Four Good Words: Sivakami Velliangiri

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Sivakami Velliangiri’s first poems were published in Youth Times in 1977 and ’78. She has been invited to read at ‘The Semester-At-Sea from Pittsburgh,’ and Muse India’s ‘Hyderabad Literary Festival.’ Her poems have been featured in four Anthologies. Her electronic Chapbook ‘’In My Midriff’, was published by The Lily Review. ‘How We Measured Time’ is her first book of poems.

Chattai

The first time grandma wore a blouse,
she felt she had tarnished her brown skin.
All the men folk knew of the thin bare shoulders.
She ran to the temple and confessed
that she had merely obeyed the Maharani’s orders.
 
Sure she had lost her native natural gloss
when she carried rice pots on her head
(the anthapura boasted a female barber
who shaved off armpits and whatever).
 
The Maharani bade her women wear blouses
even to the temple. What my grandma missed
was the breeze on her skin. What she acquired
was a certain coy feeling and a sense of hiding
 
which was akin to sin.
 
[The anthapura was the harem of an Indian palace.]


Silent Cooking and Noisy Munching
 
When I came to my husband’s hometown
I saw for the first time old women with gagged mouths
cooking for the gods, in silence.
 
Their breath did not pollute the offerings,
nor their spittle desecrate the dishes
only their arms swayed and perhaps their eyeballs.
I thought how unlike the witches of Macbeth
they looked, for these women moved about with grace
their mind fine tuned to the Dhivya Prasadam.
Not any woman can cook for the gods.
One must be chaste and pure, like unadulterated ghee
boil like jaggery and rise like milk. In short,
it takes thirty years to graduate.
 
So for thirty years I have done my silent cooking
made manna with words and said simply
in my heart of hearts, eat god eat
line by line, crunchy words, palatable punctuations
tangy rhythms moulded with meaning, and
thoughts weaned in silence but spoken as poems.


What She Said to Her Girlfriend
 
Though my lord has given me
a palace in every city
to match the seasonal mood
with interiors like an Inside Outside magazine
and furniture that speaks of star war design
I wish he had also thought of a poison apple tree
at the back door of the house
where I could whisper and confess to it
all he had done to me the previous night.


 

Four Good Words: Vinita Agrawal

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Vinita Agrawal is an award winning author of four books of poetry. She has edited an anthology on climate change titled Open Your Eyes. She has curated literary events for PEN MUMBAI. She is on the advisory board of the Tagore literary prize.

Bespoken

So many nameless daughters lost
that we cannot begin to look for them.
Their absence encased
in the prayers of those who survived.

The sun shines for the ‘master’ of the house
while ‘she’ remains twinned to darkness;
small barred windows
hinting at far off blue skies.

Some days, she makes it to adult literacy classes
Her face bruised.
The ellipsis of a veil
bending her story into the archives of flesh.

Victory does not lie in silence,
but in speaking up.
Mitigation, in rubbing the blood
off the morning mirror,

and feeling it throb in veins
like a train ploughing tracks.
Her battles fought –
word by word, act by act.

Woman, girl, female foetus…
the world stands hushed before you
like the air of stillness before a storm;
say whatever it is that you have to say.


Woman

Like a plastic palmyra showcased at the front door
A rag doll – gloved, thumb-printed, buttressed
bruised, soughed, oboe-d
and at the end of it all – grey like the ash of a rose.

Rabbit-like. Fearful, frightened.
Babbling, burbling, dripping
scurrying, stumbling, succumbing
until reduced to a sobbing choir of broken hummingbirds.

She is his colour-card for abuse
one shade for every kind;
to rape, demean, curb, thrash, burn, mutilate, violate, intimidate,
a fertile ground for the plough of his madness.

She is no one. She is nothing.
She is dry yellow grass, an invasive weed
sawdust, thorn, nettle.
an abandoned trellis on which he pegs his evils.

But really, she is none of these.
She is a cause to be fought for in her own voice.
Though sandpapered by scars of a thousand hard years
her resilience is still intact.

Woman – she shines in a light of her own – ever evolving
weaving a special bond with her sisterhood
no veil, no hijab, no purdah can conceal her strength
nothing can keep her down.

