The fláme – and it was no còmmon Fláme, but rather Agni incarnáte – Rose róse as the music fell From the sínger’s sweltering lips. Insìde, the furnàce of his throat Was alchemizing air to góld- Mùsic of dìvíne degree; And stìll the fire róse and róse Around the singer’s blazing throat And limb by limb encovered him In whose one eye was couchèd death And in the other rhapsody.
Raag Mēgh Malhār
Fall fall fall fall and falling fall And falling fall again. Drink all the seven seas and fáll For my fáther’s filled with flame. Fall for my song, fall to my plea, Fáll for my father’s life Depends on me And I depend on you. Fall waterfall and flood this fire, Fall fight and fill the flame. Fall fall fall fall until my father’s full And the flame no more remains.
1. Agni (ug-nee): The deva associated with fire in Hindu mythology. The Sanskrit word also simply means ‘fire’.
2. Rāga (raah-gaah): Roughly, a sequence of swara-s that together form a melody. Raag is how it is usually pronounced in the north of India.
3. Mēgha (may-ghuh): One of several words for ‘cloud’ in Sanskrit. Mēgh is how it is usually pronounced in the north of India.
4. Swara (swuh-raah): One of the seven notes of the Indic musical scale: SaReGaMaPaDhaNi.
5. Jugalbandi (jugal-bun-thee): Used to describe a Hindustani classical music duet. The duet can be either vocal or instrumental. Accurately, this does not so much begin as a jugalbandi as it becomes one.
Raag Deepak and Raag Mēgh Malhār:
An (apocryphal) story tells of how the medieval Mughal emperor, Akbar was tricked into ordering Tānsēn – a legendary Hindustani Classical musician – to sing Raag Deepak, a raga capable of producing fire. A sublime singer, Tansen knows that doing so will mean setting himself aflame; so he asks for a month’s time and teaches his daughter to sing Raag Mēgh Malhār, a raga capable of bringing rain.
On the appointed day at the appointed time, Tansen begins his rendition of Raag Deepak and, as he loses himself in the music, conjures up the expected fire – that begins to circle and engulf him.
On cue, his daughter – nervous and quavering – begins her rendition of Raag Megh Malhar. For a time it seems as though Tansen has not taught her well enough, but just as the flames begin to singe him, she breaks through, the skies open and down pours life-giving water.
In this pair of poems (written in 2015), I have attempted to describe Tansen’s state of musical ecstasy as also the urgency of his daughter’s musical plea. (I must admit, however, that I am unfamiliar with the melodic progression of either raga.)
The evening spreads across the sky, The sovereign sun secedes, The jamboree of day recedes Into a symphony Of warbling, squabbling, burbling birds.
The ether’s yellow light is lost, The coloured flowers fade Into a thickening twilight shade Pregnant with a hóst Of secret, soundless mystery.
And soon the night will gather up All mortal and immortal life Into her dárk and lovely lap, From where again will rise the sap Of day, and stréaming sunlight say: ‘Drink deep, drink deep of my golden cup.’
There is something ethereal about the mellow light of the evening, especially when it is filtered through the green of the trees. Fading slowly away as the night falls (rises?), to catch a glimpse of this magical light has always been one of the happinesses of my evening runs through the IISc campus. The poem itself may have grown old (it’s from mid-2015) but this quotidian wonder remains undimmed.
I suspect the idea of the sun’s “golden cup” may have been inspired by a Yeats poem, “Those Dancing Days Are Gone”, with its lines “I carry the sun in a golden cup.|The moon in a silver bag.” What’s more, if I’m not mistaken, I believe Yeats himself credited another poet for the image.
Note: The opening stanza may be the best one I’ve written. It’s certainly one of my very favourites. I remember being on the NIAS campus at the time line 3 struck; sitting outside in a chair with a book in my hand as I enjoyed the blue of the early evening sky and a sense of well-being brought on by the rays of the mellowing light. Just behind me, to my left, were bougainvillea bracts the colour of faded pink – which contrasted starkly with the deep magenta of the bracts found on other parts of the well-maintained campus. To this day, I remain partial to that wonderfully deep magenta colour.
