Three Poems

The Girl-Child

Where will you hide, my love? There’s no such place,
The body is a traitor, a fool the other, the face;
The eyes, the eyelashes, dreams or tattered sleep,
This man a robber and that man a thief.
Take the water-pot to the river –
Is it the summer or do you have fever?
Who stole your heart and left his on a hyacinth leaf?

What was it you hid among the bushes, was it your shame?
A bundle of life not even blessed with a name,
Let it lie there and cry, for the jackal and the vulture, under the burning sky –
A girl-child. Did you whisper in its ear: it is sweeter to die?

Round Things

The sun is round, the moon is round, all round things on earth
Make the bawling man-child dream of the waters of his birth

Blind swimmer on a slender cord, pressed out like a seed
Sprawled legs at deliverance, sprawled legs at the deed

Two round things to feed him, two round things so near
Two round things to tell him there is nothing to fear but fear

Boy-man turns and goes away, there is something wrong
Round things leave him hot, confused, round things make him long

For games that he has never played, nor would if he could
Ask the neighbour’s girl-child? Unsure whether he should

A mystery, a puzzle, a curtain, a shroud blowing in the wind
Father-man with the mother-woman, is it they who have sinned?

An army of apes raids the garden, litters the half-ripe fruit
Rama strides with His axe while Krishna plays the flute

How to keep my share of the loot, coveting another man’s treasure
Girl or child? They grow like grass: how to keep the measure

‘Liberty!’ calls the bird in the bush, ‘Loyalty!’ the bird in the cage –
Tenderly tend and tenderly provide, tenderly slaughter in rage?

What stirs in an old man’s loins? How does a godman die?
The fire that burns and the tears that flow in every newborn’s cry

Greetings

The sky as empty as a bereaved mother’s eyes
Day’s thick tongue laps at the brackish hours
A nine-teated bitch snaps at the flies
Under the municipal truck, where it cowers

Corrugated tin singes the crows’ feet at noon
Dhani Ram’s cat slinks down the alley
Frogs spawn in puddles, the tadpoles will come too soon
But not the flowers in the Sulupi Valley

Villages fester, fields crack like unoiled skin
Putrefying carcass of a creature in the ditch
Where shall I find odes, jade and jasmine
Greetings from the nine-teated bitch

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Talking the talk

‘…you’ve a fine bit of talk, stranger, and it’s with yourself I’ll go.’

That’s what Nora Burke, the young wife of Dan Burke, an elderly farmer, tells the tramp in J.M. Synge’s one-acter ‘In the Shadow of the Glen’. The setting is an isolated cottage in County Wicklow in Ireland in the year 1903. Dan is pretending to be dead and Nora is alone in the house with the ‘corpse’ when a tramp comes in. Nora goes out to look for Michael Dara, a youthful shepherd. That’s when Dan reveals to the tramp that his death is a ruse. Dan springs up again when Michael proposes to Nora, and kicks out Nora who leaves with the tramp, for a life of freedom, as even the Wikipedia will tell you, in its synopsis. But that’s missing the point. Nora goes with the tramp because…

‘…you’ve a fine bit of talk, stranger, and it’s with yourself I’ll go.’

It’s neither the first nor the last time that a woman has fallen for ‘a fine bit of talk’. As a man, I can only have secondary knowledge of what goes on in a woman’s mind, as Alexander Pope, the English poet (not the English pope, there’s disambiguation for you!), pointed out back in the eighteenth century. But this particular characteristic of women is perhaps the most endearing to men like me who are anything but ‘strong and silent’ – or rich, or influential, or famous, or successful, or anything of the ilk to appeal to the ur-instincts of the mother woman looking for a father for the superman according to the dictates of the Life Force – that’s the kind of horse apple people like George Bernard Shaw had the time & the leisure to dish out, you guessed it, in 1903! GBS was also an Irishman and a dramatist, like Synge. And he wrote his four-hour four-acter ‘Man and Superman’ the same year as Synge’s Shadow of the Glen. Synge died at 37, Shaw lived to be 94 – need I say anything more?

