I cast my gaze upon a crooked tree And run my eyes over its withered, Sun-burned skin. I cannot tell how old it is. Above its faded, scoured waist it forks, Two weather-sculpted limbs emerge. How motionless its body broken, how Green the spring around it. I suppose that it is dead This headless shape of wood. Within, the sap lies still, stiffened By unsoft time that lays to waste all majesty.
Below, perhaps, away from prying eyes like mine, Dendritic roots spread out in spidery webs; Entombed within the quiet of the earth They patiently await new birth.
I wrote this as I looked out on a seemingly-dead tree from inside the library of the NIAS campus, a small campus beside the IISc campus.
I remember wanting to give expression to seeing a withered Jacaranda Mimosifolia on my daily run. That didn’t materialize, but it may have worked itself into this poem.
A short poem. Please note there’s a glossary below the poem that you can refer to.
An Afternoon’s Reverie
Turn the heavens upside down, See the sun spin on the ground. Watch the moon play on the sea, See the waters circle round And Indra topple from his throne, Fall at Vishwāmitra’s feet; And thousand-hooded Sēsha arch His yogic body forth to meet Boy-Krishṇa and his singing flute.
1. Indra (in-draah): The king of the Gods, who lives in swarga (swur-gaah), or heaven.
2. Vishwāmitra (wish-waah-myth-raah): A king who through mighty tapasya (heat-radiating meditation) attempts to become a rishi (poet-seer) of the highest order. The puraṇa-s (tales of Hindu mythology) relate an interesting story where Indra (with the help of the rishi Vasishṭha) and Vishwāmitra duel; a duel that ends in a stalemate and leaves king Trishaṅku suspended between the earth and sky.
3. Sēsha (shay-shaah), also known as Ādisēsha: A fabulous thousand-hooded serpent of Hindu mythology on which Vishnu – popularly considered the “preserver” among the trinity of Vishṇu, Shiva and Brahma – and his consort, Lakshmi, recline. Sēsha himself lies on the ಕ್ಷೀರಸಾಗರ, or kshīra-sāgara, the Ocean of Milk. (cf. Jörmungandr of Norse mythology.)
4. Krishṇa (crish-ṇá): A most popular deity in the Hindu pantheon. His boyhood and youth are supposed to have been spent in Vrindāvan, where he passed his time caroling on his flute and flirting with the adoring gōpi-s (cowherdesses).
I remember half-dozing as I travelled by bus in Bangalore, while images like the ones I’ve described vaguely drifted in and out. I think I noted a couple of these lines down in my pocket-notebook before elaborating on them later. This happened in 2015 (if I’m not mistaken).
I thank him who set my splintered bone And gave life bàck to flesh around my thumb That I might once more hold hands with the world. Who, with his dexterous hands and whetted eye, Gave back the fulcrum to my hand So it could once more spin and twirl And summon forth, perhaps, a swirl Of words that glide and curl Like fragrance from some unseen flower. Three years have passed now Since the accident, three years Since he with so much care reset Those broken shards of thumb, The injury séems like dream of day. So though I seldom think of him, (For who holds memory in a thumb?) I sometimes spread and look unthinkingly Upon the webbing of my hand Where, within the vein that rivers down Between the index and the thumb, I see once more the gratitude I owe to him.
In the December of 2012, I broke the base of my right thumb (the metacarpal bone) while playing football and had to have surgery. Set in plaster for six weeks, and terribly weak for two months after, I remember wondering if my thumb would ever be the same again. It was more or less so (when I wrote this poem in early 2016) and for that I am very grateful to my doctor.
It so happened that I (hairline) fractured the same thumb in February 2018. It did not require surgery again, but I did have to wear a thumb splint for seven or eight excruciatingly long weeks.
i have been sad before i will be sad again the ocean of the world is large we rise and drown and rise and drown again
i have felt joy before i will feel joy again the human heart is meant for joy we drown and rise and drown and rise again
I’m fond of this poem. I’d say it was simple, straightforward, and short. (Wouldn’t you?) On the other hand, the image of the “ocean of the world” comes from ಸಂಸಾರ ಸಾಗರ (saṃsāra sāgara), a conceit in Hindu philosophy with pretty profound philosophical underpinnings. Here is some background for the interested…
In the Hindu tradition, saṃsāra refers to this world that we human beings live in, or rather, are trapped in through the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. To escape this saṃsāra is the highest form of mōksha or liberation. In this liberation lies a union with the brāhmaṇ: the source of the universe, the ultimate truth and reality, the forever-fount of bliss. Given the vast and magnificent incomprehensibility of the sāgara or the ocean, I should think ಸಂಸಾರ ಸಾಗರ (saṃsāra sāgara) was used to illustrate the difficulty of a pursuit towards the brāhmaṇ.
