The Lover

In honor of Ambedkar Jayanti, we present this work by one of contemporary India’s most vibrant women poets.

Arundhathi Subramaniam
Indian
b. 1973

 

The woman doesn’t call herself
a saint,

just a lover
of a saint

who’s been dead four hundred years.

She doesn’t see people
on weekdays

but her master tells her
we’re safe,

so she calls us in to where she sits
her body blazing
in its nakedness

its tummyfold and breastsag
and wild spiraling nipple
reminding us that life
is circles —
crazy, looping, involuting, dazzling
circles.

She tells us
the world calls her a whore.

She told her master about it too
but he only said,

‘The rest of the world serves
many masters —
family, money, lovers, bosses,
children, power, money, money
in endless carousels —

the crazy autopilot
of samsara.

But you, love, think only of me.
Who’s the whore here?’

Outside the window
the sun is a red silk lampshade

over a great soiled bedspread
ricocheting in the wind.

A Break in the Rhythm of Life

We present this work in honor of Buddha Purmina.

Bhaskar Roy Barman
Indian
b. 1950

 

When the world itself looked exhausted,
revolving round the sun;
when a bumble-bee sounded tired
of humming round a ternate leaf;
when a few fishermen were venting their rage on their net
– they looked fed up of mending their net off and on –
and when the fish were leaping and playing in the river,
sure as they were the net won t be thrown over them,
yonder on a field a serpent was shedding its slough,
indifferent to a group of women wending their way
across the field
and to a pedlar crying his wares along the road
that ran parallel to the field
At this moment, as usual, a boat rowed in
disgorged two men onto the bank.
A music strummed on a violin floated in the air for a while,
then rose up and disappeared into the sky.
Presently the men returned empty-handed to the boat
and winked at the boatmen to row the boat away.
Suddenly the sky got covered over with pitch-dark clouds.
The fishermen looked up and thought
there would be festivities of lightning
and the river would dance to the rumblings .
They prayed for the safety of the men on the boat.
In response to their prayer the clouds went away across the sky.
The fishermen resumed mending their net;
the world continued revolving round the sun;
the bumble-bee went on round the ternate leaf
and the fish were still leaping and playing in the river .
But the serpent had shed its slough and slid into its hole.

Night of the Scorpion

In honor of the First Day of Passover, we present this work by one of India’s greatest Jewish poets.

Nissim Ezekiel
Indian
1924 – 2004

remember the night my mother

was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.

Parting with his poison – flash
of diabolic tail in the dark room –
he risked the rain again.

The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the name of God a hundred times
to paralyse the Evil One.

With candles and with lanterns
throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the mud-baked walls
they searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues.
With every movement that the scorpion made his poison moved in Mother’s blood, they said.

May he sit still, they said
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of all evil
balanced in this unreal world

against the sum of good
become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh

of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around
on the floor with my mother in the centre,
the peace of understanding on each face.
More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours,
more insects, and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through,
groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist,
trying every curse and blessing,
powder, mixture, herb and hybrid.
He even poured a little paraffin
upon the bitten toe and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites to tame the poison with an incantation.
After twenty hours
it lost its sting.

My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my children.

Jasmine Blossom

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 125th birthday.

Suryakant Tripathi Nirala
Indian
1896 – 1961

 

On a vine in a lonely grove
Slept a fortune-filled Jasmine Blossom—
A pure, tender-bodied lass
Lost in dreams of love,
Eye closed, lax—in a leaf-bed
On a spring night;
In some far off land
Was the wind called Malaya
Who left this pining lover.
With grieving came the memory of sweet touch,
A memory of a moonlight-laved midnight,
A memory of his beloved’s trembling, tender form—
What then? The wind
Crossed lakes, rivers, groves,
Bush-creeper masses, deep mountain-woods,
Arrived where he had played
With the budding bloom.

She was sleeping,
How could she know of her lover’s coming?
The Nayak kissed her cheeks,
Cradel-like the vine-strand began to swing.
Even then she didn’t awaken,
Asked no pardon,
Wide slumber-curved eyes stayed shut,
Perhaps drunk with youth’s wine—
Who can say?

