Stra Sal Ka… Child, when the milk first flows down from the mother’s breast she shivers with milk fever That milk isn’t very delicious but the doctors say — If the child suckles then the baby will survive all diseases The taste of first failure is like that — Whatever happens, it doesn’t matter (no dead-ends) whatever you lose, doesn’t matter there’s no full stop in life The desire to go beyond desire too is a desire The process doesn’t stop, the road doesn’t break apart They twine around your feet like a liana and when you come back home and take off your shoes there’ll be traces of them clinging to your socks sorry about this strange world you’ve inherited forgive me if you can no one actually listens to the sound of flowers bursting open no one sees with what skill and patience each petal unfolds This is the fruit market, child — fruitful and fruitless I wish you could have inherited a world where no one would have an identity divided and torn into different rows Every flower is beautiful in its own way and beauty is beyond competition You stay up all night your chair all your work on your desk watching the shrew on its catwalk As you doze off you have a nightmare — a shrew with an ounce of jasmine oil on its head and a buffalo someone’s playing a pipe to all falling on deaf ears a silk purse for sows… and everything out of whack and at break of dawn, a truck loaded with bricks. When the bricks fall the nightmare comes to an end. They make you sit up and then you ask: Ma, why this sorrow What is it? What to do with it? These shriveled breasts of mine are wet, not with milk but with sweat I’m not Mahamaya nor is he Buddha — but the question remains as it is — In an old film song there ran a line in Italian Che sara, sara? ‘What will be, will be’ Don’t ask what comes next Whatever happens will happen for the best. I sing out of tune and he breaks into laughter “Enough, mama, enough I remember the rest of it” This free laughter in the dead of night falls on the leaves like dew His father, worried about the future smiles vaguely in his sleep This half-smile of his gets the superserious house in a festive mood! Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


The Dalai Lama continues to laugh addressing a large audience. The interpreter is super-serious has no time for laughter The English was like a net the Tibetan words butterflies flew from the flower-petal lips of the Dalai Lama sometimes to sit on the ears of the Tibetan kids sometimes on the gold-flecked robes, maybe the wedding dresses of the Tibetan women taken out only on special occasions but worn away at the hems this bit of sparkle left like the trace of light in aged eyes. The Dalai Lama was expounding on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism He raised his arm and like three little dots of ‘therefore’ there were the marks of childhood vaccination peeping through his ochre robe. They whispered: aha someone is talking about such high principles but is from this very world this very epoch and he’s just a man. Right in front of me, rapt, a grandfather on his shoulder a chubby little boy and his gurgling (bottle ) wiping his running nose on grandpa’s sweater — He must have been like that — the Dalai Lama What do we know of Tibet — Rahul Sanknityayan or Rinpoches monasteries and chow mein cheap sweaters and sandals, China, snow, lost eyes, round faces and faithful Lhasa Apso pups. How do those noble truths connect with such random bits, the ignoble truths of life? Does truth too have hierarchies? A Caste system? — Brahmin truths at the top and then the Shudra truths at the bottom? Hunger and thirst heat and cold attachment and cruelties Love and hate — are these truths really lower? Dalai Lama, You tell me: please if the truth is like these mountain ranges — high and low. I prefer living in the deep cave of a small truth occasionally coming to you to learn the nobler truths of life. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


DoKa Some lies are stark white as white as newly-born lambs soft and warm, teeny-weeny Some are pale-yellow petals like those flowers in the vases you get in hospitals They’ve got the laugh of a helpless father when a child begs for a toy moon Mother pats him and says, ‘ ok, tomorrow, now go to sleep.” Now is this deceit? This life, like the gentle nodding of a drowsy child pretending to be asleep. Now, in my part of the world we had a special dish called “deceit” made out of chickpea flour but which looked just like a fish Those who couldn’t afford fish cooked up this ‘deceit’ There ran a story that there was a guy who couldn’t afford delectable magur fish So he sat with a plate of rice on the bank of the river Pointing at the fish riding the wave he filled his mouth, one ball of rice at a time, telling himself: that fish and this rice this rice and that fish So then did he cook himself up a deceit? Even starving people can serve up ‘deceit.’ Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


