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Hamraaz Posts

Garden

-for Mohammed Zubair

On the day Mohammed Zubair
was released from Tihar Jail,
sheets of rain bounced so high 
that for a few moments 
the ground all around
shone and bloomed–
a watery garden,
suddenly sprung
from a muddy, 
North Delhi lane.

That evening,
after the snarled streets
and soaked shoes,
I went out to buy a mango 
to celebrate the news. 
The man at the fruit
cart was smiling:
See how clean the wind tastes tonight–
perhaps, the weather is changing.
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Distraction

We’re huddled at the junction 
     of five long, dusty paths:

 a swollen, hammering sun;
     withered wheat and grass.

As weary families near,
     a bald man points and screams:

Look at how they pray–
     it’s their fault, can’t you see?

Next morning, when I ask, 
     you say: It’s obvious– 

That was just Amit Shah
     trying to distract us.

That night, as our fan rattles
     we sweat into the sheets;

there’s thunder in the distance–
     we pray for rain and sleep.
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Painful

-for Professor Ratan Lal

The feelings of powerful people
are so easily hurt, lately–

the police investigate satire
as if wit were a felony.

Reason, humour, history
are now enemies of the state;

solidarity’s called ‘terror’; 
they see love and say ‘hate’.  

But what do they find most painful?
A Dalit who speaks his mind, friends!

(If Ambedkar were alive today,
Tihar Jail is where you’d find him.)
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Two Hundred Poems Later, the No-Name Poet Tries to Explain

After the abrogation,
but before Shaheen Bagh–
the Ayodhya verdict was in the news,
we all sensed a deepening dark.
I think we were in Kolkata–
or maybe I have that wrong;
we were celebrating your love–
I wanted to write you a song.
It might have included lovers
holding hands under tube lights– 
maybe dust, or my father’s hair–
I tried, but it didn’t feel right.
My friend, I did not tell you,
but that was the day I decided
to learn how to sing of the dark times,
to banish the censors inside.
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Father Stan Swamy Came to Delhi Last Week

I was sitting near the back 
at the launch of G.N. Saibaba’s 
book of poems and letters from prison
when he slipped into the seat on my left– 
I might not have noticed, 
but his white hair was glowing 
like a Christmas star,
or a tube light hung on the wall
behind the priest at at Midnight Mass.
His tremors were mostly gone;
I only saw him shake once–
when A.S. Vasantha Kumari 
described the solitary confinement 
cells in the Nagpur Central Jail.
He disappeared before the Q and A,
but later as I stood outside with friends
giving thanks for the cool May rain
we heard him whisper as he passed:

Breathe deep, comrades, breathe deep–
tonight you can smell the forest.
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Ghazal Against Bulldozers

Who authorises homes and rites in this city?
Each one who lives here has a right to this city!

Equality under the law is just fiction–
bulldozers show their masters’ might in this city.

Landlords and agents act like sponges and thugs–
private property? A blight on this city.

The cops say, ‘with you, for you, always’– but we know:
they’ll come for us, morning or night, in this city.

Who reads alone in Tihar Jail? Umar Khalid!
Behind the smoke, the moon is bright in this city. 

You ask me what it cost to give up my name– 
Nothing, and now I’m free to write in this city. 
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No Escape

Last night, I tried to turn 
off words and worries,
to let the city rush over me,

like a postmodern raag,
written for engine, horn, 
shout and bark– 

after the elections in UP,
I stopped reading the news,
but the pigeons outside 

my window keep cooing:
Madhya Pradesh, 
Jahangirpuri– 

and the raucous crows  
won’t stop their calls:
Bulldozers, bulldozers– 

they’ll be here soon!
Bulldozers, bulldozers,
what will you do?
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A War Poem

Once while going by sleeper
from Delhi to Bengaluru

I dreamt I was trapped 
in a broken mine shaft,

and waking, I cried 
out in terror.

Now I dream of distant fires
and wonder how far they will spread– 

there’s no way to know,
but this much is plain:

there’s no glory in war, 
just sorrow and pain,

there’s no glory in war,
my dear friends.
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How Is It We Keep Forgetting?

While reading Ilya Kaminsky, 
   I Think of Umar Khalid

Just outside Qutub Minar
there’s a line of buses and cars

filled with all kinds of folks,
looking for all kinds of things– 

some have come to lose themselves;
some, just want to get home;

walking back to the metro,
we pass flocks of uneasy dogs.

