Tangle in the Shade

Eyes closed,
wide awake
to the color of night.

Time
in its primeval namelless oneness
unsliced by ticking swords
of cartographers and historians

only to be punctuated
by bright splashes from
a leaking faucet.
God’s sake–off with it.
It’d have got on her nerves.
A light sleeper.

At a distance
a howling dog is
rolling up his plaints
heavenward
yet again tonight.
I am not a god.
The dew must have brought
them down back to the dust,
and the wind drifts them to
dark windows with no shades or panes.

A short rest to the wheeze,
and the drips beat yet clearer–
a city bright atop a mountain
on the darkest night of the year–
and the watch’s whistle dampened and
fitful sirens and nightly grainy traffic
mis-shaped by the sinewy wind of December
make a shy creep into my ear canals
for attention in the lucid dark.

I can’t still fix it with
closed eyes–wool in a tangle.
Open eyes and I find
the dense stands of darkness
bending over me and staring against
the monochrome walls and ceiling
grained by the diffused city lights
through the smuggling holes
from the leaves in a scret communion.

The dog is still rolling up
his howls heavenward (or is
he now rolling them down?)–
it feels like each fine dewflake
murmurs a grain of howl in an echo.

Advertisements

No Man’s Land Woman

The middle-aged “non-local” woman who had been enthusiastically watching me taking photographs of several children, who had happily gathered around the wedding hall as they would do around a church on a Christmas morning or a straw hut on a Holi morning, kept changing places just like the children. No rings on her fingers, no sindoor on her forehead, no dupatta, just a couple of dull bangles on each wrist, and a carefree hairstyle which looked more a natural result of neglect than nurture–uncharacteristic of a married Indian woman. She wore a lungi cloth, not a saree, wrapped around her like a phanek. The children tantalizingly ran away from me when I trained my camera on them but deliberately conspicuously crept up teasingly about me if I had not paid attention to them longer than they felt was good. I love this transparent coyness of children and it was such fun that the children teasingly responded to me that way.

Children from my neighbors in my Kakching neighborhood used to bug me for something or the other. Even when I could fulfill them instantly, I kept drawing it out because I loved the children bugging me, and they knew it. It was like a game. I would make them kites, give them money to buy food of their choice from a nearby store, take them to places, and things like that. I would be so depressed when any child in our group died. Generations of children. Far away from home, I have disappeared from the memory of most people except the children I played with. But now I have a new generation of children in the neighborhood who know me and come to bug me when they are bored.

“Where you come?” The woman asked in broken English.

The context, my experience of people trying to communicate with me in English by means of a dozen or so English words, and my experience as a school English teacher often come to my help at such moments. Initially it had been hard to push aside my post-structuralism, stylistics and syntax as it was deemed necessary in the field, thought at any moment they may creep in through some crack and prove useful.

I looked at her and smiled. Partly because I feel homeless and partly because my philosophy puts me in no specific place on the globe (though they politically chain me down to some floor) (and also because, amusingly I want to my thought to wander aimlessly: how many places I come from–from a hotel in Moreh or somewhere in Lamphalong, Burma, or Kakching (my birth place and home), Imphal, Delhi, mother’s womb, the bride’s home, and so on), I did not reply.

The smile on her face broadened. I raised my camera to my face, and jerking the lens barrel toward her by way of a signal, my turned up my chin and raised my eyebrows a bit wordlessly asking if I can take a photograph of her. She immediately posed, but shyly. There had been some rigidness about her for some time, one that’s akin to what new photograph models wear when they are about to be in front of the camera, some sort of subconscious posing.

I took a shot and then said, “Thank you.”

“Where you come?” She asked again. This time she was in a more relaxed conversational mode.

“Yahan ka hun!” I said in Hindi.

“Kya? Tum India?” It was instantly clear that her Hindi was worse both in pronunciation and grammar than mine that has puzzled a lot of native speakers.

“Hoi, India!” That was a mix of Manipuri and English.

“Ahhhhh!” Her Dravidian mouth released this Kuki-girl cry of surprise. “Nangdi foreigner mallubane.” She spoke better Manipuri than Hindi.

I had been just back from the Namphalong Market beyond the border in Burma and was wearing a broad-brimmed leather hat like the ones you usually see in olden detective movies or westerns (but yes, without much decoration, and I find elaborate decorations and embroidery on wearables stupid), and I had my fully filled bag strapped on my back, and nobody you normally see in Moreh and the Burmba border don’t wear their trousers and shirts the way she saw me in that day.

“Where do you live?” I asked in Manipuri.

“There!” She pointed into a corridor-like alley that opened onto a barbed-wire and rusted corrugated-tin fence fifty feet away and smiled. “Somewhere there.”

She must have read the blankness in my face. There is a stage I experience before confusion–drawing blank, an experience I undergo if the information I am trying to process seems to possess what seems to defy all logic at that stage or if it looks too baffling. So before giving something up as impenetrable and confusing–some sort of nonplussation, I hold on and seek more information. Perhaps a biologically inherited trait.

“You know no man’s land?” That was an explosion–hitting immediately as comedy but cooling down as tragedy. The mention of no man’s land unleashed a hell lot of old memories that made her “there” make sense.

