Tag Archives: poem

Author Prerona Mukherjee with her father.

At Bay, In a Sea of Poetry

Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.

I grew up surrounded by poetry. My father loved poems and would recite with all the passion of a Bengali man. My grandparents, who brought me up, were passionate Tagore fans.

My grandmother read poems in the afternoon, and sometimes she would cry. 

My grandfather wrote her love letters, allegedly, with a different appellation on each page.

They shared their favorite poems with each other.

My parents too were full of love and poetry. There was something very romantic about them – not just in the sense of their love for one another, but in that their whole life was a wild adventure. That is what poetry meant to me at that younger age — romance!

And I was too fierce and too alive: I wanted grit and reality, not escape and dreams.

Perhaps, because I grew up surrounded by so much poetry, I never took it seriously. If I wrote or read something, I did not work hard at it. I devoured poetry much like I would a fat mango in a Calcutta summer or how I would gulp it a delicate cup of Darjeeling tea on a misty morning. Recently, a beloved friend told me he was taking a course on reading poetry. I was stunned and awed. I did not think I could be so cerebral, so disciplined about poetry – I don’t ever want to be. 

Outside the home, the first poems I encountered were at school. I was lucky that what we read in school was spectacular: Night of the Scorpion, The Inchcape Rock, Ulysses, Bangabhumir Prati, Rabindranather Prati, Aabar Asibo Phire. I remember being arrested by a poem from time to time and writing ever so often, mostly when I should have been doing something else, as though spellbound. But even so, I did not think much of poetry then, they were just pretty words. I was too young, too caught up with living and doing.

Like in most relationships, my love for poetry evolved over time. You need a certain amount of heartache and storms to rake up the ground before words can take root. I kept discovering more poets I was entranced by: Nazim Hikmet, Pasternak, Jorge Luis Borges, Nizar Quabbani, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Buddhadeb Basu.

The older I get, the more compelled I am by the quietly strumming throb of words that is poetry. Now I see poems as feelings. Helpless impotent feelings that try to come out of the womb of our hearts and make a bid for a life of their own.

To me, poetry is madness. Most of the time, I am quite sane. I don’t think of myself as a poet, I can’t rhyme and my poems often have no set form. Yet from time to time, a thought or a feeling wells up and nags me till I write it down. 

These two poems came to me in these terrible times of Covid, which were so painful to many of us, helpless and arrested, so far from home.

Tired of writing condolence messages.

Every day to a new friend.

Every death untimely.

Each loss unfair.

I think of childhood friends. So & so?

Hope they are okay. I want a roll-call each day.

 

In the litany of deaths, some are uncounted.

An immigrant doesn’t leave with much:

An idea of home, a place lost in time,

Unreachable, outside a dream.

That dream, safely tucked away,

Is that too dying today?

 

And yet life knows no math.

There will be no reckoning.

We limp on, best we can, all of us.

And slivers of life sneak through the shrouds,

like my stubbornly optimistic son,

when I tell him I am too busy to play.

Sometimes my poems rise up almost fully formed, and I obediently play the scribe. I find it hard to think them through and even harder to edit, especially when the driving emotion is vivid and personal. This one came to me when I was missing my father, whom I lost to COVID, far away in India. I could not do anything with it, once I wrote it down. 

A Stubborn Poem that Refuses to Conform

The days at home are growing hot:

waiting for the rains, in murmuring desperation;

then often too much comes, too late.

 

I had written about you to the doctor,

and called the mayor too.

they said sorry, it was too late.

 

My dream died. And another was born,

a wish granted. A price collected –

equity in the business of souls.

 

I just wish I could have seen you once more.

though I know, it would never be enough.

I wanted you forever; I will want you forever 

 

A civilization of ants was devastated today –

I carelessly stepped on their bustle of progress.

A few, turncoats, hurried on my shoe to survive

 

They said they tried everything.

But I thought the tide was going to turn!

this “but”, this moment, this shock never ebbs

 

When an old friend has left,

little questions we never asked nag us.

When they are here, the questions hide like shy children.

 

It was inevitable, this farewell –

from the first kiss, our road to goodbye is inevitable

inescapable; from the moment I left your womb.

 

And yet it was a beautiful day. The skies were blue,

I read a new book. I thought I could tell you, then remembered…

From a dark window, I watch a square of light high on the hill.


Prerona Mukherjee is a Cognitive Neuroscientist and an aspiring writer. The common thread: people, life, and feelings. She spent most of her childhood in Calcutta, India, and adulthood in Edinburgh, Scotland before finding herself in the Bay.


 

Cherry Blossom Tree in Sara Garg's front yard.

A Glance at the Raining Flowers, Away From My AP Lecture

Rain is a metaphor in many books and movies. It signifies a baptism, a cleansing, a change. It is said to smell like a thousand different things: roses, grass, smoke, spring. Rain is laughter, rain is peace, rain is tears. Adele sang a song about rain, so did Pitbull and Phil Collins and so many others whose names I can’t remember. In their voices, I’ve listened to the longing of the rain, the screams of the rain, the warm smiles of the rain, and the tippy-tappy feet of the rain. But today, rain is simply beautiful.

The water falls like diamonds from the sky, catching the light and making the front yard of the house glow. The wet grass looks like the plains in the movies where the main characters can lay down as if it’s a bed. This window in my study peers into a world of wonder. 

I want to run outside and be part of the wet, wondrous world, I want to dance in the rain, but I have responsibilities. I look back at my computer, and I get back to AP World History. Rain will come again. 

My little sister gasps, “look outside, Sara,” she tells me, “it’s so pretty.” I look back at the images on my screen: burial mounds as Auschwitz, accounts of the “Rape of Nanjing,” and soldiers lining up for a firing squad. It’s hard to imagine anything pretty after this atrocity. How did the world move on? When the victors wrote the story, was there no mention of the horrors they committed, was there a mass campaign to forget? I sound like a conspiracy theorist and shake my head to clear it, smiling at my sister. I will see the beauty that she does because without that rosy sheen the world becomes a dark place. 

I smile at Savi, nine years old and caught up in the rain. And I humor her, walking over next to her desk. She’s covered it in stickers of hearts and rainbows and a pink nameplate that says “THIS GIRL CAN.” While nine-year-olds are enamored with every little thing about the world, at sixteen, I’m focused on making it to a good college.