What do I think of damp and soggy days When all the mud there is begins to squelch And squeak like frogs wòunded by a Plunging branch, when every fallen leaf Looks just the same, as if each one had fallen From some giant water-tree, and when the clouds Simply cannot decide on how to fall: like this, Like that? Like here or there? Like big or small?
I suppose I liked all this when I was young and free And when the only sky I knew was hid among the Puddles on the ground, or when I browned my Friday- Dress in mud that squelched and squealed and sang Beneath the green-grooved canvas of my trusty shoe.
But I do not like to think that I have aged, oh no, Much rather would I think the rain is not as young.
The idea of this poem came to me as I cycled through the Tata Institute on a chilly wet evening, some three and a half years ago. It remains a favourite poem of mine.
There are so many ways To sit out in the sun. You could paint your toes And stretch your legs Until the sun reflects off them. Or you could lie upon your back Upon a lighted sward of grass And hold a book Up to the fire of the sun. Or you could turn the other way And rest your stomach on the ground And feel the sunlit blades of grass Grow damp beneath the favour of your skin. And then, of course, you could Spread leopard-like out on a branch And lick the air with a sleepy tongue. But perhaps best of all would be To sit wild-eyed upon some timeless tree And dream of gliding like a cloud (Growing gradually thick and proud) Before swooping down like rain upon A dusty and a thirsting earth.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about the sun – and particularly about my lack of exposure to it. Ever since I began working some three years ago inside an air-conditioned office (and certainly over the last four months since I moved on from a steady job), I’ve had to make an effort to get out and feel the sun upon me; its light, its warmth, its vivifying qualities.
I didn’t think like this about the sun when I was young. The sun was there and so was I, underneath it most of the day. Playing in the sun was an everyday affair; sunbathing by the swimming pool before going back into the (deliciously cool) water was the luxury of summer-holiday afternoons; and looking for every last ray of the setting sun’s light was the adventure of countless football-evenings. I did not stretch then towards the sun, it was the sun that magnanimously embraced me.
To dramatize a simple truth: we are all of us only as young as the sunlight we know. I look forward with renewed enthusiasm to exploring the sun – in ways both mentioned in the poem and otherwise.
I said I’d dispense with a Foreword, but I just wanted to say that this is a longish poem…which means some of you may prefer to listen to it rather than read it. To facilitate that, I have put the audio recording of my recitation right above the poem. (Please try to ignore the noises in the background.)
Upon Reading of The Death of Satao (An Imagined Prelude)
I am not sure my story’s very good; I’m afraid it may be like the wood Chopped up by a clumsy carpenter: Rough and splintered. (But I will continue and tell You of the time when evening fell Upon the green land of Tsavo, And I took up bow and arrow.)
I am Kibaki; son of Kiprono Moses, (A good man, my uncle says) Who died before his time and mine. I lived until the age of nine With my mother; a loving, gentle woman Who is now dead, and in heaven. Dear mother, it is because of you That I know what is good and what is true.
There is a river by my home Where many wild animals come; I have seen the leopard bend his spotted yellow Head and sip water from his favourite shallow, And sat for many hours upon a crooked rock And watched the old antelope talk With the cheetah under the group of trees That I once clambered up with ease. (Mother said later: the wild beasts do not kill Like man does. Perhaps that is God’s will.) But now I will not care To go back there; Not even to chatter with the friendly swan; Because last evening, I grew from boy to man.
Two weeks ago, my uncle brought Home two men who taught Me how to use a bow and arrow. I was so eager to show That I could shoot like Waaciira, (Who was our tribe’s first hero), That forgetting the antelope by the lake (Or maybe simply for pride’s sake), I shot a wobbling arrow at a baby deer. And when the two men gave a loud cheer, I laughed, without really knowing why, (Even as the little deer looked on mutely). And when my uncle shook his greying head With a loud sigh and said: “Kibaki, we must not hurt the innocent,” I acted as if I had not meant To; but instead just laughed at him and ran, For I had not yet grown from boy to man.