Later, I’m reading Ilya Kaminsky,
under a spinning fan–

we may not live in a mythical town,
but they’ve jailed the best among us.
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Considering the Issues on Counting Day

From a West Delhi roof,
the moon is high and bright,

the heat will be here soon,
but the wind is cool tonight.

Last night I dreamed of my father,
and how my mother said,

he cried when he lost his job,
he sobbed when he lost his job.

I’m thinking of your brother,
and how he lost his job;

he has no  place of his own,
he has no place of his own.

Our leaders peddle hate and lies,
and still we vote for them– 

we trade our hope for hate and lies,
again and again and again.
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I Fall Asleep Reading Uday Prakash as Russia Invades Ukraine

I’m dressed in my best 
at the wedding hall
or is it a gym in Saket?

I’m not ready to marry
but don’t want to fight,
so I slip out for a smoke.

I meet a sweeper,
we chat for a moment,
he shows me a hollow wall–

there’s cash behind it,
he says, please take some–
it’s black, but free, for now.

Later, I’m sipping 
tea at a dhabba 
somewhere in Dhaula Kuan;

a plateless car 
pulls up and then
a tinted window rolls down:

Putin and Shah
laugh as they ask 
for samosas and directions;

Ayodhya’s their goal,
there’s not much time,
the fifth phase is nearly here.

   (Just before dawn, the northern sky 
   fills with neon lightning–

   thunder follows fast behind:
   the sound of young men dying.)
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The Emperor Consults His Advisors

The emperor is worried:
first the plague, 
and now the council
of ministers turning 
against his favourite viceroy–
and what of the guilds–  
how can one trust those 
who build, weave or reap?
It’s time to take strong action: 
re-invade that northern region,
imprison a merchant 
from Bactria or Persia,
announce a horse sacrifice–
or better still, a pogrom; 
well placed fear 
yields division and hate– 

(We’ve done it before, sir,
 we know how it works:
just say the word,
and we’ll make it so.)
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‘If they are so mighty, let them snuff out the moon’

-writing from Tihar Jail, 
Umar Khalid quotes Faiz Ahmad Faiz 

In the photos the young lovers post,
they are smiling as they sip 
from the same bottle of cola,
they are sharing a plate of chaat,
they are sitting on a seesaw, 
under the bright, 
winter moon. 
Some nights he says, 
I’m cold, please warm 
my hands. Some nights 
she says, Let us pray 
now for Umar Khalid;
I hear he is lonely inside.
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A Memory, a Prayer and a Dream

-Christmas Day, 2021

i.
One morning, during the plague
that followed the fires
that scarred the capital,

you were feeding our pet rat,
when word came 
from the town cryer:

The farmers have circled the city.

ii.
A year and many deaths later,  
the king and his first minister
finally concede.

It will take another long year 
to pry open the jails, 
but when spring arrives that March,

Shaheen Bagh is back in bloom.

iii.
‘The change’ comes fast when it comes:
the police and army trade their lathis 
and guns for the tools they need 

to build homes and hospitals.
On every corner, libraries sprout,
like winter wheat planted 

over obsolete borders.
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Delhi Progressive Writers’ Association Conference

-Lodhi Garden, December, 2021

I was reading that story by Manto 
about two old friends, now soldiers,
fighting each other in Kashmir,
and I was thinking about how 
the distance between us
has grown, but also how 
we sat on that bench today
in the smoky, fading sun–
we were talking about fascim
and our fathers, 
but really about ourselves–
and how you said, 
It’s tough because we all know
there’s only one way 
any of our stories ever end.
I forgot to ask you about the last time
we saw Mangalesh Dabral,
or what you think 
about Varavara Rao. 
You told me you believe 
in what you’ve written,
and anyway, most of the time
they don’t actually put poets in jail.
But sometimes they do,
and my friend if they do,
we will stand by you,
I promise we will.
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Appeal

-for Sabbah Haji 

When I heard the Kashmiri 
educator had been jailed for calling 
a general a ‘war criminal’,
a serious question came to my mind:

How often does anyone
in any large country 
rise to the level of general
without running afoul 
at least once of some
part of Article 8 of the UN’s 
‘Rome Statute of the International 
Criminal Court’?

And forgetting generals, how 0ften 
does anyone become even a DCP 
in any police force anywhere
without condoning or ignoring
‘torture or inhuman treatment’ 
(to say nothing of encounters,
which might be classified 
as acts of  ‘willful killing’)?