Brutal, the Nayak
Worked sheer barbarity—
With gusty blasts
Jerked the lovely, tender body around,
Crushed the round white cheeks;
The damsel started—
Turned a startled glance all around,
Spied her lover by her bed,
Smiled shyly—blossomed—
Having played the game of love
With the wooer.

Wolf

We present this work in honor of Losar.

Keki N. Daruwalla
Indian
b. 1937

 

Fire-lit
half silhouette and half myth
the wolf circles my past
treading the leaves into a bed
till he sleeps, black snout
on extended paws.
Black snout on sulphur body
he nudged his way
into my consciousness.
Prowler, wind-sniffer, throat-catcher,
his cries drew a ring
around my night;
a child’s night is a village
on the forest edge.
My mother said
his ears stand up
at the fall of dew
he can sense a shadow
move across a hedge
on a dark night;
he can sniff out
your approaching dreams;
there is nothing
that won’t be lit up
by the dark torch of his eyes.
The wolves have been slaughtered now.
A hedge of smoking gun-barrels
rings my daughter’s dreams.

Reading the Night

We present this work in honor of Thiruvalluvar Day.

Ashitha
Indian
1956 – 2019

 

So clandestinely does
the night sketch the night,
like the fingers of darkness
entwining those of the shadows
caressing so intimately that
one becomes the other.
some stealthy lines
drawn on the inner paths
forking in separation
touching or un-touching.
some specks of light
perceived or un-perceived.
some dark forebodings
of a fall or of death.
mining the secrets of the dark
should be a meditative act
like all robes unravelled
from the body which then
weaves itself on its nude self.
night should be made love to
so intensely as a couple
raining by themselves
kissing again and again
the drops of sweat
dripping from the bodies
seized by ecstasy.
night is a poem
written by a woman
with her head bowed
while black serpents

slither along her tresses
to be read only by those homes
that have turned insomniac.

The Horseshoe Shrine

We present this work in honor of Pongal.

Arun Kolatkar
Indian
1932 – 2004

 

That nick in the rock
is really a kick in the side of the hill.
It’s where a hoof
struck

like a thunderbolt
when Khandoba
with the bride sidesaddle behind him on the blue
horse

jumped across the valley
and the three
went on from there like one
spark

fleeing from flint.
To a home that waited
on the other side of the hill like a hay
stack.

The Return of Sarasvati

We present this work in honor of Vikram Samvat New Year.

Sumitranandan Pant
Indian
1900 – 1977

 

Youth’s splendor is on her limbs,
on her face the sweat of toil
and the sun’s red burning;
a basket of golden grain upon her head,
she comes and goes along the boundary dikes:
her waist supple
and thighs that shimmer—
eternal child of rain and heat and frost,
this agile-footed
dark-skinned girl,
with a sprig of wheat between her lips.
Heigh ho, two days—
That’s all her youth!—
dream of a moment
not long remembered.
Ground down with sorrow,
worn out by troubled times,
her body withers,
its wealth of youth untimely spent;
a blad of grass adrift from shore,
that laughed and played a few brief moments with the waves.

Illusion and Reality

We present this work in honor of Diwali.

Kabir
Indian
c. 1398 – c. 1518

 

What is seen is not the Truth
What is cannot be said
Trust comes not without seeing
Nor understanding without words
The wise comprehends with knowledge
To the ignorant it is but a wonder
Some worship the formless God
Some worship His various forms
In what way He is beyond these attributes
Only the Knower knows
That music cannot be written
How can then be the notes
Says Kabir, awareness alone will overcome illusion

Within This Body

In honor of Gandhi Jayanti, we present this work by one of India’s greatest Hindi language poets.

Tulsidas
Indian
1532 – 1623

 

Within this body
breathes the secret essence.
Within this body
beats the heart of the Vedas.

Within this body
shines the entire Universe,
so the saints say.

Hermits, ascetics, celibates —
all are lost
seeking Him
in endless guises.

Seers and sages perfectly parrot
the scriptures and holy books,
blinded by knowledge.

Their pilgrimage,
and fasting,
and striving
but delude.
Despite their perfect practice,
they discover no destination.

Only the saints
who know the body’s heart
have attained the Ultimate, O Tulsi.
Realize this, and you’ve found your freedom.

While teachers trapped in tradition
know only the mirage
in the mirror.