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.
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—
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.
-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!
As June slips towards July, the heat turns heavy and wet, our coolers don’t work like they used to, we pray for the rains to return. We read of atrocities daily; no one is watching the watchmen— we post angry memes, but we know we’re weak when we’re inside and distant. Let’s walk through the dark streets, tonight— let’s remember what matters, what’s true; the rains will be back soon enough, my friends, soon enough, we’ll be back, too.
-‘Delhi Police chargesheet names owner of hospital that treated riot victims’ -Indian Express They charged a friend of a friend, last week— who will be next? Someone is spinning false yarns, my friends, everyone knows. Meanwhile, middle class families fight for hospital beds; the state of the camps is dire, we know, it won’t get any press. My mother studies the news, and asks, Can this be Delhi? My father worries: my child, please call us every day. Last night, I slept to a siren’s song, but woke to a prayer— What is the cure for plagues like these? Solidarity, love.
We only beat the war drums as long as we imagine the just-grown children of the people we imagine to be our siblings or friends killing the just-grown children of people we imagine to be our enemies— just for a moment, imagine every child is one of all of our children. (You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.)
—‘Na Khaunga, na Khane Dunga’ Yes, accepting or offering bribes or kickbacks, or giving contracts or jobs to friends or family, but also, instructing or allowing the police to fabricate charges against people who oppose you, and refusing to investigate those you favour. (Graft hidden in suitcases or banks in far off lands, or improper use of office to enhance your party’s brand; craving for wealth or power, is usually its cause— it spawns lies, hunger, fear, and disregard for laws.)
When I called this morning, my father told me that just before going to bed, he’d replaced the cell in an old alarm clock because he noticed it had stopped at 4pm sharp. He didn’t have the strength to set it right, but all night long he said he heard it spinning, and in the morning when he woke, it had just about caught up. I don’t know what it means, he said, but these are such strange times, I knew you would understand.
Every so often, I catch a glimpse of the lizard that lives in my room; he does most of his work in the dark. I know it’s a foolish comparison, but his eyes evoke a home minister who appears on the evening news. Meanwhile, Safoora Zargar has still not been granted bail, and though the monsoon is far away, yesterday, a neighbor’s child swore he saw a long black snake in the park behind our flats.
Behind us, a rusty, wire fence; under our feet: dry grass and dust. We were thirsty. Above us loomed an enormous, leafless tree; it looked as if it might touch the shivered, June moon. Samir gestured, or maybe it was Salima, and we all leaned back and peered into the darkness. We somehow understood that a piece of the tree, or the moon, had broken off and was hurtling towards us—but we had no idea where it might land, so we just trembled and waited for thunder and shake—or the end. Later, we tried to count how many of us were missing. A woman ran towards us, screaming. She was carrying a small child in her arms. Only his hand, she sobbed. It only took his hand.
We slept on my grandmother’s porch, how we got there, who can say? Dogs approached, snarling and circling; I cried out, and you held me close. Later, came sounds from the road, a grinding of gravel and boots; you said it was Amit Shah’s man: he stunk of whiskey and malice. He said he’d be back in the morning, whether or not I was pregnant— as he left, the wind changed direction and brought back the scent of still water.
Let’s float away on that rain cloud, we could ride it over state lines, we could ride it up north to the hills, we could take off our masks and breathe deep. Let’s find us a cool, empty valley, in a time, before all this began, we’ll learn to dig roots from the ground, we’ll learn to dry fruit and to dance. We’ll study the way hard stone fractures, we’ll figure out fire and we’ll sing, we’ll forget about tear gas and prisons, we’ll live without curfews and kings.
Delhi Police blames victims and those who preach peace; they say rain is ‘flame’. Delhi judge accepts unsaid words are sparks that blow; court rules for the fire. Delhi people know rain is rain and fire is fire; we’re a rising sea.
but the sparrows outside my window were debating the evening news— it had something to do with Amit Shah, and the kites that circle the drain. It had something to do with a murder of crows, solidarity, justice and strength.
1. Perhaps he wanted a sudden transfer, or maybe he just didn’t get the memo, but on Monday, a Delhi High Court judge granted bail to a man accused of arson during the Delhi ‘riots’. The judge remarked, ‘prison is...not for detaining undertrials in order to send any “message” to society.’ 2. (This is not your kingdom, we won’t bow or touch your feet— if you treat us like your subjects we will see you on the streets.)
