laid to rest

The floor breathed and sweated depending on the season and our disposition. In summer coolness wrapped the soles, the pores of the skin opened in receptivity as we walked around the house. During monsoon the moisture spread like a wild dream, climbing the walls and molding papers and clothes. The durries and floor mats were aired and sunned, or else they oozed when you placed your feet on them. Moisture was harder to manage, like a well-kept secret it remained trapped under the cement for months after the skies cleared, and surfaced like memories breaking through the membrane of time.

No cement, just bricks and lime plastered with layers of mud, my mother said of her parent’s house which if still standing will be nearly a hundred years old. That cannot be, I knew she was trying to emphasize the will of her father that held the structure up. He bought the house he had rented into, saving up to buy it took nearly a lifetime and by then his three daughters were adults, ready to be married, and his four sons were gawky adolescents.

My father remembers the house as a young son-in-law. Radiant and bursting with people, he told me; down the courtyards voices rang of visitors from every part of Madras, from Madurai and Mayavaram. The kitchen was open round the clock, round the year – coffee brewed with milk from the cow brought to the doorstep, and meal ready by 8.30 a.m. My grandfather who was a lawyer ate as early as that, after which he wore his coat over his cotton shirt and starched veshti, twisted a turban from angavastram, and wore these for a ride in the Pallavan bus to the High court in Mint.

My aunts and uncles dispersed all over India, visited Madras during the summer holidays. My mother married my father a banker from Madras and was available for her aging parents all through the year. Besides her, there were two unmarried uncles, one of them schizophrenic and violent in his behavior; the other could not get himself to face the world, he raged how he had never got his due. He never sat to speak to anyone, and no one knew what he wanted from them or life. My mother was his angel, but angels cannot always help, at best they can be calming and accepting.

Very different from that of my father’s, my enduring memory is of the house falling silent and getting leaner, and of people severely ill and dying.  My grandmother died of cancer after a painful battle. After the rest of the family left, my mother and I witnessed my grandfather’s grief, it was like watching a dark movie week after week. Devastated he spent a large part of the day staring at the wall. I kept away from him, walked in the periphery of the house – spent hours on the gooseberry tree, scrambled up the tiled roof, dawdled along the walls. With sorrow collecting like a stone at the pit of my stomach, I went to him one day, stood beside him, and looked at the wall. When it made sense to me at last – his major occupation of the day – the dark wet blanket that clamped me down lifted, flew away like a feather. On the wall was the framed photo of my grandmother. Vel photo studio in Luz Corner had done a clean job of an old photo where my grandfather sat on a chair and she stood beside him. She was alone in this photo, on the far left an ornate table one sees in old Tamil movies had been added with a vase of flowers. I was learning to paint and my grip over perspective was weak, but in a minute I knew there was something wrong with that vase whose open mouth I could see from where I stood eight feet away and five feet below the picture. My mind was engaged in questioning the purpose for this addition in the photo: my grandmother instead of assuming the gravity of the dead, looked like an actress in a musty studio.

When my uncle in a rage emptied a bucked of cold water on my grandfather’s head, this behavior milder when compared to what followed in the next few days, my mother arranged for an ambulance from Kilpauk hospital and coaxed her brother to open the door of the room where he had locked himself. She stood outside the ward as he was administered electric shock and after a couple of hours brought him home as if after tooth extraction. My mother had this capacity to make everything appear normal even when it wasn’t.

At about the same time, the house began hollowing out, it shed plaster – chunks of them. They were getting old – both her father and her house. Cracks bisected diagonally a wall in the storeroom; timber room, part of the study upstairs, wooden steps leading to the terrace were advised not to be used, and they became nesting places for scorpions. Saferoom remained safe with its iron vault which was for the most part empty but for my grandfather’s silver plate. The vault was weighed in rupees and sold as scrap when the house fell after my grandfather died. The money that came from selling the land and the strong wooden doors were shared between my mother and her siblings. My uncle’s share was put away in a bank and used for his medicines and stay as a life-long resident in a home. My mother used her share to re-lay the floor in our house, the cement floor was replaced with mosaic tiles. Houses are not meant to speak and care must be taken to keep them mute.

The Celestial Flower

My father cups water from the river,
pods, leaves, algae lace his hands, residue
from the silver streams down his darkened skin.

Chandrama vaa apaam pushpam: Moon is the flower
of the waters. Who was this poet from a time
so long ago when red dust rose to the sky?

His calloused palm endures the fire
drawn from water. Mama patni – the mound
of experiences washes to the earth

as his trembling fingers point down. Her name
delivered to the river, a final
allusion before he breaches layers

of skin cold from a pallid moon   
in the morning sky – echoes the moment
an ember is borne by light and energy,

the shells awash. It is significant,
root of the word flower in the ancient
language is push, to nourishfilling in.