Just as some countries 
are kingdoms dressed up as republics,
this is an appeal,
disguised as a poem.
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What They’re Selling

These days on the metro,
I keep seeing this pair:

the old guy with his thick 
white beard,

and his orange-robed friend—
the one who’s always smiling.

They’re building homes 
and universities;

handing out  jobs 
and free vaccines.

I feel dizzy sometimes,
thinking about the possibilities:

a superhighway to Lanka;
my very own flying chariot.
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Elegy for Lakhimpur Kheri

The marching farmers fall,
like wheat beneath a fast combine;

young and old, they fall,
stuck from behind, struck from behind!

Watch the video:
it is so clear, my friends, so clear;

they’re marching peacefully:
they do not fear, they do not fear.

I see my father there;
his tall, bent back, his slow, slow gait.

The fallen ones will rise—
like seeds, that is their fate, our fate!
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Sometimes, just after the rain,

you remember how often you 
misunderstand important things—
like that time the drunken 

drain cleaner looked 
straight at you and said, 
Of course, I read poetry,

or the night you saw the shopkeeper
you’d argued with days before,
wearing no mask and laughing,

and how at that moment, 
he looked just like your closest friend—
or yesterday, when you heard 

the young fruit seller on your corner
tell the woman next to you,
yes, he was looking for books—

ninth standard, and schools 
have been closed for so long—
and you suddenly remembered 

the relationship between 
the price of labour and rice and pears—
and the cost of capitalism.

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Song for You

-Hauz Rani, 6:24 p.m.

Let’s walk out into the light, my love!
Why not? There’s time before night, my love.

This sky is hard to define, it’s true; 
both bats and birds are in flight, my love.

Recall how we shivered for hours that night—
Shaheen Bagh was crowded and bright, my love.

This morning, rain washed our smokey sky;
Hany Babu’s still jailed tonight, my love. 

A coward, yes; I’ve surrendered my name—
to this broken world, I write my love.
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While We All Slept (a Ghazal for Drones)

These days, we’re told we must be thrilled with drones—
our lives? Recorded and fulfilled with drones!

to-touch-an-emu is proclaimed a meme:
not for dancing; he’s just skilled with drones.

Jeff Bezos loves to lower labour costs;
in his dreams, our skies are filled with drones.

In wartime, hunger sprouts in fertile soil—
how many fields have you seen tilled with drones?

Obama promised fewer casualties,
but did he count the blood he spilled with drones?

As US soldiers fled Kabul last week,
reports emerged: more children killed with drones.

You wake shaking, mouth my name, then sob,
While we all slept, see what they built with drones!
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As Kabul Falls, I Worry About the Water Table

In the midst of this summer 
of fires and floods,
UN scientists announce
the world will continue 
to warm for 30 years
no matter what we do,
and absent immediate, 
drastic action, 
this trend will intensify
around the time our neighbors’ 
young children have children
of their own.

Three days after 
the report is released 
(and 19 years and 10 months 
after the US invades Afghanistan),
Kandahar falls, and soon 
after that, Kabul,
and then we all remember:
some changes nest for decades 
before they hatch and fly;
like the water deep beneath us—
when will our taps run dry?
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Failed Ghazal

-August 15, 2021

I spent hours last night 
trying to write a ghazal 

that included this line:
unbroken, Umar Khalid’s still in jail,

and also this one:
they aim to break your soul and will in jail. 

‘School teachers’ and ‘freedom fighters’
figured in it,

but I gave up in the end
because it really all came down to this:

They aim to break your soul and will in jail;
unbroken, Umar Khalid’s still in jail.
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For My Mother, That Baby and Father Stan Swamy

The day my mother calls
to confess she’d woken in tears
(she still misses her mother, 
after so many years),
I am blessed to meet
a six-week-old baby girl;
drunk on her mother’s milk,
she smiles as she sleeps
sprawled on a charpai,
like a pehlwan
after a hard-won match.
Later that night,
I read that Stan Swamy
can no longer walk or bathe
or even feed himself,
and how he’s told the court
he does not prefer a hospital
to Taloja Jail; he prefers
to suffer and die in prison—
or to go home:
Whatever happens to me, 
I’d like to be with my own.’
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News in Review

-Delhi, May 15

१.
Our PM works hard
on his palace and speeches;
‘Let’s be positive.’

Vaccine centre’s closed;
an old woman asks, ‘How long?’
‘Try again at dawn.’


२. 
Amit Shah’s police
have withdrawn from Delhi streets;
still the sirens wail. 

They locked up our friends,
but did not send oxygen:
we will not forget.

