Last week I crossed a narrow bridge strung over a wide canyon, and as I crossed, I felt a hole open in my belly. Last night under a swollen moon, I dreamt of Umar Khalid; I heard him laughing in his cell: The farmers have prevailed!
Last week I crossed a narrow bridge strung over a wide canyon, and as I crossed, I felt a hole open in my belly. Last night under a swollen moon, I dreamt of Umar Khalid; I heard him laughing in his cell: The farmers have prevailed!
-Dyal Singh College Road, 9 P.M. Emerging from the metro, I met a swollen moon, I sipped a little smoke, tripped on the NIA. There was Hany Babu singing out a lecture— it was so soft and clear; it sounded like a poem. I sat down on the footpath, I shivered, yes, I cried: how can we celebrate with friends like this inside?
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!
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.
Patriotic schools, large flags— prayers and promises; our CM’s studied Gandhiji; says Ram Rajya is his goal. Let’s study Ravidas, Kabir, Phule and Ambedkar; instead of ‘soft Hidutva’, friends, let's learn to live together.
Modi met with Biden about free trade, China, and more; no mention of riots, drone strikes or bias, the threat of nuclear war— That’s not what this was for! said the lizard outside my door.
Last night, I dreamt my sister spoke up in the council, and when I rose to back her, I felt a gentle tremor. No matter if it’s UP, Kashmir or even Delhi, when your sibling stands, you must stand up with them.
-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.
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!
-September, 2021 Just before the downpour, I thought of Umar Khalid, and how many days he’s spent in Tihar jail. Later, the still sky clung to us like a soggy face mask, and we heard the hard, sharp shouts of thin, soaked men; we’re all just mud and water come alive, comrades— Come alive, we have so little time!
You are rubbing my head as Kabul falls, and again when your friend’s sister calls; bad news, bad news, it comes in twos, hold on to the ones you love.
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?
-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.
-August 15, 2021 Vaccines, free for all. How many friends died waiting? Thanks, PM Modi. Someone’s in our phones. Do you sense them listening? They can’t hack our dreams. What of our farmers? They’re still here, they never left— I dream Shaheen Bagh.
Last night as it rained, I dreamed I was a child; my parents were both sick— I brought them tea and stew. This morning on the road, a man scowled as he weighed a shard of broken glass— he was a mystery. Some things, we must infer; some things, we’ll never know: who is in our phones? How did it come to this?
Last night, far from shore, and ringed by roiling water, I sensed a gentle wind calling me towards the shallows. In the morning, I searched the papers for some sort of hidden meaning; they think they killed you, Stan Swamy, but I can still hear you breathing.
Just a week ago, my mother called to say my father had fallen again; they were taking things day-by-day. Life’s hard enough in the end, the way we all slip and weaken— how could they make Stan Swamy pass his last months in prison?
-Delhi, June 4 I lied when I told you the worst had passed; we’d be back on the streets in June— and we’d win; and I lied when I said I’d dreamed this wave would recede by the next full moon— but it did, and we will.
-5-Star Hotel Edition For only 5k, we’ll give you a room, with wi-fi and vaccination— (and soon we’ll present our low budget plan: PPE and a speedy cremation.)
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.’
-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.
I dreamed of hillsides littered with bundles of burning wood: death is all around us; there is no other way to read this. I woke to news of more bodies gathering in the Ganga: it was a kind of protest; there is no other way to read this.
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.
On Friday, your mother’s cousin, on Sunday, a comrade’s father; today, a friend you just messaged— you wish you’d said more, and sooner. As the rest of us count and worry, afraid to answer our phones, the PM plans his new palace; it is time for him to step down!
-Delhi, May 1, 2021 This morning, you said you’d dreamt of a room full of books and children; I only remember warm air, the sound of your breath and sirens.
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, please— I must go to the hospital now. We shuffle our feet and bow our heads; for once, we’re all glad to give way.
-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.
The moon is nearly full, the pyres are burning bright, the wind is clear and cool; let the air last through this night.
(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.
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 her— but still, I feel I have failed.
Our Prime Minister’s clutching the shoulders of a child, and yes they’re in masks, but what happened to physical distance? I’m almost afraid to ask. She may be a long lost daughter, who lives with him safely in stealth— or maybe the PM’s PR team failed in public health.
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 farmers— the TV’s gone silent— have we forgotten we can’t live without them?
