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.

Kumbakonam thereabouts

My mother’s friend bemoans that she lives in a poor village – there are fifty families in the village and the agraharam like a line segment hemmed in by temples is straggly.

Her house is ramshackle, she bought it for a song because that was all she could afford in her post-retirement wish to move out of the city for a quiet life. When I visited her, she warned of the scorpions under the tiles, mice that sneak in through the mitham, and centipedes that permanently reside in the washroom. There was a contraption that looked like the one used to hold down a snake. Seeing me eye the long rod, she said it was used to pull down drumsticks and lime from trees. I remained alert during my stay and watched my steps.

Her husband took me around the village. The banyan tree dwarfed the temple and arched across the narrow road to canopy the large and mossy temple pond. A dirt road led out of the village to acres of shimmering paddy fields – heads of the tall grass heavy with grains, the stalks a coppery gold. When the sun moved high in the sky, the earth became a column of light, and I could barely keep the eyes unblinking. He led me to a tree and we sat for long in silence as dark patches gathered at the corner of my vision. In the city I had not experienced naked light; tall buildings and dust-laden trees bounce off the glare.

He wiped his forehead with the carefully folded thundu. His veshti was crisp and his shirt neatly ironed – echoes from the days he displayed fine taste. Many of my friends desired him to be their father, or rather desired their father to be like him – stylish and suave; he wore shades for Madras summer, and went for a jog near the Marina in shorts – something that only film heroes did.

He worked as a technical director in a film studio – what job that entailed I do not know, but l knew it commanded an envious lifestyle of parties and travels to places that I had to look up in the atlas. He sailed in a cloud of perfume, you could smell musk for hours after he left a room.

I wasn’t perceptive then; in retrospect, I see the cracks: his aspirations tensed his relationship with his wife. Now in the absence of all that he possessed, I sense a turmoil, his dis-ease with himself, and alienation from the resplendent kingfisher just a metre away hovering above the wild fern fronds.

The Fine Art of Aging

(for Avvaiyar)

மனம் தடுமாறேல்

The row of chairs in Kabali Talkies trembled as he
flapped his legs like wings, squat they hardly reached the floor.

The grains danced, broke up and assembled into a face –
Avvaiyar’s eyes caverns of coal, the mouth squiggles of insects.

There is the Ancient One in every family, ageless and padded
in legend: mine was widowed at seventeen, her head shaved,

remained blouse less, and shredded of all that made her a woman.
The movie was long, engrossed me for three hours as she

shed her youth, beauty and became the old woman I knew
in the kitchen, living in the interspace of desire and memory.

She rolled the rosary and recounted stories late into the nights
her body a begging bowl that refused to ask for a day more.

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.

The coffee drinkers

When the milk was delivered midmorning            languor
cradled in the crook of the household            

On the coal stove blazed by asthmatic breaths
coffee beans splayed open         peaberry plantation 50 – 50        

Pampered in Madras the pattanam girl
was given to coffee drinking        That was why

I was born dark like the beans         fathered by Kuppiah
in the mango grove       Decoction congealed tar on milk      groping

dark hands mottled the fair skin as mid-day coffee drinkers
wove fumes on glass slats

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 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 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