She is Ma Durga, Ma Kali, Ling Bhairavi
Jwala, Amba, Bhavani
the fierce rider of tigers, spewer of fire
killer of demons, drinker of blood.

She is the twin of every aspect that exists in the universe
the half of the whole called man
She is Shakti. The bearer of souls.
Because of her man exists.


Some Things I Knew The Day I Was Born

I’d craft phrases
To please your delicate ego

Never tell you what I really thought or how I felt
only what you wished to hear

I’d disappear inside my home
nor you or the children would care to look for me

I’d nurture modest dreams, mildly defining who I was
but not in a way that might threaten your kingdom

I’d dress demurely, cover my legs and shoulders
curb the desires marbling somewhere around my navel

I’d choke on my own wild silence
on some dark nights of stark solitude

Being born female is a crime
I’d be so soundless that I might not be at all

Worst of all, duplicity would be my greatest talent
hypocrisy and fakery my biggest virtues

So it would go on, without respite
everyday – a blank page

Some things I knew the day I was born


Four Good Words: Vatsala

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A retired Systems Engineer from IIT Madras, Vatsala’s books include two poetry collections Suyam (Sneha, 2000) and Naan Yenn Kavingar Aaga Villai? (Ahuthi and Panikudam, 2018), two novels Vattathul (Uyirmai, 2006) and Kannukkul Satru Payaniththu (Bharati Puthakalayam, 2016) as well as a collection of short stories Chinna Chinna Izhai (Bharathi Puthakalayam, 2018). Her poems in English translation have appeared in in The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry (Viking/Penguin, 2009) as well as in Interior Decoration: Poems by 54 Women From 10 Languages (Women Unlimited, 2010).

நான் ஏன் கவிஞராகவில்லை?

நீங்கள் கேட்ட பிறகுதான் சிந்தித்துப் பார்க்கிறேன்
நான் ஏன் கவிஞராகவில்லை?

தோண்டிப் பார்த்தால்
எந்த ஆதாரமும் கிடைக்கவில்லை
நான் கவிஞரில்லை என்பதற்கு
உங்களை ஒன்று கேட்க வேண்டும்
செத்துப் போன கவிதைகள் கணக்கில் சேருமோ?
கருவிலேயே கரைந்து போனதால்
அவற்றை உருவகப்படுத்த முடியவில்லை
அவை உதித்ததை அப்பொழுது அறியாததால்
உதய நேரங்களை குறித்து வைக்கவில்லை

ஆனால்
சிலவற்றின் இறப்பு நேரங்கள்
இப்பொழுது தெளிவாகியுள்ளன

சிறு வயதில் துணி மடித்து வைத்த நேர்த்தியை
பாட்டி பாராட்டிய போது ஒன்று…
அண்ணன்மாரின் அடங்காப் பசிக்கும்
அப்பாவின் நீண்ட நாக்கிற்கும்
ஈடு கொடுக்கத் திணறிய அம்மாவுக்கிரங்கி
கரண்டியை கையிலெடுக்கையில் ஓரிரண்டு…

கழுத்தில் மஞ்சள் சரடேறுவதற்காக
பொன் சரட்டிற்கு காசு சேர்க்க
தட்டச்சு யந்திரத்துடன் தோழமை பூண்டேனே
அப்பொழுது சில…

சலிப்புத் தட்டுகிறதா?
இனி சுருங்கச் சொல்லுகிறேன்
கைக்குழந்தைகளின் மலம் கழுவி
செல்வங்களுக்கு பாடம் சொல்லி
மகனின் வெளி நாட்டுப் பட்டத்திற்கு பணம் சேர்த்து
அமெரிக்க மருமகனின் பாதம் கழுவும் கணவனுக்கு
பக்கபலமாய் நிற்பதற்குள்
மறைந்து போன கவிதைகள் சில நூறு

அவை உயிர் பெற்று உருப்பெற்றால்
நான் கவிஞர்

இல்லையெனில்
அடுத்த மாதம் அவர் வருஷாப்தீகம் முடிந்து
பச்சை அட்டை செல்வங்கள் தங்களூர் திரும்பிய பின்
மரத்துப் போன உணர்வுகளை நீவிவிட்டு
கண்ணுக்குள்ளே சற்று பயணித்து
மூச்சை முழுமையாக விடுவித்து
நான் புத்தம்புதிய கவிஞரானாலும் ஆகலாம்

Why didn’t I become a poet?
Naan yen kavignar aga villai

Translated by K Srilata and Subashree Krishnaswamy (featured in Interior Decoration: Poems by 54 Women in 10 Languages. New Delhi: Women Unlimited: 2011)

It’s only after you asked me
that I wondered:
why I never became a poet.