Last week, the two men came back With a larger bow and arrows and a sack; “Come, Kibaki,” they said, “let us go Hunting and we will show You how to shoot an elephant.” I wanted to say: “It is wrong to shoot an elephant.” But when I saw the curve of the polished bow And the gleam of the feathered arrow, I simply said: “Where must we go?” “We must go,” they said, “to Tsavo For that is where great Satao lives With his children and his many wives.” That day we left for Tsavo in a van; That day I took a step from boy to man.
When I went to the river by my home, I loved to look down at the dome- Head of the elephants when they bent low Over the river’s edge; and how With great show and splash they drunk The water with their snaking trunks. And when the afternoon was clear Their white, curved tusks would glimmer In the shallow water, and make me sigh At their beauty. But now all that time seems no more than A happy hour before I grew from boy to man.
The green savannah spread from side to side And the plains of Tsavo seemed as wide As the sunny, cloudless sky Above us, full-blown and happy. But the two men and I brought a shade That settled over the land and made It dark and quiet; as if the sky above Had sensed the clench of an iron glove. Then there, beneath the crying birds And among the many-membered herds Of animals, began our hunt for old Satao.
Come to think of it, I am writing this afterword almost as much for myself as for the reader.
To begin, it is not untrue that this poem is just as much complete as it is incomplete.
This poem was begun some four-and-a-half years ago; and perhaps some three months after rumours first began to spread that Satao had been killed. (I believe it took the authorities some time to confirm the fact.) If memory serves correctly, I think it was a social media post that directed me to this (?) longish article in The Guardian that related the story of Satao and his death at the hands of poachers. I had never heard of Satao before, but the news of his death affected me – as the passing of a majesty such as his is likely to affect anyone who hears of it. But what struck me particularly, I seem to remember, was how he had died: killed by the bows and arrows of ivory-greedy poachers.
Saying it this way makes the death seem almost anachronistic. Crude even. Yes, it is true that this was a 21st-century killing accomplished using weaponry from the Bronze Age. But this matter of fact does not make the killing just something regular. Not at all! Instead, it only highlights Satao’s death as the poison-fruit of a cunning and rapacious cruelty, a cruelty wholly bereft of even the slightest tinge of redemptive innocence. The poachers were not playing fair (as men in the Bronze Age might have when they shot unpoisoned arrows at a charging elephant) when they shot at Satao with their arrows; they were being murderously stealthy in ways that gunshots never could be.
If I have offered all this detail, it is because I have tried to find (not only for the reader but myself too) what inspired the poem’s narrative. I mean – wherever did Kibaki come from? I do not know for certain, but I suppose he emerged as a plausible player in a narrative defined on the one hand by Satao and on the other by his poachers; poachers who, I surmised, would have had no qualms about enlisting a young boy as an accomplice in their heinous crime.
It is pretty near the truth if I say that I did not begin with anything particular in mind; not even the story that “[likely] is not very good”. Nor did I set out to write a narrative poem. However, as an outline began to emerge, I began to look for details and content to fill it with. If the poem ends where it does, it is because not only was I not sure what next to do with Kibaki but also because it seemed like a fairly felicitous place to stop: the narrative is not injured and the reader is allowed to imagine the rest of the story.
One last thing. The motif of “growing from boy to man” may appear somewhat well-worn. The predilection sports writers (and sports commentators in particular) have for harping on about “boys vs men” as also the closing line of Kipling’s “If” makes it almost inevitable that, you, the reader are familiar with the trope. I’d like, however, for you to see this from Kibaki‘s point of view; specifically, that he feels the loss of his innocence so acutely that he no longer can think of himself as the boy he very much is. His repetition of this emotion illustrates how adversely the episode has affected him.
Note: I have never been to Kenya nor have I visited the plains of Tsavo. I have tried, however, to keep things real. First off, I have a Kenyan friend, one of whose names, incidentally, is Moses. Kiprono is the name of several well-known Kenyan long-distance runners. Kibaki, I know, is a Kenyan name – because I looked it up. Lastly, Waaciira, I remember finding out, is the name of a folk hero of one of Kenya’s tribes.
