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