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Rukmini Bhaya Nair


A goddess chews on myth
As other women might on paan
Red juices stain her mouth.

Bored by her own powers
Immense and spectral, Kali broods
About Shiva, she is perverse.

She will not plead with him
Nor reveal Ganesha’s birth
She will not ask him home.

Shiva loves her, but absences
And apsaras are natural to him
No god is hampered by his sins.

Kali desires a mortal, whose day
Begins with her, ends at nightfall
In her arms, a man who will die

Without her, whose love is fallible
But secure, she wants to be held
Like a warm creature, not a fable.

Loneliness drives this goddess mad
She is vagrant, her limbs askew
She begs a mate, her hair unmade.

Fickle as Shiva, memory deserts her
Chandi or Durga or Parvati, which
Is she, which of her selves weeps here?

Even Ganesha, for whom she feels
Only tenderness, excludes her, even he
Seems impatient with her flaws.

Where should such a goddess turn?
Kali, mistress of the temporal worlds
Wants bliss defined in human terms.

Staid Ganesha knows this wildness
Must be curbed, Shiva, peripatetic
Agrees, and across the wilderness

Both gift Kali a companion eagle, hurt
By no arrow, fed on nothing, it returns
Each night to its eyrie in her heart.

Gargi’s Silence

Where in the barefoot world you wander
Will go with you Gargi’s untamed
Silence. Among the sea anemones’
Agile points of light, blue flamed

In mushroom woods, when wheelbarrows
Tip their load, and the mustard plains
Burn yellow in the recesses, listen
To the universe crackle, curl, change

Because Gargi has found the last, unnamed
Star, and on Yagnavalkya’s ascetic skull
Her questions fall like soot, black rain
Stir in his groin, make him young again.

Zebra red spurts the tawn savannah grass
And lion swishes his tail, great maned
What is the warp and weft of the world
What lies in the taut weaver’s frame?

Who turns the crankshaft in my brain?
Answer, Yagnavalkya! How many oceans deep
Is desire? When you touch me, am I sane?
Can a bee taste honey? Why does it sting?

In mean streets, in the slushy yards of pain
Gargi whispers in Yagnavalkya’s ticklish ear
Your metaphysics is shaky! We’re not chained
To Brahman. He is a prisoner of our senses.

That dry saltpetre hill, that baboon whooping
What’s Brahman to them? Yet they’ll remain
When we’ve packed up our arguments and gone
Tell me, Yagnavalkya, will you instruct me then?

Stop, Gargi! Stop! If you ask so much, for so much
Your head will fall off – or mine. I’m not ashamed
To admit my wisdom has limits. See that goat boy
Passing? The first lesson is one in restraint.

Don’t mess with him, Gargi. In the soundless lanes
Of the sky, milk white Akasha, you will hear voices
Yours, his, mine, his and then – the last unclaimed
Akshara. Whose word is it, Gargi, Brahman’s – or ours?

Then Gargi Vachanakari, smiling to herself, held her peace.

Note : Gargi, pupil of the sage Yagnavalkya, is one of the few women with intellectual yearnings who appear in the Upanishads, where she is threatened with dire consequences by her guru for asking too many questions.

A Politically Incorrect Ode To Whitman

Whitman isn’t in
He will not be in
This year or the next

He’s gone out
Far out where the two
Americas meet like kissing whales

Beyond the net
Of the universities
Whitman celebrates his absence

Old grampus
Without a postmodern
Stitch on him he reads himself

Sitting naked
On leaves of grass
Sounding his barbaric yawp

Forever thirty-seven
And in perfect health chewing
The heads off dandelions and theorists

Which right-thinking critic
Would not like to put to sleep
This unconcerned ecologically hazardous

Phallogocentric brute
Once and for all in that
Endlessly rocking cradle of his?

