A ten-rupee tarnished sun rains heat on Hauz Rani: the Afghan baker sweats over his hot stove; so far from home, this man– I think of Umar Khalid. Your shirt is robin blue– we buy a piece of bread.
A ten-rupee tarnished sun rains heat on Hauz Rani: the Afghan baker sweats over his hot stove; so far from home, this man– I think of Umar Khalid. Your shirt is robin blue– we buy a piece of bread.
At the Kashmiri Gate metro station, a child in a bright blue dress breaks free from her parents, runs laughing– into the cool, rushing air. And then what? She turns and returns– and then what? More laughing and growing– and then what? She figures out something– and finds others who see she is right. And then what? Her ideas spread, but they jail her– like Natasha Narwhal. And then what? We all see she’s right and come into the streets like a flood. And then what? Life is still hard, but noone sleeps hungry or cold; we still struggle and we still love– we struggle because we love.
-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.
-January 1, 2022 Flocks of sheep drift down from the hills, like dry leaves blown free by a gust of winter wind– they block highways, refuse any compromise. In Lutyens’ Delhi, the Home Minister paces and shouts: Who’s in charge of the sheep? I told you to crush all resistance!
-Dyal Singh College Road, 9 P.M. Emerging from the metro, I met a swollen moon, I sipped a little smoke, tripped on the NIA. There was Hany Babu singing out a lecture— it was so soft and clear; it sounded like a poem. I sat down on the footpath, I shivered, yes, I cried: how can we celebrate with friends like this inside?
The marching farmers fall, like wheat beneath a fast combine; young and old, they fall, stuck from behind, struck from behind! Watch the video: it is so clear, my friends, so clear; they’re marching peacefully: they do not fear, they do not fear. I see my father there; his tall, bent back, his slow, slow gait. The fallen ones will rise— like seeds, that is their fate, our fate!
you remember how often you misunderstand important things— like that time the drunken drain cleaner looked straight at you and said, Of course, I read poetry, or the night you saw the shopkeeper you’d argued with days before, wearing no mask and laughing, and how at that moment, he looked just like your closest friend— or yesterday, when you heard the young fruit seller on your corner tell the woman next to you, yes, he was looking for books— ninth standard, and schools have been closed for so long— and you suddenly remembered the relationship between the price of labour and rice and pears— and the cost of capitalism.
Patriotic schools, large flags— prayers and promises; our CM’s studied Gandhiji; says Ram Rajya is his goal. Let’s study Ravidas, Kabir, Phule and Ambedkar; instead of ‘soft Hidutva’, friends, let's learn to live together.
Last night, I dreamt my sister spoke up in the council, and when I rose to back her, I felt a gentle tremor. No matter if it’s UP, Kashmir or even Delhi, when your sibling stands, you must stand up with them.
You are rubbing my head as Kabul falls, and again when your friend’s sister calls; bad news, bad news, it comes in twos, hold on to the ones you love.
-Delhi, June 4 I lied when I told you the worst had passed; we’d be back on the streets in June— and we’d win; and I lied when I said I’d dreamed this wave would recede by the next full moon— but it did, and we will.
Outside the emergency department doors, a woman sobs as she clings to a trembling, straight-backed man. As we pass them, everything shakes: the smoky clouds, the hospital walls— bushes, flowers, trees— the footpath under our feet. These two are holding up a piece of the sky tonight; it has broken, I know you can feel it.
-Delhi, May 1, 2021 This morning, you said you’d dreamt of a room full of books and children; I only remember warm air, the sound of your breath and sirens.
-after Kabir Friends, I have seen astonishing sights: a great seer slain by invisible invaders; proud men cueing for buses, or liquor, to flee a failing capital; kings and princes kissing their master’s hidden hand while their subjects struggle to breathe— I have seen the fevered rich party, then pack their bags while pyres burn day and night. Last week I saw one woman turn her scooty into an ambulance, and just now I saw another woman sitting on the footpath in front of a hospital— she is less than a mile from where I stay; she is sobbing, my friends, she is sobbing.
The moon is nearly full, the pyres are burning bright, the wind is clear and cool; let the air last through this night.
When I saw the video of pyres burning in an open field because, contrary to what one would expect based on official figures, the crematoriums were overflowing, I remembered that spring day, two years ago, when I saw you last, and how your mother’s shoulders slumped as the steel doors slammed, and how late that night, after the tears and prayers and stories boiled down, we sat in silence under a spinning fan, and then how she looked at me and said, I know you know I loved her— but still, I feel I have failed.
Do you struggle against the deepening dark because you read Marx or Ambedkar? Or was it the bus driver who whispered in your ear, or the teacher who failed you, or the neighbors who forced you to say, ‘Everything is fine’? Or was the way the world treated your parents— or was it the way they still loved you?
