Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry

Tabish Khair

Rumi and The Reed

Listen to the song of the reed flute:
It sings of separation.
Torn from the leaf-layered, wind-voiced
Banks of the pond,
It is joined to sorrow and joy
By a slender sound.
Who, asked Rumi, can understand 
The reed's longing to return?
 			Let its raw lips rest then;
			Let all words be brief then.

And I, O Believers, cried Rumi
(Having lost the man he loved),
I who am not of the East
Nor of the West, un-Christian,
 Not Muslim or Jew, neither
Born of Adam nor Eve,
What can I love but the world itself,
What can I kiss but flesh?
			Let my raw lips rest then.
			Let all words be brief.
(First appeared in Where Parallel Lines Meet, Penguin, Delhi, 2000)

South Delhi Murder

For three days she took it for spilled red ink 
Or nail-polish. Then a scab of flies
Peeled to hint at the wounds shut
Behind that door. Her head buzzed
As she called the police. Such a sweet boy,
She later gasped to Mrs Guha, a little dense
But smiling and so-sweet, to think he bottled up
In himself the rage of 26 stabs, twen-tee-six,
You never can tell with these people, no, not ever. 
To which Mrs Guha sadly shook her gold earrings.
The officer who turned up with two policemen
Also shook his head when told of the old couple
Who had lived in that flat with one serving boy
And presents from guilt-stricken sons in the US.
Having broken the door and located the crime,
He came out holding a large hanky to his nose,
Spat and asked, Nepali boy, no? Bihari chokkra ?
Some clues are so obvious they don't have to be pinned:
The incision of murder is always the outsider's choice,
Someone on the edge of life, driven by ghostly scalpels.

Sometime in the morphia of night when the roads of Delhi
Were white swathes of loneliness and smog, sometime
Three or more nights ago when the occasional truck's
Back lights faded to wavering bandages of yellow,
Sometime in a gauzed silence broken by yapping
Street dogs, so-sweet Shyam had crept to the locked
Front door and let his accomplices in. Steel rods 
Had been used, and knives; the old man clubbed in bed,
His wife surgically stabbed later. A cousin was asked
By the officer to make an inventory of missing items.

Which was long: two TV sets, radio, Banarasi saris
All the inherited silver, jewellery, cash, in fact everything 
Of value except the laptop, which had been left behind
In panic or ignorance of its value. Bihari chokkras,
Scoffed the officer, what do they know of computers,
Or alphabets for that matter. It turned out that this time
The chokkra in question had been filmed, holding
Loaded trays in parties, and his address noted. 
Justice was clinical, sweet Shyam nabbed in his village
With fifty rupees on him and a sari for his mother.

(First appeared in Where Parallel Lines Meet, Penguin, Delhi, 2000)


For My Grandfather's Garden

A flock of sparrows leaves the mehndi bush like a shudder.
Two squirrels chase each other around the trunk of a kathal.

Herons stand stilted like village ancients beside the pool.
The soft coo of a pigeon betrays neither distance nor place.

Parrots squabble on the bare top branch of the spreading gullar.
Five orange trees hunch laden with unplucked and acrid fruit.

The pomegranate plant still retains a cracked, crowned anár.
Mango trees stand mute, lacking their summer voices of yellow.

The ladybird changes from spotted red to a whirr of wings.
Half-plates of dark mushroom jut from the fallen log.

Grass is an intricate network of roads travelled by black ants.
The earth below is a breathing skin, veined with dark roots.

A dry green shell is all that is left of the snail and his tracks.
Translucent wings are all that will remain of dragonflies.

Perhaps I should put my faith in the crow and the subversive rat.
A bunch of builders measure out lines and angles from a blueprint.

(First appeared in Where Parallel Lines Meet, Penguin, Delhi, 2000)