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Tag: #Covid-19

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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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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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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Now, They Are Coming for the Doctors

-‘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.
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PM, Care

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.
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Green

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.
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Lockdown Lullaby

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
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Delhi Lockdown, 8:45 pm

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.
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Dear Comrade Marx,

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.
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Let’s Not Forget What’s Coming Next

‘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. 
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Refuge of the World

-Jahanpanah, 1341

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.

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How Many, How Long?

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.

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Suddenly, Rage


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!

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Small Confession


I just finished the story by Perumal Murugan
where a chair comes between a loving couple;
it’s not controversial—

there’s no intercaste marriage or infidelity, 
nothing to offend anyone’s sensibilities 
or to provoke the police, a court, 

or a right wing mob to ban or burn any books, 
or to threaten a mild-mannered author 
with damnation or bodily harm—

there’s just a man, a woman, 
and a chair that slowly drives them apart. 
Of course, the chair is a metaphor 

for patriarchy and other problems 
that inevitably come with modernity—
like the wailing toilet in another 

Murugan story, or this phone I use
to talk with the people I love,
and also to avoid them.

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This Virus Is a Beginning, Not the End


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—

ignorance, caste,
    exploitation and hatred.

When we all grasp together
    the great power we hold,

we’ll make tyrants tremble,
    we’ll heal this world.

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Waiting at the Station

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?

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Letter From Our Future


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.

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What’s Playing Now

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,
close-knit community,

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.

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What to Say: A Letter To Our Leaders

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.

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Tipping

Scientists say that every so often
something tips,

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
restless tonight.

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Abstract: How it Changes Our Focus

-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.

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