing else to do
go water the garden.
He would go and water the garden.
When he was done, supper
would still not be ready.
Mother was busy doing something else.
So he would unfold the newspaper
and start on the crosswords.
And she would say
That is all you are good for,
crosswords! Will crosswords bring in money?
Will they get us a house of our own?
Will they get us a new car?
Then she would start abusing.
She abused the servants,
the children, father, and finally
drag in grandfather’s name.
Grandfather is a hundred years old.
He will never die, mother says.
He is half-blind. Quite often
he wets his bed.
When his son comes home, he is happy.
He calls me dolly.
Father said, say anything you like
but keep out grandfather.
If he is so precious, she shouted,
give him a house of his own.
That was when he hit her.
I hate him.

Theirs is a serenity
one almost fails to comprehend
from the boat, bobbing. The crusts
they seek, no one can see,
except those knowledgeable eyes.
The old duplicity of things!
The gulls wheel smartly about
uttering their hoarse cries
which are as real as the rings
they aim at us, downwind.
Lulled by wave-splash, and noise
of distant chugging, past the dredgers
and the creaking rusted buoys
we forget what brought us here,
afloat in a seascape of iron.
This would be safe and barren
as before, but the sheerfoam edge
of a wave, topping its heave,
rejects a bold gull into life
and sends it screaming to the pier.

The really big ones are doomed: eagle,
ostrich, and stork; and the fastidious
like the golden pheasant; or the flashy
peacock and the bird of paradise.
The allegedly tough and sure of instinct
do not have much time, as times go.
Meanwhile they strut and make their din.
I expect one such bird was the dodo.
Not so the sparrow. It will survive
selectivity and the huge migrations,
and the last most ambitious handiwork
of man. Then, when everything is gone
except the denominator, with a chirp
it will declare itself, and a hop.

I could not get close;
not that I really tried,
for there weren’t as many as
some said, later, there were.
It seems so hazy now.
That three were punished
on a hill, together,
I remember, and the coldness
of the morning. It was none
of my business anyway.
It is none of my business,
I said to my neighbour.
But it is your business, he said,
he is a good man.
And he looked at me as if
to say, are you a good man?
Damn him, he always manages
to get under my skin.
So I undid the apron
and followed at a distance.
It was very efficiently handled.
There were no speeches.
Even the spectators were quiet.
Only the sound of hammering
which carried, I believe,
all the way to the village;
and the shattering silence
of the men, up there,
each pair of feet neatly stapled
and arms stretched wide.
Two were thieves they told me,
but of the third….

The locals call it snake-herb.
Hooded like the cobra,
and militarily erect
as if it would strike now,
it names their hyphenated directness:
a plant about to be metamorphosed
into a reptile,
or a petrified worm.
Up in the hills it flourishes
manured by needles.
One would think so sinister
a shape choked with venom;
but this is the poor man’s friend.
They delve for the roots and save them
and bless their luck
that it needs no tending.
Nutritious, if sharp,
and so propertied with heat
a meal can keep one warm
a whole snowed-in night.

We were having tea, I remember,
my father and l, that morning,
and talking of nothing in particular,
when he said “We will go now.”
It did not occur to me to ask
where. He put on his best sherwani
and turban and new pumps. We left
the warmth of the room for the rawness
and bluster of the porch, where
his ninety years swayed in the wind.
Halfway there, I realized
we were off to the ancestral place.
The relatives who still lived in
the house in which he was born
were surprised, and peeved. We had tea
and fifteen minutes of apologies.
Then further up the lane to visit
his only surviving contemporary.
Uncle Feroz was bed-ridden. He was not
really my uncle, but we had always
called him that. We had tea again.
Father talked business, politics, and explained
in detail the formula of a tonic.
Uncle Feroz could not say a word,
he simply wept and wept. We descended
the five or six steps from his house.
As we were leaving, father stopped.
And turned. For five long minutes
he looked up the lane, not moving,
not saying a word, as if he would
drink in every cobble, window,
and door with his difficult breath.
I knew then it was his own way
of saying goodbye to this life.

We were having tea, I remember,
my father and l, that morning,
and talking of nothing in particular,
when he said “We will go now.”
It did not occur to me to ask
where. He put on his best sherwani
and turban and new pumps. We left
the warmth of the room for the rawness
and bluster of the porch, where
his ninety years swayed in the wind.
Halfway there, I realized
we were off to the ancestral place.
The relatives who still lived in
the house in which he was born
were surprised, and peeved. We had tea
and fifteen minutes of apologies.
Then further up the lane to visit
his only surviving contemporary.
Uncle Feroz was bed-ridden. He was not
really my uncle, but we had always
called him that. We had tea again.
Father talked business, politics, and explained
in detail the formula of a tonic.
Uncle Feroz could not say a word,
he simply wept and wept. We descended
the five or six steps from his house.
As we were leaving, father stopped.
And turned. For five long minutes
he looked up the lane, not moving,
not saying a word, as if he would
drink in every cobble, window,
and door with his difficult breath.
I knew then it was his own way
of saying goodbye to this life.

In a stalled van I sit
and wait for the rain
to slacken, so I can get
down and look for help.
Windscreen is lashed blind,
and the two windows
tie drop to fat drop
with the ease of prolixity.
Lightning cobwebs the sky
away to the right.
Once again it is night
darker than it was.
Elbow on steering,
palm under my chin,
I say no help now,
bear it with a grin.
Out of sheer perverseness
I try the self again.
It turns and turns
and turns and turns and turns.
Two hours pass.
My feet are cold
and no relief in sight.
I feel eighty years old.
The rain is steady now
and much more ominous
than thunder and lightning
and those fitful bursts.
Shy away from the thought
of a warm bed
and a snuggling wife.
Light another cigarette
(to hell with the ulcers)
and be cheerful of heart.
If nothing else will
a poem might start.

A horse stood by his bed,
milk white, in the gloom.
Yet it was not a horse;
the eyes were almost human
in a woman’s head,
hair flying in a still room.
And from the sides outspread,
strangely enough, wings,
pulsing gently, gently.
The rest was all animal,
magnificent, unrestrained.
As if hypnotised, he rose,
and on the bare back settled.
Deep within him, he questioned
the need for such shows
though he was prepared to praise.
As it soared, he looked down
at the things he loved well:
sand-dune, palm, and above all,
signs of the presence of men.
Then he set his eyes on heaven
where he was received like a guest
and shown the sights. It dismayed
him that he felt so glad
when the guided tour was done.
Back in his room again
he touched the cot and wept;
felt the infinite variety
and firmness of the wall;
the palm leaves under his feet.
He was grateful for the visit,
but this is what he would inherit.
He touched once more, and slept.

I felt, deep down, a stirring,
like a rumour
of the earliest wind of winter,
or the uneasiness in a clearing
before the tiger’s advent.
The jungle was dark, horizonless.
I could not escape it.
Too many trees lay buried in each tree,
too many men ran in my veins.
And then this blinding light;
it took me by surprise.
For me, I cried elated, for me!
But as I turned to go
each thicket showed
a hundred gleaming eyes.