But damn Whitman!
There’s no putting him out
He says his sex contains all bodies, souls

This his self-description:
Stern, acrid, large, undissuadable
And help! Also draining the pent-up rivers

Of himself
Into women and demanding
Perfection from his love-spendings

Whitman alters
What he grandly calls
The base of all metaphysics

His gods
Are stones and sinews
Or an occult Brahma encountered

Far back on that reckless
Passage to India descending radiating

His incantatory texts
And striding back and forth between
Vaunt’d Ionia and Sanskrit and the Vedas

Affected by a chronic logorrhoea
It’s clear the fellow abhors silence, babbling
All the time of puzzles to be solv’d and blanks to be fill’d

Blissfully ignorant
That erasure is essential
Words treacherous and that doubt wafts in every human soul

Ah how I’d like
To introduce Walt to wordplay
Brackets and all the joys of paranomasia

How he’d love it too!
Whit(e)man caring not a whit
Careening down passion’s witless slopes

Waltzing with Whitman
Could be such fun but he flatly
Refuses to rise to all my intellectual baits

He says he will not be
Darken’d and daz’d by books any more
He will steer for deep waters only and the farthest

And, sorry, poor dullards
Noodling in the groves of academe

Whitman will not
Be in this year or the next
It’s the uncharted courses he’s out to explore!

Note : It is worth noting that the famous phrase ‘passage to India’ was first coined by Whitman, who was romantically fascinated by the subcontinent. This poem was written after I overheard a discussion at an American university about whether or not Whitman should be included in the syllabus, given his overt sexism. Many of the phrases in my poem are direct quotations from him.


My son, not quite seven, said

        It was a bad day at school
        Six children cried

Why? Were they sick? Did teacher scold?
Which six?  

        Ishita – two times Ishita!
        Actually, three times Ishita!
        I can’t tell you about it

Why not?

        Neha started it
        Rahul and I ran away
        It was a madhouse!

A madhouse? Viraj, tell Amma, please.

        You’ll scold me. It was in the break
        Teacher wasn’t there

Okay, don’t tell me! You don’t have to tell me.

       They were talking about


My not-quite-seven son looks sheepish, then mulish

       Yeah, love.

But why did everyone cry? Love is nothing
To cry about! Love’s a happy thing
Viraj, you know that

dear god, how we lie to our children
my son, named for procreation

amalgam of wild Aryan rituals
my son, the first Vedic man
stares at me

                         his glowing rhesus eyes
                         full of candour, of trust

my son says

      Neha said Trinanjan loves Lori
      And then Trinanjan started crying
      Ishita loves Subir. Everybody says she loves Subir
      Even Devika loves Subir
      And Ishita cried

     Actually, Trinanjan loves Lori, but Lori
     Doesn’t love Trinanjan
     So Trinanjan cried
And you, Viraj, whom do you love?
You know.
No, I don’t. Who?
And Neha? Does anyone else love Neha?
She loves me.
That’s lucky. How do you love Neha, Viraj?
Do you play with her? Is she your special friend?

            No, I just love her.

Viraj, why didn’t you cry?

            I was brave

yes you were brave, Viraj
you don’t know just how brave
you’ll have to be

it’s a lonely business – this love
you were the first man, you ought to know

and then I think how primitive
this thing is, how old
what fires have burned for it
what fantailed dances it inspires

neatly segmented into periods, subjects
Hindi, Maths, English
and something mysterious called E.V.S.
but all that method, that learning
those iterated aisles of desks
rows of little chairs
then come to this –
a break at high noon
at recess

Love breaks into that gap in the day
it holds its own classes

Erich Segal, sentimentaliser of a generation
you knew love was about crying, Ryan O’Neal
had to love Ali McGraw, if it was really


you knew about the accusations, the guilt 
but you had no inkling that all the schmaltz
the romance, begins with this instinct
for pairing
with recitations, incantations

Neha began it. It was a madhouse.  

Trinanjan and Lori, Viraj and Neha, Ishita
and Subir, Subir and Devika, have they all
entered the madhouse?


is not never having to says things
it is to say things, show things
over and over and over again
with all the desperate jazz at your disposal

see, that’s Romeo on his bum guitar
and that’s the moon, shameless mauve
riding the tide – and Neha
you can make out Neha
stirring her amateur brew

O Viraj, step back, step back
from the red-bottomed langur turn-ups
from the aggrieved jackal cries
from the kingfisher’s Dionysiac blue

you are too young for a tragic hero
too young to die of natural causes
O Viraj – you are just too young for words!

words, even words
can tear you apart –
if those are all you have

but today my son Viraj, not quite seven
is indifferent to danger

he is brave

merged with the brilliant sky, the earth’s
dark quilted bracken
he has become his first self –
three thousand, twelve thousand
a billion years old . . .

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