Once Upon A Story

Note: There’s a glossary below for those who’d like it.

Once Upon A Story


I remember how I wished to tell
of an old, widowed village woman
as she passed through every season
of the calendar, seasons with Sanskrit
names all vaguely familiar. I hoped
to limn the heat of greeshma with
my pen, and catch in salient words
the earthy whiff of a humid wind
that made the dust swirl lyrically;
before I sketched how sharad’s cold
(that knifed her skin with consummate ease)
was the child of an unfeeling ocean-breeze;
and how even watery varshā’s rains
could hardly help her feel less alone.

But, tell me, what does privilege know
of village and woman, old and widowed?

(written ca. 2015)

Glossary:

1. greeshma (greesh-maah): One of the six seasons of the Hindu lunar calendar. It is (roughly) the equivalent of summer.

2. sharad (shuh-wrudh): Another one of the six seasons. Its closest equivalent is winter.

3. varshā (whurr-shaah): The season of the monsoon or the rains.

 

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.

To Her Tormentors

What do you mean she’s barren?
Does she not send forth a tide
of blood each month,
that blood you call impure
and quarantine within the dark?
That blood you fear with all your heart,
that blood is the blood of her heaving heart.
(That heart you treat with disregard
and force so brute,
it dries and desiccates the root.)

So listen, you people whose tongues malign!
Do you know what churns within her loins?
Do you know if milk streams through her breast?
Do you know what it is to be childless?
(And if you do, more shame on you.)
Her womb is womb no less than
womb that bore you, her breasts
no less that those you milked;
nor she more cursed
than those of you most blessed.

So don’t waste your breath to simply say
that’s she’s a barren field.
Go back instead and wield
the malice of your tongue
upon your unfortunate child.
Go now, for I stand here as her shield.


(written in 2015)

Afterword:

I wrote this poem in 2015, during the most prolific creative spell I’ve experienced. However, as quick as the poem’s emergence (on the computer’s screen) was, it was really the culmination of thoughts and ideas I had been pondering – and even writing about – for some three years previously. Not a woman myself, I’ve no doubt this poem was influenced by women’s stories; by various things I’d heard and read and been told about and that had permeated my consciousness in ways too intricate to pinpoint.

Childless women among my relatives; an observation by a relative about how her’s uncle’s childless marriage had been unquestioningly attributed to his wife’s infertility (though she thought it more likely that a year-long sickness that left her uncle bedridden was the reason); a woman’s direct, personal perspective who felt having a child helped a woman ‘feel complete’ (she had a child); a true story told by a well-known Kannada writer in Kannada about a woman who, unable to conceive herself, had thrown her ōragitti‘s (ಓರಗಿತ್ತಿ), i.e. co-sister’s newborn down a well; the idea – universal in its scope – of the ‘woman as field‘, who, like a field, could expect nothing less than indifference and disdain if she was ‘unproductive’; stories of the subtle and unsubtle jabs a woman could face from her in-laws for not being able to conceive; the story of a friend – only 25 or so at the time but already married for over a year – who, upon asking her mother what she wanted for her birthday, was told that a ‘grandchild’ would be best possible gift; stories about men choosing (or being told to) make a second marriage because their wife couldn’t conceive; the account by a childless woman – who’d taken years to come to terms with her childlessness – about the impending arrival of her friends’ grandchildren and her helplessness regarding the feeling of loss that (she feared) was bound to return.

Note: The ‘quarantine’ mentioned in the poem is a practice followed to this day in parts of India (and, very likely, in several other places where science is forced to genuflect before tradition). It is the practice of ‘social distancing’, of banishing a menstruating woman (or several menstruating women) to an “outhouse” until they are done bleeding and are no longer considered ‘undefiled’ or ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’. Not surprisingly, the conditions in this “outhouse” are unsanitary and dangerous. Rising female education and awareness campaigns are helping the situation improve, but I remember a newspaper report from about a year or two ago that spoke of the death of one such banished woman. It’s past time such atrocity was stopped.

By the way, I think it worth noting that such vilification and ostracization of women is not in any way peculiar to India. Like I say here, woman has been discriminated against by man – in some way or the other – in every culture around the world. Within the present context, it is illuminating to note the origin of the word hysteria or even the original meaning of the word menstruate. (‘A Brief History of Misogyny’ by Jack Holland offers more detail.)

P.S: This is one of my favourites among the poems I’ve written. It’s also one I’m proud of.

Lines Begun After Sundown

All sadness does not lead to song,
all gloom cànnot make a poem;
there is too much sadness in the world
for that, and too much gloom.

Most misery cannot be told,
most torment cannot shed a tear;
they lie simply in the breast:
wordless, soundless, unremarked.

Let them live there if they must,
do not mine them for a song;
there is sorrow beyond reach —
to speak of it would be wrong.

Sing, instead, some happy song
you listened to when you were young;
let all immured sorrow know —
outside there is delighting.


(written ca. late 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

When The Heart Blooms (or Why Poetry?)

Because –
is it not enough if poetry
can make you happy
and push the borders of the heart
a líttle further apart
so that the joy that grips the soul,
(a joy that cannot be told),
turns the rhythm
of the breath into a hum
ming bird, that shooting like a charge
throughout the blood
both fills and floods
the being with a boundless surge.