Yet Synge’s tiny output of five short plays and an unfinished one have accompanied me throughout my life, whereas I put Shaw’s numerous plays – and the prefaces, which were longer at times! – up for jumble sale shortly after graduation. I began life talking – or trying to talk like a Shavian – until I realised that there’s more of a Nora Burke than of an Ann Whitefield (the heroine of Shaw’s M&S) in every woman, especially the kind of women who had caught my eye & whose eye I was trying to catch in return.

As things turned out, I didn’t catch their eye – there was nothing much to catch anyway! – but I must have caught their ear, don’t ask me how. And that was their undoing. I talked and when I couldn’t talk – because they were out of town e.g. – I wrote. I wrote letters. My mother used to call it my epistolary literature – sarcastically, of course – but how did she guess? The beginning of all literature is a pretty girl who’s foolish – call it romantic enough to believe that life will not be as boring with someone who’s got ‘a fine bit of talk’. I call it the Nora Burke syndrome. Could even have called it the Nora Barnacle syndrome, in honour of Joyce’s muse & spouse. That would be the third Irishman in our gallery, and a dramatist too, for that matter!

In my case, I dragged those pretty girls through the dusty streets of Kolkata in the afternoon heat – and talked. God knows what I talked about – I mean that literally, since neither I nor the girls know any longer (I checked!). We walked the walk & I talked the talk. Not walking my baby back home but talking my baby back home. Though a suspicion strikes me even now. Did they listen? I should have quizzed them but I was far too busy following my own train of thought. I did check to see, from time to time, whether they were on board and listening – and they gave me a beautiful, heartwarming, slightly tired, slightly flustered smile. Or maybe they simply looked? I’ve forgotten. But I haven’t forgotten that look.

Since the days of the troubadour poets, women have been a sucker for poetry, because poetry is just another name for the way men are supposed to talk to women – for a certain purpose & with a certain intent, I hasten to add! The knight errant was handy as the action hero but the chatelaine was secretly in love with the minstrel. Not Tom Cruise but Robin Williams, if you know what I mean, ask any Hollywood screenwriter. And the best of all poetry is oral poetry. And the best of all oral poetry is when you are talking to a girl & telling her – no, the best of all oral poetry is when you are – I was about to write kissing her, but the Indian censor board wasn’t all that liberal in those days.

And I still have to tell you about Europe and Kasia and so on – shush! She’s listening! So let me give this choice piece of advice to all young men wondering what makes young women tick.

Try talking to them.

And why do you think it’s mostly women who read, by which I mean books, novels, these days? And they write ’em as well, in case you haven’t noticed. Practically taking over that side of the business too, I’m afraid. It’s their turn to talk now, it seems.

Try listening.

The popkini will make your eyes pop!

I understand that the days when my mother or my aunt used to wear their sarikinis not just when they went for their midday dip in the kitchen pond in Dhaneshkhali, the ancestral hellhole, but everywhere, such as when cooking hilsa fish in mustard in the kitchen or teaching philosophy – Kant & Hegel, no less – in a rather conservative girls college in north Kolkata – long breath! – are finally & irrevocably over. My mother lived to the age of 84 without ever having worn so much as a salwarkini and my aunt – wonder what she thinks of the whole debate over bikinis & burqinis?

That subtle q goes all the way back to Omar Khayaam & Lawrence of Arabia, or to the days of Orientalism and Edward Said – it’s not what he said, Edward said lots of things but his name was Said, Sa-yid, poor man, it’s like being called Thus Spake Zarathustra. So Spake is your middle name? Orientalism was such shit, I think at times, that they had to do away with it. Imagine a whole new romantic vocabulary based on mispronunciations – such as burqini, or bikini, for that matter.

Let’s go to the online etymology dictionary or what’s the Internet for? The bikini is apparently a French coinage, from 1947, named after the American A-bomb test of June 1946 on Bikini, Marshall Islands atoll. Apparently the ruddy place was called pikkini in the local tongue, pik meaning surface and ni meaning a coconut – eh? The analogy is with the explosive force of the bomb & the impact of the bathing suit style on men’s libidos, the dictionary tells me. It doesn’t have to. I know.

