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Mangalesh Dabral

Good for a Lifetime

Perhaps there was a bit of moisture there
or a pastel shade
Perhaps a shiver, perhaps hope

Perhaps there was just one teardrop there
or, as a keepsake,
a kiss
Perhaps there was snow there
or a small hand
or the attempt to touch

Perhaps there was darkness there
or an open field
or standing room
Perhaps there was a man there
struggling in his own way.

Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra


I looked at the city
and smiled
and walked in
who would ever want to live here
i wondered
and never went back.

Translated by Girdhar Rathi


I closed the door
and sat down to write a poem
outside a breeze was blowing
there was a little light
a bicycle stood in the rain
a child was coming home

I wrote a poem
which had no breeze no light
no bicycle no child
no door.

Translated  by the poet

The Other Hand

After all I've only got one hand
and how much can you do with it?
The other hand's almost useless
not much help
and I often forget
that there's still another hand

This is the one with which I fetch
water for your kitchen
write a thank-you note
strap-hang on a bus
I swing it vigorously as I walk
so it stays active defiant

That's when the other hand
crouches like a hare in a bush
or lies down in my childhood
somewhere between a ball and a rocking horse
In my youth it would clasp
the hand of a girl
but this swinging hand can't even
touch the other hand

It keeps on knocking
at the gates of cities offices houses
It's with this I do everything
It never gets tired never gives up
only when it's too much
the other hand protests
aching and trembling.

Translated by Girdhar Rathi

The Death of Leaves

The leaves that settle on my face
Fall from my childhood's trees.
A lake sends me its waves, and,
Like a wave, the night quivers. I walk
On it, the death of leaves on my face.

The birds have made their sounds.
The place is empty. The lights
Are ash. The houses on either side
Of the road have locked front doors.
I call out, and my voice rebounds.

Translated  by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

The Way Home

I tried several times
to raise my hand above this flood
Several times I had hopes
At times I saw this was the end

I'd only wanted to say
one or two ordinary words
that could be depended on
for the time being
that would be essential
at least for the moment

I'd only wanted
to describe a picture
that would be almost true
for a while
that would hang there
after the faces and landscapes had faded

I wanted to describe a mountain
one I tried to climb once
that sent down a shower of dirt and pebbles
Could it have been a mountain of hunger

I wanted to give details
of a missing boy
who might be eating bread somewhere in anger
looking at his scars
cursing himself
saying I will go back home

I did not want to apologize
for my despair
I did not want my simple desires
to show on my face
I did not ever want to forget
the way back home.

Translated by Vishnu Khare and Christi Merrill

Daily Grind

Citing a few concrete instances
we say the day is done
Morning's a door to our soul
we knock at in a routine way

Get up and get going
to earn your daily ration of despair
We know it had all been there for a long time
smoke blood and shrieking
Their shadow falls on our thoughts
we have not ventured far
from our thoughts

We step onto the street
looking for poems and tales
we converse with folded hands
for we believe in such conversation
Briskly we pace in the room to and fro
and swear at newspapers
finally saying it's all too horrible

We never thought there would be an abyss
even in humanity
we never thought the tyrant one day
would compare his face
with that of a human
Thinking we were not privy
to this misdeed to this madness
we watch society slip
day after day
into the nether world

We have brought with us life
though no more than a pinch of salt
our heads are still intact though dizzy
As we pass through the door of our soul
we reflect
on compassion succor magnanimity

Translated by Girdhar Rathi

The Quiet House

The sun by slow degrees heats up the walls
There's a fire smoldering somewhere near
There's a ball lying on the bed
the books, storehouses of disaster, are silent.

I'm half awake, half asleep
Half asleep, half awake
Listening to sounds outside
No sobbing in them
No threats being made or fear expressed
Nobody praying, nobody
Asking for alms.

And no bitterness in me
But space, empty, waiting to be filled
And easily inhabited
Nor do I feel helpless
But an aching spreads through my limbs
And I recall the house of my childhood
Its backyard, lying on my stomach
Basking in the sun.

I ask nothing of the world
And can live as squirrels do
As grass does or a ball
That a small jolt will bring
This quiet house down
Doesn't worry me.

Translated  by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Poem of Dreams

There's no running away from dreams; they happen as a consequence of waking. They tell us what we were and what we shall become. They make our half lives whole. While we breathlessly rush about one hemisphere, they keep us quietly asleep in a comer of the other.

