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Hamraaz Posts

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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Let Us All Rest in the Company of Those Who Love Us

-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.
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As the NIA Raids NGOs in Delhi and Kashmir

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.
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I Fall Asleep Reading a Poem by Akhil Katyal

-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. 
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Make Us Remember

-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.
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A Lesson for Future Fascists

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.
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I Think of Umar Khalid

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.
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Lifted and Carried

-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.
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आवारा हैं

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.
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Under a Midsummer Night’s Moon

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.)
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Pinjra Tod

-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.
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Only Together Can We Bring It

-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.
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Last Week, in Hauz Rani Forest

-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. 
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Change of Seasons

-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.
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First, We Will Dream It

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.
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Man Sits Proudly on a Big Bike

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.
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Welcoming the Storm

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. 
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False Narratives

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.
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Varavara Rao Came to Delhi Last Night

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
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