I dreamed they came to our door and took you away at dawn. I tried, but I could not stop them; they were silent, and rough, when you struggled. Tonight, friends, let us all dream: doors open and cages broken, cool breezes and ceiling fans— we’ll argue and sing and share what we have, (we don’t need the police, we don’t need the police!)
Earlier in the week, the UP Police charged a man with sedition for calling CM Yogi a dog on FB, and late last night, the South Asian Canine Confederation held emergency meetings all over North India to debate the difference between defamation and free speech; you must have heard them howling.
-for Devangana, Natasha and all political prisoners Each of us needs a safe place to dwell, love and care when we’re low or ill; we all need enough to eat and drink— stories and songs, paper and ink; respect at home, at work, fair wages, not condescension, curfews or cages! We should not have to fear they will take us away because they don’t like how we think or pray— these are basic, modest demands; we must give to ourselves these rights, my friends.
We’re more than the sum of our rations and pay, how much we add to the GDP— you be the breeze on my summer day; I’ll be the malai in your lassi.
I’m searching for scales to weigh what’s fair: families are hungry, miles from home; don’t worry, they say, our PM, he cares. Millions are living on water and prayers, while others are forced to work to the bone; I’m still looking for scales to weigh what’s fair. It plays on the street, in the radio’s blare, listen, it’s there, in the nightly news drone: trust him, and give; our PM, he cares. We need rations and love and protective gear, we must care for all who are sick and alone; we have to find scales that weigh what is fair. We could file an RTI, if we dared: ‘What matters more, food or free loans?’ Let’s audit the PM: how much does he care? We don’t need police spreading hatred and fear, we don’t need new vistas, statues, or thrones; we’ll fashion new scales, we’ll weigh what is fair— we’ll learn from each other the meaning of care.
I dreamed I was writing in green, my father was dressed in green robes— the dogs in the park were frisking, you were spinning beneath a tall tree. I saw the capital emptied of those who hungered for home— two pigeons took flight from a lamp post and swept down the lane in the back. I heard they’d opened the jails, and freed all the wrongly accused, I was writing this poem in green, my father came close and he touched me.
Let the ceiling fan spin you tonight, my friends, you don’t need to be anywhere. Go lie on a cool, hard floor, my friends, feel gravity hold you down. Together, we’ve come through dark days, my friends, there are darker days coming soon. The moon is flowering tonight, my friends, we’re here for such a short while. Sumedha Bhattacharyya (@kathagrapher) translated into dance. You can see it here
Yesterday’s tomatoes pucker on the kitchen counter, and uneaten pulao turns under a midnight fan. Meanwhile in Surat, police fire tear gas at workers demanding the right to go home— beware my friends, the season is changing, and there’s more than one sickness loose in the land.
Yes, hunger is stalking the land, you’ve seen it up close, and I hear you. And they are using the UAPA to crush those who dare to speak out. Last night, you lay awake turning; I dreamt of thick smoke and my father— but the moon is half full and waxing, and the wind is gentle and clear; let’s grab our masks and a bag— we’ll walk towards a Mother Dairy; I’ll buy you a cold tadka chach, you can buy me a cool sweet lassi.
I’ve been reading the Communist Manifesto, and also Wikipedia, and I think we have some things in common. We both want a world ‘in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ and where the first rule is, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. Also, we’ve both used interesting names to avoid trouble from the authorities. (I noticed you signed your letters from London, ‘A. Williams’. May I please call you, Al?) I confess I did not finish Capital, and I never even attempted the Grundrisse, but I can see you got a lot right about power and social relations. It’s true, your timing was off; the horizon wasn’t as close as any of us imagined. Who could have predicted refrigerators or automobiles and all the change they brought? I know you and a lot of comrades really hoped we could just flip things, and many good people died trying. And I don’t think it’s fair to pin it all on Stalin—no doubt he was a sociopath, like most world leaders, but I think you’d agree that the system wasn’t as easy to seize as we thought, for practical and probably theoretical reasons that I don’t fully understand. Listen, Comrade Al, the dhabas are closed, but I think you should meet me at the Mother Dairy by the main road; I’ll bring you a mask, and I’ll buy you a lassi or a tadka chach. I know a park nearby where the police rarely come. We’ll carry a shopping bag and find a bench under a tall tree that will shield us from the May Day sun. You could explain what you meant by formal subsumption and clear up some questions I still have about the labour theory of value. We’ll talk about the way pronouns are changing, and I’ll bring you a small stack of my favourite books—friend, you have a lot of catching up to do—Ambedkar, and maybe Paulo Freire and Why Loiter. But also poetry. I’ll see if I can find you something by Agha Shahid Ali, Kutty Revathi, Kolatkar, Safdar Hashmi and Sukirtharani. I’m guessing you’re a fast reader, and please don’t tell me you don’t have time for good poetry wherever it is you stay these days. If you like Delhi, you can come back next year, once the lockdown is lifted. I’ll show you an AC train and we’ll visit Shaheen Bagh. And that bookstore up north in Shadipur, where they still lovingly hang a photo of you on their wall.