In dreams the earth looks round, just like our schoolbooks said. The sun's heat is intense and stars shiver in their cold light Trees of happiness grow around us. Someone on a bicycle goes by; we hear a radio. We see our roots immersed in clear water. We see the moon shining in a small dark room.

In dreams we see that we are righteous men. We see an old cracked mirror. We see blood coming out of our nose.

Translated  by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Poem of Paper

One day we find sheets of paper that once were important lying everywhere around us. We see them even as we go to sleep. They put a stop to our dreams and cause insomnia. Much as we'd like to, we cannot sell them to the ragman, for in them our everyday lives, those things we hesitate to admit to ourselves, are buried. We have to sit down and tear them up instead.

This is how old letters get torn, written by sympathetic friends when we were down and out. Declarations of unrequited love, along with some poems by major poets, words we believed would remove the world's hunger, get reduced to shreds. This paper now won't make a child's boat or his airplane even, the kind that goes a short distance and turns back.

We've become wordless, and all but lost our speech. We go on tearing the paper. It's our only hope.

Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Letter to Children

Dear children, we could do nothing for you. You wanted us to join in your games, and you wanted to play ours, you wanted us to become innocent like yourselves.

Dear children, we told you living was a war without end. We sharpened the knives and were the first to use them. Hatred and anger made us blind. Dear children we lied to you.

This has been a long night, long as a tunnel, and though the view outside is clouded, we hear the weeping. Children forgive us for sending you there. We lied when we said life was a battleground.

Dear children, life's a festival through which you spread like laughter, it's a green tree, and you the birds fluttering inside it; it's a tossed ball-as the poets say, and you the restless feet that surround it.

Dear children, if it's not so then it ought to be.

Translated  by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

A Dream

I fell all of a sudden
as if out of a dream
as one trips and falls
on the street
It was a dream of my skin falling away
along with my soul
A dream of mouth and hair falling
my home fell along with me
Things I stuffed in my pocket
took out and
put back again

Moments fell relentless
all that I had been through
Down fell sounds of sobbing and weeping
Someone flung down
My clothing as well
Beyond wind and rain
I tumbled past earth
and the realm beneath
Still falling I saw
a flash
the one pushing me down laughing
and laughing.

Translated by Christi Merrill


We believe a man must be out there still, in some unknown cave readying his bow for battle. If he should be sighted our cameras rush to record his nakedness. It is said that he lived in our houses once with his entire clan. They worshipped masks and worried about nothing but talking to the birds and the sea. We put our masks on them in place of theirs and took their bows, useless in this modem day and age, for our own purposes. One by one their birds fell at our feet.

Scholars have many theories about where they have gone. Perhaps they were drowned at sea or disappeared with the birds or maybe our masks were too much for them. However some people say a long battle was fought and when only a single clansman survived we gave him back his mask and bow and banished him to a distant cave. Civilization demanded that there be one man there-not just a picture but a living breathing naked thing.

Translated by the poet and Christi Merrill

A Picture

Long ago there was only sky of ever-changing colors with clouds racing underneath/Then grass sprouted and a bird began to sing. The sound of a flute floated in the air. In the night for the first time the stars appeared so close mat we could touch them. Sometimes they joined us in play and twinkled in our eyes--Trees had no names then and the stones used to sleep like newborn children. The lights that burn at night were thought to chase away whatever threatened.

Now all this has been stored in our memory: the sky opens out like an umbrella the stars are stuck in their faraway places the trees and the flying birds are no more and the innocence of stones has come to an end. This is our precious picture we've put in a frame. Looking at the night's twinkling lights we call them the eyes of our village.

Translated  by Christi Merrill and Daniel Weissbort

A Tale of Love

No one sees them
as they walk together
in an embrace
as they look into each other's eyes
No one notices them
people say oh it was probably just the wind
or a sound
the footsteps of strangers passing by
At times they go very far away
from people from silence
as if making a boat of their kisses
in which they sail
on the current of their sweat
they call each other over and over
others say it's all nonsense
we don't remember our dreams
much of the time
Lovers in their world
in this world
whose eyes shed tears
as freely as trees their leaves
their eyes are not shielded
by sunglasses
but we didn't see anything
just smudges here and there
There's an old tale
a beautiful dream-sequence
a bird that would sit in a quiet tree
and sing for hours on end
a few old men and old women still recall it
and fall silent
as they look into each other's eyes.