In a few years, Savi won’t even remember Austin, the city in Texas we moved from over the summer. I know, because when I moved to Austin from Pittsburgh right around her age, I quickly forgot details, left only with a vague notion of warmth. All I remember is the snow in Pittsburgh, huge puffy pink snow pants, friends I found in our neighbors, experimenting on worms, and evenings spent trying to catch fireflies. 

It’s strange how history repeats itself, a new job, a new home, a new school, and eventually, new memories to replace the old. I left too much in Austin to forget. Austin was where all my friends were, where I diversified my relationships, and where I learned what it meant to grow up. In six years, Savi will be a different person with different experiences. But for now, she’s completely engrossed in the window. She isn’t even thinking about her next class period let alone the next few years. I glance up. 

What a difference those four steps I took to Savi’s desk made. Suddenly, I see rose quartz falling from the sky. The pale pink of a sunset outside the windows. A flurry of springtime snow. And my eyes want to grow larger to take in the whole world right outside that’s pushing its way in. I can almost swear I hear birds. If my life was a movie, a chorus would sing in the background, my hair would fly around my face, and I’d ask, “Is that a different world?” 

Magic can’t hold for long before reality kicks back in.

A petal flies into the window. Light pink and small, and I understand what’s happening. Our front-yard cherry blossom trees bloomed a few days ago, and the hard rain is pushing the petals down to the ground. Even with a logical reason, I can’t help but laugh. It’s raining flower petals. 

In Austin, our front yard was bland. Two big green bushes covered everything and even when they flowered in the spring, their tiny flowers attracted so many bees that we couldn’t truly appreciate it. If I was nine again, I would want to prove that I was better than my friends through empty posturing about having a pretty yard. But now that I have a slice of nature in my yard, I find that I don’t want to share the story of its glory with the world. This will be our memory to cherish.

I watch for a few more moments, looking down at the coating of petals on the ground. I’m enamored of the flower petals. I can’t move. I watch the petals fall, the wind pushing them onto our neighbors’ lawns, then pulling them back onto ours. If fairy tales happened, if princes came, if there is a heaven, they would all look like this. 

“Look, Shiv,” I point my twelve-year-old brother out his window, “It’s raining flowers.” I feel giddy. My smile feels like it could light up the room. He looks away from his computer, his eyes follow my finger, and he smiles too. The big, open smile that only my younger siblings can make. 

“I saw, I’ve been watching it ever since the rain started,” he tells me smiling as he returns to class. Lucky boy, in front of a window all the time. I sit in front of a wall plastered in all of the chemistry notes for the open-note tests. 

I finally tear my eyes away from the window and head back to my desk. But, I’m only half-listening as my teacher talks about the Treaty of Versailles, World War II, and the other legacies of the “Great War.” I’m lucky to be sitting here, the past a distant memory. For me, it’s raining beauty, and for those soldiers, it rained death and chemical warfare. And I wonder what would have happened, if one day, on the bloodied battlefields of the war, it rained flowers instead of bullets. 

My phone rings with the alarm for lunch, startling me into action. I close my laptop, and I run towards the hallway bridge outside my room to look through our giant window. The flowers are still falling, and now I can hear the rain. A torrent that sounds like YouTube Calming soundtracks played at full volume. 

Down the stairs, I turn into Papa’s study. He’s in a meeting with his headphones in, I wave my arms to get his attention and point outside. He smiles and nods, he’s seen the rain. I keep gesturing, and he looks again. His face lights in awe at the pink tornado outside that wants to pull your gaze into its swirling depths and never let it go. 

I loved Austin and felt my heart was tied there by too many strings to ever let go of the past, but I feel my heart making space for the present. Atlanta is where I can look outside and become nine again because it’s raining flowers. 


Sara Garg is a 16-year-old sophomore in high school and a poet. She started writing poetry in 4th grade and hasn’t stopped since. Her works have been read at the Matwaala South Asian Diaspora poetry festival and published in two of the anthologies of Austin International Poetry Festival as well as the Austin Bat Cave 2019 Anthology. She has won multiple awards for her poems including the Youth Poet of the Year Award 2017, Awards of Excellence for her PTA Reflections poems, and her district Young Georgia Writers’ Competition winner. 


 

Book cover of Zilka Joseph's 'Sparrows and Dust'

Zilka Joseph’s ‘Sparrows and Dust’ is a Heavy Read, But She Makes it Fly

I don’t know the color of a hummingbird’s throat. But when Zilka Joseph brings alive the “green-steel warrior”, I feel as though I’ve recognized the crimson feathers on its dainty neck as an old memory, a remnant of childhood held captive by poetry. That, I suppose, is the secret to Joseph’s pen — the ability to blur the boundaries between her world and those of her readers. This is precisely what she does in Sparrows and Dust, Joseph’s 30-page, Pushcart-nominated homage to her identity as a South Asian-American immigrant and more. As the name of this chapbook suggests, Joseph often draws upon the behaviors and appearances of birds, from beady-eyed sparrows to golden eagles, to explore the depths of her experience. In Sparrows and Dust, Zilka Joseph flits between memory and migration, fight or flight, in this pithy tribute to the birds that have shaped her. 

Joseph is a veteran poet and creative writing instructor, whose work has graced the pages of publications from Asia Literary Review to The Kali Project. Her experience with both writing poems and selecting them shines through in this book, which consists of only 19 poems. Although the brief Table of Contents left me unsure of Joseph’s work at first, later added to my appreciation of her strong sense of word economy and selection.

Every piece of this collection has a purpose, from the emphatic “Listen!” that forces readers to halt in their tracks in “For the Birds” to the “Please stay.” that closes off “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” like a lingering whisper. The poems themselves are generally short and pithy trips into her personal life, with choppy lineation that leaves the poems structurally “wispy”. In fact, that’s what struck me when I read this book for the first time; I felt as though the poems themselves tangibly reminded me of birds’ feathers, slipping out of the tongue and into flight. I suppose herein lies my only critique for this book; many of the structurally similar poems feel clumped together, rather than interwoven with the more visually experimental “Negative Capability” and “So Much”. Thematically, Joseph alternates between nostalgia and quiet introspection, bringing both her childhood home in Kolkata and her current wintry abode in Michigan alive. There’s an aura of desolate solitude to Sparrows and Dust; beyond herself and the birds she chooses to elucidate her emotions with, other characters feel like distant and sad recreations of Joseph’s memory. She channels this emotion beautifully in her leading titular poem, where she mentions how she has “never saved anyone or anything — my parents, the animals, and birds”. 