Somewhere today, a baby conceived on the eve of the abrogation will be born; just think of all the hatred, hunger, violence and courage we’ve seen in the past 38 long weeks— what stories will we tell this child when she’s old enough to hear them? Yes, her mother carried her through dark times, and she was born into darker times, still. But the late April breeze was cool that night, and though the May sun would be unforgiving, we promised to fan her, to love and to stand with her and her siblings, and cousins and classmates— and all of her friends and all of her neighbors— and all of the people in the land she called home, and all of the people beyond it.
‘In the FIR, the police claimed that the communal violence was a “premeditated conspiracy” which was allegedly hatched by Mr. Khalid and two others.’ -The Hindu This world is built on sand and silt, dark clouds are hanging low; how many go to sleep hungry for food or distant homes? Meanwhile police investigate fantasies and dreams; they target those who think and speak, ignore the real crimes. To slow this virus, we will keep our distance, friends, for now, but when this sickness passes, we’ll make tyrants scrape and bow.
Smoke drifts in from camps
where starving men stew
animal hides and rotten meat.
The sultan is angry;
the traveler is put under guard—
he fasts for nine days, reciting,
Allah is sufficient for us,
and most excellent is the Protector.
Freed, he finds an excuse to move on.
On the day I took you there,
a light rain calmed the flies,
and mist masked the smoke that
rose from nearby camps and cars.
There were no children playing
on the muddy field below us,
but near the top of a crumbling
tower, young men smoked,
drunk beer and laughed.
A thousand pillars have fallen and rotted,
leaving only stones, sod and soil.
We lost so much in one short year:
your sister, my niece, some of our
faith in the future of love and freedom.
The city is locked, we cannot go back—
I searched, but found only this:
the Refuge of the World has fallen—
we must build a new refuge, my friends.
How many summers have come
since Harappa and Mohenjo-daro
faded or fell?
We’ve all heard the story:
a rivers runs dry or changes course,
a new pestilence rides into town,
crops wither in baking fields.
Each time it happens must
seem like the first time—
hungry families camp outside
city gates or scatter like tumbleweed
towards faraway forests or hills
while rulers pace and wonder
how long their guards will hold.
When Trump met Modi in February,
we bought three billion bucks of his military
technology and flying machines—
now he wants our hydroxychloroquine.
If Modi had been a better tactician,
he’d have said, Yes, under one condition:
keep your deadly helicopters,
send food and masks and ventilators!
‘Man posts ‘‘no ventilators in Ludhiana” on
Facebook, booked for sedition’-Indian Express
Sure, we could put a ventilator
at every intersection—
but who needs ventilators
when we have so few infections?
Either way, we can’t have
(if you don’t agree, we might
charge you with sedition).
In life, there are times like this
when suddenly we can no longer do
many of the things we once could—
maybe you’re missing a strong drink
and friends, and you’re sick of Netflix
and your bad internet connection,
or maybe your father keeps falling
because he refuses to stop standing
on chairs to reach for high things,
and now there are no trains to take
you home, so you wait each day
for news of his next sudden fall.
Or maybe you live on a construction site
far from your village, and you suddenly
lose your job and can’t reach your family,
and one day, after waiting for hours
for rations, someone announces,
Sorry, there is no more to give today,
and you think, and maybe you shout,
This has nothing to do with giving,
they’ve taken our jobs and our families!
And maybe on FB, someone will complain,
It is so hard, but what good comes
from anger? We are doing our best.
And maybe we will half-remember
an old song or poem or prayer
and suddenly it will become clear:
For everything there is season: a time
for vexation and sorrow and sharing—
and also a time for rage!
Our worries are nothing compared
to those stranded miles from home,
to those who are already hungry,
to those who are sick and alone.
Last night, you dreamt we both left you,
I dreamt my father was gone—
in the flat across the back alley,
a girl cries each morning at dawn.
Friends, more than one plague
is loose in the land—
yes, there’s the new virus,
but please understand
there are older plagues, too—
and all plagues are connected—
exploitation and hatred.
