-for Umar Khalid I was holding you tight and praying as we weaved through autos and cars– you said we were already late for our train to the south– and the sea. At some point, moon swallowed sun, or was it the other way round? We told lies to strangers and laughed– we cursed the Delhi police. Before dawn, I woke and was struck by the sound of the call to prayer, I remembered Umar Khalid– I prayed for the souls of blind judges.
-August 15, 2022 Some day soon, you’ll be watching a pair of tiny squirrels chase each other around a muddy park– or you’ll hear a young girl laugh as she rides an oversized cycle, hard through rain-soaked lanes– and for a time you may forget the fading light– but later you’ll read more friends have been charged for reading namaz, or that Hany Babu is still in jail– or you’ll see a brown kite fly away with a squirrel– and you’ll remember the darkness and tremble.
-for Mohammed Zubair On the day Mohammed Zubair was released from Tihar Jail, sheets of rain bounced so high that for a few moments the ground all around shone and bloomed– a watery garden, suddenly sprung from a muddy, North Delhi lane. That evening, after the snarled streets and soaked shoes, I went out to buy a mango to celebrate the news. The man at the fruit cart was smiling: See how clean the wind tastes tonight– perhaps, the weather is changing.
You said you’d been weighing the cost of self-censorship and looked pained when I let slip a laugh. Forgive me, my friend, I could not explain: it was not about you, but what I can’t say.
-Lodhi Garden, December, 2021 I was reading that story by Manto about two old friends, now soldiers, fighting each other in Kashmir, and I was thinking about how the distance between us has grown, but also how we sat on that bench today in the smoky, fading sun– we were talking about fascim and our fathers, but really about ourselves– and how you said, It’s tough because we all know there’s only one way any of our stories ever end. I forgot to ask you about the last time we saw Mangalesh Dabral, or what you think about Varavara Rao. You told me you believe in what you’ve written, and anyway, most of the time they don’t actually put poets in jail. But sometimes they do, and my friend if they do, we will stand by you, I promise we will.
-for Sabbah Haji When I heard the Kashmiri educator had been jailed for calling a general a ‘war criminal’, a serious question came to my mind: How often does anyone in any large country rise to the level of general without running afoul at least once of some part of Article 8 of the UN’s ‘Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court’? And forgetting generals, how 0ften does anyone become even a DCP in any police force anywhere without condoning or ignoring ‘torture or inhuman treatment’ (to say nothing of encounters, which might be classified as acts of ‘willful killing’)? Just as some countries are kingdoms dressed up as republics, this is an appeal, disguised as a poem.
- an Ashoka trustee texts Pratap Bhanu Mehta A plot of land, some recognition; the price was low: your resignation— a quid pro quo is not corruption! What profits us? That’s our best option.
-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.
To celebrate, on the day Munawar Farouki was granted bail, I went to buy a kg of guavas and oranges. The fruit seller asked if he could make change with one perfect banana and two handfuls of grapes. I said, yes, friend, why didn’t I think of that?
-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.’
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?
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!
-for Munawar Faruqui I confess my ignorance of law and legal matters, but can you call it harmony when you’ve outlawed laughter?
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.
-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