“But what about tomorrow? Will they hiss
and boo from the sidelines
as you find, pause, fold, and dip towards
the horror of your first miss?”
– The Kingfisher
Poems For A Younger Brother
So that he can die
have a good cry,
otherwise he will live on and on and on.
Look up at the sky,
hold your breath
in imitation of death,
then have a good cry,
and see if he is gone.
You say death is real?
I say it is not real,
or only as real as life
and as serious as a joke.
It is not death makes you cry,
it is life.
So have a good cry,
then watch the thrower and the knife
go up in smoke.
Rawalpindi / Lahore
March 1979 to June 1980
Tomorrow Is Pakistan Day
For one moving into total silence
the loud rehearsals
of celebrating planes
is a welcome diversion.
For one moving into total silence
the chatter of friends
and visiting relatives
sinks deeper than words.
For one moving into total silence
even the slam of a door
when all doors are closing
is an affirmation.
22 March 1979
Flight To London
When you leave the airport lounge for the tarmac
trying to walk unaided with a straight back
I know I am seeing you for the last time,
and try to be brave like you. I rehearse
a smile at a passing stranger, but tears
are knocking hard at the back of the eyes.
I wander off towards the canteen gates
pretending I am out of cigarettes,
and let the tears come. And then I pretend
a mote of dust is making my eyes hurt.
Having no handkerchief, I pull the shirt-
ends from my trousers and use them freely.
Soon, I am a man again. To relatives
return with cheerful talk no one believes
and every one is eager to promote.
Back home, we sit on the lawn, and wait.
When your plane roars overhead, gaining height
rapidly, we follow it over the hills,
till it is a speck, and then nothing. You
are on your way, gaining height rapidly,
to London, return ticket in your pocket.
10 June 1980
When Morning Breaks
When morning breaks
across the seas
five hours from now
will it break on an empty bed,
or a face I do not know?
Meanwhile, there is the difficulty
of coping with mornings that break:
I unlatch the kitchen door
when the milkman calls;
the latest newspaper
thuds against the wall;
10 April 1979
Half-moon in an April sky.
Uncertain. All’s uncertain.
I am waiting for a brother to die.
Where he is
there is no moon,
not even half a one.
He will never see it again.
And I, out here,
in the garden alone,
looking up at the moon.
How can it be so blurred
on so clear a night?
6 April 1979
The neighbour’s servant rings the bell
at three in the afternoon
to tell me I am wanted on the phone.
At three in the afternoon
when everyone is sleeping?
I know what it is about.
Brother, you are gone.
So little is really needed
A quick wash, slippers, specs,
and I am ready.
I shall greet the neighbour calmly,
my hand will be steady
when I lift the phone.
12 April 1979
What was inside you
flowered so intensely
it overtook all
with a springtime swiftness.
Brother, you were good
ground. Water and prayer
have done their work.
20 April 1979
Under The Shower
Under the shower
I think of your last bath.
Strange hands, how warm they are,
as they prepare you
for the final appointment.
As always, you present
your best face to the world.
2 May 1979
There is a small glass window
in the airtight coffin
through which your face
is visible, quite pale
and utterly composed.
In single file
the mourners tiptoe past
for their last glimpse;
not one is steady.
You are ready
to be launched into space.
14 May 1980
A mound, scarring over,
that’s what you are.
The roses we brought on our last visit
and arranged with so much care
have long since withered.
We sprinkle marigolds this time.
A light drizzle; the trees
are lyrical in a freak wind.
You would have relished this weather.
Over the graveyard wall, a boy peeps,
but seeing he is noticed
runs off at a tangent,
his satchel flying behind him.
And the clouds flying southwards.
And our women weeping.
15 May 1979
Indestructible, I thought.
Younger, but tougher,
always bullying your brother.
The uncles called you bulldog.
at the gates of my friends
till they called you in.
Showing off your lieutenant’s pips
to mother, who kissed them.
Tall just man
with the rough exterior.
Now they are mine.
22 May 1979
Things Left Undone
Things left undone
lie on your desk
underlined and annotated.
They do not matter any more.
Along with anniversaries
and visiting cards
into the basket they go.
They must have cost time and money,
so many sleepless nights.
16 May 1979
His wife gives me
one of his old shirts.
I would like to think
they are being used, she says.
He was tall and heavy.
The shirt hangs loosely
on my smaller frame,
but where it touches the skin
it will not be shaken free.
24 August 1979
Damn the hospital room, he said,
damn the hospital bed.
I am bored.
Get me books from the second-hand store,
cowboy yarns, spy fiction, anything
to keep me from thinking.
I borrowed a portable TV set
so he could sit
propped up by the pillows and watch
the Test Match.
In the evening we walked
for ten minutes on the lawn and talked
of this and that. Some thin
clouds ran in a cool wind.
A fine day to be up and about, he said.
A fortnight later he was dead.
21 May 1980
This grave, beside my brother’s grave,
and all those out there,
were visited once,
and favoured with petals of rose.
Time’s weather and democracy of grass
have made them equal.
Where his grave swells
with its offerings, was flatness,
by tussocks, and those
tiny yellow flowers
whose name no one knows.
20 May 1980
Leave me, this theme, leave me alone.
Why should one death mean more than another?
After all, I have lost a brother
before, a sister, father, and mother,
and, of these, he was not the most loved.
Yet am I daily reproved
by some thought or incident that he is gone.
It seems it will never be done.
Poems were always hesitatingly dared,
but these come like guests, unbidden,
and find me unprepared.
I breathe them out for what they are worth.
Not to say is a worse kind of hell.
I may have exaggerated here and there,
I cannot tell.
We only pretend to understand the truth;
it is too carefully hidden.
11 June 1980
Forecast For Tonight
Overhead are stars
but to the south and west
lightning-flashes on the horizon
In a couple of hours
the sky will be overcast
and later tonight
there will be rain.
we can open the windows
and let the world in
which we kept out all June.
8 July 1983
Bird From Porlock
There I was lying
on a bench in the park
at the suggestive dark,
and thinking deep thoughts
staring up at the sky
when a bird in the branches
shat in my eye.
look what you’ve done,
I had a wonderful poem going,
and now it is gone.
I mean, you can’t write verse
wallowing in shit,
it just can’t be done,
though some have tried it.
One can understand why
Coleridge felt so sore
when that man from Porlock
knocked at his door.