DuivDa Dilemma is a little bird with a nest in the heart of a scarecrow, sits on its shoulder and twitters and cheeps a blue and yellowish bird blue as the welts on someone’s back as pale a yellow as the girl after the first time she got bawled out by her husband pale yet as intent and firm as a vow In a rage, the scarecrow sometimes shrugs its shoulders One frosty night on his earthen pot face there’s a trace of worry and he asks — in the same old boorish way like a misplaced fear I am a creature of wood inside my wooden being say, bird, are you still there? The bird replies: Scarecrow of mine, I’m there still alive in the pocket of your tattered coat as alive as a ray of hope in spite of everything turned upside down in spite of everything gone haywire in spite of never finding what or who we waited for … . Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


I was a door the more they banged on me the more I opened up Those who could come in, could see for themselves, the endless cycle this whirling grindstone to the spinning wheel to the needle something or other, all day long, nonstop and then a broom to sweep it all up the stars, swept up mountains, trees, and rocks swept up all the shards and wreckage dumped in an empty basket, tossed in the attic of the mind. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


Chimneys, thatched roofs and fire-pots play hopscotch in my grandmother’s dreams The smoke doesn’t have anywhere to go it spills out and then settles, lingering under the bed, hovering between people. Dried up flowers, leaf-packets, leftover prasad, garlands and things forbidden the touch of a broom all balled up together and aimed at the thatch till they got stuck there, left to shrivel up and turn into the five elements. Whenever I look at her, my grandma reminds me of those garlands poised in limbo on the thatch. When my turn on the thatch comes, I won’t just lie there, sad about it— I’ll make friends with the crows perched there have them recount the stories of Kakbhushundi and ask them how Jayant-crow has been? and one day, I’ll fly away on the wings of the crow of my choice beyond all limits and limitlessness. So what if they’ve got raucous voices not just fair weather friends, at least, they come every day! What good are those great artists who like the koel, every so often make guest-appearances in low-budget films and lives. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


Doctors in films in the 60s get down from their buggies with someone else trotting behind them carrying their bags all-important, with heavy footsteps come to examine the heroine’s mother. Stethoscope here, there, looking concerned, lips pursed they raise their hands to the sky and say, in a solemn voice: “now no medicines, only prayers can cure her!” God only knows what’s gone wrong. All of us, hands reaching for the sky stand defeated Are we praying, or has someone behind the scenes roared: “Hands Up!!”? Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


I’m tired now, mom you do the next assignment I don’t have a clue what my teacher wants! to “fill in the blanks”, she says — How do you do these, son? This is an art I’ve never mastered I’ve always left blank spaces blank and, after all, in a way everyone’s life is crammed with empty spaces fissures and dashes But empty spaces are all haunted by ghosts of the past, mama, right? Sometimes haunted too, by ferocious ghosts of the present Then let’s fill them in not with words, but with modeling clay The sky has already come down in the blanks we can leave the spaces that way but the sky rushes in to fill in empty spaces All these blanks then turn into sky, ma? It’s because of those blanks, that the sky is so vast all the voids in everyone’s life leave the earth slowly behind, rise and turn into the blue of the sky Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


Knowing someone is like buying another mirror for yourself and another set of earphones, good ones which let you hear distinctly. After all, what does the bhatkoinya berry say as parting words to the stunned silence of the fields sold away If you listen closely, you can even hear the sad laughter of old prostitutes like swabs of cotton from some unknown mythic epoch entering your space you can hear rag jaijavanti on the ektara of an ancient madman in the oldest asylum in the world. You can hear the whooping cough of the prisoner playing his chains to the rhythm of ‘jhan-jhan-jhan’, playing on the rhythm of crimes done/undone. and then, you can hear the double entendre of all the established rules and the soft thuds of languages almost dead Each word difficult but strong enough to pull you into the fold of the mysterious naglok, the world of serpents. Deep inside the waters sunk within these waters without a straw to hold onto slowly, slowly turned into serpent jewels: Knowing someone is a passionate leap first outside your being and then deep within it It sends out ripples on the surface of the waters over the pond for a long time. Knowing someone is to become pond, river, ocean and rain. Knowing is a departure Clouds rain once trees three times after every rain, when you shake their branches Knowing someone is like gradually remembering all things, forgotten, sunk deep in memory Knowing someone is becoming trembling leaves catching raindrops. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