३.
Far from the city,
neighbors die of breathlessness;
something is not right.

Bodies float downstream:
this is not a metaphor,
just friends we couldn’t save.

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Delhi Emergency 10 p.m.

Outside the emergency 
department doors, 
a woman sobs 
as she clings 
to a trembling, 
straight-backed man.
As we pass them, 
everything shakes:
the smoky clouds, 
the hospital walls—
bushes, flowers, trees—
the footpath
under our feet.
These two are holding up 
a piece of the sky tonight;
              it has broken, 
                                 I know 
    you can feel it.

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In Front of the Chemist,

one man cuts the distanced queue
to buy a tube of toothpaste;
we shake our heads,

but in this heat, 
who has the strength 
to shout?

Some time later,
another man approaches,
and says in a shaking voice:

Please, I need two face 
shields, pleaseI must go to the hospital now.

We shuffle our feet and bow 
our heads; for once,
we’re all glad to give way.
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I Have Seen Astonishing Sights

-after Kabir

Friends, I have seen
astonishing sights:
a great seer slain
by invisible invaders;
proud men 
cueing for buses, 
or liquor,
to flee a failing capital;
kings and princes 
kissing their master’s
hidden hand
while their subjects
struggle to breathe—
I have seen 
the fevered rich 
party, then pack 
their bags
while pyres burn
day and night.
Last week
I saw one woman 
turn her scooty
into an ambulance,
and just now I saw 
another woman 
sitting on the footpath 
in front of a hospital—
she is less than a mile
from where I stay;
she is sobbing, 
my friends,
she is sobbing.
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What’s Good for the Serum Institute…

(or how to ration vaccines according to preexisting wealth)

We’re running low on vaccines,
and Adar Poonawalla’s been clear:

he says he wants ‘super profits’;
why shouldn’t he have a good year?

Modi Ji thought through his options;
and decided to just the states

compete in the market with hospitals:
you’ll get one, if you can pay.
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Failure in Gujarat

When I saw the video of pyres 
burning in an open field
because, contrary to what one 
would expect based on official figures,
the crematoriums were overflowing,
I remembered that spring day, 
two years ago,
when I saw you last,
and how your mother’s 
shoulders slumped
as the steel doors slammed,
and how late that night,
after the tears and prayers
and stories boiled down,
we sat in silence
under a spinning fan, 
and then how she looked 
at me and said,

I know you know I loved herbut still, I feel I have failed.
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Whispers

Far from home, lost and alone,
stillness greets you
as you enter the station.
On the platform below,
Mr. Bachchan is growling 
about masks and washing
and keeping distance.
There’s a rumble and rush,
and as your train nears,
a one legged pigeon
swoops down and whispers:

What news of the farmersthe TV’s gone silenthave we forgotten
we can’t live without them?
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Reel for Delhi in Springtime

When I tell you what it means 
to me to live in Delhi,

I won’t use trending music
or a dozen flashing photos

approved by the Ministry
of Tourism—

just a few words 
to conjure images--

that pair of young women 
brushing shoulders 

as they sip tea on the edge 
of the dusty maidan— 

or the thin, strong man
in the next lane over

who right now
is stripping off his shirt 

as he assesses a growing 
pool of stinking water—

and on a good day,
this might be enough

to get you to consider 
one or two simple ideas:

we can remake this world;
we can, and we must, my friends.
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Abolish the Delhi Police

-for Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita

Maybe it’s just habit,
but even all these months after
they locked down the city
and took away friends of your friends,
sometimes you still float away 
at that moment when light’s fading 
and the first bats are flying;
and when you wake with a start
it is already dark—
you’re not sure where you are,
but you hear the door bang—
and then you’re relieved 
to find it’s a friend 
who wants to play cards—
or the newspaper man,
bringing the bill—
not someone who’s come
to take you away:

we don’t need police,
they spread only fear.
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Questions I Don’t Need To Ask

Do you struggle against 
the deepening dark
because you read 
Marx or Ambedkar?
Or was it the bus driver
who whispered in your ear,
or the teacher who failed you,
or the neighbors who 
forced you to say, 
‘Everything is fine’?

Or was the way 
the world treated your parents—
or was it the way 
they still loved you?
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Excess Demands (or Why Such a Shortage of Justice)

Do not call us terrorists
for protesting bad laws,
or jail us for laughing 
at gods or Amit Shah.

Let us love those we love;
don’t tell us how to pray;
and when we do equal work,
give us equal pay.