When we all grasp together
the great power we hold,
we’ll make tyrants tremble,
we’ll heal this world.
This city wakes daily
to birdsong and worry—
we all miss our family
or friends, or the sky;
we wonder how long
our paychecks will last,
we fret about those who
are sick, old or frail.
Some ask how long
the atta will last,
will police harass us
if we go look for dal?
And some of us, friends,
have no place to return to,
and some of us, friends,
don’t know how to get home—
and some of us, friends,
are already hungry,
some of us, friends,
are afraid and alone.
Distant or near,
all of us matter,
we must not forget
we depend on each other.
The night before the lockdown,
my sister called to say
our cousin had told her:
Go see your father soon,
he is not keeping well at all.
We both knew I could not go,
and that night I dreamed
I was standing alone
in an silent railway station,
waiting for something or someone.
And all week, I’ve been trying
to remember what I was waiting for:
was it my sister, my father,
or a train to take me home?
Why destroy art
at Shaheen Bagh
the country down?
Rulers who stand
but also expression.
Last night we argued on the phone—
like most of our quarrels,
it was about something small,
and I think we both knew
it was really just a way to avoid
saying what is too difficult
to say right now:
you are so far away,
and if you need me,
I have no way to reach you.
Remember, when we posted
selfies and self-care memes?
It was difficult to be alone.
When we had to go out, we tipped
autowalas and didn’t bargain over
the price of potatoes or fruit.
We were tempted to share
stories about our efforts,
but even then, we were
starting to feel uncomfortable
about performance. Some
of us worked from home,
some were put on unpaid leave.
We thought it was temporary,
and though we knew the Janta
Curfew was a symbolic drill,
held a month too late,
most of us secretly hoped
the government had a plan
or the weather would somehow
change things. Then came
the layoffs, and the pleas for help
from friends: first artists
and writers whose income
and savings had dried up—
that was easy; after all,
they were like family.
And when our neighbors
came asking for ghee and onion,
we gave and were glad to.
When we were called
to share water, atta and dal,
and when we began to see
terrible things on our screens,
and in the streets when we
had to venture out,
it became more difficult
than we’d imagined it
would be. We did not cover
ourselves in glory; yes,
we loved, but we also failed.
We are here on the other side now,
grieving and also rejoicing. We
are all here together; yes we failed,
but also we loved.
It’s like that moment in the film
when the main characters
are looking out the window—
they can hear the thunder
and the rain, but the wind is still
just rustling the branches
and bushes in their small,
and it would look so peaceful,
except for the soundtrack,
and the fact that you know
that they know
there is a mighty storm on the way,
and the only question
is whether it will be their home,
or one of their neighbor’s,
that will be left standing
after it passes.
Our schools are closed, our markets are slow—
none of us knows what is coming,
but a few things, at least, are clear:
we can’t beat a virus with lathis;
tear gas and bullets won’t work.
Our doctors and nurses will work
till they drop; we’ll all do
what we can to support them.
But everywhere and always,
public health depends on trust:
Say you’ll withdraw the CAA,
and roll back the abrogation.
Say all of us are equal;
say each of us counts the same—
say we’re all brothers and sisters,
say we will stop this, together.
Scientists say that every so often
and savannah turns to desert,
or forest to tundra,
in the space of a decade or less.
Our own short history’s littered
with drought, plague, famine,
war and tyranny.
What’s one more bank collapse,
one more novel virus?
The moon is just past full,
the March wind is wet
and warm. There’s no line
at the ATM,
but the dogs seem
-Unpublished research into COVID-19
When hunger, heat and poverty
kill millions of us annually,
why is is there so much focus
on this novel kind of virus?
This is one is not a mystery:
since there is no costly vaccine,
and the rich can still contract it,
they’ll spare no expense to attack it.*
*Note: Proactive measures such as handwashing,
school closures, and other forms of ‘social distancing’
do work and will save many lives.
-after Miguel James
If I write a poem against the CAA and the NRC,
that poem will be a love poem.
And if I write a poem about Chandra Shekhar Azad
leading a march in Daryaganj in support
of the constitution and in violation of Section 144,
or a poem about hundreds of women sitting
day and night on the hard pavement of a main road
during the coldest months of the year,
or a poem that says what everyone knows—
that the police does not serve the people or our laws,
but only the Home Minister and his boss—
those, too, will be love poems.