You cradle the purring cat like your mother cradled you in the old photo you keep by your bed— you know the cat is not a child, and neither are you, but often in April, as the ceiling fan gently spins you, you remember her tender hands.
I’ve tried for years to write a perfect poem, an open window that lets in cool air— or a siren calling from the main road, reminding us to listen, reach and care. That might have worked before this darkness fell, but now, I fear, it may not be enough; we must throw back the curtains so the bright sky can cleanse this sickness, feed our strength and love.
(i) You don’t know me, but in the summer of 2019, you met my friend— she couldn’t stop talking about you: a man who knew how to listen, a leader who spent more time working out of the spotlight than in it; a scholar who’d learned the art of switching autos mid-journey— They trail me everywhere, you told her, smiling, Why should I bring them to you? I was envious I hadn’t been there: for months, I kept hearing your name spoken alongside words like hero and hope. When they put you inside, those words were joined by rougher ones, but don’t worry; we have not forgotten. (ii) I thought of you yesterday morning as I passed by the PM’s residence on the way to CP. The wind was cool and smelled like a green living thing; the Delhi sky was more blue than gray, and clouds of bright yellow leaves rose from a sweeper’s broom. I thought: it’s springtime today, but how long will it last? My phone said Tihar Jail was just 12 kms away; at that moment I prayed that you were near an open window. (iii) Alone at night, or on Delhi’s borders we say your name when we pray or shout; we have not forgotten you or the others, we’ll welcome you all, when you come out. I wish we could talk, under a tree, I’d ask what you’d read, how did you cope? I’d buy you a cup of special hot tea, I’d ask what you think of heroes and hope.
-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.
-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!
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?
-Republic Day, 2021 Somewhere winter wheat waits beneath cold soil and sky— soon, we’ll share a meal. The police give in: lakhs of tractors demonstrate people power, hope. I choose the farmers: they grow wheat and rice, not hate. Which side are you on?
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.
-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 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.
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.
-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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
-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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
-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.
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.
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.
-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.
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.
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,
Yes, there have been many disappointments.
No, Ola and Uber were not defeated.
In spite of what you see as good intentions,
you feel the broom gave up too soon, retreated.
And who will find good jobs for those in need?
No one I know has convincing answers.
We dreamed last time we’d sweep the city clean
of inequality and other cancers!
No single man or party has the strength
to stand against the ones with the real power—
yes, all of us together may well fail,
but divided, we’ll be forced to bow and cower!
This vote is not a cure, friend, let’s talk straight—
now is not the time to vote for hate.
It is difficult to remember when it was or could be, but the
August sun was low, the air was clear and damp, and the roads
were still, except for the rattle and ring of cycles and bells. We
were walking through narrow lanes, offering to sing songs
about the songs we’d all sung during the darkness. A few doors
declined to open, and from time to time insults fell on us from
behind shuttered windows: immigrant, infiltrator, anti-
national, traitor— and other hard words which no longer
possessed any power or meaning. But on most corners, small
crowds greeted us with slaps on the back and many joined in
when we sang. In the late afternoon, as we crossed a muddy
field newly planted with tomato and pepper seedlings, a boy
ran up from behind us and demanded to know if we
remembered the song we’d been singing on Rajpath when the
police threw down their lathis and guns and melted into the
rising sea we’d all become. We solemnly nodded, then one of
us sputtered, and we all started laughing and shouting and
singing together. Later, we agreed that the song still tasted cool
and sweet every time we sang it, like water drawn from a hand
pump, like freedom.
In your dream, thin corpses
hang in a cold, dark room.
Strong men come and silently
slit them open—
they are harvesting handfuls
of organs or pearls.
As you tell me this,
news of another Jamia shooting
and more election rally hatred
streams across screens all over Delhi.
What have I to offer,
tender comrade, friend?
Night has fallen,
the horizon is near,
we’re all fighting
and longing for light.
-for Shadab Najar
In the video, it all moves so fast,
but when the frame freezes,
some things become clear.
We see a boy or young man,
mouth wide, as if he
is smiling as he shouts—
in his right hand, a pistol;
it is pointed towards
the sky. Behind him,
a line of police look on,
one is leaning on his lathi;
to one side, a cameraman films.
And now look at the man
with the long, wavy hair, striding
towards the man with the gun—
his arms are down,
his body open, as if to say,
I am not afraid of you,
and you have nothing
to fear from me,
as if to say,
come, let’s sit and talk.
There is one more thing
every parent will see
when they study this photo
of the striding man:
raised this one right,
this one is one to be proud of.