In the third week of April, I was planning to fly to India to check on my mother and extended family. My sister was in line for her second shot of the Covishield vaccine against COVID-19. We were excited to celebrate April birthdays and Mother’s day after 2 years. My bags were packed.
India, the second most populated country in the world with over 1.3 billion Indians seemed to have a decent handle on the pandemic. The world watched the initial twenty-day lockdown in India, followed by the mass exodus of migrant workers. Perhaps innate immunity to tropical diseases was helping Indians against COVID. Was the blistering heat not conducive to viral proliferation? Was the COVID-19 strain in India less infectious?
The Serum Institute of India was gearing up for vaccines for domestic and international use. Before Indian citizens were vaccinated, Indian vaccines were exported out of the country. Indian government and citizens were confident of their innate immunity. Steeped in a false sense of bravado, India reopened for business in early 2021. Unmasked gatherings, cricket matches, political rallies, and weddings continued while the B.1.617.2 variant of COVID-19 was raging in a vulnerable unvaccinated population.
Meanwhile, the weeks-long Hindu Pilgrimage congregation in Haridwar (Kumbh Mela) was not canceled. This year Hanuman Jayantiwas on 26-27th of April the night of the pink full moon (Chaitra Purnima). This holy dip in the Ganga (Shahi Snan) was considered to be very auspicious. Many devotees tested positive and spread the disease in crowded trains and buses and to their contacts back home. The infectious curve changed from a plateau to a wall. The health care system was overwhelmed. Hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen, medicines. Meanwhile, there was an acute vaccine shortage, and hurdles in getting the vaccine.
My friends and family members are not fully vaccinated to date. So many innocent lives were lost! Fires burnt nonstop. In the first wave, it took five months for the 98,000 a day caseload to about 10,000 a day. This time, the peak is much higher and the downward trend of the second wave could be prolonged. The only hope is to raise herd immunity by mass vaccinations.
I composed two poems, out of my anguish. My idea is not to criticize. I am trying to process the trauma in my community. My poems document our complex human frailty.
“I will make such a wonderful India…” @Narendra Modi 4/11/18
Maskless. He addressed them.
Rows upon rows, their
brains steeped in fervor.
They cheered and rallied, then
thronged on the shores of a
weary Ganges, sullying her body
of water. Over and over again.
Inviting Lord Yama to extinguish
He came with a vengeance.
Coronavirus vanquished thousands.
Breathless, their bodies crumpled on
No oxygen. No vaccine. No potion.
No healers. No chant. No mantra.
No yantra. No tantra. No soothsayer.
No friend or family member
could save them from their own folly.
They burnt in communal fires in
parking lots. The stench of death
smearing the khadi shawl of
Mother India. She wept
and rued their misguided deeds.
The pandemic raged on,
mindless of caste, creed, age, gender
or status. Even the mighty were
But who will be held accountable
for cremating those innocent souls
who died without rupees for firewood?
Flying Monkey Moon
The moon maiden was full
and deliciously pink
A bit pompous,
A butter macaroon, freshly baked
Double pink peony daydream.
Cumulus cloud carpet
Covered the midnight sky.
Sweet salutations were whispered
She smiled and lowered her veil.
Millions gathered on the bank of
the Holy Ganges to take a religious
dip with the Moon and floating diyas.
The last day of the Kumbh was
specially ordained to wash away
their sins. Coronavirus raged in
homes, hotels, sky scrapers and
hovels. Hospitals were out of beds,
doctors, nurses and life support ran dry.
Fires burned day and night in open
crematoriums. Mortals chanted the
Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra for protection.
Hanuman opened his eyes and flew
across the heavens. He thought,
they only remember me on
I do not want to criticize the government, their policies, or the people who helped spread this scourge.
I am very worried. I am one of the millions who do not know when they’ll be able to see their dear ones – parents, daughter, son, grandson, brother, sister.
In the interim, I keep watching the news, donate money for COVID relief, pray to Hanuman every day.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.
Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.
