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Month: February 2021

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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