But at least he left
a great fragment behind,
while all I have is a
5 July 1983
After Many Hot Days
After many hot days, a cool wind.
It bends back trees
with the gusto of a lover
who has been away too long.
The tecoma is down.
What kept it in place
was too frail for this bother,
but defiantly it blows
its orange trumpets from the ground.
The clouds roll over and over
and around the sun
like puppies. Accordance
swells by the minute. I catch
the first fat drop
on my upturned face.
9 July 1979
It is not so much the sun
that has turned the heat on,
as these laburnums, whose flaming
brands collectively stun.
Wearing only large yellow beads
their shadows sit on grass blades
and stare sightlessly up
at a sky that daily recedes.
Now nothing’s left of winter,
not even one brown splinter.
Dazzled, these fierce avenues
conduct us to the earth’s centre.
30 March 1983
A Lost Poem
When he came back that night
the singing in his head had started,
or rather, humming, the words were yet to come.
So he lay down and waited.
The humming stopped as if on cue.
He tossed and turned, it wouldn’t come back.
He got up, then, and paced the floor,
threw open a window and looked at the stars.
It was uselesss. There were only the usual
suburban echoes. What had come with him
uninvited, had gone off elsewhere,
when it saw him safely home in bed.
7 June 1983
The Last Visit
Years ago daylight peeked through
the dark cool of the vine-covered porch
leaves holding both light and loves
of the old house, part log cabin,
far down in the valley.
It shone on the high ground gone wild,
alfalfa swaying over aged ruts
eroding down the hill. Wheels sank.
Today the house rises in effigy,
bulldozed in to keep holsteins
or brown swiss from rotting floors.
I search for a nail to keep among
the remaining boards and stones.
A sloping path, aged and enduring,
leads my eye to the far barn,
now a faded red relic
in a country where no one goes.
Through the shutter of memory filters
the last visit with aunt and uncle
standing in the vine diffused light.
The eyes of smiling daughter-cousins
beam through shy latticed fingers.
(Not date or place mentoined)
Shadows lay on flagstone like cool applause.
The struggling monsoon is ending.
I have existed here long before
when dreams drifted with the mist
where windows, open like petals, waited.
Sunlight determines the distance traveled.
The voice coming from each palm frond
through green lemon fruit
and the piping of flower seedlings
answers the insistent moli hands.
Gray caped crows speak as sky journalists.
Hawk-headed kites slow in their majesty
soar wise and blunt to roof tops
unlike dipping and rising sparrows
wing spans brief and dreams light.
(Not date or place mentoined)
The Old City
The lives are all still there
high on the third floor balconies
and the sounds of Moghul warriors
still reign on the cobblestones below
which spill into rivers past stalls
banked on each side with offerings
for the tide of people, always rising.
They flow like resilient bubbles
bob off surfaces mellow and blunt
or jut against three-storied intricacies
past steep stairs going somewhere
lost and leaving horse-hoofed tongas
and auto-rickshaws, shrilly baubled,
to navigate conquest and defeat.
The past having nowhere to go
endures, as vendors sitting on surfaces
of today, squat on age-old haunches,
present oranges and gilt-brocaded shoes;
their eyes reflect the obsolete light
of sovereignty seeping through
In the courtyard of the fort gate
embodied ghosts of dark haired women,
burqa bangled and fleet of eye,
flow over railings: their blood
rising in laughter, ebbing in pain,
coursing in rhythm to time’s marrow,
is still swimming into Old City bones.
(No date or place mentoined)
The price has been paid. But to get in means
exchanging one churlish queue for another.
A ticket only buys you the bother
of standing at the back of a line
two furlongs from the gate, and two deep.
Now and then, you are pushed up a step
by a peasant who takes so much pleasure
in shoving, you suspect he’s a sodomite;
and you cringe back from the fellow
in front lest he thinks you are one also.
Miserable, you feel to make sure
your money is safe, as virginity is not.
You throw away half-smoked fags as ten
draws closer, and closer. Somewhere ahead
the turnstiles are clicking to slice
this snake which only seems to lengthen.
Your legs, never your strong point, are dead.
It starts to drizzle. Thoughts turn to ice
as you anxiously scan the sky to the north.
At this moment you almost lose faith
and wish you had never come!
Better indeed to have stayed at home
and watched it all on the T.V.,
comfortably sprawled, with a cup of tea.
The hum in the stadium deepens, and clapping
announces umpires going to the wicket,
no doubt briskly, with coat-tails flapping.
You feel like tearing up your ticket,
and pulling out; but it so happens the fates
have pushed you within sight of the gates.
At last you are there, and manage to squeeze
in between two brown legs, only to find
the fast bowlers are off, and loblollies
are being served. You wish you had never come!
Cement is hard. You know after a six-hour grind,
the reward will be a spectator’s bum;
and you curse as some pigheaded lout
instead of giving the googlies a clout
over the pavilion, is blocking away
as if each were a scorpion, and he intends
to outsmart everybody, by seeing out the day
with sneaky dabs through the slips. The stands,
after the initial jeers, sleepily scratch,
or turn to other amusements, such
as baiting a cop. You solemnly vow
not to be here again tomorrow,
yet are bawling for breakfast at crack of dawn.
Doesn’t she know there’s a Test Match on?
6 July 1980
Not To Be Ignored
Not to be ignored. That is the thing.
Whether it is a century at Lord’s,
or a poem.
To withdraw from it all
is another way. Who would have known
a domesticated Gautam?
9 July 1980
Choked, the painful roads to the stadium,
with pilgrims who press on in a delirium
of expectation; a festival, so many
bound for the congregation site, where tens
of thousands are milling already. Heat and flies
could be doubled and they would not know.
They have nowhere else to go.
Doctors, homoeopaths, exorcists, have failed them,
and other so-called saints. They have come
from village and town for the promised miracle.
This is their last chance. It must not fail.
They have heard of terminal cases salvaged.
Surely millions cannot be wrong.
They will find out before long.
Some have been here since morning, lunches wrapped
in newspapers or banana leaves. They have kept
favourable spots for neighbours and friends.
The young ones hold transistors in their hands.
Saint or no saint, deliverance, they know
cannot be waited for, or luck,
on an empty stomach.
And they are fully provided: unstoppered
bottles, pitchers, plastic pails, each with water
filled to the brim, and toted with so much care
that not a drop has been spilt. From where
did these wasted arms get the strength to lift,
and trembling legs to brave the roads
with such prodigious loads?