Poetry as I can relate to it is my first love and my last love. It was my grandfather who first introduced me to the world of poetry through Tagore’s poems. As a child, the rhythmic words of the poetry and its melody used to give me immense happiness. I used to get lost in the vivid descriptions of village life, the beauty of nature, the lush green forest, and the chirping birds and animals that inhabit them. My grandfather died at the age of seven. That was the time I had first faced death and that too of a person closest to my heart. Since then, I have been expressing my feelings through the world of poetry.
From my childhood, as I entered my teenage years, I started experiencing life with new passions and renewed vigor. On one hand, as the arrow of cupid struck me, I started writing romantic verses, while on the other hand, being a radical at heart, I started revolting against anything that binds us. I started questioning anything that we are bound to abide by and protesting even the silliest of things that maintain the status quo. I was in the process of discovering myself through life and poetry. During that time, revolutionary poets like Kaji Nazrul Islam, Paul Robeson, and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan began to inspire me and I started writing poetry in both English and Hindi languages, to bring social change and uphold social justice. Often, I used to mix romance and revolution in a single poem to decorate the message I wanted to convey.
You do not exist
From the date I knew myself
You had been near me;
Sheltering me from rain drops
Picking the flowers of glee.
Through the dark clouds in the sky
You showed me the horizon;
Breaking the bounds of joy and moan
You took me to my mission.
Across the distance of the vast space
Thou peace touches mine,
Thou sunshine remains untarnished
Through rusting affect of time.
You decorate my night with glowing stars
Soothe my soul like the sea;
It wets my eyes with drops of pearl
How much you love me!
A sound in my yard woke me up
I found myself alone;
Like the spring days you were there;
And now you are gone.
Thy shadow mingled in the dawn
With the dizzy morning mist;
Oh friend, you are a world to me,
You do not exist!
When I came to the Bay Area, I started missing the poetry, music, and arts of India that is so deeply rooted in me. I started searching for poetry group of Indian languages on the internet and finally found the “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley”, a close-knit meetup group where the poets and the poetry lovers not only shares and rejoices poems of Indian and Asian languages like Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, and Bengali, but also the languages of the Western world such Spanish and English.
My knowledge and love for poetry increased by many folds after joining this poetry group. With the onset of the pandemic, we started meeting virtually every Saturday and we look forward to it throughout the week. Our group recently published a multi-lingual book of anthology captioned “A Memory Book of Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley” which contains an excellent collection of poems of some of the remarkable poets I met through the poetry group. I wish that “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley ” keeps flourishing and inspiring the poets in us and as always keeps fueling the candle of creativity in our minds for long days to come.
Divine Blossoms is the kind of book I might have never discovered if I was not the founder and host of a poetry group called the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. I am so glad that I agreed to review it and have had it on my bedside table for easy access for the past several weeks.
The poet, Anuradha Gajaraj-Lopez brings wholesomeness to the ordinary life as a householder. As a former journalist, she has a facility with words, using them to reach everyone, regardless of where they might come from. The 134-page book is more than a poetry book. It offers poems that are also prayer, a wide range of ways of worship, and several ancient stories from epics of Hindu mythology, as spiritual fables with lessons for young and old. These are all wrapped and delivered as short poems, with the cadence and essence of a bhajan, a devotional song, in simple English, that makes it accessible to everyone.
The book has two parts: the first called Murmurs from Beyond and the second called Whispers from India. The poems in the first part deal with faith in God and the metaphor of divine love. The latter part has poems in six sessions, on topics of devotees, folklore, epics of Ramayan and Mahabharta, gods Shiva and Krishna, Christ and Yogananda, women in India, and on death. The poems are rich in detail with the pathos of lived life in human form combined with a yearning for the inspiration from the deep faith in the divine, through the references that evoke not just the main characters that are highlighted in the index, but also the poetic traditions, with Kabir, Ramakrishna, Chaitnya Prabhu and others who were seekers in the same vein.
Anuradha invites the reader into her world with an authentic and heartfelt outpouring of the essence of all that she cherishes. The Indian mythological stories have a living oral tradition such that retelling these timeless stories allows for making them relevant in contemporary times. Anuradha’s rendering does that. If you are not familiar with Hindu mythology, she helpfully provides a short introduction before the poem, to make the story be set in the context, and for them to be rendered in a poetic form. The poems are crystalized into the essence of the story, almost like a bhajan, an Indian devotional poetic form.
