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Rhyme and Reason

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

A lizard in a blizzard

Got a snowflake in his gizzard

And nothing else much happened, I’m afraid.

But lizard rhymed with blizzard

And blizzard rhymed with gizzard

And that, my dear, is why most poems are made.[1]

When I was young, I used to get a kick out of seeing words rhyme. Reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, I would enunciate the rhyming bits out loud for fun. Later in high school, I marveled at Shakespeare and his dexterous lines which stoked the imagination and inspired lofty notions.

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme[2]

Poetry, in contrast to everyday speech, has an eye for beauty. She has a penchant for the pretty phrase, a fancy for things well said. With her, language is revered and words are caressed and carefully ensconced in a metrical mold which lends rhythm and musicality. 

While I was in college, I listened to a recitation of a narrative poem my grandfather had written in Kannada (my mother tongue). The tune was captivating, the story was beautiful, and it made an unforgettable impression. Never before had I experienced (or given much heed to) sound and sense so intimately connected in my mother tongue. As Alexander Pope describes poetry: 

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,

The sound must seem an echo to the sense[3] 

Poet, Navaneet Galagali

Thereafter I began to realize – like the proverbial frog in the well – that other languages contained profound treasures of literature and poetry that my anglophone worldview wasn’t privy to. Unable to resist the siren call, I set out to learn my mother tongue.

A few years down the rabbit hole, I acquired Kannada and Sanskrit and delved into the literature with zest. When I moved to the bay area, I was fortunate to come across a poetry meetup group where I met some birds of the same feather. We started meeting weekly to partake in virtual poetry gatherings using the Facebook group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, where I found encouragement and an outlet to share the poems and translations that follow.

The best romance poems employ a subtle art of suggestion; without being coarse, they indicate rather than explicate. In this Sanskrit verse from the 7th century, we see a poet’s tasteful portrayal of conjugal matters:

(The sweet-talk of newlyweds)

दम्पत्योर्निशि जल्पतोर्गृहशुकेनाकर्णितं यद्वचः तत्प्रातर्गुरुसंनिधौ निगदतस्तस्यातिमात्रं वधूः । 

कर्णालम्बितपद्मरागशकलं विन्यस्य चञ्चूपुटे व्रीडार्ता प्रकरोति दाडिमफलव्याजेन वाग्बन्धनम् ||[4] 

As the newlywed couple whispered through the night, their pet parrot overheard the words exchanged. The following morning, in the presence of elders, it began repeating what it had learned. Hearing this, the wife was mortified and she grabbed her ruby earring (which resembled a pomegranate seed) and thrust it into the parrot’s beak to silence it.

Here’s another verse in Sanskrit which makes a delightfully wry observation:

(A courtesan and her lipstick)

उपभुक्तखदिरवीटकजनिताधररागभङ्गभयात्।

पितरि मृतेऽपि हि वेश्या रोदिति हा तात तातेति॥[5]

A red color is left lingering on her lips from chewing betel leaves. When her father dies, that courtesan, not wanting to smear the red from her lips, cries “Taata, taata!” instead of “Pita, pita!” (both words mean father). i.e., Even while mourning the death of her father, she is mindful of her lipstick.

Brevity is the soul of wit” runs the common adage. Taking it to heart, this nifty triplet in Kannada claims to encapsulate all love stories:

(A summary of all love stories)

ನಾನು ಅವಳನ್ನು ನೋಡಿದೆ

ಅವಳು ನೋಡಿ ನಕ್ಕಳು

ನಮಗೀಗ ಎರಡು ಮಕ್ಕಳು[6]

 

I looked at her,

She smiled at me.

Now we have two kids. 

Poetry – and by extension, Art – seeks to elevate the connoisseur from the clutches of the mundane. In the process, ordinary emotions are rarefied and become things of beauty. Love, compassion, anger, sorrow, or any of the palate of emotions when expressed through the medium of art achieve a sublime dimension and unequivocally yield aesthetic joy. The joy of course, is an end in itself and needs no further recourse.


Navaneet Galagali is a software engineer in the California bay area who slyly siphons away time for his excursions with literature and music. His present obsessions include Sanskrit and Kannada literature. He is also learning Hindustani classical vocal music and Tabla.