He went there to die, she said; No premonition of his death awakened me Within the watches of the night Or blood-dyed nightmare make me clutch His smiling face, his goodbye-waving hand. (Her voice was steady as the wind, Her eyes were dry with tears.) No dream of Yama and his noose Upturned my dreamless sleep Nor did I see my daughter kneeling, Fatherless, broken by grief. And on the evening of his death, (The candle of her voice fell low), No bullet bit my breast Nor shrapnel singe my woman-heart. I loved him as a woman and a wife: I love him still, but he is dead And I must live.
In 2005, there was a wholly unexpected “terrorist-attack” on the IISc campus in which I lived. There were several injuries and one life was lost, that of a man who was there just that day for a conference. I remember mention being made of his wife and young daughter – and wondering what it would be like for his wife when she heard the news. Written some ten years later, this poem considers the matter.
I thought I’d get with the times and post something that isn’t several years old. So, here’s my most recent poem, begun on January 30, 2019 and finished on February 3, 2019. (I can’t believe it’s been more than three months already!)
Cockroach – Underbelly
ì just killed a cóckroach in a minute and a half. one–two–three–four (i could’ve but i did not stop); five–six–seven–eight (phutphut–phutphut) – and, suddenly, it was too late: the roach lay writhing on the ground, its legs were smashed – beyond escape.
i turned my head and saw myself inside the mirror on the door (headphones arched over a crumpled face); i looked at me and returned to the floor.
old memories all flew in different ways like a flock of birds unperched: the stepped-on ant again stepped on, the mice i saw beat by the broom, the spider and the spider-web – both gone.
…i wish now i had chosen to brush off the cockroach like it brushed my foot.
…and was i right? or was i wrong? (a cockroach-court would sentence me i’m sure); but i would ask for leniency and time and charity to regret my choice – and then create a life-and-death-philosophy.
I think this “piece of writing” can be contrasted nicely with this piece of writing. The linked-to piece fits much more nicely into most people’s idea (I include myself) of poetry. Like I say in the introduction to that poem, it possesses several qualities one usually associates with poetry, especially lyric poetry. Specifically, it possesses both rhythm and rhymes – which, together, impart a euphony, as it were, to the poem. As my recitation (I hope) makes clear, these qualities combine to make the poem an incantatory creation.
Now, here below, is a piece of writing. Is it poetry, prose, poetic, lyrical, prosaic, euphonic, musical?
“I just killed a cockroach in a minute and a half. One–two–three–four (I could’ve but I did not stop); five–six–seven–eight (phutphut–phutphut) – and, suddenly, it was too late: the roach lay writhing on the ground, its legs were smashed – beyond escape. I turned my head and saw myself inside the mirror on the door (headphones arched over a crumpled face); I looked at me and returned to the floor. Old memories all flew in different ways like a flock of birds unperched: the stepped-on ant again stepped on, the mice I saw beat by the broom, the spider and the spider-web – both gone. …I wish now I had chosen to brush off the cockroach like it brushed my foot. …And was I right? or was I wrong? (A cockroach-court would sentence me I’m sure); but I would ask for leniency and time and charity to regret my choice – and then create a life-and-death-philosophy.”
You will have noticed that the paragraph you just read was the poem, presented differently. Now think: what if you had seen the paragraph first? How would you have read it? My guess is that you would have read it in a monotone – that is to say, you would have read the words rather than concerned yourself with the lift and fall (unstress and stress) of the syllables that make up the words. So – what is the piece of writing? A poem? Or just prose chopped up?
I’d argue that it would be “just prose chopped up” were it not for the fact that the “point of chop”, (technically, enjambment), has been deliberately chosen to give the prose a certain sinuous (sinusoidal?) quality; a certain oscillatory motion. It is these “points” that signal to the reader (or reciter) the pace of the prose; or, in other words, the poem’s rhythm. And it thisrhythm that distinguishes poetry from prose, that takes the even ground of prose and makes of it the gently undulating lea of poetry.
Anyway, here’s a recitation. It may elucidate some of what I’ve said.