I will not be surprised if someone reading them decided to set them to music and create a musical or chant form for these in the future. As many of the stories were familiar to me, parts of the book took me on a journey to my childhood when I had first heard these. The poems leave a fragrance, and it makes sense that she called the book Divine Blossoms. While the poems are light reading, they offer comfort, surprise, hope, and the adventure of a story. The moral lessons are conveyed gently like what the poet believes, and not a lecture on morality. Her voice brings the easy access of an Amar Chitra Katha comic book version along with the message with the clarity of her spiritual guru, Yogananda. The deep convictions of the poet are what make this poetry transparent and luminescent. These are conveyed in an easy manner that makes it clear that the poet practices these effortlessly and speaks her mind genuinely, wearing her faith as easily as a well-loved garment, and releasing the poems with trust that they will find their own readers.
The book is self-published and shows care in how symbols and images have been added to enhance the presentation. It will feel different from a professionally edited book since it has its own unique layout. This makes me wish that it will inspire others who are carrying their poems and stories within them to also be willing to create their own books. The creativity and fire of the work are best experienced, rather than described by me, so I have selected one of my favorite poems, reproduced with her permission.
The Stone on the Temple Floor
It is so unfair
I am trodden on by hundreds
Who rush by without a thoughtless care
To seek a glimpse of your form
I was hewn on the same old rock as thee
Here I lie on the temple floor
While you are daily worship
With honey, milk, curd and
Precious gems galore!
“Ha” laughed the divine statue
Standing erect and tall
And gently said,
“Brother, don’t you remember at all?”
The days when we lay on
The stone mason’s yard
With hardly a few blows you were
All set, and proudly carted afar
While, I cried each time,
The choice and hammer
Moved relentlessly on
On every inch of this form
You now see and envy from afar
And so, the Divine sculptor
Deals the hardest blows on those
He holds very close
Not to be discarded on an old temple floor
But to merge with Him and
Reach the coveted destiny that is His alone!
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association, and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.
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।
(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.
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 calledPoetry 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).
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
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
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
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,
Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person.
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 tothe 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 withunmarked 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.
Here are all these people
Who look like me Sound like me
And they read, and they love
Carry their hearts outside
speak the same 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
Gathering with hope
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’.
Reena Kapoor’s debut book of poetry, Arrivals & Departures: Journeys in Poems makes this question even more relevant. Consider poetry a result of meditation, of thoughts, ideas, and memories that collect in the mind through observation. Reena grew up crisscrossing India as her father was a doctor in the Indian army. Her educational path is, like her poetry, quite diverse. She earned an undergraduate degree in Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, a Master’s from Northwestern University, and works as a software product leader in Silicon Valley. Kapoor’s debut poetry collection is thematically divided into sections interspersed with photographs she took. These images seamlessly connect her poetic utterance with passionate understanding. Recently I caught up with Reena Kapoor, a Bay Area resident, over email to pick her brains about her beautiful bouquet of poems and pictures.
IC: Arrivals & Departures is your debut poetry collection. What role did nostalgia play in putting this book together if any and how?
I am an immigrant and a traveler. And grew up as such – my father was a doctor in the Indian army and I grew up living all over India. In fact, I attended about 8 schools through high school, and call myself a “musafir” which is the Hindi/Urdu word for a traveler. Nostalgia plays a big role in my written word both due to my life circumstances and I guess to some extent life stage. Something about middle age and you start to see your life as it has been and how it’s brought you where you are. So looking back becomes much more natural vs. being younger where a solitary focus on the future is more apt and natural. My poems also express a “nostalgia” of sorts for what I don’t actually remember, ironically e.g., “koel” talks about the songbird that reminds me of childhood but the home is my parents’ current home which I did not grow up in but it still feels like mine…
IC:My reading of your collection introduced me to multiple themes, and a speaker addressing different voices. Can you talk about the various themes there are in your work, and how they interact with each other?
The themes in my work are multiple but they tie back to me, my life experiences and my take on life, and how to live a good one. A lot of what I say has to do with how I grew up, (what it was and I guess to some extent IS like) being a girl/ woman in India and then my own very personal attachments to people and interests and objects that hold enduring meaning for me.
