About Uma

Writer and artist from Chennai, South India.

Bleached in the beachless town

She tosses fistful of bleach into the vegetables simmering in the pan     the foam
shores up

like the salt at the estuary in Marakannam          In the town without a beach

where the land
lazily         copulates with the sea        the breeze
at the gopura vassal  breathes into the womb  of her memory

It is then she hears the machine                    in the depth of the lungs

 like a hawk rasping    not kissing did’nt protect her from the bursting heart   

She lugs a bucket       topples the water on the cracked red earth         chafes
with harsh bristles till scraggy dreams

          explode

the colors of sunset            Does it feel lonely

when stars are harpooned one after another       keel to reveal
squishy undersides

as the waves pale in a moonless night          When the heat clams down
everything longs to escape –

the wheezing pig in the yard           the wail of loss scratching the sky

Pandemic/Pralaya

She sat on the thinnai
her head fixed in the direction of the sea,

heat wrapped around her feet
as she narrated the pilgrimage to Kasi.


Widowed young she had to wait as the women
in her family counted the moons she mensurated. 

When she left on padayatra she announced
it was her last journey,

watching her back diminish from sight
the family believed so too.


Those were times when roads were built for walkers
avenued with vembu, allai, puliya maram

their saps flowed through deep entrails of hard earth
into ponds and deep wells to quench thirst.

Nights were thick, air breathed with pollen dust,
mating animals moved deep into dense forests.


She came back eight months later
darker and thinner, with a distant look,

began talking of her body as a tenement
she would soon vacate.

She referred to time as the end of a kalpa
when the waves lashed the walls of Tiruvelikeni kovil.

It was a part of the story she narrated –
the leaf on the water at the moment of dissolution

as the sea bed heaved. If alive today

she would have translated the pandemic as pralaya –

both three syllabled, hers ending with a vowel
the slow exhalation of air when light escapes the sky.

The Walk

In another version of his life
he has not traveled beyond a mile.
The river plies fresh loads of algae
empties the hill at his feet where the ferns
dry their hoary limbs.

He fits the odds of his life in a bag
walks along the spent river
that cradles the kingfisher in a shard of light.
The villagers troop along the cracked bund
see his back diminish to a pinpoint.

The fish floats belly up
the venom stains the reeds a shade of purple
flows down the throat of the crown flower
to the small of his back when he kneels
as if the body is built to fold up.

They bring him wrapped, calf muscles buckled
from what the human body is not meant to do –
walk three hundred miles, drop like a yellowed leaf
to be rested under the cassia tree in full bloom
just a mile from home
.

The context:
After the 21 day lockdown in India to contain the spread of Coronavirus, the states have closed their borders, bus and train services have been suspended. The lockdown has left tens of millions of migrant workers unemployed. They are from rural India, small towns and villages, but live most of the year in India’s megacities. Believed to number at least 120 million, possibly more, they are walking to their homes, hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they had migrated for work.

A 23 year old man walking from Nagpur in Maharashtra to Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, after completing 500 kilometers in the summer heat of the southern Indian plains, died of cardiac arrest in Secunderabad, many miles away from home.

Poem 2 of Lockdown

The Emissary

When the crow grew raucous as if rebuking me,
I knew who would turn up at the door
It happened every time without fail
.

I believed when my mother said that no one fell off
the earth. It was the night the moon’s face
reflected in her nose ring.


Bracing her shoulders she narrated
of the surge when creatures with hundred limbs
crawled between the fingers of moringa tree

and choked every passage to the lungs.
She daubed a cloth with kerosene, set them aflame
watched prayers harden like dung cake patted on the wall.

The visitor came as predicted. The fear
that swarmed the plank of my chest disappeared –
after all tales are meant to soften blows.


Poem 1 of Lockdown

Writing A Poem Through The Solar Eclipse

The solar eclipse observed in the sky over Chikmagalur, Karnataka
Photo courtesy: Rajesh Kosalram

When the slant of the sun is a lie of the lover
the copper tint on her skin is proportioned to his clouded gaze.