It’s interesting how Joseph can catch you so off-guard with moments like these. How despite her colorful illustrations of sparrows and their immutable relationship with the natural world, Joseph still creates a world that can be so empty and unforgivably fleeting. It’s not a happy space, but it’s where she thrives as a writer. Some of my favorite moments in this book are where Joseph slips into vulnerable dramatic monologues, whether that means begging with the spirit of her mother in “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” or describing the accidental death of an insect in “Good Intentions”. Strangely enough, she finds a way to convey the importance of both tragedies to her readers, despite our perceived emotional distance from her personal life or the seeming insignificance of an insect’s life. Each time, she leaves the readers clinging to an atmosphere that she has now made barren, by both reflecting on her past mistakes and also on her inability to reverse or rectify them. Personally, I felt especially forlorn after reading “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” and “Scenes from the Deck”; I rarely recognize the mortality in my own parents, and found myself seeking some kind of resolution or closure when the poems were over.  This way, I think it becomes easier to understand Joseph — just as she clings onto her memories, we will have to cling to her poems, despite the way they end. 

Sparrows and Dust is a short and good read, which does not force readers to feel certain emotions but invokes them regardless. Joseph’s third chapbook is illusive, rarely indulgent, and like the birds, she illustrates, never idle. 

With the author’s permission, I have chosen to reproduce her piece, “Scenes from the Deck” in this review to offer a preview into the book:  

Scenes from the Deck

I know how you love that word deck, Dad—

all those years you sailed around

the world. Began at Mazagon Docks,

Mumbai. 25 paise wages. Steamship days.

Diesel days. Deck, bridge, engine room

was home to you, Chief Engineer,

with the booming voice, always in charge,

everyone’s boss. Nothing changed

even when you grew old

and blind. You still wouldn’t listen.

Too late. Too late. Mum sank quickly,

suddenly she was gone. You fought

the storm, your ship still

strong and sea-worthy.

Drowned slowly

in the salt sea that filled

your lungs.

You clutched my hand

for hours. I sang Somewhere

over the Rainbow

by your hospital bed.

You moaned the words

inside the mask muzzling

your mouth. The voice

that bellowed a thousand commands.

Oh my father. Eagle with claws full

of thunderbolts. Now lying shattered

on the deck.

***


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 


 

Usha Dhupa's Father - Dr. A.N. Bowry

In a World of Giants: Remembering My Father

Father, in this contemporary sketch of a place in the world where giants roamed, warrior-like you entered tall, confident, and armed with science and humanity.

A profile of courage and integrity.

Into this wild, untamed Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, you marched in, in step with the raw power and magnificent bearings of the lions, the towering herds of elephants, the elusive cheetahs, and a superabundance of the wild creatures of this natural world.

Born and raised in Hiran, Punjab, trained as a medical doctor, you, Dr. Amar Nath Bowry, embraced the Hindu philosophy of ‘Karma Yoga’. At 23, you and Lila Wati, your young bride of 17, left your beloved families behind to sail across the Indian Ocean.

Soon you discovered that because of the inhospitable living situation for the native populations in Kenya, death and disease were common occurrences. Along with poverty and lack of resources, the scattered rural populace was preyed upon by a plethora of diseases like Malaria, Sleeping Sickness, Bilharzia.  

Ready to face the challenges head-on, with a fervent zeal, you embarked on a mission to help and heal this land. Undeterred by hardships, to fulfill this noble mission, you dedicated 35 years of your life to Kenya. While accomplishing your goal brought you unlimited satisfaction, it all came at the cost of pain and separation for your young family.   

Respect All. Love All – was the Mantra that propelled your compassionate heart.

India was always Home. After 35 years, you returned, finally, to be part of that revered Indian soil.

A REMEMBRANCE  

Sixty years!  Time must be playing some tricks!

Father, I cannot believe, you have gone sixty,

Long-stretched years.

I still know you as being around me

You are still with me!

 

Your joy in being alive; your healing, nurturing soul

That won over a vast array of patients and admirers.

Your serene, calm composure, your engaging smile

You truly knew how to listen.

 

We just spoke.

We told you of our unfathomed lives

Innocent pranks

Our brow-creased misgivings.

 

In your bright, knowing eyes

Read safety in a protective gaze,

A guidance, a gentle nod of approval.

There, and then, I vowed never to disappoint you.

 

You perhaps knew you were dying!

We were with you for the last four months

Watching and rejoicing in your company;

Your fun and games with Nishi and Achal

Your youngest grand-children.

 

 We did not know you were in pain

You looked frail, yet so dignified

With a mischievous twinkle in sunken eyes.

Your pale lips said a lot; only if I knew how to read them!

But you did not let a shadow cast.

 

The luminosity of your eyes, deep blue!

The doctor asked if they were always

That intense, ocean blue!

Was it ‘The Brightest Flame before It Extinguishes’?

 

My heart knows: The sparkle of my life

Still is enkindled by your gentle, joyful nurture.

Your Love has encompassed

My whole being!

 

In my new beginnings with Dhruv

You launched my life on a personal journey

Of Wellness, of Abundance

I thrive in your blessings.

 

You will be twenty and a hundred, in two months.

The world is richer, the earth full of loving warmth

For you journeyed through it once

Sowed and nourished seeds of life

With an eternal spring of joy!’

— Usha Dhupa


Usha Dhupa (Nee Bowry) was born in Kenya to Indian parents and has lived across Four Continents. She studied English Literature at Delhi University and a published author of ‘Child of Two Worlds’. She loves to write poetry and stories in English and Hindi. 


 

Left to Right: Book- 'I Will Not Bear You Sons' and Poet - Usha Akella

Usha Akella’s ‘I Will Not Bear You Sons’ Pulls No Punches. And It Shouldn’t Have To.

Usha Akella tells no lies. 