IC: I quite like the interdisciplinary play of images and words, where sometimes the image is a poetic utterance itself. What was your process like in putting this unique book together? What do you want your audience to take away from it?
This is perhaps the hardest question for me – one that I get a lot of but one that I am pretty much at a loss to answer i.e., the “how” of writing my poems. The pen moves and I follow. I am led by an inner voice that I can’t turn away. When it arrives, I am compelled by words that spill out. I may polish or refine those words later but the initial and main body of the work almost creates itself. I guess it’s probably a given that I can’t “teach” poetry because the “how” of it is so elusive to me.
These poems have been “coming” to me for over a decade now and I finally found the quiet space to listen and put them down. But it was really my husband who pushed me to publish my work. I was plagued by the usual self-doubt that I guess many writers face – and I still do – as to who would be interested in my words or my ordinary life? The fact that even a few of my friends and loved ones have found some resonance in my poems has been one of my most precious gifts.
IC: You are not just a poet. With degrees from IIT, Northwestern, a keen interest in photography, theatre, and performance as well, did these other aspects of your creativity influence your writing, and if yes how did that come about?
Becoming an engineer was a practical and financial choice. I liked Math and Physics. And I came from a middle-class family in India where my parents emphasized the importance of being financially independent — especially for women. In those days in India, you could choose to be a doctor, or an engineer or a loser. So I ended up in IIT. I was always active in theatre and continued this pursuit through college and my early working years in the US. Photography came to me later with the iPhone 3…and the iPhone has continued to be my camera of choice. And Poetry came about the same time that I started capturing photos. I guess some latent creative impulses were clamoring for expression all along but I could only hear them once I felt a little more “settled”, a little more free, and in some ways liberated from my own expectations of “success”. It’s been a wonderful path and I am still loving every minute of it. My very first play “Art of the Possible” was played online recently and I am actively writing more theatre and literary pieces that will hopefully be produced soon.
IC: Every day before I sit to write, I like to read something that I love, irrespective of the genre. What inspires you to write?
The human condition. Nothing more or less. Why are we this way and what moves us and why? Finding happiness and meaning in the smallest of things is all there really is — yet it is also the human condition to chase so much else for naught; so much prestige, empty adulation, status, endless wealth yet most of which often leaves the traveler feeling alone and empty. Yet the chase becomes a life. Why? Eternal questions and I am not sure I will ever have answers. But the pursuit of such questions moves me and such learning is what I seek.
Dr. Manisha Sharma is a poet, fiction writer, and yoga teacher passionate about social issues in India. Her work is longlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a finalist for the 2020 Cream City Review Fiction Contest, a semifinalist for the 2019 American Short(er) Fiction Contest. Her publications are in The Madison Review, The Common, Puerto Del Sol, The Bombay Review, and more. Currently, she is a lecturer in English and Yoga at two community colleges in Virginia and Ohio.
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.
Guru Smt. Vinitha Subramanian, the Director of Natyalaya School of Dance in Austin, has been teaching in the Central Texas area for over 35 years. She has scores of arangetrams to her credit and has staged several dance dramas and thematic presentations such as Jungle Book – Seonee, Ganga- A River’s story, Nouka Charitram, Navahavarna, Roopa Viroopa, Ek, and Agasthya, just to name a few. I interview Vinitha Subramanian, in what was a fabulous exploration into the connections between Indian poetry and classical dance.
UA: Bharatanatyam is performed to the accompaniment of poetry in Sanskrit and other South Indian languages. Can you trace the relationship between the two genres historically?
VS: Sanskrit was the preeminent literary language in India for many centuries. The poets and playwrights wrote in Sanskrit in the various courts of India’s rulers. In addition, poets also wrote in local languages: example Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamizh. There has been a profusion of composers in local languages in more recent times as the support for artists moved away from the Kingly courts. Tamizh poetry is very old, dating up to 4000 years.
UA: Who/What are these classical poetry forms that are foundational to the practice of Bharatanatyam?
VS: There are so many forms – starting from very old Tamil poetry which are over 3-4000 years old.
