June 15, 2021
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Poetry

Five New Poems

Selections from new poems, about vanished historical figures, about reminiscences and transmutations of a post-Independence suburban existence

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Five New Poems
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Mirza Ghalib in Old Age

His eyesight failed him,
But in his soldier’s hands,
Still held like a sword,
Was the mirror of couplets.

By every post came
Friends’ verses to correct,
But his rosary-chain
Was a string of debts.

***

The Knife

He slapped his clothes,
Looked under the scales,
Rolled over the egg plants,
Poked the drumsticks.
Finally, spotting it,

The handle sticking out
From behind the cabbages,
He broke into a grin
As big as the one
He cut in the pumpkin

I’d asked a kilo of.

***

Bharati Bhavan Library, Chowk, Allahabad

A day in 1923.
The reading room is full.
In pin drop silence,
Accountants, homoeopaths,
Petty shopkeepers, students, clerks,
Turn the pages
Of the morning papers.
At the issuing desk,
Some are borrowing books:
A detective novel in Urdu
In two volumes;
A free translation
Of a poem by Goldsmith
Printed in Etawah,
Titled Yogi Arthur.

The books
Are still on the shelves,
Their pages brittle
And spines missing.
New readers occupy the chairs,
Turning the pages
Of the morning papers.
Turning pages too,
But of dusty records
In a back room,
Is a researcher from Cambridge, England.
It’s her second visit,
And everyone here knows her.
She’s looking at Indian reading habits
In the colonial period.

Outside,
On the pavement,
Is a thriving vegetable market.
Amidst the stalls,
A knife-grinder sets up
His portable establishment
And opens for business.

***

Kabir 1

Strutting about,
A smirk on your face,
Have you forgotten
The ten months spent
In the foetal position?

Cremation turns you to ashes,
Burial into a feast
For an army of worms.
Your athlete’s body’s only clay,
A leaky pot,
A jug with nine holes.

As bees collect honey,
You gathered wealth.
But after you’re dead,
This is what’s said,
‘Take away the corpse.
We don’t want ghosts
Living with us.’

Standing in the door,
Your wife will
Say her farewell.
Others will say theirs
Outside the gate,
Or, hitching a ride,
Show up at the burning-ghat,
From where you’ll be on your own.

Lost,
Without Ram on your lips,
You’ve fallen into
The well of death.
Like a parrot stuck
In the fowler’s net, says Kabir,
You’ve only yourself to blame.

***

Kabir 2

My only wealth
Is the name of Hari.
I don’t bury it in the ground
Nor sell it for cash.

It’s my farmland
And my garden patch,
My object of worship
And my place of shelter.

It’s everything I possess,
Plus all my savings.
Rob me of the name
And you clean me out.

The name is my brother,
My own flesh and blood;
When I’m dying
It’ll be by my side.

Like to a beggar
A bag of coins
Or a box of sweets,
So is the name, says Kabir,
Precious to me.


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