The first time I met this poet, producer and founder of South Asian poetry collective Matwaala was at a Desi poetry reading moderated by India Currents. It was a surreal moment for a South Asian American teenage girl who grew up on a diet of Mahabharata reruns and idolized authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. My love for South Asian literature always began and ended with the literature itself, but the poetry readings gave me the opportunity to witness the beauty of a thriving community built around this art form. And at the forefront of building this community is Indian-American poet Usha Akella. 

Matwaala Co-Founders, Pramila Venkateswaran (left) and Usha Akella (right) (Image from Poets &Writers)
Matwaala Co-Founders, Pramila Venkateswaran (left) and Usha Akella (right) (Image from Poets &Writers)

The 2019 Creative Ambassador for the City of Austin, Usha uses her platform as a poet and as a storyteller to advocate for immigrant rights and gender equality. When I watched her read for the first time, I was struck by her refusal to mince words. In recent years, the so-called “third-wave feminist movement” is often asked to soften its message, simplify itself, and turn its head at the more implicit forms of misogyny that plague America today. In fact, I’ve often found myself reading and writing poetry wondering whether the forthrightness of my activism will offend, as though the realities of gender inequality need to be sugar-coated to be swallowed. 

Usha Akella’s latest poetry book I Will Not Bear You Sons does none of that. This collection of poetry delivers the pain, purpose, and newfound power of marginalized women in their rawest forms. This book dances from the misogynistic expectations placed on South Asian housewives to China’s foot-binding tradition to sexual harassment experienced by working women. Beyond her activism, this book also weaves sharp-witted social commentaries with penetrating glimpses into post-pandemic life. True to her cuttingly honest writing style, in I Will Not Bear You Sons Usha Akella offers an outreached hand to women everywhere — as well as a confident middle finger to the patriarchal norms which silence them. 

The book is broken into two sections — I and We.

While I offers autobiographical looks into Akella’s experiences as both a writer and Indian-American woman, We acts on her hopes for intersectional feminism, and tells the stories of marginalized women from other cultures and identities.

“Can women ever cease perceiving their ‘tragedy’ as ‘Mother’?”, Usha writes in Ants  — a poem that is dedicated to her Amma but widens into a broader discussion about familial ties and patriarchal perceptions of motherhood.

What is interesting about this book is that Akella recognizes the collectivism buried in her individual narrative; she manages to use her personal experiences to connect with other women and uplift different communities. One of the most memorable poems in I Will Not Bear You Sons, in my opinion, is Women Speak — a matter-of-fact call for justice. Although nowhere does Akella talk about herself in this poem, it grows clear through her strong sense of voice that Women Speak is a command for every woman, Usha included. 

Despite her support for intersectionality, however, Akella is also self-aware of the regional and socio-economic divisions which exist within the feminist movement.

From A Brahmin Niyogi Woman to a White Woman toys with the differences between Western and South Asian notions of freedom. “I didn’t dye my hair blue,” writes Akella. “I didn’t say fuck you!,” highlighting this divide with a discerning, humorous outlook on Western and Eastern stereotypes.

As a teenager somehow grappling with both realities, I thoroughly enjoyed her sense of humor, even in its darker moments (think: sardonically dismissive references to AIDS, homosexuality, and divorce). What does a feminist want? Akella’s poetry slyly peels back the layers to this question, while also revealing how internalized misogyny and generational judgment distort a possible answer. 

The titular poem of the book, I Will Not Bear You Sons, undoubtedly shines through. In fact, my only critique of Akella’s book was the positioning of this poem, which manages to overshadow shorter, and perhaps underrated pieces like Storm and Harmony. It’s an interesting demise, where I Will Not Bear You Sons may be too good for where it is placed, and we see diluted successors to this poem rather than a powerful lineup.

The piece below, which has been included with Akella’s permission, chronicles Akella’s feelings of isolation and oppression within her own family. Personally, I was drawn to the poem’s strong sense of chronology, where Akella uses specific visual imagery to walk her readers through the most intimate parts of her life. The poem begins at the door, where the readers are introduced to this setting and Akella as a person. She then slowly moves the narrative into different parts of the house, her use of setting paralleling the poem itself — a journey within the innermost pieces of her psyche, which has been damaged by the patriarchy and now seeks to heal through poetry and group empowerment. The very phrase, I will not bear you sons, is unforgettable on its own, yet the way Akella repeats this line gives the poem a defiant and enduring heartbeat. It’s one of the longer poems in this collection, as Akella has plenty to say about the demands to birth a male child, a society which degrades and commodifies women, a history of misogyny which perpetuates this society like a terrible machine — this poem is a lot, and I found myself only getting angrier as the work unfolded. The range of emotion in this book is beautiful. Yet it is Akella’s unadulterated anger, which spreads like wildfire in this poem, that truly brings I Will Not Bear You Sons alive.

What can a door deliver?

 

The setting of this poem is innocuous—at the door,

A door is innocent of its exits and entrances,

What can a door deliver?

Hellos, bye-byes, blessings, Namaste, a peck on the cheek …

 

An open door can be the hole in a noose.

 

I had just celebrated his seventieth birthday,

decorating the house so, so, fit to welcome a God,

the saris draped on the ceiling, cascading rainbows

falling from the sky,

we wore our finery, our ornaments

as if the earth was liberated from every evil.

 

The food was laid out—kitchen-labor, labor of forgiveness,

I will not waste words on the menu

for I must speak of women, wombs and India.

 

A poem can glisten like a fresh wound.

 

In his speech he praised his wife,

his daughter, his sons, his grandchildren,

he omitted his daughters-in-law, and I

stilled my voice on the verge of bleeding red like a period,

and they ate and ate and danced and smiled and smirked,

and all was well with the world.

 

– Usha Akella in I Will Not Bear You Sons


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 


 

Author, Lakshmi Rao with her tanpura(Image by Jigna Desai)

The Enduring Poetry of the Gwalior Gayaki

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

“Geetam Vaadyam Tatha Nrityam, Trayam Sangeeta Mucchyate.”

This quote from the ancient Sangeet Ratnakar by Pandit Sharangdev, defines ‘sangeeta’, or ‘collective music’, as singing, instrumental music, and dance. De rigeur for many Indian children, I have fond memories of training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic vocal music myself. While my exposure to playing instruments was limited, I spent time listening to soulful Hindi film songs and singing in the school choir.