The scent in her hair is from the vettiver soaked in oil
like a mush of earth thick at the roots where the sun doesn’t reach.

When the moon mutes the sunlight, you are no different
from the oleander flowers and the gardenia paled dusty ivory.

The pallor on the banana leaf is the same shade as the darbah grass
in the copper dish where the ghee mutates into poison.

Who can summon the voice of the river weighed by slurry?
In my city even the crows have grown less clamorous.

It is left for someone to bring home what lies cold in unturned earth
that hasn’t known the warmth of a worm’s breath.

The Terrace Concert

When the breath drains between the two notes
of the song, his mind wanders to the terrace of the house.

The heap of rice glistened in the lazy slant of winter light,
her fingers flicked the stones, husked grains.

In the courtyard, the sparrows washed by the song
lapped against the wall marked with flecks of betel juice.

The house has long been gone, the map in his head
smudged as he looks at the disc of music – the rare one

from a terrace concert sung for the dancer. In the street
where Kaveri once danced along the backyard,

now sludge streaked with turmeric from the bath
of vidwan’s wife drains into the river.

He had longed to enter the threshold. His father had warned
only street dogs enter open doors.

______________
Vidwan – Carnatic musician, in the context of the poem

The movement

The clay in a pot
is the movement of desire through silence.
The winged seed travels
to the hand that kneads a fist of breath.

As the ground dips under moisture
at the limb of the river
the seed sprouts into a pale sapling.

The sharp October sun
pierces through the squint in the eye
to the undergrowth of memory.

The pearl diver dark and slick with oil 
      like the sinuous serpent of an eclipse
when it swallows the moon,
drops into the stillness of unbecoming.

The Tale From Mylai

She ran on the cobbled stones.
Her waist-length hair oiled and plaited  
that swung behind, she mistook for the dog
outside Velan paper mart.

At the temple tank, moss webbed jade in her feet
the turmeric from the Karpagambal shop
glistened on her neck as she went
seeking him in the bat-smelling belly of the shrine.

When the moon in the horoscope
moved to the eleventh house
he turned his gaze inward, sat at the temple prakaram
with the odhuvaar and trained his voice.

In the dark entrails of thrashing passion
words from the song housed in his sticky palate
she probed with her tongue into the cavity of his soul
smelling of areca nut and country hooch.

A story for the month: Panguni

When the gods dance
on the street the first day of Panguni

she rolls the mat
spreads her legs
 
nestles in the warmth between

a stone from Kollidam
serrated with age and kinship of earth.

She carves a pestle
the hollow indent of navel cradles the empty sack

where seeds rattle –
the pods hard and bristled  like her tonsured head.

They say she was barely nineteen
when she was widowed
soaked her body in kashayam made with liquorice root  
embalmed the face in neem paste.

There is a type of plant that serves as fences
even goats do not eat the leaves
breeze does not pass between the branches

whorls of leaves
masquerade as flowers.

______

Panguni is a Tamil month, from mid March to mid April
Kollidam is a river in southern India
Kashayam, a Tamil word for decoction

where poems hide

A butterfly dusted in sunset orange dips into a flower
like a diver who tears into the silky fabric of the sea.

The honeyed bees are encrusted and scaled with pollen
as the laced wings whir, toss the flowers. 

I feel most elated on a day when sun licks the earth in thirst
the notes tumble from the dried twig, set fire a song.  

I think the poem hid in a flower, in the wings of a butterfly
in the pollen on a drunken bee, in the song of a thirsty earth.

I raked the ground, sifted through the crumble of browned leaves
watched the earth yield a plant and offer a flower to find this.

I will blame the blueness in the sky
the berries fallen and crushed under feet, seeds carried away by wind

the plain breasted bird on a dying tree.
Sun soaks through everything, stitches specialness into the ordinary