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

How a mother processes a terror attack

Across the street, the boys leave in twos and threes
the stones polish as their feet fall to the drip drop of rain
no story gets out of the land where the hills rumble
scar the songs of the birds that break the silence
of the stacked stones till the grey of the sky explodes.

They feel in their spines the lightning strike the chinar
sheep break the fence as they splash the stillness of the lake
limbs swim up, one still adorns a sock eaten at the toe.
The wool dyed in the vat boils with juices of berries
turns the eyes the color of the sap when a shrapnel tears through.

She wakes up, nervously grabs a knife. The fruit splays on the plate
the family eats it, the meat is let to marinate in the brine of loss.
How does one arrange what has splintered across the table?
Payback. She shakes her head, pushes the sleeve of her tunic

dismantles the stockpile that fences her house – the rubble
of bones, pellets of flesh,  the moon marks on nails, adamant warts.
The spray of dandruff like burning stars scatters
in the garden, the smoke palls his face as she throws
a handful of soil over the eyes, the mouth open in prayer.

How a poem processes a terror attack

for the jawans killed in Pulwama

Last evening I drove past the line of crows
realized that at the end of the street stood four hooded men

The burning wood left tears, the lamp post trembled
in the rings of smoke

Anger mislaid brick over brick

From the threshold, I could see the dead
one after another fall into the white crack of light that
poured through the gutter grates

With my palms smeared in ash, I went to complete
what the fire began

The message to the gods coiled through the viscosity of air
hung between the two worlds

The universe is an elongated throat covetous of the farthest constellation
Call it home even when the meteors pulse
implode the cells in the brain.

The Darkness

The earth closes in the coldness of a sunless day
overhead faint noises of birds splitting twigs.

Do not divest a single pebble from the river
never deny a word that rises like the last breath.

On certain dark days these are what you hold
in the body that falls so easily from the sky

weightless like a feather and a crushed flower,
into the poem which is the only safety net.

Palaniappan Of Theni

Palaniappan herds cows in the hills near Theni;
school he is enrolled in does not have a teacher,
windows gaping holes that offer entry to goats,
their pellets under tables still soft,
bulbs hang from exposed wires,
toilet is the bush beyond the banyan tree.
His father insists that he sits a few hours
at school with the children of the village –
mass of oily heads, sweaty bodies, loud vocal cords.
The day at school is done,
Murugan who owns the street corner tea shop
comes to ring the bell, in the belt
that holds his lungi at waist is the Tamil Daily
rolled tight as a baton to swat flies,
the Daily carries this headline:
Right to Education Bill effective from April.

Read Write Poem NaPoWriMo # 29

Degrees Of Deception


Chennai experienced incessant rains a fortnight ago. Even as my life was limping back to a semblance of normalcy, the meteorological  department a week later predicted another cyclone. A  depression brooded about 1000 kms off the coast of Tamilnadu, we followed as it moved as close as 750kms. I took to praying, an activity that I engage in with a lot of self irony whenever I do it during times of crisis.  When the  depression  weakened we  sighed with relief and we speculated jocularly what the metereological  department would have named the cyclone. The earlier one that paralyzed our lives carried a household name – Nisha.

I was marooned in my flat for four days without electricity, I could not step out because there was five feet water in our apartment complex  the first day after the rains. The water had entered into the   chambers where electricity connection from the TNEB are sourced to the flats , the TNEB technicians were called in to disconnect electricity supply coming  to our building. We were without electricity for four days, there was no power to run water pumps , so there was restricted water supply  all the four days. We had to wade through four feet of water to get our supplies of milk and drinking water.

This is nothing new in most parts of India, we are desensitized to images of people  afflicted  by floods. Every year while reeling under oppressive heat in Chennai, we read in the papers of the progress of southwest monsoon over the states of Kerala, Maharashtra, the plains of Northern India, the spate of Brahmaputra in the north east.  When the south west monsoon has spent itself the northern plains cool off. Cold wind blows towards the Indian Ocean and it picks moisture in the Bay of Bengal giving rain to Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra Pradesh. Spells of low pressure develops over the Bay of Bengal, sometimes developing into cyclone giving heavy rains along the coast.

All the major cities, towns, and villages in India reel under rains, south west or north east;  crops are destroyed, thousands of people are rendered  homeless, properties get damaged.  The patterns of monsoon repeat year after year and news of the scars that rains leave repeat every year. We are never ready to manage the floods. Cities and towns are crowded, infrastructures like storm water drains and drainages are poorly maintained, drainage basins have been eaten away by illegal and unauthorized encroachments.