In jail, grant us straws,
if we tremble when we drink—
warm blankets when it’s cold,
and books so we can think.

Do not molest us or beat us
(in jail or in undisclosed locations
before you take us to jail.)

Do not torture us in any way:
no broken bones or bruises,
no solitary confinement;
we need space and time to sleep,
water and soap to wash.

Tell our families where we are.

Do not take us in the night
to a field or flyover,
and then shoot us before our trial.

Do not shoot us in broad daylight
and then call us terrorists.
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Coronation

We stood in the shadows and ate,
it looked like a coronation;
how we got in, I’m not sure,
perhaps we snuck in the back. 
It could have been Jaipur or London, 
or maybe the Central Vista—
the music was loud and fast,
and most of the crowd was dancing.
You said you heard screams from below,
but nobody seemed to notice—
you looked like you might pass out;
I felt the room start to spin.
A painting that hung by the throne
showed fires and families fleeing;
another showed farmland circled
with walls of concrete and wire.
A man in a suit whispered, smiling:
We’ve finally figured it outbusiness is booming, my friend,
the good times are here at last.

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Still Trying

I’ve tried for years to write a perfect poem,
an open window that lets in cool air—

or a siren calling from the main road,
reminding us to listen, reach and care.

That might have worked before this darkness fell,
but now, I fear, it may not be enough;

we must throw back the curtains so the bright sky 
can cleanse this sickness, feed our strength and love.
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Three Postcards to Umar Khalid

(i)
You don’t know me,
but in the summer of 2019,
you met my friend—
she couldn’t stop talking about you:
a man who knew how to listen,
a leader who spent more time working
out of the spotlight than in it; 
a scholar who’d learned the art
of switching autos mid-journey—
They trail me everywhere,
you told her, smiling,
Why should I bring them to you?
I was envious I hadn’t been there:
for months, I kept hearing your name 
spoken alongside words like hero and hope.
When they put you inside, those words 
were joined by rougher ones, 
but don’t worry; 
we have not forgotten.

(ii)
I thought of you yesterday morning
as I passed by the PM’s residence 
on the way to CP. The wind was cool 
and smelled like a green living thing; 
the Delhi sky was more blue than gray,
and clouds of bright yellow leaves 
rose from a sweeper’s broom.
I thought: it’s springtime today,
but how long will it last?
My phone said Tihar Jail  
was just 12 kms away; 
at that moment I prayed 
that you were near 
an open window.

(iii)
Alone at night, or on Delhi’s borders
we say your name when we pray or shout;
we have not forgotten you or the others,
we’ll welcome you all, when you come out.

I wish we could talk, under a tree,
I’d ask what you’d read, how did you cope?
I’d buy you a cup of special hot tea,
I’d ask what you think of heroes and hope.
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Stopping by Saidulajab to Consider Horses and Torture

-for Shiv Kumar

Hauling carts and vendors home,
weary horses stop to drink
from a bucket on the road
at the edge of Saidulajab.

They have no time to frisk or roam,
just to quench and shake and blink, 
as they pull their heavy loads
up the road by Saidulajab. 

What happens next, I do not know,
except to say their clop and clink
grows softer, softer, as they go
southward from Saidulajab.
 
There’s news of torture on my phone;
some folks are treated worse, I think,
than the beasts that pull and slow
at the edge of Saidulajab.
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A Simple Prayer

-after Kabir

No matter how often you sweep,
dust gathers under your bed,
and the TV is loud and shrill;
it sounds like thunder and rust—

but outside, across the main road,
someone has hung out bright clothes,
and the tree on the left’s raining birdsong;
from its roots rise the scent of spring flowers.

They’re sowing division and fear
to silence our songs and our prayers;
but we’re only here for a moment—
let’s sing of bright cloth and love.
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Still Dreaming

-85 years after Annihilation of Caste

I dreamt that I saw my mother
climbing a shaky steel ladder 
hung from a very tall tall building—
I woke as she fell; I was screaming.

I dreamt this because my mother
is old and frail and falls,
and I know the next time it happens
I may not be there to catch her.

I woke yesterday to read
two girls had been murdered in Unnao,
and one’s life hung by a thread—
I wanted to scream when I read this.

I won’t claim them as daughters or sisters,
just friends, who I’ve never met,
tied in that field and poisoned—
it is time to wake up and scream.