 I also ventured outside ‘sangeeta’. Over the summer holidays, I lost myself in brooding Dutch skies and the idyllic English countryside, while painstakingly recreating the paintings of the Old Masters on my own. My unexpected partner in artistic ventures was my mother. I still remember her reciting “For whom the bell tolls”, during our weekly Sunday oil-bath ritual. The oil was smelly and the bathroom floor was cold, but John Donne lit up my seven-year-old imagination. 

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

Captivated by words, endless hours were spent in bookstores and libraries, train compartments, and dull classes secretly devouring Dickens and Austen and later, Sheldon and Nabokov. Fascinated by these cerebral and rather mysterious personalities, I wondered: was writing art? If a picture paints a thousand words, are words then less, or more? And do they not have a place in “sangeeta”?

Time passed and I “grew up”; focusing my energies on studying and working, traveling extensively while juggling the demands of career and family. In 2009, I decided to take a much-needed break when we moved to Mumbai and rekindled my interest in the arts, this time through Hindustani classical music. I found a compelling and motivated teacher in Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, the doyenne of the ancient Gwalior parampara. Neelaji, as she is affectionately known, traces her lineage through her guru, Sharathchandra Arolkar, to Krishnarao Shankar Pandit and in turn to Haddu and Hassu Khan. Of course, the millennia-old river that Indian music is, there have been many others that gently fed the rivulets and streams. I feel incredibly lucky to be connected to this lineage of artists, spanning space and time.

Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)
Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)

Famous for its “ashtanga gayaki” (or eight-fold ways of voice projection), the distinctive Gwalior aesthetic relies on the composition as the portal into the raaga. The gayaki employs  a number of musical forms to render emotion: “khatka”, “meend”, “gamak”,”aalaap”, “behlava”, “taan”, “kampan” and “murki”. The richly detailed, complex compositions typically contain many of these forms, both conveying the essence of the raaga and the unmistakable singing style. Gwalior singers typically favor the “siddha” raagas (principal raagas). Yet, what drew me most was the focus on the “bol” or words of the bandish, and the interplay of these words with the “layakari”, or play of rhythm. While many gharanas emphasize similar musical forms, the Gwalior gayaki melds them with the “bol” – and “bol aalaap” is a hallmark of this tradition. 

In my quest to convey the beauty of these verses, I stumbled upon an entire world of poetry and lyricism. One of my favorite bandishes, set to raaga Vrindavani Sarang:

“Bore jina Allah ko yoon na jaaniye. Karna tha so kar chuka, aur ji chaaha so kara.

Adarang sanchi kahat, as kaaman ko, rahim reejha reejha layi, kahu ki as kaaman kara, so hi det rab”. 

Translated:

“Oh simpleton, do your duty and once done with it, do what you desire.

Adarang says truly Allah will satisfy your sincere wishes.” 

Written by Adarang who was a poet in the Delhi court of Mughal Emperor Mohammed Shah Rangile (1702-1748), the soaring notes pay tribute to the Creator. Singing the composition day after day, I noticed how my mood gradually grew more positive – and I realized the power of poetry. Poets weave magic, and “geetham” would be closer to “vaadyam” without their precious words.

Another evocative piece set to raaga Bageshri, about the plight of a lovelorn woman pining for an indifferent partner and confiding in her friend strikes a different chord. The second stanza, especially, conjures vivid imagery:

“Kaun gat bhaili, mori sajani, yeri mayi, piya na pooche ek baat;

Ek ban dhoondhoon, sakala ban ban, gayi daar daar, karahi paat paat”

Translated:

“Where has he gone, dear friend, my love did not take leave of me;

I am searching for him in the forest, through all the woods, branches, leaves.”

I joined the “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley” circle in 2019, hoping to better understand poetic sentiments and bring more feeling into my singing. Surrounded by verse in languages ranging from Pali to Portuguese, and meeting online as a getaway from Covid-imposed isolation, I eventually summoned the courage to write, too. Here’s a bandish on my travels, to meet my teacher:

“Badhi kathinayi saha guru dwaar aayi,

Ghar baal chhod kar, gyan pane mayi.

Guru haske kahe, jaanat nahin baawri,

Main antar mein rahoon, tu kahaan jayi”

Translated:

“Braving great troubles, I came to my guru’s door,

Leaving my family, in order to gain knowledge,

The guru laughed, asked if I didn’t know,

That the guru resides inside, where are you headed?”

Listening to poetry has unexpectedly grown into a much-anticipated weekly ritual. I’m delighted in my discovery of an art form within an art form, expanding my horizons and making friends along the way. Many of the members in our circle share common interests and creative collaborations bubble up quite often. I look forward to the ventures and adventures that beckon in 2021!


Lakshmi Rao is a senior disciple of Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, training in the vocal style of the Gwalior parampara. She calls the Bay Area home, and remains ever curious about the world that was, that is and that will be! 


 

Mountaineering With a Poetic Interlude

Poetry as Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

(Featured Image: Lalit Kumar skydiving)

I am fascinated with adventure sports and I happen to like poetry. While adventure sports push us out of our comfort zone to experience the euphoria that lies beyond fear, poetry helps us to explore the world in a more vivid way.

Adventure sports provide personal growth and renewal through physical energy.

Poetry is a mental work-out, rejuvenating the soul to provide an enhanced capacity to experience all the beauty in this world.    

The famous mountaineer, Edmund Hillary said, “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

This rings true. When exerting oneself for any endurance sports like mountaineering or long-distance running, the first battle one fights is in his or her own mind. Despite the pain or fatigue, if one decides to press on, the physical challenges of distances or mountains are not impossible to be conquered. I feel that mental courage and fortitude can be easily cultivated by reading and writing positive/affirmative poetry that gives wings to your dreams, power to your vision, and courage to your mission. 

Reading and writing poetry has provided me with numerous hours of pure joy and the right ambience for self-contemplation. A poem can capture the most complex emotions and distill them down to few words that are pleasing to the auditory senses, apart from being appealing to the ‘thinking’ brain. I have been scribbling verses in English from my high school days. After spending more than a decade in the Bay Area and outside India, I find myself equally drawn to the inexorable charm of my mother tongue, Hindi.

