Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry

Anand Thakore

The Koh-i-Noor

It was finally forwarded to Queen Victoria, arriving in time to become the prize exhibit in the Great 
Exhibition of 1851.
                                                     Bamber Gascoigne, The Great Mughals

Here, in this tower,
Bound by gold clamps to thin walls of gold,

I, who am pure mineral, neither mortal nor ghost,
Remain doomed to abide.

Of those who are sent here only the living escape.

I endure the doom of rock, 
Inhabited by light and never at home - 

No, never, never for a minute
Since I was taken from the stomach of this earth, 

Except, perhaps, through the week I dreamed unguarded,
Unpraised and unpossessed,

In the waistcoat pocket of a British lieutenant
Who thought me worthless.

Most men who held me beheld only what I showed them,
And I saw much that their pride could not begin to see,

Though monarch and vassal alike,
Minion and minister, eunuch and page,

Cupbearer, concubine, courtesan and queen,
Only rarely guessed that I was watching.

I have seen too many blindings, 

Too many tremblings of oil lamps
In mirrored paternal halls usurped by the young:

The banishment of music,
And the nervous weaving of recalcitrant cotton, 

Where fountains had leaped and the peacock once danced;

Too many orgies, too much opium, and too much penitence,

Too many depraved flailings in the courtyards of mosques,

And self-assured mastectomies of prurient goddesses,
By incensed, believing hands,

To be moved or repulsed, intrigued or deceived.

These things I have seen, and seen myself too often now,
In the sculpted faces of mute attendants,

While ailing emperors fondled me in slumber,

Then woke before death,
Envious of my transparence, but unaware of my gaze,

Staring right through me with opiate eyes
Or eyes vermilion with wine.

I, who have never cared to be a seer, 
Have seen these things,

And ask only now,
To be sheltered from the light that can never be mine.

Return me to the mines.
Carry me back to the dark that scorned me.
                                                               -from Mughal Sequence

Nineteen Forty-Two

August wounds him. His friends play games in which he does not join.
               His mother is a woman who lives in a cage. 
               She is there for the Nation, his father tells him 
- That man in brown with the big black keys must be the Nation - 
He concludes, and aims a pebble at the jailor's groin.

.The boy who casts this innocent stone is only seven;
               But soon he will befriend the frets of an old sitar, 
               Urging the strings to embrace desertion,  
Conjuring a lost void, till they are taut with images 
He cannot bring himself to remember; or cry to be forgiven

For crimes he did not commit yet fears his own. The Mahatma
               He will come to view, with an awkward, half-tormented 
               Reverence; and of course, he will be drunk often, proclaiming
In his drunkenness that Gandhi was a great man, though his followers
Were mostly fools - prisoners of a barren blinkered dogma

That numbed them to colour and made them believe the sacred flesh dirty -
               The use of Gujarati he will forbid amongst his sons -
               A coarse unmusical purely functional tongue
That Gandhi thought in, for Gandhi, though of course a great man,
Was wholly unmusical - and then, on an evening, approaching fifty, 

He will call home for drinks his raucous bunch of ageing whiskey-swilling 
               Peers; and they will talk of simpler days, when the streets were clearer, 
               Houses bigger, and the world more habitable, quaffing them down,
Till he produces out of his pocket, as a sort of joke, a miniature Union Jack 
And a quizzically brown, fading photograph of a dead British king,

Crooning to himself, till everyone joins in, that surging drone of a song,
                That invokes an alien biblical God -
                And which they all remember standing up for 
On schoolboy visits to the cinema, when films were only black and white -  
Its cadences turgid, frozen almost, as the long

Last note billows out of the living room like a windy tent;
                And they drain their glasses in quick nostalgic gulps:
                All this, at two in the morning, while at the other end
Of the same long-corridored house, his mother, insomniac,
Knits little dolls for orphaned girls; or looks up from nascent

Amorphous snippets of Gujarati verse at a moonless street,
               Her husband awake beside her, up for her sake; both of them
               Too tone-deaf to recognize, or be briefly wounded 
By the drunken anthem their son lifts in praise
Of an empire they waited so long to defeat.

- August 15th, 2006