Look, a stirring among them, such as animals
show when the shepherd boy approaches. Cripples
reach for their crutches, the cancerous rise,
and the fevered atmosphere is sour with sighs.
Waiting is ended. Saint policeman is here.
Even before he mounts the ad hoc
dais, to review the flock,
a battery of receptacles is raised, and pointed
at him. For five minutes his head is bent
in silent prayer, while the supplicants cage
their anguished breath, and think it an age.
Then he looks up slowly, a general pity
in his eyes draining their sores away.
Be patient, he seems to say,
and all will be well. The blind shall once again see,
the lame walk, epileptics will be totally free,
and every ailment disappear. Have faith,
have faith. He takes a long, deep breath,
with chubby hands pressed tightly to his sides,
then releases with tender care
that bruited healing air
on those upturned faces, and vacuum flasks.
Has he breathed? a whining blind man asks.
It is done. The precious cargo spent, he hitches
his belt, corrects the collar where it itches,
and prepares to go back to his district beat
or desk, to deal with crime in a
tough, no-nonsense way.
A sip or two, here and now, while the water
is freshly charged! They drink all asweat, or
rigid with apprehension. Some say they feel
it galvanize all the way, and are cheerful.
Then clutching the bottles to their breast
they limp, wheeze, and tap away
home, to await the blessed day.
The stadium is empty at last. Yes, they are gone,
elixed with hope, who yesterday had none.
The saint’s breath still lingers on the stand.
He will be here again next year they say, and
others will greet him. Brief though the visit was
the litter of a hundred thousand souls
slaps against the barbed-wire poles.
10 April 1980
Last Day Of The Ramadan
On the thirtieth day and the last,
at last, of the holy fasting month,
each minute seemed an hour; the sun
at its scorched meridian stuck fast
as if in a sky of glue. Yet it was clear
to the meanest mind, and every mind
was mean with thirst, it was Satan’s eye
they saw with, to make them curse the gear
of a divinity that had lost its teeth.
One more test of faith, like the blank moment
last evening, when the new moon’s point
frustrated the millions underneath
by failing to prick the heavens, and
save the believers a day’s erosions.
But they were strong; more ferocious
to prove their strength against the hand
that stayed them. Spiced visions of a feast
without end had dragged their will along,
and did so now. Of all the goods one earned
by forbearance and prayer, this was the least.
28 June 1980
Began as nothing,
A space between.
Or an idea,
A wish, or a fear.
between two words
Backwards and forwards.
Then a cry.
Then a huzza.
And a huzza.
And a groan.
reach out to accept
And then nothing.
(No date mentioned)
A Flung Stone
With a flung stone the light splintered.
And we thought we were safe!
What paroxysm had sneaked down
to where the burrowing heart had wintered?
We tried to pass it off with a laugh,
but it sounded like a groan.
How could a symptom so small
and isolated, betray the truth?
I had expected thunder and the roll of drums.
Perhaps, I was wrong after all,
being merely wishful, or afraid, or both.
This was some freak, playing games.
11 September 1980
Rain In Taxila
This rain which sweetened
an acolyte’s thinking
as he dipped quill in ink
one August afternoon
in a room overlooking a stupa,
now swiftly curtails
a madam’s myopic swoon
as she circles a mound
the wrong way round
mentally canning the marvels
guide-book in hand.
25 March 1981
It’s a bone.
It’s a bone of something.
It’s a bone of something that breathed.
It’s a bone of something that breathed and gamboled.
It’s a bone of something that suffered in the end.
It’s a bone of something that suffered.
It’s a bone of something.
It’s a bone.
1 January 1981
A Rich Past
I am drunk on my past.
It seems worth living in now
because it is safely past.
I would drop it fast enough
if the present were worth celebrating,
or I could brag up a future.
So I revisit each oasis
of love. At this distance
it tastes very much like love.
And linger there an hour
or two, or a whole week.
For people who have no choice
the past is pretty potent stuff.
It unrolls behind them dearly
with dragons and boscage and cranes.
7 October 1980
At The Service Station
The lawn that holds the length of my side
(sprawled sideways on, and in that pose
the pipe, clenched between molars,
drifts the smoke back to my nose)
between pump and road, is a good place
from which to follow what’s going on:
my car being serviced, the three urchins
rubbing it down, and the face
of the shoe-shine boy loving my shoes
to an unaccustomed splendour.
I put the pipe down, wriggle my toes.
And for no reason at all
a line of Larkin’s elbows its way in:
Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.
In a drowning instant the detritus
of what I was and am swirls about me
like sea-weed, and clings to my skin.
I am filled with a paralysing fear.
My God, I think, the nothing he mentions,
is happening to me right here.
5 October 1980
You are continually criss-crossed
by figures wound up by private needs
who are not even aware
you have asked them in,
and seen them out like a good host.
Now a woman comes up to you
and pats her hair.
For a long minute you stare at each other
but neither gaze penetrates
to the mercury at the back.
24 Mach 1981
The end was near. I looked
at his face without a hint of fear
in it, the breath going mostly away.
A clean conscience? Or an
acceptance of what he could not mend?
He had always been a realist;
he knew he was booked.
Everyone waited. Finally he addressed
his heaving hands on his folded stomach:
‘Are we going to have rain after all?’
‘Why do you ask?’ I said.
Through eyes, half-shut with pain,
he looked at me and murmured
‘It’s getting terribly dark.
Draw aside the curtains.
Let the last bit of sunshine in.’
Not much later
i drew the curtains shut again
for it was the sunniest time of the day
on the sunniest day of the year.
21 May 1981
Talking To Myself
Sometimes now I catch myself
talking to myself,
a loud half-phrase or a word,
never anything more,
and making gestures with the hands
which no one understands.
It was not like that before.
Those who have seen or heard
must think I am going mad.
I am not going mad,
just a little bit …
I hate myself for it,
but pass it off with a laugh.
How did it start?
Once I thought I was all heart.
Not of late.
I am in a state of…
I am in a state.
13 June 1980
Professor Of Surgery
Now bed 19, a special case as you know.
And how are we today?
No. 19 looks up as if to say
if it weren’t for you I’d be on my way.
I can see you are looking very much better,
the professor says, and no. 19
who is looking terrible, says
he is feeling much better.
With the blunt end of a pencil, the professor
draws an imaginary circle
round a spot near the hip-joint.
