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Keki N Daruwalla


Before the Word

Corn is great, on the cob or otherwise,
but before corn in the ear there was life.
Fire is holy especially for Zoroastrians,
but before fire too there was life.
Before the bowstring and the flint arrow sang,
there was life.

The word is great,
yet there was life before the word.
We can’t turn romantic and say
we were into bird speech or river-roar then,
into the silence of frost
or the language of rain.
But forest speech and swamp speech
came through easier to us.
When lightning crashed,
the cry of the marsh bird was our cry,
and we flung ourselves to the other branch
like any other baboon.

As winter whined on windy cliff,
we shivered with the yellow grass.
In winter-dark a hundred eyes
flared yellow in the jungle scrub.
When seasons changed, blood coursed with sap
and flowered in meadows. We were at home.
Nor eyes nor bat cries bothered us.
What if we didn’t know
a bat assessed reality
from the ricochet of its cry?

Though there were no words,
fear had a voice with many echoes.
Worship was quieter, adoration
spoke only through the eyes or knees.

What was it like before language dropped like dew,
covering the scuffed grass of our lives?


Alexander Crosses the Hellespont

He was a little tentative
when it came to the East.
Its ways were quite insidious
and odd to say the least.

His experience was unhappy:
His first stop had been Cairo
where he had gone to drop his card
and call on the Pharoah.

They laid a banquet for him
At the Casino Mariot
and placed by Pope Shenodah
who but Judas Iscariot!

The Turks would be more organized
he fondly hoped – and damn!
He couldn’t cross the Hellespont.
There was a traffic jam.

He raged and ranted fiercely
“I must have been a fool
to try and venture into
intestinal Istanbul.

When do we get to Asia?”
Great Alexander probed.
“When Effendi comes to Turkia
He comes from Europe to Europe.

You can check with CNN
Or ask the BBC.
When you come to Turkey
You come to EEC.”

He remembered Aristotle:
“Son, at the Turkish Rail
ask for the Occident Express
The Occidental Mail.”

As he checked into a hotel
– the Turks call it Oteli –
he found Thais lodged in Hilton
while he was in Surmeli.

What really turned his eyes into
two glowing bits of phosphorous
was that his friend Hephaestion
checked into Hotel Bosphorous.

His face turned dark and sullen
as a cloud’s before a storm.
And though they humoured him he screamed
“I want Hephaestion!”

They offered handsome eunuchs,
whores from the Golden Horn.
But Alexander kept on saying
“I want Hephaestion”.

Thias phoned “I am bored at Hilton,
And I am quite akeli.”
But he said what can I do
for I am at Surmeli!”

And Mehmet Ali Pasha,
a little high on raaki
asked poor Alexander
if he was an Iraqi?

Then in the hotel dining room
dressed in salwar-kameez,
a man accosted him and said
“could I have your good name please?

Arrey Janab Sikandar Sahab!
Myself Assad Durrani.
Oh what a treat it is to meet
a fellow Pakistani.”

Alexander answered darkly
“Thanks very much Janab.
Tell Porus inshah Allah
We’ll be meeting in Punjab.”

He drove the Persians backwards
right up to Tarbela.
He beat them up at Granicus.
He thrashed them at Arbela.

While he uncorkd the champagne
and lit the fireworks,
who should speak but Spoil Sport
Parmenio, the jerk.
“Sire, though you thrashed the Persians,
you never touched a Turk.”

 

Mandwa

Mostly when I arrive at places
it is winter. Here it isn't.
The sea pants, the islands smoulder,
the sun is an egg-yolk frying in the sky.
I have come here not to slake the senses
but to assuage an old thirst for the sea.
And so to this anointed strip of coast, v dark with shrub,
the beach white with fish-scales,
gridled by islands that seem to float
like pieces of a broken carafe.

Slack surf, the tides
withdrawn into their private limbos.
Hotter than the sun
is its reflection in the sea.
Obsessive whiteness:
lime-washed shacks gleam in the afternoon.
The wavebands of the sea shimmer as we swim,
our landmark on the beach a rusted anchor-
the spiked mace of a drowned sea god.
Neither to the shore
nor to the deep sea drag me.
Leave me here among the shoals,
anchored.

