Friday, December 28, 2012

Moments before she died

(Delhi 29.12.12)

It is the night of foreboding

her skin is again

and all the past is a story
without a moral

this night refuses to rest
on little promises

recalling again the promise
the coral stone of a world
very different from the one we live in

this night remains
like shell-shock

lies like a fetter -
this waiting for bad to get worse
for it to get better

this night hangs in the air
like the deserter
who has seen through the war,
his world is now refusal

(that night, the first thing she asked
when she was conscious again
was whether they had been caught)

she lived each moment she died

and this night remains
because she has offered her sleeve to hold
but we are not bold enough
to reach.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Indus, 3180 km

"We'd push them off a peak, then they'd push us off a peak, but nothing significant happened" 
- speaking of Siachen, Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, retired Pakistani General


In Hyderabad
(no, the other one in Sindh, Pakistan)

Umair, after strolling aimlessly in the Giddu Park,
walks down the banks
of the Indus

and lowers his feet into the water
and finds, half lodged in sand

a fruit, small and dark,
like a custard apple

under the water
interfering with sunshine.

Curious – he had had nothing to do all day,
the school had closed for the summer –
he dips his hands into the river
and pulls at it.


In Siachen
(no, not in Pakistan,
not in any country, but in snow
where borders fall through crevasses)

in the glacier whose name means ‘abundance of roses’

Vijay, after the daily training,
the evening ice-wind still whipping his face,
walks back to the camp

a file of soldiers long behind him

unthinking, he reaches for his back-pack,
for a photograph that he had stolen from her desk

in which he and Reema
then only twenty-two
pretend casualness against the fake bluish-white backdrop
of the photo-studio in Bareilly

it was a few months since they had met, and 
their eyes are only roses

this photograph, Vijay reaches for, stealing memory from snow,
finding it difficult to breathe
memory stealing oxygen from air

and as if
under the weight of this breathing
– the backdrop in the photo studio
was snow-capped mountains –
of all this past coming like frost
and settling around him, he remembered another friend
long since gone back to the plains

who one day, 
when the air was ice,
had held him close and 
told how he now finds little things difficult
‘‘the doctors,’’ he said, ‘‘call it cerebral edema,
there is no oxygen here

– Vijay, at that point, 
found his eyes so blue that he wanted to give 
all his share for him to breathe –

all this staying here, 
this air, causes damage to the brain,
that is what they said. 
I will carry the mountains
back to the plains as a kind of inability.’’

In those first few days, he had not fully understood but
he knew from those words, which came slow
and measured
‘‘People have to speak slowly to me now,’’
he had said, ‘‘like when they give their phone numbers,
I take time, I have to think, ‘zero – what is zero?’"

and with this, as if something had struck

Vijay felt the load of his usual back-pack
heavier than ever before

tearing down his shoulders

no war is ever light but none
was heavier than this
none more futile than this – ‘what is zero,’ he had asked –
none more parched than this

why are the battles of the people of the plains
always fought in the mountains?

now, he felt the bluish-white all around him

– the colour of burning sulphur is bluish-white,
the colour of hell is burning sulphur –

and, all passion now, 
he began to unload his equipment
and throw it into the deep crevasse which
the soldiers’ file was slowly edging

first the pick-axe, then some ammunition shells,
lightening the war, one by one

the soldiers behind him saw
and began to approach quickly, to keep him from this,
from harm, to hold him and explain

he threw three cans of extra-protein biscuits,
one fuel container

and when he made
his bag empty of almost all things

save Reema and him, rose-like, in the studio in Bareilly

he threw at last – the glacier received it as parcel –
as the light began to fade,
like a custard apple,
small and dark, 
one grenade.

(for Nauman Ahmed)

Sunday, November 18, 2012




When there will be night,
we will claim the promise
of the setting sun

we will claim
our foot-soldiers

and the ones
who stayed inside waiting to be

we will claim them on
both sides of this opaque wall

all those 
who refused its opaqueness,
its night, and saw through

we would be counting them too.