Digging deep,
I found no evidence
that I wasn’t one.
I’d like to ask you something:
do dead poems count?
Since they dissolved
while still unborn,
I couldn’t give them shape.
I wasn’t aware of their inception,
so I never recorded their time of birth.

But, with some, their time of death
is clear to me now.

One died when my grandmother praised
the neat way I folded the clothes.
A couple when
I picked up the ladle,
sorry for my mother,
who struggled with my brothers’ voracious greed
and my father’s fastidious tongue.
A few passed away when
I befriended a typewriter
to save up for a gold chain,
just so a yellow thread could be tied
round my neck.

Bored, are you?
I will keep it short then.
A hundred vanished as I
washed my babies’ bottoms,
tutored my darling children,
saved up for my son’s overseas education,
stood by my husband as he washed the feet
of the son-in-law from America.
If they all come to life and take shape,
a poet, I will be.

If not, next month,
after his death anniversary,
when my greencard darlings go back home,
after my numb feelings are massaged and
I journey a bit into my eyes
and release my breath completely,
who knows,
I might become a brand new poet.


 

மாலை

எனக்கு மாலை பிடிக்கும்
சாம்பல் நிறம் பிடிக்கும்
‘டீன் ஏஜ்’ பருவம் பிடிக்கும்
வாசற்படி பிடிக்கும்
நரசிம்மனை பிடிக்கும்

குழந்தை பருவம் அழகாயிருந்தது
எனக்கு எல்லோரையும் பிடித்தது
எல்லோருக்கும் என்னை பிடித்தது
எனக்கு பட்டு வேஷ்டி அணுவித்து கிருஷ்ணனாக
பார்த்து மகிழ்ந்தனர்

பட்டுப் பாவாடை, சட்டை, சங்கிலி, வளையுடன்
என்னை புகைப்படம் எடுத்து
சட்டமிட்டு மாட்டி மகிழ்ந்தார்கள்
(பிறகு அப்பா அதை உடைத்து குப்பையில் போட்டுவிட்டார்)

பள்ளிக்கூடம் பிடித்தது
படிப்பது பிடித்தது
பிறகு படிப்பது மட்டும்
***
முதலில் நடை ஒரு பிரச்னையாயிற்று
பிறகு குரல்
பிறகு எல்லாமே

யாருக்கும் என்னை பிடிக்கவில்லை
எனக்கு எல்லோரிடமும் பயம்
அப்பாவுக்கு எப்பொழுதும் கோபம்
அம்மா கோயில்களுக்கு கூட்டிச் சென்றாள்
அடிக்கடி அழுதாள்
பாட்டி திருப்பதி சாமிக்கு முடிந்து வைத்தாள்

பள்ளிக்கு போவது நின்றது
வீட்டில் சிறைப்பட சம்மதித்தேன்
வெளியே விரட்டப் படாமலிருக்க

கணக்கு டீச்சர் வந்தாள்
ஒரு நாள் பூராவும் வாதாடி தோற்றாள்

மனநல மருத்துவரிடம் அழைத்துச் சென்றார்கள்
அவர் அம்மாவுக்கும் அப்பாவுக்கும் மருத்துவம் பார்த்தார்
என்னை கேட்டார்
”உனக்கு ஆணாக இருக்கப் பிடிக்குமா?
பெண்ணாக இருக்கப் பிடிக்குமா?”
நான் சொன்னேன்
”எனக்கு இப்படியே இருக்கப் பிடிக்கும்”
அப்பாவும் அம்மாவும் தலையில் அடித்துக் கொண்டார்கள்
***
இன்று பேராசிரியர் பணிக்கு விண்ணப்பிக்கையில்
கம்பீரமாக பதிவு செய்கிறேன்
திருநங்கை

எனக்கு மாலை பிடிக்கும்

Twilight

Maalai


Translated by K Srilata (featured in K Srilata and Fiona Bolger edited All the Worlds Between: A Collaborative Poetry Project Between India and Ireland. New Delhi: Yoda, 2017)

I

These are a few things I am fond of:
Twilight,
the colour Grey,
teenage years,
thresholds,
and Narasimha.