During this ‘lockdown’ period, I found myself gorging upon the books and the writings of Hindi stalwarts. In the process, stumbled upon the beauty of Urdu ghazals and sensibilities (‘janib’). I was drawn towards the natural imagery and auditory pleasure of Urdu words, especially when reading or hearing ghazal and shayari. It seems that the Urdu language is meant for writing and reciting poetry. As an Indian / South Asian immigrant, perhaps I have found my sanctuary in reading, writing, and hearing Hindi/Urdu poetry after losing touch for almost a decade. English comes naturally to me, but I realized that poetry in other Indian languages leaves an equally profound impression on my mind. And this feeling snowballed into a love…

In a moment of creative burst, I find myself unwittingly scribbling in Hindi, like:

आरज़ू थी, ज़िंदगानी रहे 

जीएं तो शौक से। 

ज़िंदादिली मिली , हम बदले

अब जीएं तो बेखौफ्फ़ से। 

       – ललित

(Translated in English)

I used to wish, to live a life of luxury

I met my passion and I changed, 

Now I wish to live a life of fearlessness.

Perhaps, it has a tinge of my new-found passion for adventure sports, who can tell!

This love for both poetry and adventure found its outlet in a creative verse that I penned a couple of months back, called, ‘The Second Mountain.’ We all want to be successful and happen to get into the career rat race with the hope of reaching some mythic destination and we start climbing that mountain – probably for most of us, our first mountain. But when we get there, we don’t find happiness and fulfillment to the extent that we dreamed about. So we look for the second mountain, which is symbolic of climbing the mountain of a ‘Cause’ that is larger than the self, the irony is that until we get to the top of the first mountain, we usually don’t realize that.

Metaphorically speaking, while climbing the mountain was a calling for my ‘adventure seeking’ soul, penning down this idea in relation to finding my ‘Cause’ was a calling for my ‘poetry loving’ soul.

Image taken by Lalit Kumar

The Second Mountain

Driven, ambitious and passionate

He had ascended the mountain peak

Striving relentlessly, with a singular obsession

To climb, to strive and to reach to the top.

 

The panorama was striking from his vantage point

He felt like the conqueror who defeated all

The wave of happiness swept like the breeze,

Invincible he felt, superior he thought in his mind.

 

As the breeze calmed down, he felt an eerie silence

Loneliness gnawed at his heart, the emptiness echoed in his viscera.

What was the point of it all? He thought to himself

His singular achievement meant so little to others.

 

Contemplating to himself, he narrowed his gaze

And saw the second mountain across the valley.

And lo and behold, it was teeming with people all around

He hurriedly climbed down and trekked across the valley.

 

As he approached nearer, he saw people helping each other ascend the mountain

Together they climbed and took the tumble together, negotiating the sharp bents on the way

He soon realized, it’s not what you achieve individually

But joy is in how you give away your energy in the pursuit of affecting a positive change.

 

Joy is in helping, in giving, in supporting

The Cause that deeply moves you

And making it larger than

Just your individual self.

 

So climb the first mountain, if you must

To check your fitness on the way …

But remember, it’s the second mountain

Where your impact will pave the others’ way.

The language of poetry can touch one’s soul and spark a sense of creativity. I advocate for everyone to read and write poetry. You are invited to join the group called Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, which hosts a weekly poetry reading.


Lalit Kumar works in the Technology sector but retains an artist’s heart. He likes to read and write poetry, apart from indulging in adventure sports from time to time. Recently, he started curating famous works of poetry (and occasionally his own).

Love. Come. Go Away.

Love

come, go away

like curtains you fall back and forward in the golden hour 

of the darker lights

hidden, open, quiet

breathe, you’re loud, soft to touch

hold me against your skin if only our eyes linger

blue, your footsteps reside and awake like waves between our limbs your heart- pink, and red lips in purple

hue

you, look at me like I look at you and bend, straighten

curve, fall back, dance to the soundless music and the play of our fingers, foggy and green when we overlap— stop

breathe

I count your moles on the hazel lenses I call my own, you—

do you feel the cracks? 

crevices in my skin pour into your heart walls that are grey, bleed out the dark and dusk draws out our light

you and me and our thorns white under the moonlight you, you

“let’s swim?” 

in the craters of this space lets enclose ourselves in the little cage and again— hidden, naked, brown

reflections spoke honesty and you were so profound, a dip on one side of your cheek calling out the smile on my face— dimples, how quaint in this quiet forest where leaves are singing and we remain still, restless

move, my head on your neck and you move again with our hand on each waist

sway, to the soundless music that plays from the red of our pain

love, into the night and the pinkish golden haze

fall into water and stay dry, breathe with me, let our eyes linger, stay, 

Stay.


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

IC Live: A Vibrant Community of Desi Poets

IC held its third Desi Poetry Reading, in collaboration with Matwaala, on December 3, 2020, which was moderated by Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik. The topic was certainly timely – Uncertainty and Change.

After a quick introduction by Pramila Venkatewaran, the co-founder of Matwaala, the Desi Poetry Reading was kicked off by a prolific and accomplished high school poet.

Sara Garg started the evening with a reading of an experiential poem called 2020, that captured the universal feeling of waiting, waiting for the count to go to zero. Another tender poem was about the mini sparks of light that are the front-line workers who face darkness, terror, and monsters while just having each other while they cope with uncertainty. Blood Questions was hard-hitting, speaking dramatically about BLM and our common humanity as it took on the voice of blood as it poured out of the chest of a Black young man as he is killed by blue and brass. In Sunset Sunrise, she gives eloquent voice to the uncertainty we live with during the pandemic, finally admitting she cannot see if the sun is rising or setting, whether hope is ascendent or not. In an answer to a question, Sara attributed her sense of rhythm to the early influence of Usha Akella (co-founder of Matwaala) when she was in 4th grade, as she learned to write a poem about a banana. This was a story of affection that Sara shared with the listeners, a sweet moment of connection, one that most of us can engage with, and that lifted the weight of uncertainty to one of positive change.

R. Cheran, a poet and professor, writes creatively in Tamil. He shared four parts of a powerful translated piece called On the Street, Anytime. His poem had vivid images, of jackfruits, leaves, and bodies run over by tanks on the street, blood seeping into paddy fields, and leaves being the only witnesses to bodies getting together anytime. Repetitions of Anytime, built into a crescendo as he conjured images of extreme contrast – blood, sperm, and poems written on colored pieces of paper, on the street, anytime. He sets the stage in memories of experiencing and witnessing slices of the genocide in Sri Lanka. The poet shifts to potholes in snowy weather, covered in ice, that refill with the blood of 2 boys who could be his sons, shot by the white policeman. Black brave boys whose blood fills the pothole, not once, but twice. In the final fourth part of the poem, Cheran speaks of poverty of the soul, of being left by a lover, one who takes almost everything away with her, but the poem refuses to go with her, the one whose first line is, On the Street, Anytime.