The Pity

Pieta: a mother cradles a grown man.
A woman carries her father, scrawny limbs
drape her breasts. She hefted strained muscles,
coiled in the heart nerves frayed with grief

for a journey bypassing the town marked
by death – the end comes at a different time
to each person unlike the year when the plague struck,
took away the brother and sister the same day.

Why is a graveyard called a burning forest?
When I married into the family I learned
to discern the depth of sorrow in the way
dust swirled into a hurricane under chairs.

The slats crusted with mercurial light,
a string of shorter questions flapped in a line
of thought dried out in the yard: weighty
wetness upended between poles of pain.

the flower discovers the poet

மடல் பெரிது தாழை
           ~ ஒளவையார் 

She was                                                     peripatetic
slung a bag                across the shoulder
A pouch of puffed rice             salted        tempered with pepper 
moistened the old saree
frayed at the shoulder               with sweat
She walked until                                 she couldn’t
identify a single species of tree

to learn anew
                                         which one yielded edible berries
if Pandanus bore flowers
in the rosette                               of spiked leaves   

In her land, it rains every tenth day

(for Andal)

வாங்கக் குடம் நிறைக்கும் வள்ளல் பெரும் பசுக்கள்
நீங்காத செல்வம் நிறைந்தேலோர் எம்பாவாய்.

The hill fashions clouds
the illupai breathes deep to enable this.
Shrouded in a fog the pimpled bark of wild lime
loops liana climbers under hoary limbs.


The red earth swirls in a dust storm
precipitation veins the hill.
The mercurial rupture on the boulders, the burst
of life tosses the crown of kadamba.


The heartwood browned with age holds
the secret of her progeny. Stewing  the sap
into the folds of the skin, she births a calf  
who sleeps in the ooze of milk.

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.

Gomti and Sarayu

Sarayu

The two rivers meet in the town
where the mountain spreads legs
for the valley that is prone on her back
like a slumberous woman.

Gomti flows into Sarayu
ceases to exist after the convergence.
In a statement of finality the river ends
as individual lives terminate.

The old temple priest would not let me step
into Gomti, pick a pebble from a tumble
of moss. My ashes will be strewn here,
he said pointing to the stony riverbed.

His eyes rested on Sarayu’s mercurial water
that flowed in silver twists between rocks.
He touched my head to bless and said:
Sarayu is for the living, for you.

The Full Moon: A Love Poem

thumbai

After he leaves for the airport
the dust from his shoes settles on the floor

The smell of soap lingers in the room
as I fold the warmth of his body in the  blanket

It goes back to the practice from my childhood
when I wandered in the overgrown backyards of people

to collect the thumbai flowers, pinches of moon in my palm
that  I weaved  into a garland, the pale stem of a flower

pressed into the heart of another, into the soft pouches
of nectar for the bees that helicoptered to my face

Brush of wings a whisper so faint like the slight
movement of his chest as he slept

I pay attention to the small things in him that the others miss
so like the thumbai flower that no one cared to gather.

Who

There was a time we shared our world with animals
swam with horses in the seas, manes covering
our bodies when we pulled along the marina for coitus
muscles tensed, eyes sky blue the colour of our seeds.

I birthed the universe: body the dawn, eyes the sun,
mouth the fire I stoke in my kitchen, spit of grease
thick on foil – offerings made to the gods. They licked
their lips satiated. I am death, hence two faced life.

Half a seed stirring with desire, fathered the other half –
Prajapati, the God, man as in male, my mirror, lover
coiled around me. I shuddered. There was no speech. No
words. Those were times a question became an answer.

Who? Prajapati did not know, so asked. That is him. Who.

Conquest

He is dumb from holding fire in his mouth
and could as well be dead, despite the fire:

not because he has no words,
he will have no kingdom if there is no fire.

The priest knows it, mumbles incantation to Agni,
offers ghee to the potent heat searing the tongue.

What feeds the fire, is it words or ghee,
or the word ghee uttered by the priest?

Fire rolls out of the sealed mouth,
as man to woman, word to desire is wedded.

The word births history, colonizes earth,
marks boundaries and draws maps.

Story softens brutality, so does poetry,
holds god’s attention to syllables and declensions

while the fire scorches the grass. Stubbles of flames
fanned by wind unfurls, licks acres of river plains.

Pathways open as forests are razed and animals burnt –
a blighted day when a word can rule the God of Fire.

_____________
Source: Satapatha Brahmana (700 BCE)

The story of Mathava in Satapatha Brahmana narrates the eastward movement of the Aryan tribe from the banks of River Sarasvati to regions near River Sadanira, present day Ghagara. It is a document of conquest and expansion mythologised in a story.