It was a happy childhood.
I was fond of everyone,
and they, of me.
In their hands, I became Krishna.
They would get me to wear a silk veshti,
and feast on the sight.

Sometimes, it was a silk skirt,
a blouse,
chain and bangles
they would get me to wear.
They would photograph me
have the pictures framed.
Later, Appa smashed them
and threw them in the bin.

School I was fond of.
My books too.
Later, the only thing that remained
was my fondness for my books.

II

At first, it was the way I walked.
Soon, it was my voice.
And then, everything.

They were no longer fond of me.
All that remained in me was fear.
Appa was always angry.
Amma did the temple rounds with me.
She cried often.
As for Paati, she tied a coin
in a piece of turmeric cloth
and offered it
to the Lord of Tirupathi.

And then, they stopped me from going to school.
For fear of being thrown out,
I consented to this house arrest.

My Math teacher pleaded with them.
They paid no attention to her.

They took me to the counsellor.
He counselled them instead.
“What would you rather be?” he asked, turning to me, “A man or a woman?”
“I would rather stay as I am”, I said.
Appa and amma shook their heads in despair…

III

Today,
in the forms I fill out,
I write:
Third gender
with pride.

I am fond of twilight.

Four Good Words: Vasanthi Swetha

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Vasanthi Swetha works in the field of behavioral economics by the day and is most often caught looking at the moon by the night. On no moon nights, she writes. Vasanthi has been writing and performing poetry for about eight years now. She runs a page called A Dreamer’s Destination, where you can find her soul in bits and pieces of poetry. She believes in the magic of words and verses, and is trying to explore the art through  diverse mediums.

#1 The Butterfly Effect

A yellow butterfly tickles my neck
and settles on my collarbone,
I turn into a statue with a racing heart,
my eyes focusses on its meticulous spots,
my breath softer into its wings,
a tiny little creature carries so many parts of the earth
decides to settle on my body today,
when it flies away
the yellow will remain
it will take a little of my brown,
and some one will try painting it white;
we’ll both remember the hurricane
this time
is at home,
in the resistance to surrender to
to canopies of shame
the sun hasn’t broken into yet,
but small courageous butterflies have.

#2 Silence

Do you remember
the loudest thunder
you’ve heard in your life?
I don’t.

But I remember
all the silences
I have held too close to my chest
fearing
any syllable that escapes my lips
might sound like the begining of a war,
and then you ask –
why didn’t you
speak up earlier?

If I did
what would you have done?
Believed?

#3 Paper Cuts

Paper cuts
are maybe
revenge for every axe
that touched trees
without consent.

#4 The Women in My Poetry

I hope the women in my poetry are made of whatever they want to be,
I hope my words don’t
butcher their silence,
I hope my poems
give them the space to sit however they want to and help them
lean on and diminish the noise of debates
about bleeding bodies of women
butdon’t look at these women as the primary stakeholders,
I hope my poems
let them choose their own words
of pain, of cramps or of rest,
I hope my poem
is a hot water bag,
I hope my poem
is a bed to stretch and sleep or to read
without having to reiterate that
women’s bodies are not a scale
that measures strength and tolerance,
I hope my poem
is a sound proof room
on days my women
don’t want to listen to
any of you.

#5  I am my first love story

I am my first love story,
that’s where I’ll place my bookmark,
for all the men and women
who come after.

Four Good Words: Tishani Doshi

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Tishani Doshi is an award-winning poet, novelist and dancer. Her most recent books are Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Poetry Award, and a novel, Small Days and Nights, shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Tata Fiction Award. A God at the Door (poems), is forthcoming in spring 2021.