Sangam Literature and poetry:contains 2381 poems in Tamil composed by 473 poets, some 102 anonymous, of these Kapilar is the most prolific poet. These poems vary between 3 and 782 lines long. The bardic poetry of the Sangam era is largely about love (akam) and war (puram), with the exception of the shorter poems such as in paripaatal, which is more religious and praises Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and Murugan. The most acceptable time range for the Sangam literature is 100 BCE to 250 CE
The history of Tamil literature follows the history of Tamil Nadu, closely following the social, political and cultural trends of various periods. The early Sangam literature, dated before 300 BCE, contain anthologies of various poets dealing with many aspects of life, including love, war, social values and religion. This was followed by the early epics and moral literature, authored by Hindu, Jain and Buddhist authors, lasting up to the 5th century CE. From the 6th to 12th century CE, the Tamil devotional poems written by Nayanmars (sages of Shaivism) and Alvars (sages of Vaishnavism), heralded the great Bhakti movement which later engulfed the entire Indian subcontinent. It is during this era that some of the grandest of Tamil literary classics like Kambaramayanam (very famous poet Kamban) and Periya Puranam (lives of the 63 saiva saints complied by Sekkizhar) were authored and many poets were patronized by the imperial Chola and Pandya empires. The later medieval period saw many assorted minor literary works and also contributions by a few Muslim and European authors.
In modern Bharatanatyam, it is hard to use Sangam poetry (though we use some selected verses), as it is very hard to understand the ancient language.
We do use Christian poems in Bharatanatyam – several poets in Kerala (including a priest) have written songs for Bharatanatyam.
Generally medieval Tamil and Sanskrit poetry is extensively used:Poets like Kalidasa and Adi Shankara from (1st– 2nd centuries), Andal and Alwars (5th-10th century), Kannada Dasa poets like Purandaradasa (15-17 century), Annamayya and Telugu poets( 12th century- 20th century), Sanskrit poets like Jayadeva (12th century) Most modern Bharatanatyam songs are, however, derived from compositions of relatively modern composers like the Carnatic Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Sama Trinity) and the Tanjore Quartet (Chinnaswamy, Ponniah, Vadivelu and Sadanandam) considered the fathers of modern Bharatanatyam. Other popular modern composers include Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Papanasam Sivan, Poochi Sreenivasa Iyengar, Ravikiran. These poets composed in a variety of south Indian languages. With Bharatanatyam spilling beyond south India, poetry in many North Indian languages are also being used: Hindi (Tulsidas, Kabir), Marathi (Tukaram and other Abhang composers), Gujrati, Bengali (Rabindranath Tagore).
UA: Mostly, what are the kinds of poetry and poetry forms used in poetry accompanying classical Bharatanatyam?
VS: Poetry had religious and devotional themes, and romantic-mystical poetry was prevalent as it was felt that people would comprehend the texts better. Independence-based themes, social reform-based poetry, religious tolerance and moral teachings emerged over time. Indian poetry is generally classified in accordance to the language in which it is written, or the region from which it hails. However, in general, Indian poetry is generally classified into the following types: epics, couplets (dohas), ghazals, bhajans, folk poetry and others.
UA: Indian music and dance is based on raga, bhava and tala. Please help us understand each of the terms with a special emphasis on tala.
VS: Bhava – Facial expressions that help in storytelling. Raga – Melody to which dance-song is set. Tala – The intrinsic beat of the poem as reflected in the music which is set to the measures defined in Carnatic music.
UA: What are the dominant stanzaic forms and meter used in the poetry?
VS: In terms of meter – 2 line poems (haiku like) called Dohas/Shairis are popular, such as those by Kabir. This is also found in Thirukkural, an anthology in Tamil by Tiruvalluvar. Examples of other meters used are Gayathri meter poems from the Vedic literature, the octet poems of Jayadeva and Adi Shankara, longer sonnets are very popular among older and modern poets and have all found a home in bharatanatyam.
Sanskrit prosody or Chandas (meter) is the study of poetic meters and verse in Sanskrit. This field of study was central to the composition of the Vedas. The Chandas, as developed by the Vedic schools, were organized around seven major meters, and each had its own rhythm, movements and aesthetics. Sanskrit meters include those based on a fixed number of syllables per verse, and those based on fixed number of morae per verses as expounded in Pingala’s Chandasutra.