If I write a poem against the very idea
of exploitation, property or borders,
or a poem about a ragged line of teenage boys,
trembling as they face a wall of police dressed
in riot gear and wielding lathis and guns,
and if one of those boys turns and runs,
while his friend reaches down and picks up
an egg-sized stone and weighs it in his hand
as he lets fly a word that means ‘freedom’
but may later be translated as ‘sedition’
in the court record if he is lucky enough
to live to appear in a court—
those, too, will be love poems.
All the poems that I and you and we
write and sing as we try to hold and show
the courage of people sitting
and standing and fighting
to be treated and seen as human—
all of these may or may not fail
as poems, but not one of them
will fail to be a love poem.
We lay awake, trembling.
We no longer understood the rules,
or where we were going.
We stopped posting selfies;
we flirted with memes
and sarcastic stories.
One by one, we got VPN’s.
We shifted to Signal for politics,
gossip and love.
We could not put down
our phones; we could not bear
to look at our phones.
We knew we had it better
than many. We knew it would
We fell in love at rallies,
argued on marches and tried
to forget what was coming.
Some of us were detained
and beaten. We knew many
had it worse.
We joked about the new virus—
we hugged each other and laughed
when we coughed.
Some of us called our parents,
some of us started smoking,
some of us secretly prayed.
We sang of heroes, cursed fascists,
shouted brave slogans and worried.
We were so tired.
Some days we thought we’d gone mad.
We remembered Kashmir;
some of us drank too much.
Some nights, we gazed at the moon
from Jasola Vihar or Jamia.
Some mornings, we woke up crying.
Go fix your gaze on the setting sun,
or even a welder’s torch:
the damage you suffer may result
in blurred vision or blind spots.
Your eyes will heal, but for a while,
when you study a budding tree
you may mistake a parakeet
for a piece of smoky sky.
Some slogans work like that, my friends:
if we train our ears to their blare,
we may perceive only barks and growls,
when we hear our neighbors’ prayers.
Did you ever see Mani Ratnam’s
In the midst of the terror,
an old man or woman—
it’s difficult to remember now—
raised her hand and said:
Stop! Enough is enough!
And then all through the city,
brave men and women
stepped forward to say,
Rukh Jao! Bas!’
It was as if a great fever
had broken, and suddenly
we could see clearly again.
There was probably music playing,
and we all knew the director’s
hand was there somewhere,
not so much saying,
‘this is how it happened’,
but, ‘this is how it should
Yesterday, we all heard
the rumours; at protest sites,
in markets, via Whatsapp
and Signal, they spread.
And late in the night,
as we lay awake,
trembling and praying—
Please, do not forget or forsake
us or our brothers and sisters—
none of us had any idea
if the fever had returned,
or who was directing this film.
Just three weeks ago, on the way
to the polling station
we saw a single, half-eaten
myna bird lying in the road.
Neither of us mentioned it;
the air was already
so heavy that day.
I no longer trust omens
just last week, I dreamt
that Amit Shah was in jail,
but last night, I’m sure
I heard him whispering
in Kejriwal’s ear.
Maybe you remember a class 5 teacher,
who beat students, sometimes even
leaving bruises, and how he would tell
all the parents at Parent Teacher Meetings
how much it hurt him to have to discipline
unruly children, and how the parents—
even, perhaps, your parents—
would nod somberly, though they knew
he hit too hard.
Or maybe it was the professor who would
call quiet, first year students to his office
for extra help, because he was so concerned
about their progress, and everyone
in the class could see how uncomfortable
those students were, but no one said anything,
because, really, what was there to say,
except that he was so concerned?
Or maybe it was the husband of a neighbor
in your colony, who would tell everyone
about how worried he was about his wife—
she’s seeing a doctor, you know,
sometimes she can’t control her feelings—
and everyone would nod, but also secretly
wonder: does she scream because he beats her?
Or maybe it was the prime minister
of a large country, who invited the president
of a more powerful country to visit
on the day that mobs of organized terrorists
were planning to burn homes, businesses
and places of worship, knowing the police
would stand by or join in, and maybe
that prime minister knew his guest
would not condemn this terror,
thus showing all of us that the world
was powerless to stop it, and maybe
he also knew that all over the capital
and country, people and leaders
and even respectable newspapers
would choose to use words like ‘violent
demonstrations’ and ‘clashes’ to describe
what they understood was probably
a state sponsored pogrom,
and which might be the first step
towards something even graver.
And if we think long and hard about this,
we may come to understand something
that every successful abuser, bully
and tyrant already knows—
the importance and power of silence—
and if we think even harder about the bravery,
solidarity and love that that has sprouted in this city
and this country, in spite of the winter winds,
then we will know what we need to do now.