So there I was, a nicens little Bengali boy from the land of sarikinis suddenly transported to the land of – wait! I saw all those women in Germany & elsewhere in their dresses and thought, shouldn’t they have something like an aanchal or a dupatta draped over a certain part of their torso? Until Kasia looked at me in this self-knitted dress of hers and said – not Said or Sa-yid – “You want me to?” I thought she said, “You want me too?” And Occidentalism was born, more by accident than intent.

I’ve been to lots of beaches since then & seen what the uninitiated eyes of an LMC Bengali boy were never meant to see – until I got bored & curled up under the parasol behind the wind screen & went to sleep while all those delectable women pranked about in their – khair, however, as we Indians say. It’s as with the house dust allergy, I got immune.

I am, of course, immune to burqas and burqinis, or to burkas and burkinis, for that matter, even if they remind me of medieval knights & their armour in the days of yore. On the other hand, you could place me on a beach in Brittany or a beach on the Baltic coast among women sporting any and every kind of swimwear and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I acknowledge that there are still women in this world who would make any man feel like chewing up the bath towel but that is neither their fault nor ours. Let me put it this way. It was in New Delhi. Two DTC buses had managed to rub shoulders with some minor damage to both; the two irate Jat bus drivers were having it out verbally, mainly by calling each other the choicest of names in the one language really suited for that purpose viz. Punjabi! ‘It’s all your fault,’ one of them was saying. ‘No, it’s your fault, you such-and-such,’ the other countered. This went on for some time, both buses, complete with passengers, waiting for the outcome. And then the Jat drivers said – not Said/Sa-yid – ‘Kasoor bus-da!’ Which means, in Punjabi, it’s the buses’ fault. And they parted as buddies. And I hope that’s what mankind & womankind will do at the end of The Great Burbiqini Debate, unless it turns into a battle!

The great thing about the burbiqini debate is the general unease it has created in the minds of most, from the most liberal to the most conservative – on both sides! Am I right or am I wrong? Is a woman in a bikini sinful or not? Is a woman in a burqini an insult to human/modern/rational/western civilisation or not? And it’s not the woman but the effect the infamous piece of apparel has on men, on Man, on me, for that matter. Is there a thermometer for the libido? Does the temperature of my libido go up by several notches when I see a woman in Exhibit A instead of in Exhibit B? And what about Exhibit C or the sarikini? There is not a Hindi film from the sixties & the seventies in which the heroine does not get wet in the sarikini, she falls into a pond or a puddle if it’s not raining. And it has the same unsettling effect as the bikini or even the burqini, with the right kind of figure (sexist, yo!). Indian painting boasts any number of water-pot carrying beauties in clingy, wet saris. As for the west, just go and check up on all the Venuses and Aphrodites and garden nymphs in general who were surprised in their marble drapery – and still managed to look quite sexy! Readings on the libido thermometer for bath- and beachwear from past centuries show the same thing: water boils at 100 C°. So what do we conclude?

It’s the buses’ fault – as the Jat bus drivers deduced. As with the Delhi traffic, the moment you put men and women together, things start happening… Segregation! That’s it! That’s the solution! If the women have their own beaches, their own country and their own world, in short, they can go and wear whatever they like… what? They don’t like it? What d’you mean? They want us to watch? Well, well, well.

We are barking up the wrong tree in the Great Burbiqini Debate, I realised while watching a report on the MTV Video Music Awards of 2016. What Beyoncé, Britney, Rihanna &co. were wearing on stage could only have been the product of centuries of research on the libido, how to bring it to the boil & keep it on the boil! And I won’t even talk about Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj, bless ’em. Looking at those ladies shakin’ their booties pack’d in the most suggestive & imaginative popkinis, while the audience went wild, it became clear to me that the question is not what women wear when they go swimming, but what they wear when they go singing! Or to award functions, for that matter.

