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Month: July 2020

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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So Long

I want to sing you a sweet song tonight—
the road you’ve chosen looks so long, tonight.

When you were small, your dreams were full of dread;
alone, avoiding sleep, you clung to night.

Now fear and walls, and worse, are everywhere:
new plagues, and old, see how they throng our nights?

I know that you can see my shaking hands,
but we’ll pretend that I am strong tonight.

The ones you leave will stay to pray and fight;
we’ll breathe the scent of rain and dung tonight.

I am your confidante, why doubt me now?
This tide will turn; the moon’s still young tonight.
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Popularity Contest

-after Rowdy Rathore 

I know social media shouldn’t be a popularity 
contest, but some days, I can’t help but think 
that if only I could trade in my simile generator
and the app I use to break and scan lines 
for an Instagram Meme Making Machine
(or at least a cracked copy of Photoshop),
then you would all like and clap and share 
my posts, even more than you already do!

I’d have to have a strong debut. Perhaps 
a long line of youngsters and parents,
all standing two metres apart, in masks,
waiting to get into Children’s Park.
At the entrance, they’d be greeted by 
our smiling chief minister, who would 
gesture to a newly painted sign board:
‘Please show proof of residence’.

But things move pretty quickly here,
and that meme would already be dated;
maybe it would be best to start at the top.
It would take some doing, but I could try 
a split screen effect on Press Enclave Marg;
on one side of the road, in Hauz Rani, 
we’d see ‘closed’ sign hanging on a police 
barricade near the corner of  Gandhi Park 
that once housed a lovely little protest library;
 on the other side, the PM would be greeting 
throngs of shoppers to the remodeled, rebranded, 
DLF Avenue mall. I’d have to script Modi ji’s speech
bubble; no doubt it would include something  
about the economy, ‘green shoots’ 
and the Mahabharata.
But in the end, friends, it would probably
be best to go with something timeless
and simple. How about Amit Shah, 
in front of the Delhi High Court?
He would be smiling a smile that could 
be read in more than one way as he 
leaned in to whisper in a judge’s ear:

Jo main nahi bolta,  
woh main definitely karta hoon!
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