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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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;
the rising wave
crested by a froth of white
washing onto watered-shore
mágicked by the purple shell of sea;
coloured by the spilling bow of rain
casting shadows of its warmly light
into a halfly dark;
the koeling bird
rousing the pitchness of the night
into the daying light;
the well of words
flowing over heartly kerbs
to flood the paging white