So while the rest of us are stroking our salt-and-pepper beards or unfurling our good old burn the brakini banners, the younger generation is being raised on sterner stuff. Thirteen and fourteen year olds now inhabit a planet on which sexuality is a game & a plaything – and like all games & apps, available for download – but it is no longer the life-and-death issue, the matter of cardinal importance that it used to be. And who’s to say they aren’t right?

I asked the Creator about it. This is what He said: ‘I created the atom but not the A-bomb. I created sex but not sexuality. So it’s all yours. Don’t come whining to me about it.’

Gotcha.

The medals that Indian women never won

Mainly because the disciplines are not to be found in the Olympics, though they do exist in real life. Is that fair? It is fair & lovely, as the Indian women themselves will tell you, although they are fully aware of the difference between reality & Bollywood – or between a woman’s chores in real life & the most eyesome Olympic gyrations.

Millions of Indian women have never played badminton, for example – have never seen badminton being played, except now, on TV, and that’s because of PV Sindhu. And I won’t even talk of all the other disciplines in which you have to wear – arey Ram’ Ram’! – and spring around like – Hai Bhagwan!

Take 1976, the Malda Passenger, Third Class unreserved. The Women’s Rice Smuggling race is in progress. The panels on either side of the carriage have been torn open, leaving large and gaping holes for the rice smugglers to stash away their bags of rice. Every now and then the train stops at some minor station and the police stomp in, looking for smugglers & contraband. The chalwallis or the Rice Women have around five to fifteen seconds to collect their rice bags, get down on the station platform & run to a raided buggy – because the unraided buggies will be next in line – while people cheer! Everybody’s having their share of fun – exactly as in the Olympics – especially the police constables & the young rowdies who seem to be more interested in teasing the rice smuggling ladies – call them athletes – than catching them or watching them get caught. I could hear one such ‘athlete’ trying to ward off the advances of an over-ardent ‘fan/sports official’ by squeaking: “Leave me in peace! I’m a mother of five.” Poor girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen. And pretty too, though we are not supposed to notice such things about athletes – only that you couldn’t help noticing, in her case. As for the mother of five, apparently she meant it as a joke. The rowdies laughed and the police constable let her go. Gold for our “mother of five”! I nearly sang the national anthem.

Then I remember the champion in the Women’s Brick Carrying category whom I saw at a construction site in the early days of Noida. She was going up a ramp with sixteen bricks piled on the turban on top of her head – I counted! That’s eight layers of two each, laid crosswise. Naturally she needed help to put on the last two or three layers – that’s the last four to six bricks – but she managed the rest alone, in squatting. Then she got up with the teetering pile on top of her head and walked three floors up a wooden, unsecured ramp, her bare feet finding the slats with somnabulistic ease. And all this in a sari worn short & the aanchal tugged in at the waist… But we’re talking sports. That’s gold again for the queen among India’s brick carrying women.

Some find Chucking Cowdung Cakes to be a rather quaint discipline and much misunderstood in the West. It’s not as if our athletes chuck dried cowdung cakes instead of discuses, oh no, this is a discipline requiring as much aim & precision as archery or skeet shooting. The athlete is forming the wet cowdung cakes with both hands before chucking them at a wall. In this gold-winning event, our champion was chucking them at a dilapidated tower from the nawabi times opposite the Whispering Mosque in Lucknow. (Again towards the end of the ’70s, if I remember correctly, the golden age of Indian sports). She had finished the lower rows and was now chucking the wet ghuñtiyas towards a spot at roughly twice her own height. And she was placing the projectiles in a perfectly spaced row on the wall – which won the applause of the juror(s), there being only one viz. me. And she was doing it on a convex surface, remember, like a bent dart board! It was a round tower – is there any other kind? Just as cowdung cake chucking seems to be a sport specially reserved for women, at least in India.

