Un(en)titled

These are the races of people:
Those who hope to love
And those who need to hate.

These are the tribes of people:
Those who defend the powerful
And those who defend the weak.

These are the castes of people:
Those who are attacked in libraries
And those who burn books.

These are the religions of people:
Those who kill for their gods
And those who die for their beliefs.

These are the broken bones and blinded eyes of people, the bloodied shirts
And shattered cries of
People, the invaded homes and bolted gates of
People, the denied countries, refuge, and states of people,
The detained people and blood and grime
Stained people, the pressed into service by power
People, the made to kneel and cower people, our
People:

Those that are glorified and killed
And those that are vilified and killed.

And we speak of things that matter … A remembrance of conversations past

Conversations with Dr Baker sometimes lasted an entire day – or at least, this was the case once every year, when he paid his annual visit to my home, wherever it was. He would arrive mid-morning, by bus (and later by train to Gurgaon), refusing offers of rides. Through a pre-lunch coffee, lunch, and evening tea, there was never a dearth of things to say, issues to discuss, the odd bit of gossip, disagreements to be thought through, information and concerns shared. Except for a brief post-lunch nap, he spoke animatedly, laughed out loud, poked fun at me (although he once had to assure me that he always laughed with me, never at me!) and included my family – parents and siblings, and later, husband and kids – in all of it. When out of town, he wrote letters – not terse folded blue ones, but several fountain-penned sheets, in the old, Victorian, style of chatty, informational, personal, communication. Occasionally, small notes appeared in my pigeon-hole in the staff room.

In second term, he would redecorate his rooms, with bright red and yellow rugs that held the glow of the slanted winter sun. For such an austere personality, this was such a delightful concession to warmth and surroundings. Then he would painstakingly prepare coffee for you, putting together ingredients from an array of little tins on the table near the wall. How much sugar, how much coffee, he would ask, and then smile if you asked him for more water and less milk, talking gently the whole time. If you asked me to characterize College in a few snapshots, this would be one of them; Dr Baker quietly poking fun at Dwivedi Sa’ab, chortling while Dwivedi, his eyes twinkling, would jab back, as only the oldest and most comfortable of friends do.

And both so genuinely interested in conversation; the details probed, the meanings of things teased out, the contexts, historical, social, philosophical, laid out and examined. How you felt about something, what you thought, what kind of experience this was – all this was brought out by questions and observations. What street was that again, that you mentioned – where the woman was singing arias while walking out of the subway? Do you think that the Manhattan of the twenties was … and how did that student appear when you said that … and isn’t it interesting that the title of Thakur originated in …. Conversations with these two historians, so vastly different in personality, were such a feast. Dr Baker would acknowledge my disagreements with him gravely, looking thoughtfully into a far corner of the staff room – usually at the entrance, since we most often sat in the corner right of the pigeonholes, where the heater was – and nod, consider the points made, and respond – or promise to respond when he had thought it over a bit. Dwivedi Sa’ab, on the other hand, lived for the disagreements, often making an outrageous statement only to get a good argument going, his impish smile betraying the good-humoured pinch of salt with which he took everything, the eyes crinkling with the joy of battle. So many, many times, a quick stroll to the café for tea with him in the middle of the day would spark the weary brain into new life and I would often stride into my next class with some little snippet of information or quirky quote fresh from our conversation.

Tea-time conversations with Dr Nagpaul used to be like that; usually with the cryptic crossword between us, Beethoven’s symphony scores and how many chips per-head would the afternoon tea need were dissected with equal precision. I can only assume that others more fortunate than me have those conversations with him now. Dr Harsh Kumar usually came in after lunch, and it seems like a lifetime ago, but it has only been twelve, long, years, since those lovely, meditative, informative, quietly humourous, conversations stopped. The elegance with which scripture and music, poetry and culture were thought through is a rare and wonderful thing. Sharma Sa’ab passed on all-too-soon after he brought me into the staff room but conversations with him had begun well before that – not just in Room S or in the corridors but in the staff room itself, on one memorable occasion. Thrown out of class and still angry, I fetched up at the staff room entrance in search of him. He listened sympathetically and then took me to the dhaba for a nimbu-pani of absolution. Mathur Sa’ab’s turn of phrase and perceptive understanding of character were delivered almost as footnotes, his self-deprecating laugh infectious, his sure grasp of the influence of Stephanians past on our collective ethos always a revelation. Humour, irreverence, wit, knowledge, personal concern – how swiftly these became a given; how attentively a point of view was listened to, how thoughtfully responded, what a wealth of insight and information was brought to any discussion, howsoever frivolous or weighty – I wonder at these now.

Now when ideas can so quickly become ‘issues’ and issues become so high definition that discussion is disagreement and disagreement is anger and anger is silence. My earliest understanding of the importance of being able to converse with anyone and everyone are of my parents obliging us kids – my earliest memory of this is at the age of 6 – to come and greet guests, sit with each, talk. Each guest was introduced to us by name and any one other thing that might help us relate to them – profession, interest, hobby, relationship, where they lived – and then we, in turn, were introduced to the guest. My dad – or mom – would tell them our names and something interesting about us. That is how the 6 year old girl and the adult guest entered into a conversation as equals, interested in each other and in communicating with each other. There are no uninteresting things, we were always told: only uninterested people. Maybe that is why I still believe in the inherent value of speaking with and meeting people.

