Monday, Jul 04, 2022

Poems: Of Everydayness And Learning Tamil

A dawn in the life of an upscale southern neighbourhood of Mumbai, and a moment from a language lesson: ‘Thatha teaches me our history/It is full of men/I stop listening halfway’

Everyday joys
Everyday joys Shutterstock

Prabhadevi Before Dawn

And to the everydayness of Waterlilies, Poppies,
The Artist’s Garden, Woman with a Parasol, to
the adamance of colour theory and impressive 
histories of landscapes in frames and framed land
-scapes, I raise the stakes and add another world.

At 5 AM, Kunal and Savita Aunty are unlocking
the Amul dukaan. As store shutters yawn open,
Rosy the stray blinks and waits for Meena Aunty
to bring her breakfast. Water is everywhere: in
high tide rising at the beach, dew peppering leaves

and buckets filled with grumbling water being carried
by car cleaners through the street. Celine, the delivery
woman and recovering addict, is yelling first at her 
passed-out lover, then at Kumar Babu the dosawala
to f**k her; it’s the least he can do if he can’t pay her

extra. Mohammad the watchman tells her to shut up.
Pathakji drags his fruit trolley from the cornerstone chapel 
to under the holy banyan tree, hoping that some god 
or the other would save his unlicensed dhandha 
from the wrath of the cops. Raddhiwalas are up already:

loading the factory truck with recycled books 
and paper, then getting their kids ready for school. 
Pinky is smoking her first cigarette of the day, 
right before switching on the medical store lights. 
Its green cross simmers silently. Pappu Jain, 

Prabhadevi’s sabzi wala, heads down to the beach 
to brush his teeth while his good-for-nothing son
stumbles home with empty pockets. Thank god
for his daughter-in-law and thank god she speaks
english, he says, or else he’d have been a beggar.

Twelve year old Moin, angry at being awake this early,
stands before the makeshift maqbara for a minute, then 
goes to buy milk for the entire family. Outside the temple,
Munna the cow-herder feeds Lakshmi and Gowri water, 
quenching their thirst before their morning stroll begins. 

Everything is black, so Monet must have been wrong:
this is a portrait engorged with blackness. Black cats
and bats mewl and howl, black roads roll out towards
a pitch-black horizon, black goddesses and gods allow
silence to thrive in a soon-to-be-gone, deep indigo sky. 

Marathoners thunder through and the road
shudders in annoyance. Some gulmohars fall off
tired trees and decorate the patchy, cracked concrete. 
They carpet the entire street yellow and I’m convinced
that this is from where the sun must bloom.

Thatha Teaches Me Tamil

His voice comes from the deep well
of his belly. Maybe that’s where 
he stores language. Maybe 
that’s where the prayer he sings
keeps replenishing itself.

Muggy Chennai weather encloses us.
Dust hangs in the air. However
terrific the Madras summer gets, 
the coffee only gets hotter.
A river of caffeine running down
my throat, a current of language
flowing the other way, moving up
to my tongue. I’m on holiday
and thatha teaches me Tamil. 

The TV blares silently. It affects
me and thatha too much: the news,
the politics, the vile. We both cry
too much. Bashir Badr’s son died
of COVID. I wonder if his dementia
allows him to remember that. I wonder
if he cares that his Urdu shers and poems
are pawned by politicians in Parliament.

Thatha tells me about his mother, how
he wouldn’t let her see him cry. Thatha sings 
to his Pilayar, he weeps to his devis. Patti
is patient with his tantrums; she would have
been the perfect lawyer if she were allowed
to study more. Thatha teaches me to sing 
and weep. Patti teaches me to listen and let go.

Coffee, news, and afternoon classes
go well with a plate of murukku. 
Every piece looks like a Tamil letter. 
A ம, தீ, ர. I eat the letters, fried to perfection,
hoping this can help me learn faster.

Thatha tells me that when he was young, 
but old enough to go to the cinema alone,
his father would tell him to watch
only English movies. And study only 
in English-medium schools. And when
the Brits left, thatha was 17 and Diwali
crackled early into the lanes of Madras.
Everything was celebrated: Pongal and Eid, 
Christmas and New Year’s. It was all colourful.

When Murugan lost the race to Pilayar,
thatha says, he was so jealous of his anna
that he ran away and hid in bhumilok,
on top of a hill. Until his parents found him,
he began singing to the earthly people––
a new song in a whole new language.
Bursting from his mouth: a confetti 
of new words and alphabets, decorating
the land and sprinkling poetry on people.
Tamil was born that day.

Thatha teaches me our history.
It is full of men.
I stop listening halfway.


Thatha’s patti would cook on fiery coal. Thatha would ask her how she can withstand it. She would say, பெண்கள் உடை கை தான் நெருப்பு டா, that female hands are made of fire. 

Poets live for their words and, in India, they die for them too. 

Thatha gulps the last of his coffee.
Ready to get up from his cane chair,
he calls out to Muruga.
He finds the strength to stand.

தமிழுக்கும் அமுதென்று பேர் - அந்தத்
தமிழ் இன்பத் தமிழ் எங்கள் உயிருக்கு நேர்

Subramani Bharathiyar

(Saranya Subramanian is a writer and theatre practitioner from Bombay, currently pursuing an MFA in Poetry at USFCA.)