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.
-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.
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?
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.
You cradle the purring cat like your mother cradled you in the old photo you keep by your bed— you know the cat is not a child, and neither are you, but often in April, as the ceiling fan gently spins you, you remember her tender hands.
Umar Khalid smiles and raises his fist on his way out of court, and an 83 year old priest is denied bail in the 'collective interest of the community'. Meanwhile in Myanmar, protesters disappear in the night, and a striking worker tells a reporter, 'They are the king now, but we are not their servants.'
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 out— business is booming, my friend, the good times are here at last.
- an Ashoka trustee texts Pratap Bhanu Mehta A plot of land, some recognition; the price was low: your resignation— a quid pro quo is not corruption! What profits us? That’s our best option.
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.
(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.
-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.
-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.
-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.
-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.
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.
Somebody planted ten letters, it seems, on Rona Wilson’s computer, and then police came and took him away, and later they took many others. We don’t know who planted the letters, my friends, but they raise an important question: will anyone dare to investigate those who led the investigation?
-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!
To celebrate, on the day Munawar Farouki was granted bail, I went to buy a kg of guavas and oranges. The fruit seller asked if he could make change with one perfect banana and two handfuls of grapes. I said, yes, friend, why didn’t I think of that?
-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.’
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?
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!
-for Munawar Faruqui I confess my ignorance of law and legal matters, but can you call it harmony when you’ve outlawed laughter?
-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.
-Republic Day, 2021 Somewhere winter wheat waits beneath cold soil and sky— soon, we’ll share a meal. The police give in: lakhs of tractors demonstrate people power, hope. I choose the farmers: they grow wheat and rice, not hate. Which side are you on?
It’s there on the swings in the park out back, it weakens bridges and homes; it stains FIRs, and court orders— and Arnab Goswami’s phone.
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.
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.
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.
-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’]
Many years ago, under the influence of something weaker than witchcraft, but stronger than black tea, I kissed a man with a beard. Our fathers worshipped different gods, but there was no mob that night, no police, no FIR— just wind and the taste of sand and damp salt. I said, friend, I love you so much, and that is where we left it.
-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.
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.
-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.
-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.
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 coming— they’ll do what we failed to do.
-for Rachita Taneja Sticks and stones may break my bones but words shall never hurt me— HOWEVER, stick figures and tweets may hurt my conceit, for I’ve lost my sense of humour.
-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
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.
-for farmers Yesterday morning, it still seemed impossible: broken barricades. Amit Shah paces, his boss sits in a corner, growing his white beard. Nothing stops the tide, or at dawn, the rising sun— praise those who feed us.
-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.
-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?
-for Varavara Rao It settled on me just before dawn the day after I came to pay my respects— heavy, like a thick wool blanket on a not-quite cold night. It stayed until the scratch of a distant grass broom swept it from the room, like a gentle cloud of dust. I did not really know him, so I had no clear right to grieve, but I knew what he meant to you, and when I saw him lying there in the company of those who loved him, I remembered an afternoon long ago when I found my own grandfather lying still in his bed, and how my aunt and I sat with him— and I was so sure I could see him breathing, but it was only me that was shaking. This is not a poem about bail pleas or fascism. Every word I write is against fascism.
The clothes left on the line outside the flat across the street are flapping in the dirty wind; one shirt has just flown free, and someone’s firing atom bombs or guns; it’s hard to say— the autumn air tastes acrid, and the sky’s an inky gray. Tonight, we’ll sleep to yapping dogs and creaky ceiling fans; we’ll dream of sirens, pre-dawn raids, unjustly jailed friends.
-for Natasha Narwal I don’t smoke, but somehow I’m smoking on a cramped South Delhi terrace; I’m looking down at a wide, brown field of dry grass and scattered trash. Beyond, are trees and more trees, and gathered in upper branches, a murder of angry crows is scolding a circling kite. Beyond that are just skyscrapers— or maybe that’s just an illusion, and there is Natasha Narwal, sipping tea at a roadside dhaba. I want to go down and ask her about the food in Tihar Jail, I want to go down and tell her how much we all have missed her.
-Delhi, October 13 Smoke presses down on the 5 pm sky leaving the sun bloated and glowing, like a molten bronze medal, or a strange neon fruit. As raptors glide in high, hungry circles, crows keep watch from ragged rooflines, and closer to earth, children run laughing through lanes lined with dust and shuttered shops. This weekend, we’ll read the police have beaten another reporter, and this reading will make us remember this is our city, we must take it back.