And then we come to a discipline which requires strength as well as endurance. I was visiting my elder sister in Kolkata and this cook of theirs had come in at around nine in the morning and was cooking our lunch for the day – why so early? I wanted to know. Turned out that the young lady would be cooking for three more households in the course of the morning before going back home and cooking for her own family – before her children came back from school, the montessory & so on. Cooking for five families involved the kind of logistics & coordination which compelled her to keep three cell phones – I counted! – one of them a dud. And even then she wouldn’t let me get myself a glass of water on my own – that’s your Indian Cooking Marathon, for women. The men are allowed to take a cook or their wives along, I believe.

Finally we have the Delhi Olympics of 2036, especially the sensational “Run for Your Life!” race for young girls. This is a sprint discipline in which the contestants have to avoid being caught by possible molesters – now on the sports curriculum of a number of girls schools across the subcontinent. Thirteen year old (unnamed) winner from (place name blackened) revealed at her felicitation that a family friend – colleague of her father’s – inspired her to join the sport. Both the press & the police are looking for the family friend.

What women need is security

Remember Billie Jo Spears’ song from 1969 which went ‘Mr Walker, it’s all over / I don’t like the New York secretary’s life’? And why is the young lady so fed up with her life & her profession? Because, apart from the stress of typing eighty words a minute & fetching paper clips and coffee, ‘In this building there’s a crowd o’ guys / With old familiar thoughts upon their minds’. And what old familiar thoughts might these be? Well, they result in ‘a lot of hands a-reaching out / To grab the things that I consider mine’. Ah, now we understand. Don’t think she could have put it any more succinctly.

And as if that’s not enough, ‘the president pursues me / Even though he’s old and hair a-turnin’ white’ – couldn’t have been the Oval Office & Monica Lewinsky since she was an intern & born four years after the song. In any case, the first stanza of the song complains about the working conditions, the second about sexual harassment and the third about the living conditions – more specifically, ‘a flat in Greenwich Village’ with a trumpet player upstairs and a ‘jumpin’ all night bar’ below. And even then she has to ‘share the place with bugs and big ol’ mice’. No wonder she quits.

I consider it to be one of the best lyrics ever, leaving Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ gasping at first base – though Boots (1966) highlighted the other major source of exacerbation in a woman’s life: the ‘a’messin’’ husband or lover, who keeps ‘lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’’, who keeps ‘samin’ when you oughta be a’changin’’.

And there we have the woman’s world, which seems to have mainly one problem – the man! Actually it’s like the two sides of the same coin, since not having a man can be a problem too, in societies east & west; either it’s the difficulty in finding ‘a suitable boy’ à la Vikram Seth, or it’s the sexual & emotional merry-go-round (roller coaster, rather!) of the ladies in Sex and the City.

Let’s do a Fast Forward to what happened in front of the Cologne railway station on New Year’s Eve: another example of those ‘old familiar thoughts’, I should think, Billie Jo Spears wouldn’t have been surprised in the least. And from there we can go on to the current ‘burqini’ debate. Why anybody should insist on – or object to – a woman wearing – or not wearing – a certain piece of apparel at a certain place & a certain time while engaging in a certain kind of activity, beats me. Generations of women in our family have gone bathing in the Bay of Bengal or in the Arabian Sea in saris, for God’s sake, who’s talking about Aheda Zanetti’s rather fashionable creation. And we’re ruddy Hindus in our family, except for the woman for whom I left the diplomatic service, who used to wade into the raging surf on either coastline wearing a bikini & looking hot enough – for those times & climes – to make the sea boil. Whether the sea or me.

So it’s not as if I’m in favour of the burqini or against it. A colleague of ours was relating how certain young and fashionable girls in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have taken to wearing the niqab (which covers all of the face except for the eyes) just to escape the unwanted attention of the street romeos. What does that tell us? That these women are feeling insecure, that society is not – or is not perceived to be in a position to give them the freedom of choice to wear what they like & where they like. Fear is the key.