These are the squirrels of the forest They slip beneath the door making their way into your house In the afternoons they watch you dozing off go around and inspect everything in every nook and cranny of your house like chowkidars see if everything’s okay Along the trails of mythic time and space they come to you but seem inexhaustible quest-smitten, always scampering, restless they come like CID spies twirling the pollen-grains caught in their whiskers Their cummerbunds and belts, undetectable, done up in invisible boots twisting their heads back and forth always on the alert aware of the meter of ‘pause and pace’, accented, unaccented the movement of free verse, Clenching between their teeth those straws people drowning in the river of time cling to — Straws from broken nests when the branches of history were hacked off. the tree trunk hollows they come from are where forest-goddesses shelter their jeweled serpents In the deadly difficult nights of the jungle when the petromax of the moon fails the jewels glow like flashlights see how the hardworking squirrels scurry back and forth still working to raise Rameshwaram’s bridge across the ocean. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


There was a town, a small one a little too hot. The heat laid them all low / flat/ half-dead Birds built their nests on the blades of the electricity-less fans // on the blades of the useless/ unmoving/ lifeless/ frozen/ immobile/ motionless/ still fans Even so, there was a chaos /.racket/ hubbub/ din/ tumult of people , still The darkness was festive /alive with festivity / celebration Right/ Just after sunset, the mosquito nets were ceremoniously hung //hung with ceremony one end knotted to the branch of a guava tree one end tied to the nose of a latch one end to a nail and the fourth end into outer space Old uncle moon was a silver knot tied to the net One night a hyena came// there came a hyena and shaken out of sleep, the people ran away/ off the mosquito nets were left hanging over empty beds For years, they’ve hung like this No one bothers to fold them up No longer can you hear the jingle of bangles blue, yellow, red size 2 Now, whenever a storm springs up/ comes (up) the frames of the mosquito nets tremble/ wobble/shake but won’t let them go like white toy kites the nets fly up bound on all sides People turn over in sleep on distant footpaths Even in sleep their hoarse breaths tunnel through their blocked-up / clogged / choked (-up) / stopped-up lungs All night their rumbling sound, gharr gharr, ghar ghar 1 Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet Those who walk within confines are men, those who walk beyond are saints.


No confines for me, no confines a closed fist is my boundary wall I can go wherever I want but in this man’s pocket I can connect to anyone anywhere but always under his thumb. Even when he’s dead asleep he’ll tuck me under his pillow listening to the tick tock tick of his wristwatch. The whole night through quietly I’ll keep all his messages coming from all over the world. Those silent messages will glow in my dark spaces They’ll glow like the cats-eyes of my dream-memories: Mother’s ailments filed court cases all the office scuffles all the rush of unfinished kisses all the muffled calls the faint quivers of many a held-in sob all flicker within me. In me flutter the wounded wings of messenger-pigeons each feather yanked out and flicked off one by one once in a while, even a pat on the wing. No matter how modern the world may be the expression of love and hate are primordial. I’m like the roads of old Baghdad before the American bombings Parallel to the modern malls are the old souks and the meena bazaar glittering inside me like archeological ruins dotting the heart of the metropolis. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


My brother explained this to me: Stars are the snap-buttons sewn on the jacket of night. In my part of the world, snaps were called chutputia because with the click of a ‘chut’ one snapped into the other They only worked when all four eyelets on both sides matched up. They had no faith in the high and the low Advocates of equality neither hooking nor getting hooked up came together without a fuss. In my part of the world snaps were called “chutputia” but even the people from my part of the world behaved like snaps. No chutputia here in this alien city like sweet gourd, satputia jhigune you just can’t find them, can’t find them anywhere. chutputia people and chutputia snaps on sari blouses, tailors in the city sew on hooks, not snaps and there’s always a gap between the hook and the snare of the eye. No matter how hard you try, no click of ‘chut’ and no ‘put’. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