UA: Nattuvangam- it’s practice, definition and importance to classical dance?
VS: Nattuvangam (pertaining to dance) and Konnakol (pertaining to vocal- instrumental music) is the practice of reciting rhythmic syllables that emulate the drumbeats that allow the elaboration of the inherent beat of the music in various permutations to display the dancers virtuosity in pure dance movements.
UA: The relationship between nattuvangam and beats in classical Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit poetry?
VS: When a poem is set to music, its inherent meter (determined by the poet) is interpreted in the structure of the Carnatic music tala structure. This Tala is elaborated in the nattuvangam, providing opportunity to the dancer to explore various ways of presenting it. The basic tala measure is combined in various permutations and combinations to provide a rich diversity of pure dance movements and footwork.
UA: What are some of the more modern poetic expressions to which you composed your own choreography successfully (that are not strictly laid out in meter, yet were transferred beautifully)?
VS: The rigidity is only in the time measure of each avartana of the tala (8 beats, 11 beats etc.) in which each line of the song /poem fits. By calculating the number of beats in one avartana or combining the avartanas or splitting them we are able to derive infinite combinations of footwork arrangement. The same song with the same rhythm (drum) can be arranged very differently by different choreographers using the hand gestures (hastas and Nrtta hastas) and adavus (choreographed steps) to provide a refreshing look at the inherent meter of the poem every time. Hence every song can be renewed each time it is performed.
We have set Bharatanatyam movements to songs from various faiths, composed in different languages, even English/western music or Tejano music. When there is no meter but just a song or chorus without beat, Bharatanatyam allows its expression in graceful twirls and striking poses.
My hands run over my notebook bound in rough leather, slightly wrinkly like my skin after a long hot shower. Its cover is dark black with speckles of shimmering silver flashing under the dappled sun. It looks like staring up at the starry sky on a clear winter night. It invites me inside, pulls me in like a portal to another world where I can write. Outside where the world is dominated by a plague, we stare at the virus trackers, of big red blotches filling the continents, growing bigger and darker. We see the numbers of cases and deaths increase. Only they are not just numbers. They are people who once had families and enjoyed life, maybe they had a notebook just like mine. Outside my door, the world is toxic, tainted and polluted but inside the notebook, my words are pure. Untouched by the chaos, unchanged by circumstance.
My hand slowly lifts the cover as I bring the journal up to my face. My nose fills with the smell of home, comforting and familiar. Old paper pages delicately rustle like leaves dancing when the wind makes them sway. Lines in a subtle sky blue streak across the page, straight and long, asking me to fill them. Asking me to forget, to leave behind all of reality and enter the realm of the imaginary. As I flip through, words adorn the pages of all different shapes and sizes. Some are crisp and clear like a high-definition TV. Others are smudged, smeared from wear and the sweat that drips off my hand. They look nothing more than dirt smeared on a creamy-white page. The pages look like the color of soy-milk, an off-white color with hints of yellow and brown spreading across the edges like food coloring staining water or red blotches on a COVID tracker. Flipping through the pages makes a rustling noise, not unlike opening a bag of potato chips quietly. The pages feel familiar in my hand, feeling like an extra layer of soft, supple skin embracing my hand, gluing my palm to the page like the journal is begging me to write. The smell brings me back to the good old days, as I reminisce of books filing a shelf, old and new the smell draws me in like the smell of fresh coffee in the morning or hot coca in December.
Then, the most extraordinary thing begins to happen as the world starts to fade. The lines between reality blur as my pencil touches the page. When I’m tired of the world, of sad news and coronavirus cases, I fall into my journal’s embraces. Away from this world I leave, the pages acting like my wings as I spread them and fly. Not looking back to say goodbye, I rise as I write.
The journal is my escape from this world when I need to mend. When the days are too short and the nights too long, when I fall back, the pages seem to catch me and lift me up. Telling me that if I write, everything will be alright. That it’s okay if I don’t wear a mask because I’m not leaving my house, they call me, say that I don’t need a plane to travel because this journal is the plane and I can go anywhere I want. It doesn’t even have to be real.