Then he makes an important point.
It must be important, for the students (all girls)
are leaning over each other
in their anxiety not to miss a word.
No. 19 is so hemmed in
I wonder he doesn’t get suffocated.
But he lies quiet as a mouse
grateful for having provided a disease
that has brought down the house.
And one girl who is prettier than the rest,
and just a wee bit older,
has one pert breast
resting innocently on the doctor’s shoulder.
In small doses, more wisdom is prescribed.
The girls are impressed I can see.
Oh they have a wonderful teacher, so precise,
so patient, and so awfully, awfully…
12 June 1980
Jobs And Marriages
Every child, at least once,
is a trial
to its parents,
and this child, my son,
is no exception.
He must away
to the big city
to look for a job
or be near his girl,
I don’t know which,
nor do I suppose
he does either,
but gone, he is.
a He telephones
once in a while
to keep us abreast
of his progress.
All I can say
is, it was easier
in my day,
when finding a job
was father’s problem,
and finding a girl,
6 June 1981
Someone today talked of his mother.
He admired her guts, could find only praise
for her industriousness, her warm loving ways.
I listened quietly. My memories of her
were of a spiteful woman, a shrew.
When I came home, mother, I thought of you.
I searched carefully for flaws
I might have missed. I could find none, alas,
to suit my mood. And it saddened me
to question what I knew to be true.
Why is it I am empty of praise?
When your name is mentioned, I turn away
and listen quietly. Forgive me if I say
my friend did well; the shrine of words he raised,
though false, is also my shrine for you.
28 May 1981
Loneliness means impenetrable walls
streaked with betel-juice and snot,
and a single skylight, high up,
through which the air dribbles in
like saliva from an old man’s mouth.
Loneliness is the cleaning of fingernails
with a used matchstick. It is meals
slanted in between bars, and sound
severed into long black syllables.
Loneliness is thirsting for coolness,
and a fresh gust; it is the feel
of one’s elbow as a pillow.
And it is the maniacal laughter issuing
from unfamiliar faces, sly looks,
and the stench of urine and sweat.
Loneliness is the shirt crucified
on the bars, weeping itself to dryness,
it is the hand dragged over the face
slowly, measuring the stubble.
And loneliness is watching the light-bulb
all night, too weak to read by
Loneliness is the bewildered look
on a kindly face as it fumbles
for adequate words in a clean pocket.
And the smile forced to the lips
when the eyes are as cold as a sentry’s
bayonet tip. Where everything
is limewashed, sere, loneliness
is the chlorophyll that suffuses
the precarious leaf of thought.
Loneliness is walking around in circles,
making resolutions; it is the placing
of hurts in perspective. Loneliness
is an innocence gone forever,
a rebirth; it is a blinking of eyes
in the hard light of the sun.
(Published in The Pakistan Times, Lahore on 9 November 1979)
A Kicked Dog
The hurt beast has subsided
to a whine, and the boy
who kicked it, walks off
laughing where he has to go.
In their own circle, life
is full and related; also
easy to understand.
Each has his private dream.
They move, side by side,
on the slow arc of time
which, at its either end,
blurs into history.
23 March 1980
Then And Now
There was a time
when all the doors opened outwards
into the sun and the wind
and I rushed out regardless
into yards of surprise.
Now I open the door
an inch at a time
expecting darkness outside
or a creditor.
17 May 1981
Memories On A Cool Night
We are five who were ten.
The family is becoming manageable.
Father, mother, where are you?
Dead brothers too?
And little sister, the fun-loving one?
I don’t know how it is with you
up there, but after some bad days
of looking for holes to hide in
the wind is cool tonight,
and we are having fun.
8 June 1981
Like vultures they gather
when someone dies.
Cousins and uncles and aunts
not seen for years
are dolefully here
heads wagging and generating cries
for each newcomer to the house.
After two or three days
they will be gone
(who knows for how long)
with a back-patting embrace,
and bedding borrowed from neighbours
and the hired crockery
will be counted and returned.
24 June 1981
me; for I am the bait. Any other
interpretation would be too meek. I
know now how the elected feel, or rather
those who wait for signs. Yesterday’s sepia
infects the leaves that remain; a cold wind
brings them down. A beginning. It must be.
Every luxuriance is properly thinned.
How else can one start to be free?
It is as if someone standing in the rain
looks in, and through the translucent glass which
mystifies the least gesture, finds scope
for easement. Shadows anoint the pane,
vanish, and reappear. Being cold and sick,
he regards those warm motions with some hope.
But not for long. Those hurts, I find,
were nothing compared to this. There was always
an out. Father, you have made me blind
with tears, and unseasoned all my days.
Death was something to be gone along with
and outgrown. Painfully, I learned to pry
loose aftermaths of death after death.
It no longer ends with a cry.
You were the one invincible tree
to which I was tethered, and it is fallen.
Now in the shrinking light I stumble
and seek myself. The horizons are free
of arrival; each chill night is sullen
as a negative, and its edges crumple.
Yet somewhere and sometime the rebuilding
must begin; I know you would want it so.
I cannot be strong as you were strong,
teach me, teach me, if you can, to
disadore those fifty years. Your voice firm
in extreme old age still calls me
to heel, and in those anecdotes I swim
that mingled experience with personality.
The trees are budding again, but I wither.
My grey hairs about which I joked
are frighteningly real. I catch
myself staring at friends, and other
dear ones as if for the last time. You choke
and toss in a coma as I sit and watch.
Than darkness darker the nights turn
and feed on themselves, and the days
are verbless. Kindling and rags of memory burn
in a hundred unmemorable ways.
What is a lifetime? It is a recall
of incidents that have no significance
for anyone else, that are too small,
too full of the self, to really convince.
Till something like this happens. The bottom
falls out, and where are you sir?
You squandered away too much love
and money, keeping back nothing. From whom
will you get it back, father?
Not us, our most has never been enough.
I should not have been surprised. A telegram
is an old ender. In a flash bone
and muscle are melted. So now I am
without a job, my reputation gone.
Penniless, ill, walking the streets
I marvel at myself. How can so much sand
be crammed into one body? I greet
friends smiling as if nothing had happened.
Father, when you left me to the world
with your blessings, you could not have foreseen
how soon every good would turn to bad.
They want me to blab and cheat. Your gnarled
hands would have fallen from prayer at this scene.