As for male behaviour, desire is the key. Desire is dificult to control, that’s why it’s considered to be dangerous. And because it is uncontrollable, like an incurable disease, we have all sorts of W.H.O.-financed attempts to ‘disinfect’ all possible & probable ‘sources of infection’ – mainly WOMEN! But even that does not help, will not help, cannot help. The number of references to the damsel’s eyes in Urdu poetry (together with the extravagant imagery) is mainly because of the niqab, I suspect. A traditional Muslim woman does her eyes with special care when she goes out, I am told, since those eyes are all that will be visible – it’s those eyes which will have to do the ‘killing’, in the rhetoric of Urdu poetry. We could have spared ourselves the Trojan war if Helen of Troy had been wearing a niqab, you think? No, her eyes would have been enough to launch those thousand ships & a couple more, if necesary.

The whole problem with how a woman dresses or does not dress, is the collateral damage – which in the woman’s case means collateral garbage. We, the men, do not want to get ‘killed’ – to follow the time-honoured heroic hyperbole of Urdu poetry as well as of Bollywood film songs. In other words, we do not want to feel attracted by a woman we do not know from Eve & shall never get to know from Eve; whereas she does not want to be ogled/mooned at by a whole lot of strange & unappetising males – that’s the collateral garbage. And still it happens all the time.

But why? Is it because she knows… and takes it into account, maybe even likes it? And why do we, the men, react like Pavlov’s dogs? I know! Because we are Pavlov’s dogs, at least in this one respect. And where do the clothes come in? I was thinking of an experiment, not with dogs but with lions, in the Serengeti, say. We put all the leafeaters in clothes and send them out to graze among the beefeaters. D’you think the lions would look dejected & say to themselves: ‘If only these antelopes had been…’ No, lions do not know the difference between naked and… We do, that’s the whole problem, it seems. Unless… unless…

What about all women dressing up as men when they go out? And the men dressing up as women…

What about women turning into men & men turning into women, in which case the women would be whistling after the men & pinching their bot…

Because men look so sexy in whatever they wear, from boxer shorts to scuba suits to business suits…

Have fun.

Christo & Mephisto

The first is the gentleman who wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin & the Pont-Neuf in Paris; the second is a lesser known ‘wrapper’ from Vulgaria whose plans have survived only on paper, in the form of sketches. One indignant art critic once described Mephisto as a ‘wrapist’, whereas Mephisto’s supporters go into ‘wraptures’ over such projects as putting the Taj Mahal in a burqa while the Eifel Tower sports a bikini, preferably in the French tricolour.

Mephisto learnt his trade/art in haute couture, needless to say. He is against Christo’s wrapping the whole of an object in – whatever. It’s not what you clothe them in but how you clothe them, aparently that’s what’s important, from the Faustian point of view. Women’s dresses are basically like the trailer of a film, or like the teaser for an online article –

‘Stop it!’ comes the heckling. ‘You are a sexist.’

And why? Mephisto pretends to be innocent. Like his cheek!

‘You think only of that one thing.’

But not all the time! Mephisto protests.

Haute couture began with Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ (published 1837), Mephisto claims. Probably nobody except perhaps Donald Trump will ever have the courage to tell the ladies on the catwalk that they are more unclothed than clothed, Mephisto says. The girls freeze & tumble & shame themselves in front of their stepfathers, all for a fistful of dollars – up to fifty thousand for a day’s shoot, Mephisto has heard. The only things that are ‘high’ about haute couture are the high heels, unless someone is on speed, Mephisto says. ‘You can ask Christopher Marlowe or Wolfgang von Goethe,’ he adds, as if they would know!

‘What’s that got to do with the great art of rapping – pardon, wrapping?’ we counter.

About as much as rapping has to do with singing – Mephisto says. ‘No, I’m kidding,’ he grins, a devilish grin. ‘What d’you do when you wrap something, whether it’s a birthday present or the Reichstag? You hide it. You truss it up like a turkey. As if for a hasty funeral in the midst of a civil war or abject poverty. That’s no way to treat a famous building or a beautiful bridge, is it? That’s why I’m going to take the high road to fashion and make the Reichstag what it has never been in its entire history since 1894 – I’m going to make it sexy!’

‘What d’you mean, sexy?’ we could smell sulphur again.