I Found a Village and in it Were All our Missing Women
I.M. Margaret Mascarenhas

I found a village and in it were all our missing women,
holding guns to the heads of birds.

They’d heard the voting had begun,
that it had been going on for years without them.

They knew their sisters had been bribed
with gas cylinders and bicycles, that even grandmas

grabbed bags of rice in exchange at the ballot.
They showed no resentment.

Left all their gold to the descendants
of a Mongolian war princess with whom they shared

a minor percent of DNA. I found a village, a republic,
the size of a small island country with a history

of autogenic massacre. In it were all our missing women.
They’d been sending proof of their existence —

copies of birth and not-quite-dead certificates
to offices of the registrar.

What they received in response was a rake
and a cobweb in a box.

The rake was used to comb the sugarcane fields
for wombs lost in accidental hysterectomies.

The cobweb box became an installation
to represent the curious feeling

of sitting backwards on a train — of life
pulling away from you even as you longed to surge ahead.

They were not fatalistic. Could say apocalyptic fatigue
and extinction crisis in quick succession

after several rounds of Mai Tais.
I found a village with a sacred tree

shot free of all its refugees,
in whose branches our missing women had hung

coloured passport photos of themselves.
Now listen

A woman is not a bird or chick or anything with wings,
but a woman knows the sound of wind

and how it moves its massive thighs against your skin.
The sound of house swallowed by sinkhole,

crater, tunnel, quicksand, quake.
The collective whoosh of a disappearing,

the way a gun might miss its target,
the way 21 million might just vanish.

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.

JUSTICE

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.


 

EQUALITY

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.

Apparently,
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?


 

LIBERTY

Hey there!
Are you looking
for me
in
age-appropriate
stage-appropriate
wage-appropriate
rage-appropriate
cages
in roles
as perfectly snug
as square pegs in round holes

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

Beyond all these things,
most of which I do not
understand,

If you would only look
carefully,
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.


 

FRATERNITY

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?

Four Good Words: Sukrita Paul Kumar

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A noted poet and critic, Sukrita Paul Kumar (born in Kenya) was an invited poet and Fellow at the
prestigious International Writing Programme, Iowa, USA. She is a former Fellow of the Indian
Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and honorary faculty at Durrell Centre at Corfu, Greece. She has
published several collections of poetry, translations and critical works.

When Snakes Came for Shelter

(Dedicated to Freedom Nyamubaya)

Fighting the war of independence
My soldier friend, Sunungukai,
Lay sleeping alongside
Snakes who
Came for shelter, into her tent
In the black rainy nights

Unable to find their holes
In the marshes of the forests
0f Zimbabwe

Her long dark limbs
Glistened
And entwined in the coiling
snakes
As darkness slithered
Towards the break of dawn
Haunting Salvador Dali

During such nights
As if in peacetimes
Sunungukai found herself secure
In deep tunnels
Rolled back
Into the womb of her mother
Or in the arms
Of the lover she never found

Standing stiff on their ends
Her hair did not split when
still silent snakes
hissed in sleep,

Theirs and her own instinct
She knew, told the truth

She smelt no danger
Nor did they,
there’d be no holding the venom
if they did

(ii)

In the same war
As male soldiers entered her tent,
She trusted her instinct
When she felt the chill
Slide down her spine,
on the same marshes
of the dark forests,

“But I am on your side”, her lips uttered
“The war is over, don’t you know”
-announced their male glee.

Enemies again,
They came upon her
One by one, and then all together,
In celebration.

The war continued for
Sunungukai.


 

From
We the Homeless

The foetus in the sobbing womb
of the girl child is

an offspring of terror
of the skies:
thunder, lightening, hail storms
falling over her;

Of the knife rubbing
just a little deeper
on her throbbing throat

Her face a rock,
Eyes turned into stones,
A mother without a heart
She wants to give birth

To defy death
And put the society
in the docks


 

DRAUPADI ON A HUNT

1.

I am on the lookout

Is this where I might find
What I am looking for

Yes this way
Not that way

Draupadi stomped out
of Mahabharata
became a squirrel and
climbed up the tree
as did Manto’s
Toba Tek Singh

Look down
Is this Hindustan or Pakistan?