Father, father, I am glad you are dead.
I am embezzler, fraud, fornicator,
gambler, sot. Day by day something I learn
about myself I had not known before.
I am multiplied. The personal turn
of phrase will be harder to come by. Sot?
Sot? In the mirror a face stares back
which I feel is my own, which is not
my own. Then everything goes black.
Hot. Impossible to respond to any
caress. People are too understanding.
I walk the streets looking for work.
Meantime a friend keeps us in food. Can
I be sponging forever? Each night I sing
away bruises, and pander to the dark.
The rain comes down with its healings. Fool
nature at it again. But one succumbs
as always. The afternoon is cool,
and the smell of drenched earth overcomes
all stale exhalations. The grass takes heart,
trees dust their arms. Everywhere
a mending. How can I not be a part
of this, and let some new song take the air?
But whatever I shape is a grimace.
Naturally, unnaturally, the pain
shows through; its ruts are much too deep.
God knows I try, for I need the solace
of green. It will take more than rain
to wash away what the heart would keep.
Grief’s circles extend and extend. The
country teeters like a slowing top.
The way is down, down. I cannot see
the miracle that will put a stop
to this nonsense. Every decent mouth
is dumb. Some have gone abroad so they
may breathe, and left us with the uncouth
and mad. They ask why we choose to stay.
There is no choice. I can accept stour or
silence, even hypocrisy. I can
accept humiliation. What I cannot
accept is death, for it is death to dower
this place to the jackals. As a man
responsible, I must suffer my lot.
The enquiry drags on. I am guilty,
not guilty? I stand in the verandah
looking at the animals, waiting patiently
their turn, having no more than a day
or two to live, thousands, thousands of them.
This is the goat market. The improvised office
is bang in the middle of it, where I am
being prodded and priced. Noise, dung and flies.
And I think of the mountains; clear water
falling, a cloud resting like a sadhu
exactly on the points of some pines.
A painful image. Perhaps, I am too bitter
to escape this way again. To undo
the milling goats needs some sort of nonsense.
A wounded animal I seek the dark,
but am rejected. Others even more
tense are sniveling in corners. An arc
of pain surrounds us, and no door
through which we may escape to gladness.
I want to hit out wildly at what hems
me in, but there are only shadows,
flinging their arms about in tantrums.
What we see is not really the sun.
It is a mockery of light. Now grey
is our national colour. There is no sound
of laughter or making. As an omen
a kite unsticks itself from the sky
and plunges sharply to carrion ground.
Sickness again in the family. This is no
old man wilting, however beloved.
Tall and straight for the last time though
I do not know it yet. He has slaved
his life off. We talk of cricket and touch
on the property lawsuit which goes on
and on and on. I cannot report much
progress. Then with a friendly wave he is gone.
It takes my mind off other matters. It takes
my mind away. No wonder then I am utterly
confused, and plumb new depths of feeling.
The night is cold and still. I try to fix
my attention on a book, but every
line is meaningless, each word is reeling.
I am much too close to despair. I want
out where the crisp air is, but the clock
ticks me in, ticks me in. The blunt
side of the knife is not my luck.
Self-pity? Or is it the truth? Either
is still too much. I cling to sanity
with this making, but the barbed weather
defoliates with even more urgency.
A madness pummels our days. No hope
anywhere. Shadows exceed the sun
in an eclipse too personal for words.
Ineluctable. From the slimy deep
of time worse surfaces, on the horizon
yet, but swimming rapidly towards.
July/ November 1979
Julian, I think that was his name,
though I can’t be too sure after forty years,
but the incident is fresh in my mind.
He was blond, blue-eyed, and chunky,
and had packed into his 96 months
more mischief than any ten boys.
The only reason I can think of now
why he wasn’t expelled
was that is was wartime
and his father in the Far East, somewhere,
But to come back to the incident.
Near the toilets, set apart from the school,
was a jackfruit tree
where the bees had hived.
And Julian stirred them,
how, we never found out.
Then arms at his sides, he stood there,
like a statue.
He must have heard or read of this ruse,
but the nerve of that boy!
Those who saw him (l didn’t,
I was running for my life)
say he was covered from head to toe
in a new kind of armour,
and while the rest were being chased and stung,
he just stood there, clad in bees,
and when they flew away
thrust his hands into his pockets
and walked back to the playing fields
whistling ‘O mama, mama mia’.
1 November 1980
places that were torn from us
like perforated slips
years and years ago
why do they stay with us so
and mean more
than here today
Oh but they do
is broken by a cry
i can almost sense the light
that will trickle through
a courtyard brilliantly white
with straw mats on the floor
and a handpump in one corner
and in its glare
i one among many
sitting crosslegged there
chanting two and two is four
and why do i keep
one rainy evening safe
when nothing happened
just the cobbles
glistening like fish
in the lamplight
from a sunny sky
a kite swoops down
to snatch a morsel from my fingers
i cower behind
the musty flowers of a quilt
on the wall hung up to dry
till an aunt whisks me off
cuddled against warm flesh
away away to the valley
where my childhood really sang
my afternoons were rung
in lichi trees
with their halo of fruit
and in those green monasteries
to scare the incorrigible birds
and call me in
and soon too soon
a brown room claims me
where a plump man gathers
his stomach halved
by a dark green sash
and he says to father
he can come tomorrow
and something else he whispers
apparently in fun
which i don’t understand
(but father smiles)
then he bends down to tie a shoelace
two fingers on a hand are missing
he has a moonlike face
my boyhood had begun
2 February 1980
Star For Tonight
Star for tonight,
you are elected.
Ten spans from the moon
or so, or so,
what’s your name?
I have observed you;
that is enough.
6 August 1981
Time To Move
Nothing to do, nothing to say.
Time to move away.
Words are salt at the top.
This soil is all used up.
I would, I would, but how
is one to know
what it will be like out there?
No matter. Brush your hair
and go. It may change your luck.
And don’t look back.
29 October 1981
Disturbed, in the sunlit square,
a hive of pigeons explodes
into legendary air
as a grey mushroomed instinct,
then dissolves: particulars
fall out, and each bird is distinct.
The squat buildings are an ark
with windows opened upon
an ebbing. If it was dark
in the mist ago, and big
with secrets, now it is clear:
the trees have portable twigs.
13 January 1980
Tree, most certain,
right at the boulevard’s end
just before the fountain,
I cannot pass that way
without paying homage
to your shape.