We will know what is to be done.
When right wing thugs
attack members of a religious
minority in broad daylight
in a nation’s capital
while the police look on
or join in the attacks,
that is not a ‘riot’,
that is a pogrom.
And when armed men in uniform
force their way into homes,
break furniture and take
jewelry and cash,
that is not ‘quelling a riot’,
that is loot and pillage.
And when students of a madrasa
in UP, or any other place,
emerge from jail with bruises
and rectal bleeding,
that is not ‘detention’,
that is torture and rape.
And when officers of the law
take young men accused
of a crime to an empty field
(on a hillside or under a flyover),
and then turn them loose
and shoot them dead as they run,
that is not an ‘encounter’,
that is murder.
And when any government
anywhere in the world,
at any time in history,
accepts, justifies or orders
these and many other crimes,
that is not a ‘democracy’,
that is tyranny.
And when any of us agree
to use words that mask
the truth of these
we are not using
we are telling lies.
-for Modi, Trump and the rest of us
Modi says to Trump:
We have a lot in common—
we both build big walls.
Trump says to Modi:
True, my friend, but don’t forget,
my wall is bigger!
What neither one knows:
United, we’ll break walls, build
homes, plant seeds, and love.
Why not? It’s always better
when our neighbors prosper.
Also, Bangladesh zindabad,
and Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka…
In fact, why not just say,
saara jahaan zindabad?
What are we afraid of?
Let’s say it together:
Long live all the people
and creatures in this terrible,
wonderful world we share.
-after Jeet Thayil
First, remember, your job
has little to do with homes,
and much to do with security.
You’ll have to choose:
security for whom?
If you choose security
for the powerful and rich,
expect to remain powerful and rich;
throw a party, invite the people
who matter. Understand,
you draw strength from sycophants,
snitches and men who wield
lathis and guns; hold them close.
Study the snake, the guard dog,
If you choose security
for the common people,
you’ll have to move fast—
your time here may be short.
Set your affairs in order,
tell your children you love them,
open libraries and hospitals—
hold festivals in parks. Dance,
sing, have a drink and pray.
Study crows, elephants,
and all creatures that gather
in flocks or herds. Do not fear:
we will not forget you.
Sometimes as you drift off
you feel your chest tighten;
your ears ring
and your lungs won’t fill,
like you’ve been shut
in a cold, dark vault,
or you are shackled
in a cell somewhere
in Kashmir or Karnataka—
maybe they’ll beat you
if you ask to see the sky
or just because it is time
for the beating.
Lock your doors,
turn off the lights,
do not venture out
I dreamt that, nearing his end,
my father wrote the story of his life
in the language of his grandmother.
I don’t understand the words,
he told me, but I think you
will find it useful someday—
it has something to do
with the way we lived
in the dark times that came
before these dark times.
It is not easy to remember,
he told me. It has something
to do with scattered light,
and how I love you.
The Delhi smoke is thick
tonight, my love—
but here on this wide road,
the wind is cool.
Remember how it used
to taste, you say—
like burning plastic, fear,
and diesel fuel.
This year, there is a new
scent in the air,
like flowers blooming
after a great fire.
I’m searching for a way
back home again—
Perhaps we’ll build a better
home, you say.
In UP last year,
93,000 people applied
for 62 government jobs—
jobs that required
a Class 5 education
and bicycle riding skills;
of the applicants, 3,700
held PhD’s, and 20,000
held post graduate degrees.
You have read many stories
like this and on some level
you understand it’s likely
the current system
is running into limitations
that education and growth
will be unable to overcome.
call it a climate crisis
and offer a Green New Deal;
new communists call it
a secular crisis of capitalism
and say it is hopeless to try
to see beyond the horizon
of a system that conditions
even the way we make love.
We’re all looking for a way
through: you, me,
the Chief Minister of UP,
and the crores who may
or may not have documents,
but who nonetheless haul
our trash, sweep our roads
and build our tall towers each day.
Some choose suicide or struggle,
some put their faith in fascism;
and some keep their heads
down and patiently wait
for some kind of a new
day to dawn.
This time, my barber does not lower
his voice as he announces:
They fed us hatred for weeks,
and a few do like the taste of that,
but most of us know it won’t fill your belly—
the broom has swept Delhi again!
Later, you tell me about the persistent
pain in your stomach: it’s been a week,
and I know it’s just food poisoning,
but it feels different this time—
like I have a gut full of grief,