For these (covid) times

This afternoon, a well-wisher and a friend
asked for a poem for these ‘covid times’.
I was flattered by her faith and said I’d try,
but, really, what she’d said
was as good as asking me
to not think about an elephant.
So as I walked briskly on my evening walk,
my mind began to formulate a plan.
With rhyme and rhythm being my taste,
the poem’s opening was metred;
end rhyme is not easily unfacile
but a rhythm is a lot easier to find.
Six lines into my thought-poem (that I
was going to write down after my walk),
it occurred to me how corona’s devasta-
tion was without both rhyme and reason,
and that its contribution, as it were,
was, simply, to upset the world’s rhythm.
‘Poetry must disrupt’ is a worthy slogan
(often used unworthily by poets
whose only disruption is their poetry),
yet at its best can be a way to see
what we only ever look at mindlessly.
But how can poetry (itself) deal with a
disruption, what adjustments make it stay
relevant? What must it lose what must it gain
for what it says to outlive the sayer?
Think –
if corona had to take a poem’s form,
what would it be?
would every comma in the poem mean ‘tested positive’,
a semicolon spell seriousness;
and a full stop stand in for death.
The lockdown’s done, people are free (if masked)
and the road no longer stretches on, lonely.
I followed the news when it first raged but
now I cannot say I really care; I’m comfortable –
I have a house, food, water, snacks, a mask, a stiff-backed chair.
I know no one that covid’s killed – it’s like that
man-eating tiger you read about that’s killed someone
who knew someone (who knows someone) you know.
The direness of poverty’s
a paper-pic, a facebook-post, last evening’s news –
something you’d like to prick at you
but that you know you will forget.
Privilege and death are kindred –
either you or a close relative must be involved
for you to know it.
Ten days into the lockdown my ajji died,
what took her was not the virus but time; inexorable.
At 93 years old, it’s hard to say she wasn’t due –
though the suddenness of her passing came as a blow.
(the doctor who came home was a leech. not a bad man –
but greedy for the money he could strip
without damage to his or your dignity.)
The rites, the rituals, the mantras were performed; the
rhythm of the chants remained but other rhythms failed –
the crowd that gathers to mourn an elder’s passing
could not obtain; tradition, prepared for this,
said six months later would not be late.
(On the obverse side, marriages were infected too.)
Last year this time, I ran and walked the Institute;
my childhood place, my stomping grounds, my grace.
The gulmohar flowers are now upon a different tree –
the Institute is temporarily closed to me.
But the flowers’ happy red remains – reminding me
not everything can be locked down;
life’s disruption is limited –
even the best dictators can control
just other men and their families.
Exaggeration’s the name of the game,
but its shelf life too is limited.
2020 may come to be called the ‘corona year’
but 2021 will have a different theme, vaccine or no vaccine;
the simple truth’s that death’s so much a part of life,
it can only distress so much.
Remember Yudhishṭira’s answer to the yaksha –
the most wonderful thing in the world is this:
‘that a man can see men die all around
yet think that he’s beyond it.’

(Composed on 18th and 19th June, 2020)

Note: This one’s for Aruna, a friend, well-wisher and sahrudaya-rasika. After all, it was her request that got me started.

By the way, if you’re reading the poem on a phone, holding it horizontally would be the best way to ensure correct scansion.

Glossary:

1. ajji – the Kannada word for grandmother

2. The story of Yudhistira and the Yaksha: go here to read the whole story. If you’d rather just go straight to the question, scroll down to pg. 8, Q33

Myth and the World

There’s a glossary below. Clicking on the asterisk by a word will take you to it.

Did you knów the fragrant flówer
was once the fláme of a fiery stár?
Did you knów a woman’s milk
is but nectar stráined through silk?
Did you knów the Dionýsian* dance
was bórn of a sōma*-induced trance?
Did you knów the human heart
has a place in the Múseum of Cosmic Art?
Did you knów the vaidic* fire
once lit unstáined Baldur’s* pyre?
Did you knów the Arctic sea
was fórmed from the frost of the Yggdrasil* tree?
Did you knów the sweetest fruit
is seéded in wise wisdom’s sight?
Did you knów the bányan tree
fálls to the ground in ecstasy?
Did you knów the sweat of toil
is nectared-ráin to the drought-dry soil?
Did you knów the song for the deaf
spríngs from the kàlpataru’s* leaf?
Did you knów each cloúd above
once carríed water to a thirsty love*?
Did you knów that in the earth
lives a wórld of unheard mirth?
Did you knów that myth and man
are as rávelled as the chaff and grain?


(written ca. mid 2015)

For more about the context of and history behind the poem’s creation, see notes.

1. Dionysius (die-oh-nisi-yus): A figure of Greek mythology, considered the patron god of drink and revelry.

2. sōma (so-maah): A fabulous kind-of-nectar (distilled from a plant) that is supposed to have been drunk by the vaidic priests.

3. vaidic: Relating to the véda-s, the oldest extant Sanskrit literature.

4. Baldur (bald-er): In Norse mythology, the son of Odin and Freya. Killed, as a result of Loki’s machinations, by his own (blind) brother Honir.

5. Yggdrasil (ig-drus-il): The giant tree of Norse mythology that straddles the three worlds.

6. kalpataru (cull-puh-thuh-rue): The wish-tree of Hindu mythology. Located in swarga.

7. thirsty love: a reference to the “Mēghadūta (The Cloud Messenger)”, the famous Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa’s celebrated work. The premise of the poem is of a deliriously lovelorn yaksha (a demigod-like creature) speaking to a cloud above and telling it the message it should take to his equally lovelorn beloved hundreds of miles away.