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

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

no one can tell when the end comes

On quieter days
      the train can be heard from the terrace

the gong of the bell from the temple
travels to the after-life of the dead

when the machine is rested
certain gears function
                     for a while

no one can tell when the end comes

What is dear finds way to the brewing pot
odd leaves piled on the grass
the browned jasmines
rose petals still secreting the perfume

When you push open the door, angle the body
to the energy that inhabits a room

Do not coax the birds a minute longer
                                          to stay in the tree  
or a mollusk to lock the plasma in a shell

On an otherwise mundane afternoon, my son calls to say
his friend’s father died

Why, only yesterday he told me of the team lunch
the friend’s lactose intolerance
among other things

My mind makes the adjustment to accommodate
the new information of the young man I have not met
the father I will never meet

I touch the space of existence –
the space inside the shell where existence is a plasma of nothingness

no one can tell when the end comes

even explosion of colors hurt him

The stillness of the day moves in his limbs
he responds to my touch, tilts his head.

Eyes are closed –
the first place to lose light
and warmth: the dampness of the earth under the tree
wraps around the toes.

He breathes shallowly
like the caterpillar, every ounce of energy flows to the exploding wings
– the colors like that of the ribbons sold outside the temple.

The pinwheels whir in the breeze from the sea
hair tousled he looks at the pigeons that fly from the spire
at once the recess of his brain fills with bat excreta
the pungent want slops down the matted hair
he asks, is desire a muscle or a nerve?

In response, the little bodies of the bees hit the window pane
fall on the bed of asters, their wings a plank of light pointing to the sky
their bulbous saps drown in the dust of pollen.

He has given up carrying the heads of people he killed
the tree of breath sprawls on the water like the mangroves of Bengal
the slow-moving river guts the snake pits
gouges his face. Ghouls clamber out of swollen eyes
the lines on the chapped lips clamor in desperation:
craving is a long straw ingesting death in small sips.



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.