She entered the hotel room shook hands warmly with her solitude. The room was dark Inside her too the pitch-dark of a well Fumbled along all the walls but no light-switch A wide open door just a trace of light from the verandah A bearer, passing by She looked at him, not knowing what to do He understood and closed the door As soon as the door closed the lamps on the walls blossomed in a lotus of light. She wondered about the relation between shutting the world out and having your share of light Stretched out on the yielding mattress still could feel the straw chattai of home poking into her spine Is every woman a princess then and that pea It’s those ancient memories that’s the pea poking through seven mattresses She had lots of things to read instead leafed through the telephone directory to find out the exact rates for an international call — then spent all of her dollars on three separate calls — first to her son: “Hello, hello, darling I keep remembering how you dozed off on my clothes in the suitcase. You are my dearest.” In each call , she said this, both to her beloved sitting irritably in his office imagining wild things and to her worried mother dropping pots and pans all over the kitchen. Now she was held captive by the angels, brought before the throne of God How dare she use this tongue to call them all her ‘dearest’? God put down his pen and said — After all, she’s a woman, All her dear ones are her ‘ dearest.’ Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


Like in the British Raj The sun never sets Here in this house the sun’s always ablaze, scorching even when the lord’s away he’s still there in his claws, in his seal in his towel, his walking stick, his stamp papers, shoes and sandals, in his drunken hiccoughs, burping and his snores. And his frowns, his threats and swear words. Those are left behind. He entered the house with a fierce roar and in the very first round she played dead like the man in the Russian folktale who thought the bear wouldn’t pounce on someone already dead. Once someone told her: cowards die a thousand deaths, the brave only one Why should you play dead when you are not actually at fault? After that she felt ashamed of dying every day. Every day she hesitated for a while and then decided to play dead again She thought — if I had to be a bird, why an ostrich and if someone had to sniff at me and catch my tongue why a snake? Later someone told her to read Gandhi now when beaten black and blue she fasted unto death. But, the fifth evening, she started to expect someone to take notice. In vain. One day, her reeling head in her hands she staggered to the kitchen and slowly pulled out a stale chapatti moistened it with the salt of her tears. So friends, such was the life of virtuous wives in Kaliyug … The story goes on and the last part from the mouth of the sati herself. I don’t know what’s happened can’t get angry my heart is always as boggy as the soil after a heavy downpour on an unpaved road. He’s got a lot of work and he doesn’t even have his health now he no longer has the stamina to shriek, or scold or even beat me black and blue … In the end, I too stand tamed Now that he’s ill, why fight with a sick man I’ve mastered forgiveness Now even his snores sound sweet I try to listen closely to see if he’s calling out from his dreams Maybe he can’t say it, but is holding it all back for now some sweet secret, something so sweet that I’ve been yearning to hear something that will change the map of my life and then there’ll be a downpour in this desert. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


“My marriage bed is above the noose” -Mirabai This much English I learned to understand the meaning of this line but wish I could’ve learned Englishness well enough to tie a knot in a noose, a tie, my shoelaces too. I can’t even tie ribbons on right again and again on my way to school they came undone the red ribbons at the end of my braids Really annoyed, my poor brother each time he had to tie them back on And now when it’s my turn to tie a noose it comes loose, opens up like the amulet of folksongs. “To be … or not to be ….” Shakespeare reminds us It’s a whole ritual, turning your sari into a noose on the fan It’s not so easy to tie it on There’s a thick layer of dust on the fanblades Before I hang myself, should I wipe it away with my anchal? “To be dust, or wipe it away, “ that’s the question Where are Birbal and Vidushak of the Sanskrit plays The wise fools of Shakespeare, where are they? Where is the sly wit of Telani Raman and Gonu Jha? I met you in dusty folds of the stories my father told me Come, get up and see me off! Come, let’s giggle and gossip around the village fire Let’s light the flames, there’s a chill in here My skin’s not enough; will they wrap me up — my own warm ashes? Inside my stiff bones burns a slow fire, the sweet potatoes on it, will they satisfy my hunger? Will lye and phenyl quench my thirst? “To be or not to be …” Tired out, both my kids lie sleeping In the morning, will they be shocked ? The little one can’t even comb his hair and the big one, even worse can’t tell the right side of a sock from the wrong. They‘ll get up, try to wake me up ‘Missed the schoolbus and the milkman’s gone home’ Everyone’s gone home, shouldn’t I? Strange are the ways of this king’s court One sepoy holds me back by the wrists while another’s ready to banish me forever Yes, Shakespeare, I understand Understand this whole rigmarole of To Be or Not to Be. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet]