(written ca. 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

The Dancer Asks

And let me dánce, Natarāja*
to the rhythm of your drum;
and let me flów, Natarāja,
like Gangé* from your locks;
and let my límbs spread smóothly
and my waíst slide shyly
and my ánklets tinkle
and my brácelets jingle
and my sáree rustle
to the echóes of your drum*.


(written in 2015)

Glossary:

1. naṭarāja — literally, king of dance but perhaps better translated as ‘Lord of Dance’. An appellation of Shiva’s, one of Hinduism’s major gods. His dance – the cosmic tāṇḍava – can be various and can signal both creation and destruction. The joyful form of his dance is the ānanda tāṇḍava.

2. gangé — the way Gangā, Hindu culture’s most sacred river, is written and pronounced in Kannada. Here’s some more detail about the mythology concerning Shiva and Gangé.

3. drum — the ḍamaru is Shiva’s “drum”, one he uses to keep time during his cosmic tāṇḍava. A mythological story tells of how the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are the sounds that emerged from Shiva’s drum as he danced his dance of creation.

Lament

My words of verse are not like ráin
stréaming from a water-burdened cloud;
nor like the blossom on the vine-tip
that fálls and reaches the ground
despite the absence of a wind.
Nor like the green ringlet that peeps
out from the seed-born stem;
nor even like the little bird
whose wings outspread
of their own accórd.
I seek instead for similes,
search nature with deliberate eyes,
(wearing a poet’s disguise),
to find and praise what must
be praised; what does not rust
(with words that I to rhyme entrust).
Yet all the while I wish so much
to write like I were heaven-touched.


(written ca. September 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

Happiness

happiness’s
a gulmòhar flower
cáught in the crosshairs of the sun
guarded by drawn-leaves of green
shaded by the blue of sky
within a wreath of wind;
happiness’s
the rising wave
crested by a froth of white
washing onto watered-shore
mágicked by the purple shell of sea;
happiness’s
the sunset-sky
coloured by the spilling bow of rain
mòving asymptotically;
happiness’s
a wickly-flame
casting shadows of its warmly light
into a halfly dark;
happiness’s
the koeling bird
rousing the pitchness of the night
into the daying light;
happiness’s
the well of words
flowing over heartly kerbs
to flood the paging white


(written on June 9, 2019)

I want my poetry

to be as real as the fight between hot-headed boys
who are really truly angry;

to speak the language of the street
and the music of the flute
(and even mix them cleverly);

to learn to walk before it learns to run;

to run with the rhythm
and hunt with the rhyme –
idiomatically;

to echo – sound – resound
and then move on rather than wait
until a rhyming word comes by;

to look around and see
the tree – the dog – the smoking man – the fly
(and simply smile and let them be);

to play with English like a favourite toy –
(wind it up and send it forth
then leap in front and change its path
because it wants a rhyme for bath);

to see the world through others’ eyes –
then, opening its own, seek originality;

to be best friends with the dictionary;

to learn to wait,
to learn that it need not hurry;

to metaphor and simile
(but if it can’t, then just to say
the sky is blue and blood is red);

to sign a clause of non-compete
with other poetry
(like so many different ships upon a plural sea);

to feel it’s free to turn to prose
when it wants a break or clarity;

to skip article –
unironically
(because that’s how English
is often spoken really);

to (also) be Indian in its samskriti* –
to view this ancient land with sympathy
(but not ignore the blatant cacophony
of each traffic-tormented city)

to go out in the sun and feel its warmth
and simply stretch all lazily;

to try its best to find
its way to self-express
and when it’s done (or hasn’t done) –
sleep happily;

to be simple and straight and free
(and shun the comfort of trickery);

to know that it’s all right to
watch the moon’s light silently;

to find a way to make Kannada Englishy –
and English a kannaḍi*

to make sure to think for itself –
and not just jump into chaḷuvaḷis*;

to know that poetry, like knowledge,
is replenished
by giving and by taking;

to speak the truth it knows,
to feel lucky to be free;

to be and being make me
be.


(written in Feb 2020)

Glossary:

1. kannaḍi — the word for “mirror” in Kannada

2. chaḷuvaḷi — a Kannada word with meanings like agitation, movement, etc.

3. samskriti — broadly, a Sanskrit (and Kannada) word that means “culture” (though it has several shades of meaning)

My Boyhood and my Poetry

As boy, I was stranger to the winter and spring,
but an honoured child of the summer and rain:
I hardly marked the winter’s tree,
or the movement of the spring

But summer time was for play and swim
and hours beneath the largesse of the sky
that looked down with its shutless eye
on worlds I saw and did not see.

And with the rains, then all around
the waters hurried fast and free
and jalpātas* burbled by the door
as I jumped with my father through puddles undeep.

So, now, if I rhyme of the winter and spring,
they are my dues to a poetry
with its sense of time and its geographies

For when I was boy with the world at my feet,
the cut of the winter and the rich of the spring
were masked by the wet of the rain and the summer’s swing.


(written ca. late 2015)

Glossary:

*jalpāta ~ waterfall (in Kannada)