Thursday, January 26, 2017

Some poems


Five conversations I can no longer bear to have in person


(i)

Remember what a bugle meant?
Flag pennant colours

remember?

We grew up watching the same films,
you know what I’m talking about: a battlefield

shields snug against shields, swords tingling
with unshed blood and bones stiff with knowing
they could lie bleaching under a foreign sun
and if there was any loving yet to be done
it was left too late.

The king and his nearest kin, fighting men all.
A bugle on someone's lips waiting for his call.
A sky purpling like a bruise, grasses whispering
to bare ankles of kisses imagined, love unconfessed.
Men looking into the black eyes of the end
and then: now! aye, now!

Flags, stabs, missed throws then night’s relief,
Sleep.
Send for allies. Count the fallen.
Weep.

The fight was not equal but a decent war had rules.
Dawn to dusk, that was one.
And none but men fighting face to face dared
speak of honour.

A torn chest was battle,
a dagger in the back was not.
A king who dared not lead the charge
waged no war.
He was a traitor looking for a back turned
in trust.

There was loot and rape and slavery but
every foot soldier knew:
the spoils of war are not war.
My friend, you say it is the same
old thing though we both know,
with every battle skirmish coup,
the soldier changes, the enemy is new.
Even so, come walk with me.

Count the dead and missing, let us see
what weapons they brought to the field
what vengeance you wrought.
Let us gauge how badly who lost
this thing you call a war.

Is it loss enough to settle the score
on your ancient ledger?
Do the math, my friend,
and when you are done,
sound the bugle for battle’s end.

*

(ii)

There she is.
Creeping around my backyard.

Came indoors with her kittens once.
Just like that!

Just hangs around swatting at pigeons.
Doesn't bother the rats.

I had to take rabies shots once.
Five shots, and for what?
Trying to save her worthless spawn.
We're not friendly, no.

I see her crouched on my garden wall.
Sometimes I hiss until she turns her head.

Our eyes meet but it's not
like hi-hello.
More like, yeah, I’m here
you're there.

She’s got her ways that I don’t like
but what the hey! She’s got her life,
I’ve got my life.

The point is, the difference between
your politics and mine is
the cat lives.

*

(iii)

I will not make the cut-us-and-do-we-not-bleed
argument (can you imagine the horror
if one of us failed to bleed from a cut?)

My argument is, we also bleed
when our own brothers cut us.
And you bleed when your own
cut you (and quite often, they do).

*

(iv)

Let us make a balance sheet. First, make two columns:

X Ancestors                                               Y Ancestors

1. were folk from north or west of the indus  1. were folk from north or west of the indus
who mated with eastern and southern people    who mated with the eastern and/or southern people 
who were perhaps overcome by force.             who were perhaps overcome by force.
your ancestors were ambitious, restless, but     your ancestors were ambitious, restless, but
they settled down, and were either unable to    they settled down, and were either unable to
destroy the people native to this land or were   destroy the people native to this land or were
reluctant to. they learn to know and love.          reluctant to. they learn to know and love.
the races slowly mingled and became              the races slowly mingled and became
doctors, farmers, hunters, cooks, singers,         doctors, farmers, hunters, cooks, singers,
weavers, drum-beaters, saints. their words       weavers, drum-beaters, saints. their words
are evidence that every heart beats                  are evidence that every heart beats
to the same drum.                                            to the same drum.

2. broke temples that housed different gods     2. broke temples that housed different gods
but also took from them new shades of faith.       but also took from them new shades of faith.
they built palaces and forts, ships and ports,        they built new mosques, and some temples too
step-wells, temples and some mosques too.         and gardens, canals, tombs, forts, step-wells.
they learnt from new rival-allies new grace        they learnt from new rival-allies new graces
of gates, domes, dress, song.                              of pillars, dress, speech, song.

3. waged war                                                   3. waged war
a lot.                                                                    a lot.