We will not deny
that tonight
we are not the equal side 
by the local measurements they use

but we know,
that on old papyrus,
on the balance-sheet of history, 
we add up to more

and the longer this night lasts,
we will let its darkness spill around us

darkness come out from our homes
from our eyes,
and then, sharp like falling stars, 
cut through their days, 
their pillars, 

we shall refuse to cover our dead
with the shrouds of their making,
of their words
of all this
their accounting of our loss

we will promise this to our night,
that when
the sun comes, 
we will be taking its light to the witness stand

and ask if the dead that do not die of age
leave the rest to die of memory

and on that day which will promise us 
the land,
the long life,
we will say to it with immaculate precision, 'no,'
'good lives, sir, 
brave, knowing lives, sir, are here - so often - not long

and long lives, sir, today
are not the subject of my song.’

(after Rafeef Ziadah)

Monday, November 12, 2012

How do I tarry

How do I tarry when
they ask me to marry?
The last 3 years were
easy, though the PhD
topic was a bit sleazy,
yet they bought it, aunts
and uncles and all, now
it is more tough to stall,
they grin and ask me
when, they pin me down
then frown n' mock,
when I mention a postdoc.

Monday, October 29, 2012

I have crammed into the PCO booth

and closed the wooden flap behind me,
and now every number I dial is fear.
It is one of those old phones where
the numbers aren't buttons but
winding circles, so that every digit
is a roundabout way of reaching you.
I never noticed earlier but there are 
so many 8s in your number, only now,
moving these long arcs makes me
realize that you are even further away
than I last thought, that I am to earn
through these crescents my cheap
moment of saying – ‘hello,’ that is
what I will say, will it do, or after
all these years, will it sound astray?
Will ‘hi’ do? Or at last, as we wrap up,
as it has always done, will ‘bye’ do?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Wedding at St. James

The church is the grey of asphalt
And the sky is blue to the fault,
The bride and the groom walk past
At last! At last! At last!

We each hold the Order of Service
The rings, the hymns, the kiss,
We get through the blessing and song  –
get along get along get along

It is writ large on the dome
And we drive it forcefully home,
We say it, we never mind,
‘Love is kind’, ‘ kind’, ‘ kind’.

‘Love is patient’, Corinthians 13
We are mistaken, but more, we are keen,
‘Love is not envious, or boastful…or rude’
So why spoil the mood, the mood, the mood.

We stand, each one by our pews
We try not be mildly amused,
Lest our sense of irony offends, for
'Love never ends', '...never ends', '...never ends'.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

First Books

I sat my cousin down and 
vented my spleen, 'I am 27,
Neruda’s first book was at 19
and within a year, all Chilean air
was full of his love and despair
but when I look at my Delhi,
it seems to be doing just fine,
without the gift of my rhyme.’
My cousin said, ‘don’t start,
take heart in the fact that
there were great poets still
who published their first books
down the hill, Neruda’s an exception,
don’t you see, Philip Larkin published
when he was 23 and so did your
Shahid Ali, whose first book 
‘reached for the star,’ so
get this right, to be published,
age is no bar.’ ‘But,’ I said,
being surly, ‘compared to me,
that’s still 4 years early.’ 
My cousin, all patience,
did not frown, he sat me down
to give me hope, said 'wait, err,
there's she who came later,
Dorothy Parker's Enough Rope,
her first, was when she was 33,
so it is only likely, Akhil, that
greater work awaits you still,
and that some publisher, sometime
will not be ill-disposed to your stuff,
so no more ranting, that’s enough, 
there'll always be time to reach the sun,
when her first was out, Kyla Pasha was 31,
and then with excitement, he roared,
it was 34 for Audre Lorde, but when he saw
that I was down still, he did not say 'don't
be sore, Wallace Stevens was 44,' instead
my cousin dared an example out of cordiality,
he took to tempting an unpublished poet with
posthumous immortality, ‘Forget early books,'
he said, 'all does not go well in life, there was
that quiet one who poured out all her strife
into 1800 poems but cousin, look,
Emily Dickinson barely published a dozen
and never got around to a book.’

(thanks to Bhochka)