“Yes, I do.” A low, slightly drawn-out undertone of surprise.

“We live there. Mother and me.” She pointed to an elderly woman in a phanek by a hall wall, who I had seen earlier along with the children. Her life was written out there on her sad face. Her weathered withered face that looked apparently perpetually dull creased into a weak but so beautiful and heavy smile that I could not help smiling back. The smile lingered on the daughter’s face too and there was no politics in any of the curves and creases on that face. The world, the globe, spread flat before her, and the barbed-wire border fence was just another man-made structure like the walls of your house.

About eighteen years ago, while I, on a tour into Burma with one of my Burmese-speaking teachers (he looked like a Burmese too),  was crossing the border on foot, I saw several make-shift rag houses along the no man’s land, between the Indian and Burmese fences. They were Nepalese, Biharis and other Aryan and Dravidian ethnic groups from India, whose fate (whatever it was) had deprived them of livelihood and a floor to put their life on in the places people would call theirs. They found a land to live in there along the no man’s land. Nobody disturbed them there. The army on either side of the border did not find them worth their attention. Nobody roused them from their sleep there. They lived in peace there.

The border town of Moreh is a cultural, ethnic and linguistic metropolitan. Lying within the Moreh Police Station and in the jurisdiction of Moreh Judicial Magistrate, the border town of Moreh will often confuse one as to which law the people living here are subject of. Even often their citizenship. There are countless instances of love and marriage across the porous border that the laws of both sides of the border cannot account for. Love spreads its wings across the border, like the rays of the sun across the border as it rises and sets everyday. But these loves don’t live under the same roof. Love unsettles life so much. Love mixed up with the law.

Not so many cross-border uncivil activities by civilians.

“We came here in the early 1980s from Tamil Nadu.” The daughter said.

People move. Humans. Like homeless. From place to place to place. To live somewhere. Some travel thousands of miles to find a piece of land to live on, to build a roof to live under with their loved ones, to put their lives on that floor under the roof, between the four walls in the strong wind. You don’t easily find a foothold in the vacant fields, in the wilds, on the mountains, beside rivers. Nowhere. There will always come somebody to turn you out of there, and so you end up in a no man’s land. Love. So scarce and little in the world.

“I am an AASHA worker.” She said. How wonderful! That’s sort of a social work. Out of that no man’s land.

The sound of the band playing was now too loud for the conversation to go on. The groom procession had arrived. The drums, clarinets and bagpipes were far less loud than the noise they produce in the groom’s wedding procession in northern India. To an outsider to that culture, that noise rises beyond an insane height. Still, as we did not have to shout to continue with the talk, we let it out there.

Later, when things had subsided, I requested the mother for a photograph, and she gave her consent without a word. The lines on her face and the muscles there were eloquent like a poem filled with affects. I photographed her. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted her daughter’s photograph from my SD card while I was sorting out that day’s photographs later. Regret.

 

Some Whispers are Soundless

Birth and death meet in a house and it embraces both of these two ends of life into one great enigma. A grey mix of love that comes across as love tinted with fear or fear tinted with love. Every house has this enigma in its rooms.

Dehradun. A small girl died in this house first as far as we know. She puked blood. Then after a couple of years the man of the house followed his daughter. Soon the elder daughter died too for no apparent reason. Then the son, the eldest child, survived by his wife and their very small daughter. All in front of the mother. Soon the mother also walked the way of the whole family, leaving her daughter-in-law and the small kid. The mother and daughter moved to Delhi, where they are living now, leaving the empty house with silence.

People come and go. Houses remain there, standing, day and night, year after year, as if waiting even when there is nobody to come until somebody demolishes them. Before they return to their origins, some see more births than deaths with their occupants moving to more convenient, if not better, places, while some others see more deaths than births. Number is not always the weight–to us humans, a death casts a long gloomy shadow on three births of our loved ones. Death is more conspicuous because it tears a hole in the chest of life and smuggles our loved ones out through it and the last time we see them, hear them, touch them, is the last time we have with them. Death nullifies life on this side of the grave, and it often empties a house with a few repeated sweeps leaving it to sink in silence and decay amidst the din of the busy world, like the one in the photograph above.

The patio of an old British lady’s mansion. Soon after Independence, she gave the mansion and the estate to the Mussoorie Post Office which though has moved to a new place still owns it. The house is dilapidated now but parts of it still have a couple of antique-maniac occupants.

Abandoned houses always fascinate me. The gloom, sadness, decay and the evident shabby-gentility they are characterized by, the mute memories the rooms are filled with, the soundless whispers of their stories splashed on the damp, faded, mossy walls–I love these ghosts, their haunting.

Singing Life a Capella

How far are you from where I live
for it doesn’t feel like the same here?
The signs have come to pass–
the rains in empty streets–nothing to wet,
the rains hitting the terrace–without love,
the fingers of golden rain trees
tattooed on the tarmac in yellow haloes
in the yellow grainy November nights,
the winds whispering into the woods
the answers in the winds of boozy boys
spending hollow nights in the cold.
The signs have come to pass unaccompanied
like time singing life a capella.
How far are you from where I live?