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Note to a Fellow Poet on Subtlety and Silence

-for Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi

You complain I’m too direct,
that similes and slanted images
can unfold truth more powerfully
than the plain truth told plainly,
and that there is wonder afoot 
even in this time of darkness
and disease,

but when police and paramilitary forces
lob tear gas at farmers,
it does not cover them like a winter fog,
it covers them like tear gas,
and when they jail young women 
for loudly demanding their wages
or for quietly explaining
how to speak loudly,
they are not fencing in spring flowers, 
they are jailing young women 
who speak up bluntly.

I am trying, my friend, to find 
subtle ways to sing in the dark.
But remember, if it ever 
comes back to this:
when blood runs in fields or streets
it does not run like warm rain 
or a monsoon-fed drain,
it runs like blood,
and when that happens,
subtlety is really just silence.

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Behind the Mask,

some things diminish:
the scent of morning dew
rising off sparse grass;
news of frying food
or what the cat 
killed three days back.
After sundown, in crowded 
market lanes we still hear 
the clamour of hawkers,
horns, engines, bells,
but we may miss the shift 
in the air as we move 
from smoldering coals 
towards crackling wood—
or the difference between 
distant rain and the leaking main 
under the road behind the park. 
Most nights, my dreams still smell 
like worried sweat and roses—

but last night I was locked 
in Amit Shah’s almari;
it smelled of moth balls mixed 
with anger, fear and whiskey. 

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In Praise of Chakka Jam

-after Bertolt Brecht

It’s straightforward; 
you know our history,
so you will understand.
Tyrants call it sedition
when they think we are weak
and an inconvenience when
they know we are strong;
the exploiters always say 
it is bad for business—
but we know: democracy
dies when good people fear 
to act against unjust laws—
and when their profit matters
more than our speech,
fascism often follows.
They can try to stop us
with nails, walls and worse,
but, friends, they are afraid
because they know
there is no power greater
than millions of brave people,
sitting on cold roads, saying:
This must stop!

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Community Service

-One Future Friday in New Delhi

He was grumbling as he swept the floor 
of the Press Club of India’s bar. From where 
I sat, he looked vaguely and unpleasantly familiar, 
like a villain in an old TV serial, or a character 
from a childhood nightmare. I didn’t pay 
him much mind because the TV in the corner 
had started playing a story about next week’s 
big state visit. I was just a literary freelancer, 
but even I could tell this was important because 
all the political reporters had stopped drinking 
and were taking notes. Apparently, Greta 
Thunberg would be hosted by PM Zargar, 
along with Umar Khalid, Chandra Shekhar 
Azad and Devangana Kalita. They’d be taking 
the cycle path that ran along the newly cleaned 
Yamuna all the way to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary,
where the main ceremonies would happen. The 
political reporters started making calls right away—
most of them began with, ‘Hey, um, do you have 
a cycle I could borrow?’

I noticed the sweeper was now gently 
banging his head against a wall in the corner. 
I got a little worried, so I asked my friend
if we should do something about it.
‘Ah, you didn’t recognize him? That’s 
just Amit Shah—he’ll be fine. 
Of course he hates working here, 
but he knows better than most,
it sure beats Tihar Jail.’
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Postcard from 2019

What if they jailed the students 
    and scholars who disagreed

or outlawed peaceful gatherings 
    all over the city? 

What if they stopped counting 
    the votes in parliament 

or made it criminal to laugh
     at a court judgment?

If all this came to pass,
    who’d dare speak its name?

And would we even notice if 
    other small things changed:

power cuts at the local mosque,
    five times every day, 

the space on our front steps where once
    the morning paper lay?

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Ghazal for a Capital in Darkness

It does not freeze, but nights are cold in the capital;
brave farmers camp on the threshold of the capital.

Farm bills are passed by a voice vote, without counting;
surprising things are bought and sold in the capital.

Ministers pace and kick at walls; they remember:
we don’t always do as we are told in the capital.

The British jailed us when we spoke about freedom;
our rulers now are just as bold, in the capital.

These days, they lock students inside Tihar Jail;
dissent and thought are still controlled in the capital.

Last night, goons failed once more to clear protest sites—
the farmers’ strength is unequaled in the capital.

Why would a no-name poet sing of this darkness?
See the courage here, friends, behold: it’s our capital!

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Like That Cat, or Our Constitution,

-Republic Day, 2021

Sometimes precious things 
disappear in a moment,
like the flash and bang
of a wedding cracker
or that cat you used to feed,
caught under a swerving bus;
but sometimes they slip away slowly,
like an early morning dream
where you know you left something 
of great value in the train car 
you see sinking in the river—
a box of old family photos, 
perhaps, or the lipstick you took 
from your grandmother’s table 
on the day she died—
and you’re glad you’re safe on the shore, 
but by the time you come fully awake
you cannot remember 
where the train had been going,
what had broken the bridge, 
or how many fellow travellers
now lie beneath rushing waters.