In the harsh world of the coronavirus, unemployment, and giant recessions, my notebook is my life, my world is my words. When counterintuitive reigns, when a positive test brings only negatives, I find my way. Not just a journal but a mentor, a friend, I can hang out with my journal without Zoom or a six-foot ruler.
The first word is written, from my brain, it travels to my left arm, towards my fingers. As I etch it into the page, once again the inexplicable feeling fills me. This is the point where the world of the real and the imagined separate, unable to tell what is fantasy and reality, everything becomes hazy.
As I stare at the vast openness of the space ahead of me, knowing I can fill it with anything fills me with joy. I wonder what will happen during this roller coaster ride because in these lines, anything can happen. As the point of the pencil touches the page, the story starts, venturing out into the unknown. I am full of excitement and joy to see what I can create.
Words just flow like water or liquid gold, the pencil dances across the page, as graceful as ballet. The page sings opportunity, the words spill secrets, the pencil whispers freedom and I, I remember to forget.
My words build worlds; my pages build palaces. Once the story starts, it’s like a thundering waterfall, pouring, unable to stop. The words are like water, life-sustaining, delicate, yet mighty enough to gorge canyons and carve rivers. The power of the page lies on my shoulders, the power of creating a new world, any new world, now rests in me. A superpower anyone can achieve if only they thought to befriend a pencil and become part of a notebook.
This is the feeling of writing, of opportunities and freedom, of inspiration and wonder, of home and the unknown. And it is beautiful. No amount of words can express; no number of notebooks can explain this feeling of writing and filling a page.
In the world of COVID, of social distancing and being stuck indoors, writing is my way to explore. The notebook and I, are united as one. For me, it symbolizes light and life, shining like a beacon or a star in the night. Never extinguished, like the north star, it leads me back home, which lies somewhere inside.
This simple notebook, made nothing more of leather and paper, is the most amazing thing because everything once started with a word contained in a book just like the one under my hand.
Always with me, the notebook remains. It is there when I laughed and smiled so hard it hurt and it stayed there to dry my tears when I had my messy cries. When we walk together, the weight of the world doesn’t seem as heavy anymore, when I write my fears and worries, sharing it with my best friend, something happens that seems to make me mend.
Slowly, the notebook became my world, now more than ever. Because there are times when the world is tough, life gets bumpy, the road is rough. But the notebook is stable, it’s always there, whenever I need to get some rest or express myself, to help me get rid of stress, it’s always there when I need to decompress. Reminding me to let go, telling me to remember that it’s okay to forget the world.
Diya Kanduri is a sophomore from New Jersey. She has been writing poetry since fourth grade. She loves to read, travel, and spend time with her family. To read more of her work, you can visit her blog or her Instagram @diya_kanduri.
Join India Currents and Matwaala, once again, in our Desi Poetry Reading Series. This time we bring you six poets addressing the ever-present uncertainty and change. The South Asian diaspora is perpetually evolving, breaking new boundaries and forging new connections in every sphere. India Currents presents its third Desi Poetry Reading to discuss how South Asian communities interacting with a year of inconsistencies, trauma, growth, and change.
To join the FREE poetry reading on Thursday, December 3, 2020 at 6pm PST and 9 pm EST, register here:
This is effort is in collaboration with Matwaala, a South-Asian poetry collaborative designed to provide immigrant and POC writers with a literary platform. In their own words, Matwaala represents “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Since their formation, they have hosted a number of poetry festivals and writing workshops. Most notably, they recently spearheaded Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Project, where they created a Poetry Wall in honor of South Asian writers at the Irving Museum and Archives.
We hope to see you there!
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
Just because the flames have been smothered for years
Does not mean we don’t feel the soot in our tears
A man on a pedestal flaunts his crown
Reduces an empire to a ghost town.
We apparently love him — it’s been reported
A toast to that, before we get deported
Close the curtains, God, what a racket
That officer’s gun is not in his jacket.
Just another man screaming for his life
Grab the remote, mute his strife
So what if that burger is dipped in car grease?
Can’t someone let us just eat in peace?
When it’ll be us, just like everyone said,
Someone else shall pass the butter, hand the bread
I know that it’s difficult, that this will be hard
When the cranberries are sour and the turkey is charred
But to untangle the noose from this country of rope
Change the menu, bring out the hope
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.