It occurs to me that memories are our conversations with the past; and perhaps our conversations with the dead are the voices that we continue to hear for a lifetime. The many women, older and younger, whose voices have filled my years in College, are, thankfully, still alive and strong. A remembrance of conversations past with Dr. Baker makes me ever more grateful for those that I continue to have with these women and men, who help me refine and rethink my own ideas, challenge my preconceptions and add their wisdom to mine, shake me with laughter, and allow me to weep with them. May it be many years yet before they live only in my head.

A Hundred and One Nights of the Falcon

Where I come from, no gift comes in round numbers. No ten
Rupees is ever given, it is always eleven, a token
Of not finishing, not ending, the extra one a harbinger
An invitation, a wish, a granting of plenty, of more
To come. Auspicious, we call it. A bringing to the fore
Of a promise for the years before the young. Where
I come from there is a tale of a clever woman who staved
Off death with a thousand tales, each one saved
For another night won, a full thousand and one. Where
I come from, legend has it that women sat vigil not
One night or two, not a couple, a handful, a dozen, a
Few. Stories are told in hushed tones of a full hundred
And one, every thrower of stones has heard it, every
Wielder of guns. Songs are sung of the women of the night
Who spread their wings, became falcons, and took flight.

New

On New Year’s Day last year
I woke up in a new home. Mine,
But not yet; loved but
Not heart-set; mine,
But a strange bed, a distant view
Of hills bathed in blue
Deep-winter light, a promise
Since redeemed. Mine,
But never before
Known. How we’ve grown
Accustomed to newness.
Familiar with not knowing how
With what words, what ink
What salutations
To greet this stranger who eats
At our table, quaffs our drink.
Not knowing if naming
Or not naming
Will drive him hence. Not wanting
To lose that which
Is always here. So dear
That no known name
Will ever change
Its forever.

This morning I woke up
In a familiar bed made new. You
Would think that this place
This house where
My children grew
Would need no naming
And part of that is true.
Yet this stranger, craning
It’s neck over my shoulder
Erasing each word I write,
Who, running beside me knew
The ache of muscles in my stride
From ship to ship, port to port
Racing from one home to another
Desperate to outpace him
This stranger has forever
Made every loved thing unfamiliar
Every borne grief new.

How may I unname him
Let me count the ways.
Not death nor loss nor absence
Or love, not sorrow nor grief
No song no poem no light above
Nor ground beneath
Nothing special or specific
Neither unique nor new
Not such that is bequeathed
To only me or even a few
Named every moment, called
Every name, beseeched
By every heart it ever threw
Always everywhere and forever
All of this is true.

Yet it has made every loved thing
Unfamiliar, every borne grief
New.

Other Nations, Other Colours


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It’s just as well, sometimes,
To see no trace of the storm.
To crunch through fallen leaves
With joy. Not to note the forlorn
Branches, that say nothing of thieves,
Or the berries that cling. In foreign climes,
It’s best not to notice, sometimes.

Such clouds that haunt the blues
Are best seen in sunny skies.
Across the path, just feet away,
Another berry tree lies.
Standing, still, you can hear it say
‘Leaves, or berries, you have to choose.
Thus much to win, thus much to lose.’

Sing me no songs of consolation

 

Slivers of sky string
Their silver blue through
Green and rock, stones
Strewn in their path like
Little clouds, as if to sing
To me their broken tones
Of consolation. But
Who will bravely bring
The riverbed forth. The gravel
And sand of dry grief. Who
Will raise pebbles smooth as bone
Unwritten, unscratched. What thief?
Who dare to build that dyke
That will dam the waters and read
On them their smooth, unwritten
Consolation.
If there is such a one,
To that sturdy soul I say,
Show me the pebble, worn
As my heart, one among millions
And wring from that single stone
The river that runs from me, one
Among millions. Build me that
Single dam that will make
Of that river a lake
One, among millions,
Where I may stop, and leaning,
See no face but my own, broken
As only mine is, as a river
Washes through me, a mirror
For no grief but my own.
Until then, Sing me no songs
Of consolation, no hallelujahs
Of pain sung before. I take
No comfort in the lake
Of another’s tears.
Raise me that stone, dam me that lake,
Name the face that weeps into those waters.
There are fathers enough, I know,
And no dearth of daughters,
Yet I take no solace from the songs
Of bereavement that they make.
Like a primordial flood the
Massed choirs sing of loss and losing
And drown each daughter’s voice
Added without her choosing.
And I, who have no other choice,
Silent as I hold this dam against
The breaking of that deluge, I,
Who reach into the deep only
To throw back stones I cannot
Keep. I, who float,
Face up, like the dead, and reach
For clouds that lie like stones
That lie, that sing, that preach
But have nothing to teach
Me, nothing to place
In my palms, facing upward.
I slip silently under boats that
Skim the waters, their keels
Humming, and think – you,
Who are on the boats, you
Whose shirts do not fill
With waters that run through
You; you, whose fingers strain
The river as you glide through pain
You liars, deceivers, dealers in
Consolation. I want
No part of you. I hear
Your songs but they are not
Mine. Your tears
Fall on my face but they
Are not mine. I cannot
Fashion a lyre from my breath
Unless it bespeak
This death.