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You’ll Join Us, I Know, My Friend

You’ll Join Us, I Know, My Friend
-for Umar Khalid

It was late in a South Delhi warehouse,
it was cold, but I didn’t feel cold;

Umar Khalid was swaying
to jazz, or was it hip hop?

I looked over his shoulder to see
the Ska Vengers laying it down,

I said, Sir, we’re so glad you’re here,
how did I miss the news?

He said, don’t call me Sir, I’m your friend,
yes, this beats Tihar Jail—

he said, soon we’ll be back in the streets;
we’re winning, we have to win.
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My Mother Calls With Her Worries

Smog has wrapped the city
like a fine wool shawl
when my mother calls to say 
she hasn’t slept in days—
because of the news on TV
and our friend who is dying.
I know she is right;
these are terrible times,
and we have both always 
struggled to calm
the warm flutter in the gut,
the sudden searing 
behind the left eye.
I tell her I love her and not to worry:
Delhi’s roads are wide enough
for farmers and tractors 
and all kinds of lovers—
we’ll plough under the wasteland, 
plant wheat and white clover.
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Lost in Translation

A rooster outside my window,
has been crowing all afternoon—

something about the thinning clouds,
or the breeze; it’s hard to tell.

They’ve arrested Munawar Faruqui
for making ‘indecent’ remarks

against a god or a devil—
or was it just Amit Shah?

They’re filling our prisons with lovers,
scholars and comedians;

if they find enough stadiums,
the farmers may well be next.

It must be hard for rulers
who fear words and love only power

to tell the difference between
laughter and hunger and sorrow.

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The Moon the MHA and Agent Orange

-a letter to W.S. Merwin

Today I am reading The Moon Before Morning 
I should have read it years ago when a friend 
gave it to me but I was lazy and anxious 
it is filled with unpunctuated invitations to pause
and shadows and sounds made by rain 
right now outside my window I hear the scratch 
of a stick broom and the shrill whine of a distant siren 
late last night clouds hid the moon and later it rained 
and this morning when I took in the newspaper
I saw I had slept through it but I remembered 
that I’d woken at dawn to warmth and the gentle 
rustle of pigeon wings and that I’d thought 
This moment is complete just as it is
yes sometimes I do remember the scent of pine 
trees and water and the feel of my grandmother’s 
hand in my hair and I wish I could return to her 
and to that place and to that time when I worried less 
yes I am reading your poems with close attention 
and I am glad you have found old trees and a quiet garden 
near a pond that greets the returning geese each year 
but outside my window a sickness has spread 
from the Ministry of Home Affairs to Northeast Delhi 
and to the forests of Jharkhand and to every place 
where people gather around TV’s radios and smartphones 
and no vaccine cooled by dry ice can stop it 
I can see from the final poems in this book that you would
understand what I am saying and also that you would remember 
what you wrote five decades ago about the Vietnam War 

When the forests have been destroyed their darkness remain

[the last line quoted here comes from an old Merwin poem, ‘The Asians Dying’]
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Unshakeable

  -Christmas Eve, 2020

Tonight in Taloja Central Jail,
Father Stan Swamy shakes 
but also rejoices;

he knows that soon enough
carpenters, fishers and blunt 
speaking women

will join others who labour—
in fields and factories,
forests and homes—

and that all those who hunger 
will be satisfied,

and our weeping 
will turn to laughter.
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13 Ways of Looking at a Farmer

The dirt that clings 
to the potatoes you hold
came from a farmer’s field.

I dreamt a soft-spoken farmer 
taught me how to tell
when the corn is ripe.

It was still dark that morning 
we heard your uncle 
shuffle out to milk the cows;
eighty years old, 
and still a farmer.

On the coldest day of December,
a boy grafts a rose onto 
a branch of China Orange.
He wants to be a farmer.

Somewhere, the winter 
wheat is in the ground;
a farmer looks out 
at her field and smiles.

A farmer can tell you
how deep you must drill.

Listen to the creak and splash
of the farmer’s hand pump;
tonight there will be a wedding.

On Human Rights Day,
posters of political prisoners
spring up on Tikri border. 
Farmers are also humans.

It is cold on the Singhu border;
farmers light fires and plan.