R. Cheran shared another short poem that was equally evocative of remembered trauma as he sketched out the scene of Indian soldiers, a woman held down, a child thrown into a well, and the well that is now without a voice to even say Aiyyo. Cheran’s poems are certainly not “easy listening” but instead pull the listener into a well of traumatic memories and images, the work of a master story-teller, craftsman, and poet. In response to a question by Srishti Prabha about how he balances violence and beauty, Cheran said that the genocide he witnessed and survived cannot be written in words or taught through a lens of sociology or anthropology, that he has portrayed but the tip of an iceberg and such horror can only be begun to be experienced through an art form such as poetry.

I have to take a break in writing this now, and walk around, as I try to shake off and metabolize the intensity of revisiting and closely listening to this part of the reading.

Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, a poet, writer, and film-maker, continued the evening. In a poem about the pandemic, one of the stark images she drew was of the Faceless One stealing all the faces that have disappeared behind masks, likening it to Kabuki dancers magically stealing faces and tucking them away in their kimonos. In a hard-hitting poem titled E.R., she speaks of holding the ground like a tree in a storm, not collapsing or vomiting, but holding in her internal injuries, and dying inside without being noticed. In The Salt of a Woman, anger and outrage jump off the words, her story older than civilization, questioned, blamed, conquered, gifted, dismissed, shamed. In IF, she writes of the only power a survivor of sexual assault may have, in telling others what not to do if she is killed, do not hang the perpetrators, she says – they will be born again and do it again. Hopelessness permeates the poem but ends with dignity. Tell your sons about me, she asks of women, preach me as a sermon, she asks of the preachers, write me as an epic, she asks of the writer.

I believe the BLM movement’s rise in the summer of 2020, empowered many of us in the desi community to finally speak openly of our own experiences of racial discrimination in the United States. Microaggressions are carried in the body, held on to for years, taken out every now and then, and re-examined through various lenses such as – why did the teacher not speak up, why did I not speak up, as if it would have been easy, as if it would have found validation at the time. I think many will identify with the process, the self-doubt, the worry of being heard, being believed, and the fear of having our experiences being discounted

Singh-Chitnis bravely shares a poem 25 years in the making and birthing. In this final poem, Kalpna addresses these excoriations – I am sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there in that classroom. The lectures begin and end, she says, but the question remains. She is still waiting for the professor to speak up for her – she was voiceless and powerless at the time.

As these wounds get more light and air, as more people hear our experiences, as more speak up, as more poetry and art is used to communicate, the more hope there can be. I fully understand how it took 25 years to write that poem.

Indran Amirthanayagam, an author and poet read from his recently published book, Uncivil War, continuing the theme of trauma, displacement, war, and unbelonging. In Fire Department asks displaced refugee peoples from all over the world – Where is your Village Burning even if your home is not in the list. Ready to Move was a poignant ode to those who are witnesses to the only truth worth repeating – ready to move with a toothbrush, a fresh set of clothes. In Father, Indran eloquently mourns his father, moving from speaking of personal loss (watching geese honking on their way to the other side of the sky, poems to survive the fires, he has left us his name we wear it today) to the theme of universal experiences of the death of a father. Indran moved on to poems of upliftment as he hoped that the world would be inspired by the outcome of the American elections, in spite of something rotten in America, life pressed out of George Floyd, there is still hope he said – ordinary decent Joe has my vote – ending by saying he is an American optimist, and that the next war needs to be one that can unite humanity – saving our planet.

Varsha Saraiya-Shah continued the evening with a reading of I Speak from Towers of Silence in which she likens 6 feet of social distancing as a coffin length apart, observing that babies pop out like flowers, and being moved in different ways by the reality of bodies piling up in refrigerated trucks in New York. In Neither Hope nor Miracle, she speaks of science being necessary, that it needs to be unfenced with countless windows, that climate will throw earthly tantrums, warning, exhorting, and pleading with people to heed science. In When the Wind Blows, Varsha goes back to music, drawing inspiration from Miles Davis, saying, listen to what you can leave out. In Headlines, she playfully alludes to hair at different life stages, bound, unbound, and finally to a time to reshape the wildness even if Broadway will be closed till June 2021.

Saleem Peeradina’s poems submitted for this event were read by Pramila Venkateswararan. In The Body in Question Saleem Peeradina examines the world through striking images of different bodies and their symbolizing the various states of humanity, power and inhumanity –the bud of infancy to maternal bloom, migrating bodies washed ashore, body behind bars in solitary, body in whose soil is grown cotton, cane or tobacco, bodies from which coal is mined, in genocide, counted in numbers. In Song of the Makeover, he embodies the split he experiences as someone who never fits in where he is, always travelling, seeking himself or what appears to be himself through vivid phrases like full circle renewing the past, most at ease in a state of passage, two tongues, over there another face goes by my name, and, whose shadow doubles behind me.

In The View from 70, Saleem Peeradina draws playful and delightful images for us of interlopers who take over our bodies and are finally successful. The interloper enters stealthily with unmarked baggage, practice(s) hit and run arts, is the seducer who played for years on the swings slides and seesaws of my heart, a seventh sense, even with a no-vacancy sign. Finally, he concedes that it is best to befriend them, learn about them and co-exist until they (armed and dangerous) eventually win.

I am so glad I made the time for this new (to me) listening experience. It opened my eyes to a whole new vibrant community of poets and lovers of poetry, as well as those who enjoy hearing about the desi experience that we bring to the world of poetry. It seemed generally agreed upon that there has been more poetry written and made available to people all over the world, and that more people turned to poetry during the pandemic. Whether people had more time, needed poetry to make sense of the world, or whether technology brought poetry to more people, the increased interest has been one of the more welcome outcomes of the pandemic.