Barbed wire between
the two lovers
real as their love

2.

On all fours do I crawl
Holding on to the earth’s call

Not to fly, nor abandon them
Not to forget the one and only
Nor the rest of them

Rumbling and whispering
with all the tales and myths
gurgling in the earth’s belly

I am on the lookout


 

WOMEN ON A MOTORBIKE

Sisters and daughters, even mothers
Are hurled into daily abuses and jokes

Trapped in muscular gaze
Frozen as soft targets in epics
dolls in cinema
Excuses for duals
Cause for battle in the past
And the Present

Possessed as furniture
Items of jewellery
Kept in vaults
In the royal cellars of history

While Sita greets Savitri
Singing songs of captivity
Shedding tears of loss and regret

The two women on the motorbike
Lal Ded and Akka Mahadevi
Whizz pass through centuries
Multiplying in numbers
As also in Shakti

Each one searching
for her own path
Her own tune…

Four Good Words: K. Srilata

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A Professor of English at IIT Madras, K Srilata was a writer in residence at the University of Stirling, Scotland, Yeonhui Art Space, Seoul and Sangam house. She has five collections of poetry, the latest of which, The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans, was published by Poetrywala in 2019. Srilata has a novel titled Table for Four (Penguin, India) and is co-editor of the anthology Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry.

A Woman of Letters

Some days what I want to be is a woman of letters,
to retire to my study and be
solitary.
I can see it all:
that desk – neat, rectangular, coffee brown,
its drawers seductive and deep,
holding secrets from another age,
on it some paper, a pen and an ink well,
and a bookcase filled with every kind of book –
Austen definitely and Dickinson and Chugthtai…

No adolescent daughters abandoning dresses in contemptuous heaps.
No grubby sons, their dirty socks like bombs under my books.
No spouses, no mothers, nor mothers-in-law
with their urgent thoughts.
Sometimes all I want to be is a woman of letters.
Between chores, the very idea makes me weep.

Boxes Have That Effect

All evening, I have been considering boxes.
Hand-crafted ones, compelling and impractical,
the sort that jam easily.
I drop my earrings into one of them,
its blue-bird shimmer
gone before you know it.

I have lived in them all my life,
boxes in which I have become,
with a dangerous degree of precision,
this, that, the other, or etcetra.
I have noted the contents of their insides,
Not bad boxes to be in and yet,
I have clawed at their lids
like some death-row prisoner.

Not in the Picture

I

Adoption agency file.
Her first photograph. The only one in the file.
Passport size. Taken at age eleven months.
Studio backdrop: faded orange and dust you can smell.
There is no prior story. Nothing before
the orange and the dust.
Except a thick sky of blankness.

“Why didn’t they do more than follow procedure? Why didn’t they do more than stick a bottle of milk into her tiny, seeking mouth? Why didn’t they do more than wrap a towel around her elfin thin body?”

I am greedy. I want something larger than orange and dust. I want a sky with fluffy white clouds. I am greedy for some infant cuteness. I want pictures of the day they found her.
Glossy, flattering ones I can enlarge,
slide into albums,
design coffee mugs out of,
seal into her life and mine.
Didn’t they have a bloody camera?
Now what will I tell her?

“What did I look like as a baby, amma?”
Why are there no photographs of me as a little baby, amma?”
“Maybe, they didn’t have a camera, love. Or maybe they did but someone dropped it and it shattered into a million pieces.”
“But they could have stuck it back together.”
“That’s not so easy!”
“Why didn’t they simply get a new one, amma?”

II.

Five years ago. A new-found first cousin on my father’s side tells me about a photograph in his family album. “We are all in it,” he says, “Your parents and mine, my sister, me, and you, with your cute, shining pate and no hair. You had just come back from Tirupati, post-tonsure. Must have been soon after your first birthday.”

I want to see that photograph.
I don’t want to see that photograph.
I will never see that photograph.
I am too busy burying the kernel of a father who has been absent, loud and long, these last thirty five years.

