Four Good Words: Swarna Rajagopalan

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Swarna Rajagopalan is still not calling herself a poet. She usually goes by her licensed identity (“political scientist”) or her organisational ones (“Prajnya,” “WRN,” and so on) or her native place, Bombay
or her politics (peace activist, feminist), while writing and wanting desperately to write more. But here she is, in this collection, anyway.


Our Lady of Justice

Along the seashore,
on the sides of roads,
you stand mute witness
to decades of mutually inflicted pain.

Beyond you, lies the other witness—
that rippled shimmering
hard-working ocean capable of enduring
the highest and the lowest tides with equanimity.

You have both seen everything,
the silent Madonna
and the dispassionate waves.

How can you be silent, I lament?
I drive by,
putting names together with attacks and atrocities.
You saw it all happen.
The fuming and the festering,
the eruption and the hostilities.
You saw the chases and the encounters,
the shooting and the suicides,
the grief, the grief, the endless, numbing grief.
It happened before you, my lady,
as you stood in the many chapels that dot the beaches.

Our lady of suffering.
Our lady, star of the sea.
Our lady of perpetual succour.
You did not stop the suffering.
I do not know what your reasons are.

I do not know either
what makes these people
who saw you watch their suffering
without intervention,
come back to you with their petitions
and their tears and the belief that you care,
and to build and tend to these,
your sea-side and road-side homes.

They know you saw everything.
Perhaps they come back to you
in the belief
that when they are long-gone
and all these commissions of inquiry
are history,
you will remember,
you will track,
and in your own infinitely compassionate way,
you finally will bring justice.

Our lady of hope.
Our lady of light.
Our lady of peace.



This difficult word

I rummage through
decades of words
spun and spilt
at an assortment of altars
–love, anger, anxiety,
beauty, sorrow
and even, words—
but the word I invoke mot
at work
is conspicuously absent.


equality has never
moved my soul
to lyrical eloquence.

I wonder why.

Is it the inequality
I enjoy?
The warm cocoon of
the world I take for granted
–this is how my life will surely be—
and whose disappearance
I cannot in fact imagine?
Or when I try,
end up closing my eyes tight.
As it was writ,
so, do I enjoy.
That is all.

Or is it the equality
I have never enjoyed
so that I have nothing
to wax eloquent about?
A place for everyone
and everyone in their place,
especially us women.

“All other things remaining equal”
–all other things, not us—
well, I don’t know how to end that
because nothing is actually equal, is it?

Really, you want me to spin poetry
out of a word with the romance
of a central government office block?
Out of a word that is as joyful
as a levelling weight that flattens us?
A word that is so abstract that
most of us would be hard-pressed
to tell you what it signifies?

What is it about this word
that when I utter it in a workshop
stars sparkle and bells ring around me
but sitting with pen, paper and “equality,”
there are few things less inspiring?

Then I have to wonder—
how are we going to build
a world of equality
when we cannot even write
a few beautiful words about it?



Hey there!
Are you looking
for me
in roles
as perfectly snug
as square pegs in round holes

clad in
the colours of your
the fabric of your
Unfold the map
that leads you to me.

Beyond all these things,
most of which I do not

If you would only look
If you would only let
me speak,
If you would only listen,
with open mind and heart

_there is just me.

Here I am,
as I am.



When sisters gather

Sisters gather,
sisters who are strangers,
in the hope of finding themselves
in each other.

Sisters gather,
and stories are exchanged,
mumbling, halting, then gushing
like a torrent unstoppable…
stories in spate.

Sisters gather,
sceptical about sorority,
defensive about their anxiety,
urgently in need of hope
and each other.
Will you be the one to heed my need?

Sisters gather,
having forgotten nothing
about the last dozen times they
squabbled, fought, argued—
the Cold Wars that thaw
with the first tickle of laughter
and the first trickle of tears.

Sisters gather,
to grieve over other sisters,
spent, lost, felled,
and to lament the silence over their fate.
When you are cut, I bleed,
they tell each other.

Sisters gather,
and promise each other
that they will not forget.
Not the ones who disappeared.
Not the ones who died.
Not the abandonment or violence.
Not each other.

Sisters gather
over the baby’s crib,
gushing, cooing and remembering
why they are here.
This baby, and all the others, deserve better
than we have got.

Sisters gather
to partake of food, wine, love and empathy,
to celebrate each other,
generously, and in solidarity.
When sisters gather,
they change the world.


Which hands are yours?

Hands that touch to heal.
Hands that strike a deal.
Hands that stroke to feel.

Hands stretch out in hope.
Hands throw out a rope.
Hands reach out to grope.

Hands won’t let you trip.
Hands tighten their grip.
Hands wander to rip.

Helping hands that never flinch.
Hands that seek a clinch.
Hands that skulk to pinch.

Hands that make great art.
Hands that stand apart.
Hands that break your heart.

Hands that help you up.
Hands form your back-up.
Hands that spike your cup.

Hands that shape the earth.
Hands that lift your skirt.
Hands that know to hurt.

Hands that hold you safe.
Hands that probe your shape.
Hands that commit rape.

Hands you hold in trust.
Hands enforce their lust.
Hands turn trust to dust.

Hands that care and share.
Of other hands, beware.
They are everywhere.

Which hands are yours?

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