Translated  by the poet and Wanda Boeke

An Act

I shore up confidence each morning
as I set out from home
hoping to maintain my composure
I meet a man and smile
he suddenly sees my sorrow
Eagerly I shake hands with another
who senses the agony deep inside me
I sit with a friend in silence
He says you look sickly and gaunt
Those who never set foot in my house
say oh we saw you on TV the other day
I wander mute through bazaars
A whole country's being packed into boxes
Life itself for sale
A slick new book has appeared in the stands
slighting my poetry
Those glossy faces look untroubled
Dancers strike poses thoughtlessly
Yessir it's all a big movie
Buy it now
Satisfaction guaranteed
The rest is nothing but an act
Voices sound from every direction
No time to change the make-up even
The murderer enters wearing the guise of innocence
The wicked preach a message of love
He who was so dignified
now blubbers and pleads
Tragedy seldom appears the farce plays long
All of them trying to grab
the Award for Best Actor.

Translated by Christi Merrill

My Face

Mother didn't recognize me
when I came back home
covered in dirt from head to toe
Mother wiped away the dirt
and the dried out mud beneath
She scrubbed a while longer
Then peeled away the robes and masks
I'd put on
who knows how long ago
She stripped away another layer
one just like my face
As it appeared before her
she drew back stunned
Seeing nothing there but emptiness
a gaping wound
cross-hatched with lines

Translated by the poet and Christi Merrill

The Sounds

Soon it will begin
to fill in with sounds

The dog's bark
up the lane the whining horse
jackals on the outskirts

Crickets chirping in between
the rustling of leaves
A solitary walk somewhere
in a lonesome street

Farther away a tiger
They would hear a roar
over my hamlet.

Translated by Girdhar Rathi


Some words scream
Some take off their clothes
And barge into history
Some fall silent.

Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

The Accompanist

Supporting the heavy monolith of the main singer's voice
His own was graceful, thin and quavering.
He is the singer's younger brother
Or a pupil
Or a distant relative who comes on foot to learn.
Since long ago
The resonance of his voice has echoed
The sonority of his master's;
And when the singer's lost his way
In the tangled jungle of melodic uplands
Or strays into the void of unstruck sound
Beyond the further reaches of the scale
It's the accompanist who holds the steady theme,
Gathering up the things the singer left behind,
Reminding him of childhood days
When he was a novice;
When the singer's voice gives way in the higher register,
Inspiration deserting him and fervour waning,
An ashiness shedding from his voice
Then the accompanist's tones emerge to blend with his;
Or it may be that he joins in simply
To show the singer that he's not alone
And that the song that's sung and done
Can be sung anew once more
And that the audible faltering in his voice
Or his wilful avoidance of the higher notes
Is evidence not of ineffectuality
But of humanity.

Translated by Rupert Snell

A Picture of Father

There are lots of little pictures of Father
Scattered throughout the house
His eyes sparkle brightly
with something far-seeing
Goodness or courage
In the picture Father doesn't cough
He's not agitated
His hands and legs don't ache
He does not stoop or compromise
One day Father stands next to his picture
And begins explaining
Just as a teacher shows a map to his pupils
Father says I'm not like my picture
But the new rooms I've added
In this old house, you take them
Take my goodness to battle against those evils
That you'll meet along the way
Don't take my sleep take my dreams
It's me who's worried who is agitated
I stoop and compromise
I groan with the pain in my hands and feet
I cough like Father
I look at Father's picture for a long time

Translated by Rupert Snell

A Picture of Mother

There's no picture of Mother in the house
Whenever there's a chance of having pictures taken
Mother is looking for something that's been misplaced
Or has gone for wood or grass or water
Several times she encountered a tiger in the jungle
But she wasn't afraid
She chased the tiger away cut grass and came home
Lit the fire and cooked for everyone

I never went to the jungle for grass or wood
Never lit the fire
I mostly just sat on the old carved chair
That has been used for taking pictures for ages
On Mother's face I see a picture of a jungle
A picture of wood grass and water a picture
Of something that's been misplaced

Translated by Rupert Snell

A Picture of Myself

This is a picture
In which a little courage gleams
And poverty appears concealed
Its darkness lurks
Behind the brightness the picture was taken in

The composure of this face
Is a mask for unease
Compassion and cruelty mingle here
A little pride is sunk deep in shame
And though the age for fighting passes unengaged
It bears the anguish of one returned from war
And these are the eyes which tell that love on which all things depend
Is growing less with every day

Between self-entrancement and buffoonery
One picture amongst many
Which I have taken over and over
In the vain hope of an improvement

Translated by Rupert Snell


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