At night the harbour lights
outflicker the stars.
The wind wheezes in through shuttered slats
as if a lung of the night were pierced by a glass sliver.

The night passes in baby-whale talk,
a baby whale which came in
with the foam and outstank the city,
till the fire-brigade cut it up
and threw it back into the ocean.
When you come to the sea
your nightmares have to adjust.
Don't look out for the flying fox,
nor wolf nor hyena;
but piranhas, bluebottles, sharks
and the bleeding blubber of dismembered whales.

Rearrange your private hells,
switch your sandstorms off
as you lock up your deserts
and bolt the skyline hard.
Clothe yourself in the limp sail
of a boat stranded in mid sea with no fresh water.

At night 1 dream of an engine groaning
as it comes heavily to life:
the whisper of a force six
gusting to seven as it bellows into power.
A fistful of wind smacks the sail;
the mast cants
water churns and gurgles along the hull;
the helmsman on the wheel;
the salt, the spray, the braced legs
and the blood coursing
to a true thresh to windward.

Morning: islands, like somnambulists
which had walked out on the mainland
and awoke to find themselves waist-deep in the seas.
The wind
sings at
high
tide,
the palm-fronds reverberate.

Bombay is black yeast
from here, and black salt,
a wall of rotting muscle.
Across the harbour the vertical
city of the rich keeps rising-
grotesque heads on unsteady shoulders.
The slum-city of asbestos
squats at its ankles,
huddled behind a smokestack.

Horse-shaped clouds are sniffing at the sky
and whinnying, as the wind
gathers her skirts and takes off.
The jetty cannot tame the sea:
a ten-foot wall of water
with a three-foot ridge of foam
heaves against the dyke.

At night the cyclone
is many-throated, many-lunged.
Gulls dash against the lighthouse
on the hill: squall-debris.
The searchlight is hinged to a broken joint.
It swings, throwing its yellow spray
at the storm,
even though salt-blinded;

I felt cheated in the morning.
No canting masts, no shattered
cluttered the beach. I had slept through
half the storm, equanimous as Buddha.
I should have dreamt
of blood-red sails, sunken ships
twisted, skeletal ghost-sailors
dropping from bits of rigging,
and eye-sockets
turning into an hourglass.
In the meadows of love
crowbar and crucifix,
the beat of death
in the flowering heart of life.
Sea, 1 look for fungus and rot
even in you, your floorboards putrefying
till ocean and underworld are one.

Instead, two mornings later,
this 180 degree arc
of rose and mauve,
this fleet of dawns weighing anchor.
The sea and the sky, two concaves
mirroring each other,
two giant wings of a purple moth,
a rose-pink oar looking for a boat,
a lilac axe-blade looking for a treeline.
The gulls were not there nor their cries
nor the angry rhythm of their wings.

1 ask the villagers, surely some sea-myth
must have latched itself to this coastal shelf,
some octopus-king gliding
through palaces of luminous coral;
stories of piracies perhaps,
of a Zamorin dropping anchor.
Surely there must have been a temple here
to a fish-eyed goddess
covered with barnacles?
No, they shake their heads, no one remembers
seeing a myth die
amidst a shoal of dancing bubbles.
Nothing here but the colossal
undulations of the sea,
changing from green to shimmering jade.


Lambing

My back against the straw rick
I rest in the lambing pen,
listening to cows cudding in the dark,
their tails swishing against the buzzing flies.

I lie still, knowing pain is next door.
The lamb is already knocking at the gates,
kicking away, impatient to shift
from the pastures of my body
to the bales of hay and my warm flank.

Green grasses and clovers were aplenty here;
but I was driven to meadows
sparse and brown.
His crook prodded me,
his throwing-stick stood poised.
His shaggy dogs with their hair-screened eyes
growled when I dragged my feet.
I was herded into the sere,
into meadows dung-scabbed,
gnawed half-way to the root,
or past scythed fields
where knees bled
from the razor-cuts of stubble.