If you fear you might be condemned for committing atrocities, go file some FIRs and claim there’s a conspiracy; sedition or 144, incitement or simple foul play— if anyone asks for bail, just invoke the UAPA. Clichéd, yes, but also true: all tyrants and most all cutthroats know when the going gets tough, it’s time to go hide behind scapegoats.
-Jantar Mantar, October 2 Last week, we dreamed a feathered thing dangled high, in tangled wires— the scent of wood and petrol smoke, the violent glow of pre-dawn fires; some terrors are too large to name— some wounds, so deep, they’ll never mend— still, something’s breaking in the east; friends, even this long night will end.
When I hear the gentle cooing of pigeons outside my window, I think of Umar Khalid, and when I see crows massing against an approaching bird of prey, I think of Umar Khalid. I think of Umar Khalid when I see an autowala shaking his head as he reads the morning news and when word comes that farmers and workers are marching again after so many months of silence. Just before dawn in Lutyens’ Delhi, Amit Shah thinks of Umar Khalid; he fears this time he’s gone too far.
-for Varavara Rao It’s easy to remember the slow shuffle back, the way the ceiling fan’s slow turn makes the hair on your arms stand up, how the morning light falls with such gentleness on every green, growing thing— how it occurs to you that relief is a seasonal kind of pleasure. We’re so quick to forget what came before— the aches, the chills, the stabbing, grinding, burning, heaving, raking, cramping, throbbing, gnawing, shooting— perhaps there’s just no advantage in recalling such things, but even after the pain’s been replaced by your story of the pain, if you are honest, you know there were moments when you thought or wished you might shatter or stop, but also moments when you were lifted and carried by a glass of cool water, from a sibling or mother, a touch on your neck, by a comrade or lover, a quiet, kind word from a neighbor or father— and if you allow yourself to examine these memories you will see why it’s such heinous crime to jail innocent people for political gain.
Maybe you’d had too much to drink, or maybe you were just dreaming— or maybe you were an I or we, or maybe it does not matter— but a pack of boys on bikes flew up and over the wide, wet crossing, and six hungry dogs in the market stared as we shared a plate of samosas. Is it right to eat outside, you asked, while so many go without? Nearby, a gang of students sat and laughed and flirted and smoked. It may have been a fever dream, or the snack we’d eaten too quickly— or just the feel of road under feet, or maybe it does not matter— an ancient road roller rumbled by as we passed the shuttered temple: you matched its speed; I slowed and searched for demons in puffs of black vapour. At the T-point by the rubbish heap, dogs studied the moon and trembled as it emerged from a bank of clouds, then hung there, like a cradle.
You asked me if it might be fun to try to hold gloved hands and kiss through our new masks, but when we did, your aunt came barging in, announcing she had urgent things to ask about the state of the judiciary, the meaning of sedition and contempt, and why we jail professors and poets, and why I looked so worried and unkempt. I could not find any fitting reply— as in court, the truth was no defense— I changed the subject back to the virus, and asked about medicinal incense. (I am no lawyer, but I often dream of fascism, frustration and moonbeams.)
-for those who promised to sweep Big lies may fool a few of us, but not for very long; you’ll never clear a smoke-filled sky by spewing out more smog. The BJP will answer for the hatred it has sown— but it didn’t plant the hardy seeds that bloomed in Shaheen Bagh.
-Delhi, August 15 I tried to type a list of those imprisoned for ‘incitement’— instead of reading like a poem, it read like an indictment.
-Delhi, August 13 Rain drenched the city like a bite of ripe pear after a hot, oily meal, and there was no dry path through the narrow lane behind the masjid, so two giggling girls picked their way through the muddy maidan— shoulder-to-shoulder under one worn umbrella— while Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal spent one more long day in Tihar jail.
-one year after the abrogation A year ago, a plague was delivered upon a far-off northern region, and many of us in the capital understood this, but did nothing— because we were afraid and felt powerless, or because we told ourselves that twitter or the courts would cure it. Last night, I watched a storm flash in the southwest sky— the ebb and glow of distant light, just the hint of a cool, clean breeze— and I wished and prayed it would bring us relief from all of this season’s sickness and heat. But friends, none of my lonely wishes and prayers were enough to summon the storm’s healing air.