“I have often wondered,” ventures my cousin, “what became of my baby cousin with her Tirupati-tonsured head. But now I know!”


III.

I am leafing through an old album. My mother isn’t home. The shock of a picture with one edge snipped off. There’s only two of us – me and my mother. A tiny bit of someone’s elbow. I know, without being told, whose.

IV.

I am ten. My cousin’s a year old. We are playing on the beach. My uncle produces a camera. I hurry into the frame. Greed again.
“Let me get one of Arvind first,” my uncle says. I step aside. Afterwards, I refuse to have my picture taken.

V.

My wedding. My mother, having raised me single-handedly, has hired a professional photographer. When the album arrives, we find she is not in any of the pictures.

VI.

“It is sharp as an ice pick,”
I tell a politely puzzled friend over dinner,
“this desire,
for certain photographs. If you are not watchful,
it can stab you through the heart”.

Four Good Words: Shobhana Kumar

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Shobhana Kumar has two books of poetry and six works of non-fiction covering industrial and corporate histories. She works in the spaces of education, communications and social work. She is Associate Editor of Sonic Boom and its imprint, Yavanika Press. She is deeply influenced by haikai writing and her book of haibun, ‘A Sky Full of Bucket Lists’ is forthcoming by Red River. She is part of The Quarantine Train, a poetry workshop founded by Arjun Rajendran. She works in the spaces of corporate communication, branding & advertising, education and social work.


Questions I ask myself

If you could be equal
in an unequal world,
where would you plant
your feet?

On a floor that slips
with alarming regularity,
or a place
where holding your ground
requires
everyday battles?

Whose hand
would you hold?

Would you get ahead
or stay back?

Would you bend
to pick up the remnants
or will you leave
without a trace,
all the lives
that have held place
for you?


How to stop crying
From a leaf in Paati’s diary, 4.12.1953

Learn to stop them mid-way
like pranayama,
hold them until they brim
but not over.

Grow flowers.
You will see how fragility
can yield tenderness,
each petal, valiant,
despite its ephemeral destiny.

Pile them
like unwanted linen,
with knots so tight
that even memory
will fail to untie.

Draw inspiration
from women
in remote desert villages,
who learn to make do
without water
and sand their used vessels.

Rub that sand into wounds
over and over and over again
till wound meets blood
meets hurt
to that one point
when all pain ceases
into one shoreless
pulse.

Note:

Repeat for best rest results
Choose the method most appropriate for different occasions


Day dream

learning to tell
the male from female
rose-ringed parakeets

She emerges from the laser clinic, smooth-skinned and glowing. She looks beautiful. In an ideal world, she might have found love. Even made it last.

She blushes when we compliment her. But she really doesn’t care. “Love is perhaps enough for you. For me, happiness is just finding myself”. Just me, she adds for emphasis.

We look away. Guilty.

We picture her several years from now. She wears dark-rimmed spectacles. Tinges of grey streak the dark-as-ebony hair. Wrinkles just begin to appear. She doesn’t wear makeup. So the signs show, ever so gently. She looks stern, intellectual, and almost like prose.

broken remote control              memories pause
at fast forward

 

Four Good Words: Sarita Jenamani

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Sarita Jenamani is a poet of Indian origin based in Austria, a literary translator, anthologist, editor of a bilingual magazine for migrant literature – Words & Worlds –, a human rights activist, a feminist and general secretary of PEN International’s Austrian chapter. She has so far three collections of poetry to her credit. She has received many literary fellowships in Germany and in Austria including those of the prestigious organizations of ‘Heinrich Böll Foundation and ‘Künstlerdorf Schöppingen’.

And Other Love Songs

Do not ask them
about the scars on their bodies.
They lick their scars in silent afternoons
in the same elegant way
they plait their hair
after an unwilling act of lovemaking.
In them
Sometimes a cremation ground incinerates
Sometimes suicidal Tulsi plant breaths it’s last
Signs that seem to be alive
through the vital language that names them
Do not ask them
for the traces of their tongues
They are taught
the best part of their sentences
is silence
they know how to sweep out
their voices
from their yards day in day out
They master the ability to distil
the hunch of existence
They mute their scars
With their silenced love songs