Elder Love: Translated From Gujarati to English

Bela Desai published seven translated short stories by a famous late Gujarati writer, Ramanlal Vasantlal Desai; this is the first time his stories have been translated into English. Here is an abridged excerpt from the book Selected Short Stories by Ramanlal Vasantlal Desai:

Elder Love

Prabhalakshmi regarded her family lovingly, as her son and daughter-in-law propped her up in bed with care. They were all there—her sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. The doctor had advised them not to gather in her room, but Indian families often ignore such advice. To her joy, the grandchildren came in constantly, asking how she felt and playing quietly until an adult made them leave. Her gaze landed on her husband Pramodrai, sitting quietly in his armchair. Prabhalakshmi sighed.

An observant person would have noticed Pramodrai’s frequent glances at his wife. If someone came or left the room, a son gave her medicine, or a daughter-in-law offered her fruit—he took the opportunity to steal a look at her. But everyone’s attention was on Prabhalakshmi and his looks went mostly unnoticed, except by the young daughter-in-law Veena, who tried to hide her smile at the surreptitious glances.

Hearing Prabhalakshmi sigh, Pramodrai looked up; she turned to Veena, who was trying to conceal her amusement, and requested,

“Please make him a paan, my dear.”

“Ji—right away,” replied Veena, making a mental note to relate the old couple’s display of affection to her sisters-in-law later.

  One of Prabhalakshmi’s two sons came over to make sure she was comfortable, and Pramodrai walked over too.

“Relax,” Prabhalakshmi told him. “The children are taking good care of me.”

Pramodrai nodded, returning to his armchair. Soon, someone came to visit Prabhalakshmi and he thought it was a good time to take a break.

“Maybe I’ll go take a short walk,” he stated.

“Yes—no need to sit here all day,” his wife replied.

“I will leave, then?” Pramodrai confirmed.

“Yes,” replied Prabhalakshmi.

She glanced at Veena, and they smiled at each other.

******

In Pramodrai’s absence, Prabhalakshmi asked the family to come to her.

“What is it, Ba?” they asked, concerned.

“I want to tell you something.”

“Yes. Anything,” a son responded.

“I will not be around for long…”

“Arré!” interrupted another son. “The doctor said you will be sitting up by yourself soon!”

“No—it doesn’t matter.”

They tried to protest; she interrupted them,

  “You are wise children who don’t need my advice but—please pay attention to his needs. He will not ask for anything…”

Prabhalakshmi was too exhausted to go on.

At that moment, Pramodrai entered the room; seeing everyone standing by the bed, he approached hurriedly.

“What happened?”

“Don’t worry, nothing happened,” replied Prabhalakshmi, closing her eyes.

Pramodrai stood quietly for some time. Suddenly, he reached for his wife’s wrist. Prabhalakshmi slowly opened her eyes—with effort. Her fingers touched Pramodrai’s—she smiled faintly. And the open eyes, the fingers touching his, her loving smile, became still.

“It has happened,” Pramodrai said, as he gently let go of her hand.

Immediately, the house erupted in the chaos that follows a sudden calamity. Children were taken out of the house by well-meaning neighbors. The doctor was hastily summoned. He checked Prabhalakshmi’s pulse.

“There is nothing left,” he solemnly proclaimed.

The women huddled, crying softly. Pramodrai, acutely aware of his responsibilities, tried consoling them. Family and friends started pouring in. Eventually, the beloved entity was taken on her final journey to be ceremoniously dissolved into ashes by her heartbroken family.

Pramodrai did not shed a tear—he continued offering support to his family, whose sense of loss was deep; no one could offer them solace except the elderly Pramodrai.

“Do not cry,” he told his daughter-in-law. “You did so much for her. She is surely at peace.”

And the wives would cover their eyes and weep harder.

To his daughters, he said, “See, the most important thing for us is knowing that our children are happy. What more can a parent want?”

But the daughters were not soothed.

He spoke privately with the son who was unable to eat, “She was very happy to see you doing so well. Don’t be sad—come, eat with me.”

Friends and extended family offered their condolences, “How terrible to lose a loved one! But it must be a big consolation that she lived a happy, full life!”

That was how Pramodrai himself consoled his family, but it irked him when others implied that, because of advanced age, her death was somehow justified.

One elderly relative offered, “Who can escape fate? Thankfully, you are amidst the warmth of your ample family.”

  Pramodarai nodded politely, however, he felt as if the essence of his life had vanished, leaving behind a dark, ubiquitous void.