It is midwinter.
On either side, the traffic
flows past, but you stand
compact in the morning wind
under skies now blue now grey
with a green integrity.
25 December 1979
This Great Figure, Now Stone
This great figure, now stone,
cosslegged under a bo-tree somewhere
with downcast unseeing eyes
is one of the rare
images of serenity
niched in a scabrous age.
His index finger touches the Earth
gently, to bear witness to his truth,
which she does, over and over,
with each brash leaf that thrusts
from the point where a veteran was loosed
with a heart-rending snap
heard only by the immediate wind.
26 January 1980
This Blade Of Grass
This blade of grass, what is it?
It is myself, six feet under,
breaking the silence.
I am rough to the touch,
my edges are keen.
Those in a hurry
will pull me out
at their peril.
In a strong wind I am like a dervish
bringing ecstasy to your doorstep.
2 January 1981
Owls Make Poems
Owls make poems.
They fly their purpose
through the black leaves,
in their black day,
sit two round glints
on a perch, for prey.
Not a scurry
escapes their owldom.
They care a hoot.
Owls make poems
6 August 1981
When We Kiss
When we kiss, your breath
enters my mouth
and is a whirlwind there;
then it runs south
When we touch, a tremor
starts at the centre,
and along the fault
it heaves with a power
nothing can halt
18 July 1980
I can’t think of anything sillier
than husbands ringing up their wives,
or vice versa, every day,
or sweethearts talking to each other
for hours at a stretch.
What can there be to say?
I think such people are phonies,
and are nearly as bad as the phonies
who never ring up at all,
waiting for the other one to call.
30 June 1980
Now the furnace doors are really open,
and in this weather of weathers
the laburnums are losing their lamps.
October seems far away,
another country almost. One would expect
words to droop like surrealistic clocks,
but they take such hazards in their strides.
They are of their time and place,
but in a scrambled way. Who can tell,
for such is the alchemy of impulse,
on what chill night, before which window,
this sulphurous moment will rebuild itself?
1 June 1980
The rivers are in high flood. To think last week
we were praying for rain while girding up our minds
to cope with another bad summer. Now the blinds
are raised to a drenched view; the roof begins to leak.
For two long days and nights there has been no let-up.
Roads are under water. A lone pedestrian
sloshes patiently through, wet beyond caring, some man
who has lost out to necessity. The hollows burp
with an overplus of having. What, then, is enough?
Our wishes are like poems, never exactly right,
sometimes richer than reckoning, but always short
of the actual. God send us rain, we prayed. Our bluff
has been called. Although an hour to sunset yet,
all over the town, through the drumming rain, the call
confirm his indivisible greatness. But still it falls
unabated, impartially on roof and minaret.
16 July 1980
Once it was known as a god.
At the end, the very end
of vision, it waits like a toad.
Nothing to do but pretend
it is simply not there.
The when is not important, for when
is soon enough, and then
too soon. The question is where?
I try to imagine a country
without pain, or only of pain.
It is too much for me.
Used to a blowtorch sun, a salving rain,
I cannot match my wits
with this otherness. If I say
come friend, it hops a step away,
and there it sits.
20 July 1979
A strange love-affair
between this city and me.
I can’t stand it for more
than a few days at a time,
yet every ten years or so
it extracts its poem.
Taller and taller
its buildings are getting,
and its citizens
smaller and smaller,
and the blotches of greenery
spreading like a rash.
This year I’ve brought
my weather with me:
rain, and plenty of it.
My relatives here
have had to be evacuated
by a naval boat.
When they planned this city
they forgot the sewers,
or, it was never planned.
House was added to house,
and street to street,
till it got out of hand.
Well, here it is,
and here am I
circling each other again.
The question is: who’s
going to get to spit first
in the other’s eye.
(Date and place not mentioned)
Let them all have soft voices,
for nothing so roils the peace
of the house, and scars the mind,
as stridency. The two women
I most respected, and still embrace,
spoke only when spoken to
in a murmur which barely reached.
And yet they were firm of purpose,
generous and simple, but firm,
who knew how to share delight
and be alone with their sorrow.
And when the bad times came
the tenor of their life was unchanged.
They died, as they lived, peacefully.
When I hear one nag or scream
(much too often now) I am
a child once more in the shrill lane
of harridans. From their first-
floor windows, with lewd gestures,
they hurled abuse at each other
all day, for days on end.
They had wicker baskets which they turned
face down when breaking for lunch
or sleep to indicate hostilities
had been suspended. Right side up
meant resumption of war. Men
passed beneath that verbal eclipse
hurriedly, with eyes averted.
26 May 1980
Ready To Leave
My aunt is of a threatened species;
of my many relatives, a rare one,
I am happy always to have in the house,
blithesome as a bird, as unaffected,
and with enough brains to find her way.
It is just like her to turn up one day
unannounced, with her bag of assortments:
a change of clothes, slippers, toothbrush,
and the busfare back. In she will rush
with salutation and smiles, a candelabrum
of joy that makes everything glow
within its ambit. She talks, talks, talks,
moving from subject to subject, and one
generation to the next in the same breath,
describing with equal relish a wedding
attended last week, or a recent death.
Listening is not compulsory, but I keep
an ear open, for in between the gossip
she will let slip an observation worth
a dozen books. God prevent the day
she shall need glasses; her twinkling eyes
are half her wisdom.
Sometimes I feel
life is a game to her; at other times
I’m not so sure. I cherish her suddenness.
In the middle of a conversation
up she will dart saying ‘oh my chickens,
my poor little chicks’ and snatching her bag
she is gone, smiling and eager as ever.
There is no sadness at her going,
only a vague emptiness, a sense
of something lost that was never found.
Her children are grown up now and scattered
to remote towns, a husband cheerfully buried,
after a decent period of mourning.
She lives alone. Even in her own house,
among the oddments of sixty odd years
and the solidity of heirloom furniture,
she seems a visitor. Her bag all packed,
waits on a trunk, and a bunch of keys.
At a moment’s notice she is ready to leave
for any place in the world, or beyond.
18 May 1980
The car whispers down
Its lights gouge out
a shifting hollow of
except at the turns
where they wander off
into unsure space.
What lights are those
Starlight and a thin mist
deepen the mystery.