Strangers in the Night; Killing Me Softly

Among what make the world beautiful (despite itself) and life worth living is Frank Sinatra. His songs. His Strangers in the Night (among many of his other numbers) is one of my all-time favorites. This really makes my nights beautiful even when I spend them alone. Lyrics here.

And here is another version. From a live performance. Of course, as we know, most live performances by the singers themselves of already famous records have flavors slightly different from the originals. A concert performance is a different medium than a studio recording session.

Another number among my all-time favorites is his Killing Me Softly. O my! He is–I mean is–a singer. Such a singer. Lyrics here.

Berry Picking

So you go on like history blasé
about the obsidian past black as your eyes
(set in a face crumpled from lack of sleep)
that, amid that sleepy creaky voice,
looked up from my “uncomfortable” arms
at my sleepless eyes from behind those
wispy locks tousled from rolling in the hay
we had just gathered from the sun,
the season’s last, that turned out a life’s.
And I will say the past is like your hair—
it’s dark and lost behind the absent wall,
though I often turn every speck of its dust
in the sunless time to scratch back up
the stains of my soul spilled all over
at a stumble—so ungraceful you’d wonder
how God makes things so slack!

I go on—a berry picker (when not dusting
dusty memory), a slow one, who loves berries
like the last thing left all in the world
too far and vast for tired eyes,
I am on my hands and knees in the soil
caring not to break the groping stems
or let the red-flesh fruits slip off
my crinkled hands with broad blunt fingers
or the basket when my used eyes comb
through the cold netty crouch of the lacy stems
and the serrate velvet leaves scratching
the black tightened soil that smells rawish sweet
under the green and yellow coiffure,
to look for spotty lady-bugs in meditation
and lovebugs set in bliss in the green
and semi-transparent worms measuring green miles,
while seeing the season breathing itself out,
and I would know I’ll have to prepare
the land for the next season—
carrot in the mulch, sunflowers in waves.
Seasons go on and on like history
that has nothing to do with the past.

To John Ashbery

John Askbery photo by Lynn Davis
Photograph by LYNN DAVIS

Poetry is ash, Ashbery—your dust has already scattered in the wind, been the breath of many who have turned into ashes and joined the dust, wind, fire, water and the sky. I don’t know where you came from, Ashbery, but I think you return where you came from, like all of us. We are ashes for a while and we fly and scatter when the home-bound wind comes.

John Ashbery, the beloved Ashbery, your death has let the hell loose in me again, and a sadist or joyist (who can tell them apart, if they aren’t one and the same thing?), I love it because there is a pleasure in all this. You are like me—guilt tasted pleasing, and it made you a poet, for which you have become the beloved.

Surviving the death of a loved one always accompanies a subtle (often acute) feeling of guilt. Life wants to live and death wants to go on, and unfortunately love cannot bridge the two, to our chagrin. If not bridge, love should be able to keep us together in life, through life, or in death, we petulantly demand. But we the warlike humans, who just don’t let it go without a fight but wage wars against and kill each other for whatever petty thing there can be, can’t possibly put ourselves into any action when death wrests our loved ones from our arms invisibly even as we see it, which is stabbingly painful. And life is such that in most of the cases we drag on (just out of nature, but for nothing obvious to live for—it really feels rather empty, unbearably heavily empty, and you just don’t commit suicide), feeling the fading pang of guilt—the survivor’s guilt fading into general sadness or general weakness that pervades the rest of our life, which gravitates toward and finally empties itself into death. Life with its apparent injustice ends well in ash, so it all seems well. Maybe, there will be a lingering after-life feeling of anger at having put through it that badly.

Ashbery, you go on. Your ash, a berry to home—it sucks you back. All the world is ash. I loved you. I love you. I love myself. Life and death. Living and dying. I don’t put myself to a final death maybe because that would deprive me of the (extended) pleasure of continual dying, the pleasure of hating life that in turn breeds love of life, the pleasure of feeling angry at being wronged or done out of something good. The sadism or joy of all this.

কনা-করিশু লৈজদ্রবী

লৈরাংবগি গারী চৎখ্রে মশা লূম্না
ওল্লদুনা নুং থাবা লম্বীদা চকা
লান্দুনা লম্বী চিদাইগি মোংশোঙসে৷

লৈরাংনা নীক-নীক, নোম-নোম
লম্বীগি অকূৎ-অতোঙ তান্থাদা৷

কনা-করিশু লৈজদ্রবীদো
ঙাইজবনি নুংতিগি খূঞ্জগে হায়না লৈরাং
য়েংদুনা লৈজহৌবনি চৎখিবদো গারিনা
লম্বীগি অকূৎ-অতোঙ তান্থাদা৷

Running away from Time

Those fingers—those—
The fingers of time—
They press me out of life.

The light from the stars—from ancient miles—
And the present glitter in my eyes—
They meet in a kiss—
Sucking the breath out of me—life.

I run away from time
From bodies of time creeping around,
and here in the dark
I struggle to plug every hole
with time-tight tissues
I have torn away from my heart
to keep myself warm
and untouched by decay
until I stop my breath.