Desi Poets

Here are all these people

 

Who look like me Sound like me

And they read, and they love

Carry their hearts outside

Like me

speak the same languages

 

Languages

Of love and poetry

Of loss and separation

Of longing and dreams

Old homes and new

Old words renewed

 

Speak the language

Of Jack fruit, mango piquant as

Cilantro and green Chilis

Chai and samosas, sweet as

Jasmine with Thulasi leaves

 

Dusty tropical heat

Musty corner memories

Uncles, aunts, cousins

Clammy hands of first loves

Awkward fumbling kisses

 

Drenching thunderous monsoons

Umbrellas collapse in submission

 

Veins singing 

Gathering with hope

Hearts together 

rising in affection

 

Speaking old tongues in these newer lands

Using our Indlish to praise, protest, love

Finding connection in skin, language, country

 

Are these new cousins I see here?

Watch the Desi Poetry reading below!


Kalpana Asok is the author of ‘Whose Baby Is It, Anyway? Inside the Indian Heart’ and ‘Everyday Flowers’.

Faltering Speech to Youth Poet Laureate: Words Carried Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman’s journey is stellar! Her ability to overcome her slippery speech serves as an excellent example to the multicultural children of America. Bilingual kids often have difficulty enunciating words because they hear their parents, who were brought up in India, pronounce words differently. The pressure to code-switch in order to be understood at home and in school may be challenging. Gorman is an excellent role model for all of us because she makes her words matter and her voice heard. 

Now a beautiful 22-year-old ambassador of poetry, Amanda Gorman, raised in West L.A. by a school teacher, struggled with a speech disability. She had difficulty enunciating her “Rrrrrrs”! She faced her challenges head-on. She used the power of the written word to formulate and strengthen her thoughts. She rehearsed with full vigor and powerful poetry gushed out like a wild cataract! She became the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles at 16. At 19, while at Harvard college, she was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate.

FLOTUS, Dr. Jill Biden suggested her name after hearing Amanda Gorman’s spoken word poetry at the Library of  Congress. In late December she was shortlisted to perform at the 2021 Presidential inauguration. “America United” was the theme offered by the then-incoming POTUS, Joseph R. Biden. Our nation was reeling under the COVID pandemic, economic disparity, systemic racism, and misinformation.

This call to action resonated with the heart of the young activist poet. She set to work! Gorman crafted inspirational words not to nullify or erase the harsh truths of our nation’s memory but to encourage the country to come together.  

“When the day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast, we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it, somehow we do it, somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”

On the day that Senator Kamala Harris became the first Bi-racial woman to become the Vice President of America, Gorman’s words rang true!

“We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one.” 

On this historic day of January 20th, 2021, her words echoed in the hearts of millions of Americans.

“We will rise from the sunbaked South, we will rebuild, reconcile, and recover in every known nook of our nation in every corner called our country. Our diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.“

Gorman  gleaned the spoken and written words that tattooed the news, after the horrendous insurrection of 1/6/21 and edited her poem to cry out immortal words:

“When the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” How can we forget this day? How can we forget these words? “But while democracy can periodically be delayed, but it can never be permanently defeated.”

Gorman’s first poetry collection including the inauguration poem “The Hill We Climb”, will be published by Viking Books. She has talent. She has fortitude. She has a personality. She may not be Robert Frost or Maya Angelou but she is just 22! 

Her beautiful words brought a surge of patriotic emotion to my heart, just like when I hear poems like Vande Mataram by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. I hope she can inspire young writers to walk in her words. It would be an honor to breathe the air she is breathing.


Monita Soni has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, and the other in her birth home India. Writing is a contemplative practice for her. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books: My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

At 52 Hz, My Throat is Parched

The 2020 US elections were not just about differing political views. People’s lives were impacted on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their sexuality, or their religion.

It bred uncertainty and fear in people who had been targeted for years.

Human beings should be respected for just that, being human. There is no other clause or addition to that. 

Here is a poem dedicated to those that felt weak. Rather than offer a solution of light in the darkness, I offer a hand to hold in it. 

Oil painting by Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving) 
Oil painting by Author, Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving)

6th November 10:11 pm

I felt it in waves, that dissolve in the sand

Blue and red neon signs holding each hand

“Am I human enough?” 

My skin dipped chocolate and my heart of rainbows

I can’t seem to hide, in the hours that count down— 

I can’t seem to stop.

Maybe if my eyes could close, maybe if my mind switched off—

Maybe if red and blue-dyed into a plethora of purple, 

losing in color and gaining the “other”.

 

“In a world with its eyes closed, a person with their’s open

Isn’t it strange how now they are made blind?” 

Is that victory? 

Effortless rounds that never escape a cycle,

Drugged on more and living less.

If it never starts, it never ends.

People become collateral, waves become loose sand.

A gripping fist, shows an empty hand. 

My throat is parched, lungs need a break—

But I haven’t slept yet:

 

Waking up in this state. 

7th November 5:50 am


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

America in 1975

AMERICA – 1978

America

And your trillion-dollar Economy

And your FM stereo

And your serpentine highways of lonely people

Slanting westwards into the setting sun

 

Leave me alone

 

I am one of the starving millions of India 

Who you’re mommy asked you to sacrifice

Your Candy for

 

I came because 

This was the land of Greatness and Charisma

Of James Dean and John Kennedy

And my brother who listened to Glen Miller and found his Soul

I came to breathe your air

Eat the salt of your earth

And build great buildings in praise of all you were to me

 

But you have presented me with your soul-less landscape

Your form-letters your form-experiences and your form-civilization

You have presented me only with people 

Whose hearts are lost on your highways

And your abysmal wheels of progress

You have forgotten the helplessness of burning children

In your flash-fire experiences

Of Opulence, TV Westerns and Dow Jones

 

You only serve to numb me now, America

Till I will also begin to chant 

Like a new being whose father is forgotten

‘Think of the starving millions of India

 My act of contrition will put another man on the Moon’

 

One day I will unknowingly be speaking in this strange idiom

And somewhere in the dimming recesses of my memories

A flickering fire will finally die

And I who was so close to starvation and death

Will think only with revulsion and fear

And not sorrow

Of dirt, flies and men

Lying dead from thirst in parched fields

 

And stop eating candy to save my soul


Sahadev Chirayath wrote this poem in May of 1978 and lives in Buffalo, New York now. He is a Structural Engineer and has spent time with Engineers without Borders in Andhra Pradesh.