‘It’s okay if you show the figure through the wrapping, but the Reichstag should show a bit of legs as well, don’t you think? What about slashed tarpaulin sheets over the entrance and a tiara for the dome? The Eiffel Tower would look very naughty in a skimpy red-and-white two-piece, I feel.’

‘What about the blue, you know, allez les bleus and all that?’

‘The sky will be blue.’

‘And Pont-Neuf?’

‘Ah, you mean the bridge over the Seine? You’ve got the water, now all you’ve got to do is to turn the bridge into a bathing beauty, a mermaid or something, but topless.’

‘What d’you think you’re trying to do?’

‘I’m liberating architecture from the drudgery & tedium of being just houses, monuments & museums – the bridges are almost sexy in comparison, I must say, at least the flighty modern ones which have a nice silhouette. And it’s no use wrapping a building just once: a building’s got to be wrapped differently in spring than in summer; an autumn collection in decent pastels & grey for mausoleums, for example. We’ll need to develop a different line of wrapping for fat buildings to make them look less squat. We’ll need fashion accessories for the historical buildings such as when the Queen comes on a visit: think of it, the Queen comes to Brügge and all the buildings are clutching Her Majesty’s kind of handbag, with children waving from inside the hatch! Generally I can see all buildings, ugly & old as well as modern & state-of-the-art, having any number of wrappings – or as many as the city council can afford – and still having nothing to wear when the Queen or the Formula One circus comes around the next time.’

‘So what is the solution?’

‘Revolution, what else? Haven’t you seen, some buildings have even stopped painting themselves. Others are just letting themselves go. Still other buildings are sitting in a row on their paved & crooked lane in the sun and telling each other stories from the olden days. Those are the ones I like best.’

‘And what d’you do when you like a building?’

‘I don’t wrap ’em,’ Mephisto said.

Three poems

The Girl-Child

Where will you hide, my love? There’s no such place,
The body is a traitor, a fool the other, the face;
The eyes, the eyelashes, dreams or tattered sleep,
This man a robber and that man a thief.
Take the water pot to the river –
Is it the summer or do you have fever?
Who stole your heart and left his on a hyacinth leaf?

What was it you hid among the bushes, was it your shame?
A bundle of life not even blessed with a name,
Let it lie there and cry, for the jackal and the vulture, under the burning sky –
A girl-child. Did you whisper in its ear: it is sweeter to die?

Round Things

The sun is round, the moon is round, all round things on earth
Make the bawling man-child dream of the waters of his birth

Blind swimmer on a slender cord, pressed out like a seed
Sprawled legs at deliverance, sprawled legs at the deed

Two round things to feed him, two round things so near
Two round things to tell him there is nothing to fear but fear

Boy-man turns and goes away, there is something wrong
Round things leave him hot, confused, round things make him long

For games that he has never played, nor would if he could
Ask the neighbour’s girl-child? Unsure whether he should

A mystery, a puzzle, a curtain, a shroud blowing in the wind
Father-man with the mother-woman, is it they who have sinned?

An army of apes raids the garden, litters the half-ripe fruit
Rama strides with His axe while Krishna plays the flute

How to keep my share of the loot, coveting another man’s treasure
Girl or child? They grow like grass: how to keep the measure

‘Liberty!’ calls the bird in the bush, ‘Loyalty!’ the bird in the cage –
Tenderly tend and tenderly provide, tenderly slaughter in rage?

What stirs in an old man’s loins? How does a godman die?
The fire that burns and the tears that flow in every newborn’s cry

Greetings

The sky as empty as a bereaved mother’s eyes
Day’s thick tongue laps at the brackish hours
A nine-teated bitch snaps at the flies
Under the municipal truck, where it cowers

Corrugated tin singes the crows’ feet at noon
Dhani Ram’s cat slinks down the alley
Frogs spawn in puddles, the tadpoles will come too soon
But not the flowers in the Sulupi Valley

Villages fester, fields crack like unoiled skin
Putrefying carcass of a creature in the ditch
Where shall I find odes, jade and jasmine
Greetings from the nine-teated bitch