NOTA BENE: Hereafter, I will publish a post every other Thursday (rather then every Thursday).
Let death be like the chocolàte
That fálling bitter on the tongue
Swèetens into jaggery.
Let death be like the spreading light
That fáding in the windy storm
Flòwers up into the sky.
Let death be like the lotused lake
That wílting in the dusty drought
Retúrns in a flood of rain.
Let death be like the paddy field
That drówning in a tidal high
Ríses as the hárvest’s grain.
In the “Yaksha Prashna” episode of the Mahabharata – one of its more famous episodes – Yama in the guise of a Yaksha (spirit) subjects Yudhisthira to a series of intricate questions. At stake are the lives of Yudhisthira’s four brothers who lie lifeless nearby, having disobeyed the Yaksha’s orders to not drink the water of his lake. The situation, in itself, is a piquant one (even if Yudhisthira’s ultimate success is unsurprising); more piquant, however, are the Yaksha’s questions, one of which is a timeless classic.
“Yaksha: Tell me, Yudhisthira, what is the most wonderful thing in the universe?
Yudhisthira: The most wonderful thing, O Yaksha, is how men, in spite of seeing their fellows around them dying every day, believe themselves exempt, immortal.”
Yudhisthira’s answer strikes at the heart of the “experience” of death – and the awesome mystery that surrounds it. Both unknown and essentially unknowable to the ordinary human being (the rishis of the Upanishads searched both deeply and penetratingly for an answer), death is the Rubicon of the human experience, a “point of no return.” As a consequence, it is (at any time) an experience that divides the human race into two – the living and the dead.
Practically (and perhaps paradoxically), the situation of a death has the greatest effect on those who live, on those who are left behind. Not wonder, not philosophizing, not the idea of “a better place”, not even the recognition of their own mortality is what possesses them then – rather it is a great, personal, sometimes overwhelming grief. “Why?” is their silent scream – whose reverberations shake the earth for an instant.
I saw a grief of this sort when a close relative of mine died (in 2015; which year I wrote the poem). Here is something I created as I wondered how to provide succour.
I fell asleep upon the earth Lighted by the morning sun; When I awoke, it was evening, The horses of the sun were gone. I rubbed sleep from my sleepy eyes That I might watch the colouring light; Then suddenly it was upon me, The blue, the black, the sacred night. It spread itself across the sky Like the bird that is always free; It moved like a ghostly whisper From autumned tree to tree. The ripened leaves were giving back Their burnished-twilight-flare And the fires of the evening stars Had lit the aqueous air. I remember as I slept again The fragrance of the furlèd flower; Above the earth, beneath the sky, Rejoicing in the magic hour. The sun came up next morning As on unnumbered days before; But I awoke with a shiver As though on a cold, cold shore.
This is a poem from my “early period”. I believe I wrote it ca. early 2010, before returning to it a few years later and revising some parts of it. This period was a time when I was both transfixed and inspired by the lyricism of Yeats’s poetry.
The poem itself is a somewhat fanciful and exaggerated retelling of taking a nap (and waking up) on the lawn – the Bald Spot – of my college in the US.
Sometimes there comes over me (In response to known or unknown stimuli) A certain, restless joy That makes me want to unbody My soul and set it free So that it may jump and skip and see (In tandem with other souls, maybe) The wildness Of a wordless ecstasy.
A poem from sometime in 2016.
A feeling of this kind is perhaps one of the pinnacles of the human experience. But sometimes – only sometimes – and, usually, oh-so-fleeting.
Note: The use of the word ecstasy – instead of rhapsody, say, or some other word – is deliberate and refers to its very origins.
1. late 14c., extasie “elation,” from Old French estaise “ecstasy, rapture,” from Late Latin extasis, from Greek ekstasis “entrancement, astonishment, insanity; any displacement or removal from the proper place,” in New Testament “a trance,” from existanai “displace, put out of place,” also “drive out of one’s mind” (existanai phrenon), from ek “out” (see ex-) + histanai “to place, cause to stand,” from PIE root *sta- “to stand, make or be firm.”
2. Late Middle English (in ecstasy (sense 2)): from Old French extasie, via late Latin from Greek ekstasis ‘standing outside oneself’, based on ek- ‘out’ + histanai ‘to place’.