One is tempted to call them elfin,
for what kind of men
would struggle up those backbreaking slopes
all their maizebread goatmilk days
to achieve such
1 2 June 1981
Since 6 a.m. the loudspeaker has been blaring
wisdom, and exhorting the faithful to prayer;
and I am duly exhorted, a life-long habit
like waking up early or brushing one’s teeth.
As I get ready I think of all the bygone
Eids. Father, irascible, up since dawn
making us bathe and dress on the double,
then counting heads at the breakfast table.
Missing out never even entered one’s head.
Another Eid. And father three years dead.
Now I am the head of the house with grown-
up sons. I shall go to the mosque alone
for faith has lost its sting and obedience buried
deep with the one who could command it.
Lacking father’s purpose, I’ve let things slip
as these his heirs, mumble, and go back to sleep.
9 October 1981
A Seldom Bird
Because it comes so rarely to our garden,
and I do not know its name,
I call it a seldom bird.
Small, and of a plebeian brown,
it has a long tail
with horizontal white stripes.
Which it wags sideways, furiously,
instead of up and down.
It seems a placid sort, except for the tail.
You make me uncomfortable, seldom bird,
reminding me of my affliction.
I am content with a morsel or two,
but this thing inside me I cannot name
or control, pummels and wags me
sideways, when the rest of my body is still.
18 July 1980
Born into it, one learns
to understand this rain.
It falls and falls, not
in squalls and squirts,
but a solid sheet of
stainless steel that hits
the ground, edge-wise;
or aided by the wind
with hard fingers it combs
the grass. When it slackens,
as now, each strand is
an augre that drills the
earth to its dark centre.
To the others, a topic,
of how or what it renews
through the weeks, a wonder
at the sureness of its coming,
or an inconvenience
upsetting flight schedules.
But to us it is a
personage, as venerable
as great grandfather, still
full of pep, who skips
up the steps, and halts
half-way along the verandah,
dripping, and redolent of
mango-pulp, paddy, and mud.
8 June 1980
The puppy has snapped the string
with which my son tied it to the leg of a chair,
and is now gambolling on the lawn.
It says to my son ‘come on, come on,
it is a wonderful evening,
just feel the air.’
He is soon rolling on the grass with the puppy;
and both are shrill and happy.
Whose little pet is it? Yesterday
it bellied its way through a hole in a hedge,
and stood looking at us, wagging its tail,
then advanced slowly, its wishes on edge.
Will my son weep and rail
if someone comes to fetch it away?
The broken string trails from the chair.
Its free half loops a presence there.
2 July 1980
Thought Have Shadows
An out-of-doors coolness.
A pigeon. A stone. Myself.
Shadow of pigeon on stone
(as, low, momently it crosses
on a purpose its own,)
is congealed and preserved
for a thought’s duration:
which now gouges from its humus
this same flat stone
and skims it across a pond,
kissing the surface, airborne, kissing,
complete with its wingspread shadow,
till it enters the terminal reeds,
and the last weak ripple
has twitched itself to extinction,
and the pond returns
to the purity of blankness,
and the stone is still
embedded, the shadow that brushed it
dragged to its intimate roost.
28 April 1987
The Opaqueness Of Words
I wonder what the speed
of communicable thought should be
to sublimate this now.
And this one. And this one.
Our frustration has been
that words have a posthumous tone.
The person that we think we are
is always the one
who has disappeared round the corner.
Why must it be a must?
It is the consonants that halt us.
Otherwise we might just…
30 July 1980
After The Dust-Storm
Not a morning to philosophise in.
Last evening’s dust-storm has dented
June’s probing needle, and the cool air
is simply, wonderfully here,
asking only to be walked in, and felt.
If the rooms are an inch under dust
awaiting your attention, and the flower-pot
that fell in the first onslaught
has to be replaced so that the cactus
can be saved, these are minor
considerations. Keep walking on
with this rare wind for companion.
13 June 1980
In The Suburbs
In these neighbourhoods, where classy homes
have concentrically grown
round an old village or a slum
which resists being pulled down
through court injunctions, I find
a propriety, an order,
where each, according to his kind
can be happy. No road, or
development can transubstantiate
the character of our suburbs,
which is hybrid and mostly upstart.
Rickshaws and limousines line the kerbs.
After a house-warming in an unfamiliar
section, it is likely you will take
a wrong turning somewhere
and end up in a cul-de-sac
with mud walls on either side, some
naked children, open drains, no
longer sure of where you have to go,
but quite sure from where you have come.
1 May 1980
Elegy For A Town
The first ten-storey building of this town
is going up on a vacant lot
which was cleared last month. All’s flat,
for even vacancy can be brought down,
as this has been. I try to remember
what it looked like then, but shovels
have scooped it out, whatever
it was. It does not take much to dismember
an inheritance. These broad, cool roads
have lost a quarter of their trees
already. They cut where they please
with impunity, must think us odd
who hold a tree as sacred a monument
as an old tower or a shrine;
and a crime, that for a power-line
boulevard evergreens be slain or shent;
or an old building twitched by a neon sign;
or statues of colonial lords,
who whether we like it or not,
were a part of our history, razed. All gone,
like the pipal at a curve of the street
beneath which nested twelve
ancient vendors, landmarks themselves,
and pedestrians rested from the June heat;
or become double like the Cantonment bridge,
to allow the Airport traffic
easy access, its arch and brick
and girth, now cement and steel and edge.
Difficult for us, who hoped things would endure
beyond our lives, to see what was
so diminished or spent. Progress
is necessary, we know, but are not sure
if this is progress. It is not a question
of one high-riser merely, or
a few trees. On all sides the war
to change things for the sake of change is on
waged by those obsessed by present need.
We thought future takes its shape
as naturally as growing up,
and true progress determines its own speed,
but not for our sons. Their proclivities show
in their architecture as in
their music. We suffer in silence,
and go along, having nowhere else to go.
For a couple of centuries we have been
behind the times, and now attempt
to draw level, with what? The lemmings
of the West. This town, famous for its green
stretches, its countless trees without which
it would be unbearably grim,
its poets and monuments, dim
alleys still echoing with the clangour and swish
of chain-mail and silks, is slowly dying.
It is at the mercy of our whims.
We cannot catch up with the times,
but I am afraid we will keep on trying.
15 June 1980
It must have been someone’s pride.
I can see him standing back
to admire it, as the final smack
of the final brush was applied.
And his transported woman inside
with the furniture, clucking to
herself, this will not do,
and happy to be so unsatisfied.