Those are larger issues that I cannot address, and those who should, do not care.  But I want to look at my peculiar situation because no municipal corporation or government has cheated me the way the builder and developer of our apartment has. I live in a locality called Virugambakkam, in a particular apartment  called Jain Ashraya Phase 2 built by the Jain Housing Society. It is located in  Vembuliamman street, a lane off the arterial Arcot road. Once considered a suburb, Virugambakkam has become a sought  after residential locality due to its proximity to Vadapalani and Kodambakkam. The lane where our apartment complex is located is the place where KK Nagar ends and Virugambakkam begins. Located in this limnal place has its advantage as we can move into the city via KK Nagar faster without getting into the traffic choked Arcot road. We moved into the apartment in 2005.  

There are multiple versions circulated about what this plot was before it was acquired by the Jains. Ours is in fact the third property that the Jains developed in the same neighbourhood, the first two are next to ours, developed sometime the end of 1990s and early 2000. Did all the three plots belong to an individual, sold away in parts at different time? Were all the three plots similar, farm lands and groves as many say? While remembering this suburb of Chennai, many people recollect that this was farmlands, groves and swamplands.  It is difficult to believe that all the three plots were similar, looking at them now. The first two plots are at the level of the road, while ours is a good four feet below the level of the road. Were all the three plots the same level, did the developer raise the levels of the earlier two plots? Why did the Jains not raise the level of our land before the apartments were built? Or was our plot not at the same level as the others, many say that our plot was a pond before it was drained for farmland. Two possibilities can be summarized – the other two plots had been raised to the level as road while ours was not by the builder; or the other two were  already at a raised level and Jains did not want to spend in raising the level of our plot as that would involve costs that they did not incur on their earlier two projects.

Jains had by the time our project was launched, won a considerable amount of credibility in the market among the middle class Chennaites.  Jain Housing Society was one of the builders along with Alacrity and Ceebros who was  involved in promoting  building projects in the suburbs – a flat in the suburbs was  more affordable for people like us than buying a flat in downtown.

Many of us during our visit to the site during construction ( we had already made our first payment towards the flat  ) enquired the Jains about the level of the apartment complex. We were asked not to worry about the level as it was intentional, part of the design of the architect. The drainage of water had been taken care of, they assured.  As the flat was built, the view from the car park of the tastefully landscaped garden gave a subterranean feel and we thought the creative architect had designed at this level for aesthetics. Little did we realize that the building was severely flawed.

Were we so naïve that we did not see this structural flaw that is so blatantly visible to anyone now? We were heady about our investment for several reasons and we so much wanted to believe that we were buying our dreams at a rate that was affordable for us, of course with fat loans from banks that would take us many years to repay.  My husband and I had never been astute about our savings and investments, but we wanted to think that nothing much had been lost and buying a flat with a large terrace would affirm that we were not too bad at all despite our lackadaisical attitude to matters serious like planning for the future. We look at our flat as a life time property, a place where my husband and I will grow old, from where my son will leave to carve his own life.  So it hurts very deep down that the Jains had deceived us in our faith that we kept in ourselves and a part of faith that we invested in them as a conduit of our dreams.  We were so naïve that we did not see that they were only doing business with us.

We are pained to see that all the residents of the 120 flats are naïve like us, they too have just this one home, not in a position to chuck this and move elsewhere. Value of property has sky rocketed, they can’t think of buying property in this locality which has long ago ceased to be a suburb, the city is pushing its boundaries farther and farther. Yes, the value of our flat has multiplied, but it is of no importance to people like us who will never sell our flats. Our flat is not an investment but the only home that we had ever wanted to build. Jains has not taken cognizance of these values that my family seems to be sharing with most of the families in our apartment complex.

The year we occupied the flat, 2005, we experienced heavy rains, unprecedented and the rains caught us in a spell of surprise i
nitially, and then in shock and outrage. Our apartment complex was flooded, the building was steeped in three feet water, the car park was inundated, the garden area was all submerged, the lobby area was filled with water. The electrical connections from the Main terminals to the flats were under water , for safety TNEB suspended electrical connection to our flat. The water pumps were submerged and anyway we did not have electrical power to run the pumps. So we went without water. Many of the families moved out, makeshift rafts with tyres and wooden plank transported old people to the gate. We were not prepared for anything of this magnitude. It took five days to pump the water out and nearly a week for normalcy to reign.