-for Hany Babu and Varavara Rao We met near the pond, I brought something to eat: tomatoes, bread, your favourite sweets— old couples strolling, children laughing; it would have been perfect, except for these things: the ducks were caged, the pond was dry, there was no breeze, and I wondered why we jail our best teachers and poets.
-for Hany Babu Last week in the market you saw two fights, I saw one myself, today— wounded pride or unpaid debts, rain-fed flowers of worry. Neighbors and friends still trickle away, as rations and patience run low; now they’ve arrested Professor Babu— is anyone really surprised? Pigeons mate on my windowsill, a lizard slips under the door; the dogs on the street were restless last night, as if they sensed a storm coming.
The late July damp has settled on the city like a sweat soaked shirt, but you continue on the footpath outside the hospital where workers go to smoke and crows gather to feed on stale roti and seed. Further on, across the road, you give a wide berth to the stinking canine carcass sprawled in the shade of the shrubs outside the park’s back gate; further still, you pass the new camp of tarp and twine that’s sprung up in front of the fenced-in ruins west of the fouled drain’s rush. You’re tiring now, but you understand that if you keep to this path long enough, you may find a forest and a quiet place to pray. Late in the night, sweet water will run through your dreams; you will hear children splashing somewhere outside your window, and from the foot of your bed will come the yelps and gentle whimpers of a well fed, sleeping dog.
—for Prashant Bhushan In the photo, a man in his early sixties sits astride a large, shiny motorcycle. He wears a short sleeved shirt and casual pants, and though it appears it may have been some time since he’s visited a barber, from this distance, in this focus, both his beard and long wavy hair are undeniably looking sharp; you can see why he might not want to ruin the moment by wearing a helmet or a mask— why should the letter or spirit of any law anywhere stop a hard working citizen from having a little harmless fun during these stressful times? It’s hard to believe a man like this would allow his feelings to be hurt by a couple of critical tweets— unless, of course, it’s true what they say about powerful, aging men who suddenly feel the need to be seen with flashy sports cars or motorbikes.
Remember how we threw open the windows to watch the storm pass over the city— it arrived just past midnight, and even after it was so far gone that we could no longer hear its thunder, it still lit up the southern sky like fireworks at a farmhouse wedding, or a faulty street light, flickering over a dark, narrow lane in Mehrauli. You told me that if I climbed the wobbly, wooden ladder to the roof, on a clear day I could see Qutub Minar. I wasn’t sure I believed you, but I knew you were right to fear the storm and also to welcome it.
False Narrative (i) -for Rahul Roy and Amit Shah A book or film that relied on identically worded ‘witness statements’ in order to show that Kristallnacht, the Delhi riots, or any other pogrom was caused by a conspiracy between the victims of the violence and a shadowy group of doctors, feminists, student activists, and documentary film makers would be classified as, ‘fiction/fantasy’, and hardly anyone would buy or watch it, because even by the standards of that genre, it would be unbelievable. False Narrative (ii) You may spook the courts, and even the press, but you won’t deceive the rest of us: fiction is fiction, no matter who sells it; a lie is a lie, no matter who tells it.
I was thinking of your poem, ‘When Moonlight Moves Into the Dark’ as a comrade and I walked past the remnants of one of Delhi’s once wild forests. From our left came the sound of rain soaked branches and wind, from our right, the grumble and pop of late night traffic. Across the road, beyond the rush of bikes and cars, loomed the homes of the city’s rich— and I asked myself, Who owns this hauled-out wealth? At that moment, I heard you whisper: All the riches hidden behind closed doors are the forest. They want you dead, Varavara Rao, they think they can silence and cage you, but we know that is not how this will end. Not soon, but soon enough, we’ll rouse ourselves from this nightmare to find vines entwined everywhere, flames blossoming new worlds. *Note: Italicized lines by Varavara Rao from the poem cited, translated by D. Venkat Rao
-a letter to the editors Pandit or pauper, doctor or gangster, under the law, professions don’t matter: if they set out to kill you, without a court order, that’s not an ‘encounter’, that is a murder.
It arrives when you least expect it: dust dims the sky, doors rattle and bang— branches crack, tall trees bow, unruly dogs cower under cars. Sometimes, there is thunder and rain. It brings relief to those who labour and sweat, like a sea of us marching together, when we flood the streets, just you wait—