******

Several days had passed since Prabhalakshmi’s death. From his armchair, Pramodrai looked at the empty space where her bed used to be, his mind wandering to a time when they were still poor. He closed his eyes and envisioned a young Prabhalakshmi. He saw himself, lying in bed—his head on a pillow—eyes closed.

“What is wrong?” she enquired.

“It’s nothing,” he replied.

“There’s something on your mind.”

“Nothing important.”

“Then swear on my life that nothing is wrong!” Prabhalakshmi persisted.

“You are so stubborn!” he expostulated but continued. “I need some money, urgently. Tried a couple of sources but no luck.”

“How much?”

“Two thousand rupees.”

“There’s a thousand left from my trousseau money. We can get another thousand selling some jewelry,” reasoned Prabhalakshmi.

Pramodrai was reluctant, but eventually accepted her solution, which proved to be prophetic as, in time, they dug out of their financial groove and began to live comfortably.

He wondered what would have happened had the young Prabhalakshmi been unwilling to part with her possessions.

“Veena!” Pramodrai exclaimed suddenly.

“Ji,” responded Veena, hurriedly entering the room.

Immediately, Pramodrai realized his mistake: he had wanted to remind Veena that it was time for Prabhalakshmi’s medicine. He tried to cover it up.

“I don’t see anyone—where is everyone?”

“Everyone is here, Bapuji. Shall I get them?”

“No, no—maybe I’ll step out.”

Ji,” Veena replied, concerned. “Should I ask someone to accompany you?”

Pramodrai shook his head—No.

Outside, the flowers were blooming, but Pramodrai did not notice them; instead, he found solace in the drooping branches of the banyan tree that cast an elaborate shadow on the ground, like the protective arms of a mother.

“Are trees closer to Prabhalakshmi than me now?” he wondered. He sat on the bench underneath the banyan.

“My family takes good care of me but the one whose constant love supported me is gone.”

The leaves of the tree swayed in the gentle wind; the branches creaked.

“She often fanned me with that old brown fan, offering a cool breeze,” he reminisced.

As the sky turned red and gold in the twilight, Pramodrai slowly rose from the bench.

“My sun has set too,” he reflected, like a desolate man pining for his love—without the swagger of youth. His beloved partner was gone but he knew that displaying his grief would be ungainly—at his age.

He went inside, settling into his armchair again. The oil lamps were lit, reminding him of the time when Prabhalakshmi would light them.

“Where are Malini and Veena?” Pramodrai asked after his daughters-in-law.

“They are feeding the children,” replied someone.

He heard crying, and asked, “Who is that?”

“Oh, that’s Usha,” replied someone else.

“Who is making her cry?”

“Who can make that stubborn girl cry?” a daughter responded.

“Give her what she wants. Who but a child will be stubborn?” he sided with his granddaughter.

The brothers and sisters exchanged looks. Several minutes passed, but the sound of crying from the kitchen did not stop.

“Why is she still crying?” Pramodrai asked. “Bring her here.”

“Don’t worry, Bapuji. she will go to sleep soon.”

“A child should not go to sleep crying. Please—bring her to me,” he insisted.

Reluctantly, one of the daughters went to the kitchen. She cajoled Usha to stop crying—to no avail. Soon, Pramodrai sent his other daughter and, finally, they managed to bring the child over.

Pramodrai sat her on his lap and asked gently, “What is the matter, Beta?”

“Nothing,” she managed to answer, still sobbing.

“Then why are you crying?”

Usha stopped crying long enough to respond, “I want Ma.”

Pramodrai was unsure of what to say to the child whose daily ritual had included her beloved grandmother.

“Beta, Ma has gone to the house of God.”

“Why did she go without me?” Usha cried harder.

Pramodrai felt a tug in his heart. Stroking her head gently, he asked, “Shall I feed you, Dikri?”

“No, I want Ma,” replied the child.

“Ma cannot come back, Dikri!” the grandfather stated.

“Then why did she leave without me?!” Usha objected, letting out an extended wail.

Pramodrai’s restrained grief finally defied the threshold of constraint.

Hugging the child, he said in a quivering voice, “Everyone could go on without her—you could not, Dikri!”

And the room was filled with tears.

Bela Desai, Ph.D., has been working in biotechnology in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. Besides science, she enjoys reading and traveling to different places around the globe. She loves to dabble in singing and writing as well.