At that time, we had been on a one year contract for maintenance with Promags, an organization that is a subsidiary of Jain Housing Society.  Their officers worked day and night to bale out water and restore normalcy.  Soon after, we went and met up the Chairman/ Director of the Jains. We expressed our anger, there was more helplessness than anger, and a deep sense of outrage.

Jains undertook to redress the situation in certain ways. They promised to fill all the water bodies that they had created in the landscaped garden. These water bodies were non operative and had turned as breeding ground for mosquitoes. They then raised the height of the water pumps, they helped in setting motor pumps and pipes at various locations to pump out water during rains. An important outlet with a powerful pump was placed on the northern side of the building. This powerful motor would drain the rain water into the storm water drain on the Arcot road, an arterial road that is about 100 metres from our building. This underground pipe ran through a plot that had just then been bought by the Jains to develop into an apartment complex. The Jains completed these tasks, spent a few lakhs on these jobs and left the scene. Again, we trusted the Jains and believed that everything was in place. Thankfully we did not receive a rain that was as extreme as the year 2005.

2008 and Nisha proved to be something else. Within three days Chennai received rains that were six times more than the average rainfall that Chennai receives. Chembaramkkam lake was overflowing and so was Porur lake. Porur lake has been encroached by illegal settlements , so have all the canals in the nearby localities. Hence there is no channel for the rain water to course through to join the Adyar River. Whenever Chembarambakkam  lake is full, excess water is discharged and diverted into the Adyar river. The river swells beyond its capacity and floods the low lying regions.

Water level rose steadily in our apartment complex, principally because the inflow from the road was more than what we were pumping out. We learnt that the water was not getting drained from the northern side into the storm water drain in Arcot road.  Ironically the pump was in good working condition, the water that was pumped out was flowing back into the building. We suspected the drain, we dug to see where the problem lay. We observed that the stone drain that ran along the driveway of the new Jains complex was only few inches as against the two feet depth that the Jains promised us.  The movement of cars and vehicles had caused the drain to cave in.

The water  was first ankle deep when all of us moved our cars out , we parked them in drier areas – that was an effort by itself because no apartments in the neighborhood had enough parking place to accommodate our cars, so we drove about to various locations, homes of friends and relatives. Water then lapped into our lobby, we watched with consternation as the chamber where the electrical  connection for the flats are drawn from was getting filled up with water. It kept rising to a dangerous level and we called the TNEB to disconnect the connection coming to our building. It rained incessantly and we retired for the night our building plunged in darkness and our taps dry. What pained us and left us with a feeling of being cheated was that the other three Jains flats (two developed before ours and the one after ours) were safe and dry. And we knew that that was only the beginning because there was the forecast of a cyclone passing close to the coast of Pondicherry and Cuddalore.

We got up the next morning to see four feet of water in our lobby and five feet in the car park. The garden and the walkway were covered with sheets of water. We knew that we were reliving the 2005 floods. We will revisit the situation many more times as long as we live here and whenever the rains are intense because nobody can quarrel with the fundamental structural error that makes our plot a large bowl where excess water collect. We cannot put our building on stilts. So until then ….  And no contingency plan is fool proof, for various reasons that involve us as well as the Jains. We expected   the Jains to execute their promise with sincerity. We did not check when the pipes were laid, whether they ran deep. We trusted the Jains, as we had always done and also because we started feeling that Jains was doing a favour. Actually we have, now more than before, started believing that we are unfortunate to have bought this flat and that we had acted foolishly. So the Jains have been exonerated, they were and are doing what they are good at – doing business . They are not morally responsible if we lacked foresight.

We have gone to the Jains again asking for help. The negotiation will be a long drawn out, what will evolve this time is a matter of speculation. We have become like old people who learn to live with pains and cracks, smiling through decayed gums and rheumy eyes. We will noisily celebrate New Year Party in our car park area, forgetting (again like old people who have memory lapse) that the same space was lapping with rain and sewer water, that ghostly echoes ran through the emptiness of dark nights, just a month ago. And we will also invite to our apartment complex the Director/  Chairman of the Jain Housing Society, to hoist our country’s flag on the Independence Day. We need the Jains in the future years, don’t we? We have forged a relationship with the Jains.