We would die of bloat, he said,
if we fed on clovers.
The stomach would turn;
thyme-scented turf was not for the likes of us.

I know of failing strength and faltering feet.
I know I am hungry but I cannot eat,
for though I am patient
the lamb within me has turned urgent
as it twists and strains against my side
and turns as I turn against the straw rick.

The smell of roasts drifts across my nostrils.
(My first-born had vanished
when his prodigal returned.)
The shepherd's hearth is warm
his cooking pot is full
the smoke from his chimney wreathes the valley.
Next morning
downs silvered with the last frosts
and the ice at the river's edge
glittering like crushed glass;
the lamb at my side licked clean;
I nibble on dry grass
unleavened with the night dews.
The green-sprout days
will shortly sun the lamb.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.


Wolf

Fire-lit
half silhouette and half myth
the wolf circles my past
treading the leaves into a bed
till he sleeps, black snout
on extended paws.

Black snout on sulphur body
he nudged his way
into my consciousness.
Prowler, wind-sniffer, throat-catcher
his cries drew a ring
around my night;
a child's night is a village
on the forest edge.

My mother said
his cars stand up
at the fall of dew
he can sense a shadow
move across a hedge
on a dark night;
he can sniff out
your approaching dreams;
there is nothing
that won't be lit up
by the dark torch of his eyes.

The wolves have been slaughtered now.
A hedge of smoking gun-barrels
rings my daughter's dreams.


A Pregnancy in the Hills

Stars freeze and burn
in their crucibles of thought,
each smouldering In Its own infernoa
brain on fire within a skull of ice.

As I open the door
the grate-fire spurts
subtly with the draught
and the tenderness
wells into your face
like a flash-flood.

Taut as a drumskin
the belly turns translucents,
howing its arborescing veins.
As I trace the capillaries
the child moves away
from this bank of your body.

The midwives bicker,
will the feet appear first,
protruding like antennae,
or the bulbous head?

The moment when the sluice gates open,
throwing him on the dark river of the stars,
will decide how his passions
eddy and swivel
and to which banks love will ferry him.
And already death has marked him
from his unseen boat,
as traversing the womb-walls
he is trapped into life.



Fish

The sea came in with her and her curved snout
and her tin coloured barnacles
and long threaded rose moles
patterned on her body.

The sea brought her and her curved snout
and her rose moles and her eyes still translucent
as if half aware and half unaware
of the state of her body.

The sea came in with her and her scimitar snout
and her translucent eyes
greying into stone.

The sea brought her in,
wrapped in seaweed
and slapped her on the sand,
all five feet of her
with the armour of her scales
and the filigree of her rose moles.

The tide kept coming in
but couldn’t disturb her
or her resting place –
she was heavy.

The sea fell back but even
as the thin-edged foam line receded,
it went to her once more with a supreme effort,
rummaged among her barnacles
and left.


Migrations


Migrations are always difficult:
ask any drought,
any plague;
ask the year 1947.
Ask the chronicles themselves:
if there had been no migrations
would there have been enough
history to munch on?

Going back in time is also tough.
Ask anyone back-trekking to Sargodha
or Jhelum or Mianwali and they’ll tell you.
New faces among old brick;
politeness, sentiment,
dripping from the lips of strangers.
This is still your house, Sir.

And if you meditate on time
that is no longer time –
(the past is frozen, it is stone,
that which doesn’t move
and pulsate is not time) –
if you meditate on that scrap of time,
the mood turns pensive
like the monsoons
gathering in the skies
but not breaking.

Mother used to ask, don’t you remember my mother?
You’d be in the kitchen all the time
and run with the fries she ladled out,
still sizzling on the plate.
Don’t you remember her at all?
Mother’s fallen face
would fall further
at my impassivity.
Now my dreams ask me
If I remember my mother
And I am not sure how I’ll handle that.
Migrating across years is also difficult. "

 







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