Libraries sprout like tulips; 
farmers are readers,
spring has come early.

rupi kaur is writing about farmers—
she just called Modi a tyrant.

Are there three lakh or ten?
Perhaps it does not matter.
Amit Shah fears our farmers.

He worked with his hands in the city,
and stood up for justice each day;
as he passes, we sing for this farmer—
we grow from seeds he has planted.
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This Number Does Not Exist

-for Manglesh Dabral

We were on the run,
and things were changing fast;

one moment, we were huddled 
on a windswept rocky ridge in Garhwal

peering down at an approaching line
of police and pack mules,

and the next, we were avoiding 
the CCTV Cameras

in Haridwar Junction;
you warned me:

Our enemy has many phone numbers,
and I didn’t understand you,

but also I did. We finally boarded 
a train destined 

for the Singhu Border, 
or Shaheen Bagh, or home;

when you disappeared, I took 
out my phone and dialed you;

a stranger’s voice answered,
This number does not exist.

Squatting and shaking
in the space between coaches,

I wrote my father a postcard.
I told him how much I loved him,

that I was trying to find 
my way back. 
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Love Jihad

-On the first anniversary of the CAA

Yesterday evening,
as we walked through Kotla Gaon,
the clamour of a ragged wedding band
mingled with the call to prayer,
and for a moment, I swear,
two bright sparks lit up the smoky sky,
and I thought of how worried I’d been
that day last December
when you texted from a police bus
on the outskirts of the city,
and how I bit down on my tongue
when you said that when they freed you, 
you would go right back again.
But when we met at Jantar Mantar,
I knew you had been right;

love is always a struggle—
we struggle because we love.
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City Edition, 7 Am

I’d just boarded a southbound train,
or was it a DTC Bus? 

Maybe it does not matter;
I got a seat all to myself.

A man sitting four seats away
beckoned me to come over;

he looked like he’d been out drinking—
or working; you can’t always tell. 

I moved closer, but not too close,
and asked him to tell me the news;

he whispered, The farmers are comingthey’ll do what we failed to do.
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Simple Definitions

-for Kunal Kamra

When children use kind words,
    that’s called a conversation;
and when they argue loudly,
    that’s an altercation.

While bullies everywhere 
    employ intimidation,
the clever must rely
    on wit and erudition.

If a friend helps calm things down,
    we call that mediation;
in the end so much depends 
   on good communication.

Still, when children can’t agree,
    we don’t talk of prosecution;
what argument gets solved
    by incarceration?

Some elders have forgotten
    complaints are not sedition,
and tolerance and humour
    are good for the whole nation.

I’ll spell it out in case
    you lack imagination:
democracy depends 
   on  freedom of expression
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Nightfall at Singhu Border

By the time you made it past 
all the checkpoints and texted

it was already dark.  A line 
of tractors, trucks and tents 

stretched down the highway 
for miles,

and a soft spoken man 
kept trying to explain,

We are not terrorists,  
we are here and will stay

so our families and friends
can live decent lives.

The photos you sent on Signal
disappeared before I slept,

but I saw the red flags, 
and circles of men sipping tea;

because it was cold,
there were many fires—

as I dreamt,
the fires grew brighter.
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Perhaps It’s Best

-Nine months after the Delhi Riots

In spite of the November cold,
   a cat went into heat

and wailed into the night, 
    like a sick child

or a faraway ambulance.
   I thought of you then,

and the stray you used to feed;
    I haven’t seen her in months.

Perhaps it’s best you’ve gone;
    you told me once how much

you miss the city’s sound and light,
    and yes, drying clothes still hang 

like strange bursts of bright fruit 
     on the rusty barricades 

that divide the loud road 
    in front of our flat—
  
but even the healthy among us
   are coughing these days,

and if they don’t like how you think,
    they’ll come lock you away.
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Worried Blues Pantoum

-Delhi 2020

Would you still love me, my friends,
if I lost my sense of smell?
Could we still touch from a distance?
What if I had a dry cough?

If I lost my sense of smell,
would I still crave idli-sambar?
What if I get a dry cough?
I don’t go outside; I’m afraid.

Would I still crave idli-sambar?
Would they put a big sign on my door?
I don’t go outside, I’m afraid
I might spread this virus to others.

Would they put a big sign on my door?
Would they jail me like Umar Khalid?
Could I spread this virus to others
like they spread hatred and lies?

If they jailed me like Umar Khalid,
could we still touch from a distance? 
In spite of their hatred and lies,
would you still love me, my friends?
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