The landscape is almost at ease.
What he planted and what was there
are both naturally right,
having grown into each other
inevitably. Now these
stubs of walls hold up the night.
16 July 1979
An Ageing Poet
Believe it, an old man also burns,
though he has the sense to hide it.
For which he earns contempt.
He too is capable of love.
Perhaps that is all he is capable of,
for the gross appendages are gone.
His mind seethes with longings.
But the words to describe them?
They do not come easily any more.
Ears to ground, eyes turned both ways,
the palps of his fingers have hardened;
what he smells is mostly putrefaction.
The brilliant temptations are above him.
He is down to bed-rock
where his own voice urges him on,
for other sounds cannot reach here,
they are out of his depth.
Does he mind? It is all he had.
There’s a rent in the clouds, red-rimmed,
through which light escapes in a drizzle.
It is not weeping for him,
but all middle-aged men who are trying
to save this evening with words
that are skinny and wrinkled and bald.
7 April 1983
They are havocking
the darkness and the stillness
between the wet grass
and the lowest boughs.
Last night, there were two or three.
But look at them now!
Where did they come from?
What are they trying to say!
There’s nothing to a pinch of light,
but a dozen or so
can make a reasonable glow.
And when they are so many?
Who knows, who knows.
9 August 1983
Birds, too, have sensed that the whole year
may not gift another day like this.
They’ve turned out in force. In the heady air
they spurt from poplar to eucalyptus,
and back again, singing all the while.
I am their auditor transfixed by choice.
In the background to make the evening full
the frogs and insects are in good voice.
I cock an ear to the two kinds of hymn,
the manifest calls and the covertly shrill,
both celebrating the cool interim
to the limit of their aptitude and will.
One sings out in the open, the other in hiding.
Which one is the wiser I am not sure.
According to his nature each does his thing
careless of what is likely to endure.
2 September 1983
Birds On A Polo-Field
You have to see it with your own eyes:
How at a particular time each day
hundreds of these tiny birds arrive
on the polo-field
near the spectators’ stand.
Then to follow their sinuous weaving
each time the horses come that way.
Oh the pressed keys of their undulations
as whitely they rise and darkly fall,
and the bobbing in the trampled grass.
One almost forgets
the strategies of the chukker
for the enraptured eye shuttles between
them and the well-struck soaring ball.
Returning home in the ice-dipped air,
we wonder which was the lovelier sight:
The synchronised unsettlings of the late-
come birds, or the
six-goal hero, who swung
an infallible stick as he galloped
to the goal like a juggernaut.
(No date mentioned)
To See Fruit Ripen
To see fruit ripen
by the weather’s connivance,
eyes bud and flower again,
be scorched in June
and shrunk by the North-East wind,
is to become complete.
Can we come to terms
with our deciduous love
until we have seen
the mulberry in its bare
essentials- trunk, branch,
and twig- the X-rayed tree?
A lone ignited leaf
downsailing from the moment
it takes to air
till it touches ground
has a significance
no jet can imitate.
And a flight of geese
rising form our marshes at dawn
drives a wedge
into history more deeply
than a prophet fleeing to a cave
or an ultimatum.
(No date mentioned)
As I sit by your deathbed, father,
and watch you gulp and gulp
the once generous air, I imagine
a vigorous white-bearded old man
(as you were, say, twenty years ago)
sitting on the other side of you
gently peeling the soul from your scalp.
I look at my wristwatch again.
Just then my nephew hurries up
to relieve me. You will not last the night,
I know. But it is better
someone further removed should be here
when, when with a final soft tug,
the imperturbable hand comes clear
10 October 1980
It was the rumbling of thunder
drew me to the door. I looked out,
but the rain had stopped.
The last drops glistened on
the roofs of the impounded cars.
Someone said, it will be cool
for three hours at least. Under
my breath I called him a fool.
Hours, days, what does it matter?
It lasted long enough to settle
the dust; I could even feel
the sap rising in the gripped bars.
21 September 1979
The driver feeds us music.
Since the speakers are at the back
it hits the occiput
with a resounding thwack.
The singer is dead now.
I never liked his voice anyway.
Home is still a hundred
beam-dip, beam-dip miles away.
The passengers are quiet.
Some roll in their seats, asleep,
a few half-listen
to the hits of long ago.
One looks out the window
at a sickle-moon
slicing through the plucked trees.
Once, I asked a driver
to turn off the cassette.
I remember his reply yet:
it helps to keep me awake.
Since then I’ve never interfered.
How can they go on
year after year after year
espoused to a route
whose every bump
and tilt is familiar?
Nothing to look back upon
but the near-accidents,
tyre-bursts, and speeding fines,
and nothing to look forward to
except the long slog home
through a sub-zero wind
to a hastily warmed up meal,
and cursory togetherness.
11 January 1981
Snapshot Of My Father
He sits on an office chair in the porch
outside his room (the door to which is open)
on what is obviously a summer evening
in the last year of his life.
One can tell the season because he wears
a thin cotton dress, and chappals.
In the gloom his whiteness is startling.
He is utterly relaxed.
In the upper left hand corner, a tiny
bit of topaz sky is visible, as if
the photographer worked it in on purpose
to indicate how much time was left.
Giving him the lie, a hint of a smile
on father’s lips. It seems to say,
time, my son, is not measured in days.
Between the falling of this shutter and that
a million heart-beats remain.
30 July 1980
From up here, a capsulated view
of the future. In twenty years,
or maybe less, these clean slopes
ensconcing a narrow valley,
will be pimpled with dwellings.
The town will straddle the stream
like an oaf to relieve itself.
They will tell its age by the roads.
A helicopter! Fragmenting
the air below the kites it drags
a scorpion shadow across
the nooning trees and grass.
7 July 1980
How quickly it went
when the sun came up.
Will June never be done?
I am talking of dew,
or am l?
In the scorching lu
like thrashed schoolboys, the trees
are bent over in pain
heads between their knees.
Standing in the shade
will get me nowhere;
or so I think.
4 June 1983
A bolting horse and a bolt of silk
have something in common:
just feel that surface.
Better, the horse could be still,
but it would not serve my purpose.
It was the bolting horse started the poem.
Thunderbolts, too, now may enter
though the sky is clear,
and all kinds of nuts and bolts,
for one word
(it could so easily have been nuts)
sets off a chain reaction.
7 June 1983