Culture & Society

'The Men' And Other Wartime Poems

A series of poems on war and how it affects the lives of people living in it, in light of the deepening Israel-Gaza war.

The Karen Guerilla growing out Of childhood with a gun in hand on January 12th, 1988, Myanmar.
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The Men

The men now come to take the boys,
they take them all, they take each one,
to wield the whips, to grease the guns,
to slash to burn, to have some fun
and mothers sit with white hot rage
and lash out with their fire tongues
at babies tugging at their legs,
the washing still needs to be done
they know what comes
when the fun runs out,
and in body bags their men return,
and sometimes worse
the men come home,
forever darkened from the sun
their eyes speak now of wounds unsaid
no matter if they lost or won
and they sit around and bark and snarl
the animal has them, everyone
and lost to women who loved them once,
who sang sweet songs, of love and lust,
and though they have come home to die,
their death no longer by the gun,
but bit by bit, their insides rot,
until at last to save there’s none,
and still the women live and work,
to mend, to cook, to raise their sons
who too one day will leave their side,
no longer boys when they return.

First published in Whorls Within, (Amaryllis, 2021)

Spoils of War

They sat on a hill at sunrise,
it was calm and deathly still,
the months of fighting nearly done
the armies primed to kill

today the fates would pick just one
and millions would delight,
they'd laugh and dance
like heady gods
so far into the night

the vanquished and their armies,
their millions with their dreams
would huddle in surrender,
retreat, in defeat

and all this while the hills would smile
the clouds go on their way,
the trees would whisper
shake their heads
the wildflowers dance and sway

we're still to learn
in our foolish hearts
that none of this endures,
that all the things we're fighting for
are neither mine nor yours

the lands, the seas, the rolling hills
were there before us all,
and when we're done with fighting
they'll still be standing tall

do they pity us and wonder
at our stress and discontent,
at how we crave and claw for more
unhappy till the end

when we could simply be alive
to everything that there is,
and know in this too brief a spark
an extra-ordinary bliss?

It’s Not Personal

To have an enemy, is good business
it sells the guns, the planes,
patriotism is good business too,
it stomps out all complaints

The enemy can be anyone,
as long as they’re dispensable
a poet, a singer, a whole religion,
brute power is invincible

A college professor’s a mortal threat,
an activist, even more so,
let’s lock them up, throw away the keys
their voices need to go

And fear? Ah! Fear’s a useful friend,
let’s put her to good use,
let’s sow the seeds of divisiveness,
what a useful little ruse

To control the common people
have them eating out of our hands,
as we smother all just voices,
steal their lives, pillage their lands

But as long as we keep them united,
a make-believe enemy to fight,
they don’t care about our robbery,
they don’t care about their plight

For the bogeyman is unfailing
in pulling the wool over our eyes
hate has a power, not unequal to love,
at its best, it can hypnotise

And though the sane are being silenced,
as we’re taught new ways to hate,
high prison walls can’t imprison thought,
so rattle your chains at the gate

For even the mightiest tyrant,
is not promised a certain tomorrow,
though they bring us the very brink,
our lives besiege with sorrow

But for every scribe they stamp out,
a hundred-fold will rise,
and speak their truths of loud dissent,
and look beneath the lies

And the rulers with their weapons,
will fear the little people’s pens,
and run around in circles,
to change fate before it ends

And end it will, as history’s shown,
it’s only a matter of when,
and be it known, when tyrants ruled,
we were not silent then.

Target Practice

The word bullet comes from boullet, a diminutive of boulle, (French), a small ball, a thing of play, of throw and catch, the stuff of childhood, of aimless schoolboys left alone in a quiet summer holiday afternoon -

and this ball, this small ball, in the hands of men, is a kinetic projectile travelling through time, a bullet - but before it passes through the caliber of a gun barrel, it must first pass through the calibre of the man, his brain, and heart made from the same soft tissue, and bone and muscle and coursing blood and living breath, that he must be prepared to rip into shreds, in another -

and other men, faceless men, without their fingers on the trigger, will often serve, as both propellant and primer, and fill the cartridges with bullets as they fill pliant ears with hate-filled words, ideas primed and cocked, to kill, and the men, now roused, fury-filled, will forget the play in the afternoon sun, the games with a little ball, the throw and catch, with boys who were their brothers -

they will forget who they are, for the bullet has travelled through time, through age after age, through heart after heart, and wherever it has found a home built on hate for another, it has never missed its mark.

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Baghi

We, humanity’s bootleggers ply our trade in stealth,
We, hope’s black marketeers peddle courage in alleyways,
I hear they are out, with their hound dogs, looking for us criminals,
I hear they will confiscate our contraband of principles,
When the powerful have turned hate into law, be lawless.

Baghi (Hindi): Mutineer, insurgent.

Distance through Time

To be neighbours,
borrowing garlic pods, tomatoes,
‘ran out mid cooking, thank you’,
To play cricket in narrow alleyways and run,
slippers flapping, dust clouds and helpless laughter,
Again, the ball made it into the third-floor window,
Any minute now, an atom bomb on the balcony, frothing at the mouth

Bomb. When they came with their guns,
Neighbours, now across enemy lines.
Children shuttered inside, behind their mother’s dresses,
No, we do not know anything, we did not see anything.
An address written on trembling paper. Here. Leave us alone.

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We mind our own business; we are good people.
Business. There is blood on our spreadsheets,
deals signed on damask, white gloved service,
Power, money, money, power
He wipes the oil off his fingers,
breadcrumbs off his lap,
You, understand? It’s business.

Understand. The distance between brown and white.
People with Netflix accounts.
The difference between first and third.
This isn’t the Middle East.
Surely we can call someone. Fix it.
Shrapnel should not cut the same.
TikTok-ed death rattle hits different, bro.

Different. We sat on the same desk, grade 7.
We listened to the same songs. Liked cold Maggie.
The same boy who read obscure books.
You taught me to roll my socks lower, wear my hair in a butterfly clip.
Now you forward me messages to say our enemy has a religion.
Our leaders will save our nation. We should be grateful. I have no words.

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Words. My teacher examines them.
‘I am sad’, I am feeling sad, I watch myself feeling sad.
These are not the same.
I try them on my tongue. Test them in my heart.
Yes, they are not the same.
Why am I sad?
When I watch myself sad,
it asks me the same thing. Why am I sad.
I have no words.

One

Be polite, they say
as they grind their boots into your faces

Do not raise your voices, they say
as you shield your unarmed body from their
lathis, their water cannons, their teargas,
their guns

Do not gather here or there or anywhere,
they say as they sweep every institution
meant to protect you into themselves

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Do not defy us, mock us, challenge us,
they say as they stand before you, grinning
with the power of your vote, your tax, your labour

Do not be afraid, they say as they, like cowards
hunting in packs, turn on anyone who won’t bow
or scrape or slobber

‘Where were you when,’ they say
when in the face of tyranny, in the cold
and heat and dust, you are here

You are still standing, and you can
no longer be beaten, shot at, imprisoned,
gagged, intimidated, threatened or wished away.

You are here and you are not alone.

None as blind.

The children of the poor point
finger guns at the sky, chasing
fighter jets barefooted, across a
barren land.
It rains petals into their hungry stomachs.

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They open their mouths and laugh.

The rich stand at their windows
and clap, their eyes overcome
with patriotism.

(Nandini Sen Mehra is a poet and author.)

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