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.

Drona and Ekalavya – A Reimagining

(written ca. 2012-2013)

Complexity and ambiguity lie at the heart of the Mahabharata, the latter of the two great Hindu itihasas (~ epics).
       Krishna as both the supreme-being (Vishwaroopa) and the mendacious, scheming man; Duryodhana as both the greedy, vengeful cousin and the loyal friend to Karna; Kunti as both the devoted, long-suffering matriarch of the Pāndavas and the stricken mother willing to sacrifice her first-born Karna; Yudhisthira as both the apostle of truth and the crazed gambler who stakes his wife at dice; Bhishma as both the wise grandsire and the unscrupulous kidnapper of Amba, Ambika, and Ambālika – these are the poles (of behaviour) within whose bounds flash the characters’ all-too-human sparks.
       The character of Dronacharya is another example of such complexity. The churn of his birth, his upbringing, and his deep hurt at Drupada’s abandonment (having grown up together like brothers in Drupada’s father’s court, Drupada refuses as king to even acknowledge a now-impoverished Drona) are all responsible for creating the Drona who meets Ekalavya in the forest.
       Justly reviled for his treatment of Ekalavya during their meeting, I try in this reimagining to understand Drona’s motivations.

Drona and Ekalavya A Reimagining

A cold fear gripped Drona’s heart. He wasn’t prepared for this. He thought he had banished all feeling years ago. Since that humiliating day in Drupada’s court, he had taught himself to believe that men’s hearts carried no goodness or kindness; that they throbbed only to the beat of selfish desires. Engaged as the princes’ tutor, he had focussed on instructing them precisely, remaining grave and aloof at all times; so that the princes had come to think of the least word of praise from him as the highest honour. Arjuna may have thought he was Drona’s favourite, but he would have been disappointed to know that Drona felt nothing like love or affection for him. He went so far as to respect Arjuna without going further. Proud, single-minded and acutely sensitive, Drona had never recovered from his last meeting with Drupada: he looked now upon Arjuna as the best means to avenge his hurt and mortification.
       But now, before him stood this wonderfully dark tribal boy who had just displayed marksmanship that Drona himself had never believed possible. And who should he call his teacher but Drona himself! Drona was more touched than he had been in years — but he could see the light of envy in Arjuna’s eyes and he knew what he had to do. It was the only way to achieve his goal. He had not striven ascetically for years to be moved by the beauty and skill and candour of a tribal boy! He was Drona, brahmin, and foremost among archers; and he himself had trained Arjuna. He could not afford to be sentimental now, or all his years of unceasing labour would go to waste. Arjuna would lose heart, and then who would defeat Drupada?
       And so concealing the storm within his heart, Drona said coldly: “If you truly think that I am your Guru, boy, then I am entitled to a Guru-Dakshina, am I not?”
       “Indeed you are, sir,” replied the Nishāda boy eagerly, “Nothing would give me more pleasure than giving you a large Guru-Dakshina. All I have I owe to you. But I’m only a poor hunter’s son.”
       From behind him, to his right, Drona could feel Arjuna’s eyes burning into him, and it was all he could do to keep from shouting at Arjuna; from telling him that this dark-skinned boy was the greater archer.
       “I do not want any riches, boy, I have everything I need already. However, there is one thing…”
       “Yes, sir, please tell me what it is. What can I give you?”
       Drona’s breath caught in his throat. He felt awash with shame — shame at what he had to say and shame at the memory of what Drupada had done to him. Silently the two struggled, but the memory was too strong, too vivid and his bitterness won through. He felt as selfish and arrogant as Drupada.
       “So be it, boy,” he said. “Give me your thumb then — your left thumb.”
       He looked around as he said this and felt sickened to see a flame of elation leap in Arjuna’s vivid eyes. Here was one as cruel as himself, he thought. Here was one who was willing to sacrifice an innocent boy to his selfish desire. He had not misread human nature! All was depravity and greed! Heartened, Drona turned again towards the boy — and nearly cried out at what he saw. The boy held his bloodied left thumb in the palm of his hand, as the chopped-off stump gushed a dark-red blood. In his right hand was a crude hunting knife. He was smiling.
       “Here you are, sir,” he said. “I hope you will accept this with my humble gratitude.” He hesitated: “And if you don’t mind, sir, would you please bless me before you leave, for I do not know if we shall ever meet again.”
       Struck dumb, but retaining a trembling command of himself, Drona took the proffered thumb before silently laying his hand over the smiling boy’s head. ‘God bless you, my child,” he murmured and then even more softly — so that no one but he could hear it — “and forgive me.”
       He then turned abruptly and strode away, that none might see the tears that glistened like raindrops in his eyes. Through the haze, he seemed to hear Arjuna’s protestations of gratitude, but his mind was fixed upon Ekalavya’s dark-eyed smile.

Glossary:

1. Guru-Dakshina (lit. preceptor-gift): In ancient India, a student in the Gurukula (preceptor’s āshrama) usually acknowledged his debt to his Guru through a gift. Not necessarily monetary, the dakshina could take the form of a milch cow or a task that the guru wanted done or some such thing.

2. Nishāda: A hunter-tribe mentioned in the Mahabharata, described as dark-skinned and generally considered lowly.