4. had, then lost                                                4. had, then lost
empires                                                                empires

5. wrote poetry, mused on nature                       5. wrote poetry, mused on nature
and the substance of divinity                                 and the substance of divinity

6. made allies, if not friends, through women     6. made allies, if not friends, through women
and wombs, laid claim to land                               and wombs, laid claim to land
and river and the pulsing strength of wrists            and river and the pulsing strength of wrists
that could wring necks, if they chose to.                that could wring necks, if they chose to.

7. died in wars they didn't understand.               7. died in wars they didn't understand.

8. changed with time.                                        8. changed with time.
sometimes they did time in refugee camps.            sometimes they did time in refugee camps.
often they spent hours waiting in line                     often they were welcome nowhere else and so
for low-cost housing lottery forms.                        they huddled in madarsas and mosques
they suffered heat, cold, waves of nausea              they suffered heat, cold, waves of nausea
and a terror of never being safe.                            they tried moving out somewhere safe but were met
they raged as new ladders disappeared                  with five seconds of silence across a phone line
into the bog of ancient laws, unyielding                 after they told the real estate broker their names.
as ice. often, they tried to get away to a new         often they lay awake in bed and sometimes were shamed
land where they thrived but found they were          by how much they longed to be warmed
now the wrong sort of other.                                  by the touch of the other's hand.

these kings, those queens, yours and mine
were pawns on the chessboard of time.
we were knights falling off the high horse of fealty
and going down in heavy armour
into the red dust of a nation's history
arms flailing like windmills trying to stave off
a suspicion.

soon all argument will be reduced to broken tiles
all fortresses will be ruins for lovers to tangle in
all temples, mosques, chapels, monasteries will have no part
to play save that of a hospice for bursting hearts.

*


(v)

We have come to ask for your infant son.
We need him to lay a new black tar road.
We heard that's how smooth roads are done.

Good roads require sacrifice.
It’s only fair we all take turns.
Makes things nice and uniform.

Agreed?

why/why not?

We hear the electricity department cannot
function without petrol bombs being lobbed
into lanes holding up so tight,
no husband-wife can make love or fight
without hearing a neighbour sucking her tongue
in disbelief.

We hear the street is to burn like a box of matches,
one house setting off the next.
Thus everyone pitches in.

We were hoping your house could
volunteer as the nerve center
to set alight our common discontent.

Surely you have no objection?

why/why not?

Would you send your sister please
down to the corner where men sit down to compare
the circumference of chests and
debate whether biceps are worth more
than a spine
and whether holding peace is a criminal act
and if you can define crime as that
which was not covered up in time.
In short, the stuff of which nations are built.

why/why not?

So then? How do you propose
to contribute to the nation?
Going about your business?
Waiting for a tax deducted salary cheque?
Wearing the clothes you've always worn?
Eating whatever you can hold of?

My friend! My friend!

This funny attachment to your own misery
These charred remains of youth
Your desire to grow old
Your ability to reproduce
Keep fasts
Cook

Surely you know
there is more, much more a patriot must do?
And if we do not volunteer you, then
who?

*


(C) Annie Zaidi


Sunday, January 08, 2017

Wheels on my mind

Last year (summer of 2016), I had the good fortune of travelling abroad the Deccan Odyssey, a train that travels around Maharashtra to sites of artistic and historic significance such as Ajanta and Ellora, and also to two wildlife reserves, Tadoba and Pench. An essay about the experience was written for Conde Nast India. A brief extract here:

How many years did it take to just prepare the mud plaster surface? From how far away were the paints sourced? How does one go on painting, knowing the work may not be completed in one’s own lifetime? Walking through the monks’ bare cells—nothing here except a flat slab of rock to sleep on—felt like walking through a place of surrendered ego. Thinking of their calm acceptance of mortality, and the need to create beauty under all circumstances, filled me with a sort of hush. As much
 of a hush, anyway, as is possible at a popular site of tourism in India. At both places, I split from the group in search of silence and was struck, not so much by what the centuries left unchanged, but by the inevitability of change. Buddhist philosophy changed, drawing from both Tibetan and Hindu mythologies. Kings and nobles changed religious affiliation—Jain, Buddhist, Shaivite— and that decided what temples would be built. The hills themselves have been worn down to their present squat solidity. No destiny, not even one cast in stone, is set in stone.

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