People are going away Each one from the other People are going away and the space around me is expanding. I translate this ‘space’ not as ‘breathing space’ but ‘outer space’ because I sent my flying saucers out there. Thank you, time my watch has stopped Thank you, window just behind the grille a sparrow is ready to lay her eggs. Whoever, wherever, thanks to all of you This is the time you ‘re all within me I, a little bit in each of you. The harmonium of my empty house whines its moaning silence. This empty time filled with work This is the time when I must translate dirty linen into the dialect of water Then a little while, stand still and think if a sinkful of soapy water can be translated into the melody of a raga Frankly, this whole house I’d like to translate into some other language. But where will I find this language except in the babblings of my children. By the time I finish, it’s evening I’ll translate this evening into drawing the curtains the splinters of last light will fill up all the space I’ll translate those splinters not into outer space but into my breathing space. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


These days I’m reading only ancient scripts Can manage to make out even the Harappan script Every language is a language of pain ever since I understood I could read a message even in the most obscure of languages In my own infinite emptiness this is the only thing I’ve done I’ve learned the tottering notation of music in every tone of pain. There’s a fire in me to write something on the pages of the wind and then crumple them up and toss them under the broken charpoy Unfolding these crumpled scraps, my mother reads them and her glasses fog up. This is where my fire gets transformed into water. My bound hands are restless they want to do something. There’s strength in them still. Milk, they can draw from the breasts of the mountain What if only a mouse turns up when you’ve dug it all up? My bound hands are rough and cold — they’ve never had the chance to sweep up the sweetness of the earth Never has a tattered dupatta been held spread out between these hands and laughingly begged those berries. The moon is no longer that pale There’s a layer of dirt on its yellowness it‘s as grungy as the grayed pages of a miserly bania’s ledger The sunlight slowly fading, like the tired, dusty beauty of an unwed elder sister Hey, butterfly, tell me how far is the last sigh from infinite desire. This ‘should’, what kind of a bird is this? Has it ever alighted in your courtyard? perched on your hand? So how can they say a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush? Wringing my hands, I often wonder are my hands two flints will they ever trigger fire? I never get a wink of sleep My life is the chaos at a call-center that might close down any moment, who knows? Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


This is how the shloka goes — women, nails and hair once they’ve fallen just can’t be put back said our Sanskrit teacher. Frozen in place out of fear we girls held on tight to our seats. Place, what is this ‘place’? We were shown our place in the first grade. We remembered our elementary school lessons Ram, Go to school, son, Radha, Go and cook ! Ram, here is your candy,son, Radha, bring your broom! Ram, bedtime, school tomorrow Radha, go and make the bed for brother. Aha!, this is our new house Look Ram!, here’s your room “and mine?” Oh, little loony! Girls are wind, the sun and the good earth They have no homes “those without a home, where do they belong?” Which is the place from where we fall, become clipped nails, fallen hair trapped in combs, fit only to be swept away? Houses left behind, paths left behind people left behind the questions chasing us, too left behind. Leaving tradition behind, now I feel I’m as out of context as a short line from a great classic scribbled on a BA examination paper. But I don’t want somebody to sit down and analyze me to pigeonhole me. At long last, beyond all contexts it’s been really hard but I’ve gotten here. Let me be hummed like an abhang, unfinished. Translation from Hindi by Arlene Zide and the poet


We were read like the torn pages of children’s notebooks made into cones to hold warm chanajorgaram We were looked at the way grumpily, you squint at your wristwatch after the alarm goes off in the morning. We were listened to distractedly the way filmsongs assail your ears spilling from cheap cassettes on a crowded bus They sensed us the way you sense the sufferings of a distant relative One day we said we’re human too. Read us carefully one letter at a time they way after your BA, you’d read a job ad. Look at us the way, shivering, you’d gaze at the flames of a distant fire Listen to us as you would the unstruck music of the void and understand the way you’d understand a newly-learned language The moment they heard this from an invisible branch suspended in limbo like a swam of gnats wild rumors went screeching “Women without character wild vines draining the sap from their hosts well-fed, bored with affluence these women pointlessly on edge indulging in the luxury of writing these stories and poems — not even their own,” They said, amused. The rest of the stories dismissed with a wink Hey, Blessed Fathers you blessed men spare us spare us this sort of attention.