A few weeks ago, when I was at a friend’s place, waving my arms and talking animatedly, I received a phone call that brought news of an impending demise. Having suddenly run out of oxygen, I walked to the balcony and stood looking outside at what I now recall to be one of the most arid afternoons I have encountered. There was absolute silence everywhere save for a very shrill squirrel whose cries were banging insistent nails into the coffin of an afternoon. I spotted an old lady in the house opposite who had come out to sit on her verandah to guard a tray of rice grains left out in the sun. She sat there desultorily, not even looking at the tray, perhaps because no bird seemed even remotely interested in taking a peck. It made me wonder if that is what life is all about, taking up cudgels in a battle that is not even being fought, competing in a race that is not even yours to begin with- while an invisible squirrel barks angrily at the world, Gods, the trees or perhaps at its own self.
A lot has been written about this year that is like no other. About the isolations that humans, thoughts, homes, non-humans and others were subjected to. About hope, the loss of hope, the return of hope, the scope of hope. The landscapes of living memories have been altered irretrievably and the timeline of life has a before and an after.
Ironically, for a country that had one of the longest periods of complete lockdowns, much of India ended up spending most of its time outdoors. The protests against the NRC and the CAA saw droves of people occupying spaces such as Shaheen Bagh, till the pandemic forced them inside, the leaders of Kashmir were under house arrest for such a long time that by the time they came out, PUBG and TikTok had been banned in India, there was a need to formulate new alliances, Kangana Ranaut’s house was partly demolished and a certain white beard grew as long as Pinocchio’s nose. Tunnels- the longest and strongest came up, the Parliament complex in Delhi was no longer the same, grounds were broken at Central Vista, Ayodhya and so were promises made to farmers, landless labourers, women and to those suffering from the indignities of the caste system. There were lines of migrant workers going home, returning to work from home, dying en route, living to tell the tales of unexpected kindness, of apathy, of fighting primal battles of survival.
This year saw major discussions on medical terminology and I’m positive that the word ‘quarantine’ has entered the parlance of non-English languages worldwide. So have ‘Mask’ and ‘Sanitizer’. And now that the world is slowly allowing traffic to flow through its veins, masks have become a common site in the garbage heaps of landfills and in the usual refuse strewn along roads. The sheer variety of masks, the designs and patterns they come in, amuses me. If anything, it is this that symbolizes the human spirit- the ability to turn anything into fashion.
It has been a learning curve- this year. That the ‘absolute and urgent’ fulfilment of rituals in places of worship can be postponed. That both hell and heaven might well be on earth and exist only till the time you are alive. And that human nature does not change. That at the slightest sign of recovery, the prejudices are back, the constructs of memory, entitlement, all come rushing back like they had never left.
We now live in a world that has lost the voices we knew, the faces that defined it, the people whose blood and poetry gave it life. Today, as I write this, we are in a world without Mangalesh Dabral and Sugatha Kumari.
We must also remember those serving the nation from jail. Varavara Rao, Surendra Gadling, writer-activist Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Rona Wilson, Hany Babu, Stan Swamy. Swamy’s lines from prison- as a letter to his fellow religious- say it all. All that a human life should be about. And all that it should not be about.
Prison life, a great leveler
Inside the daunting prison gates
All belongings taken away
But for the bare essentials
‘You’ comes first
‘I’ comes after
‘We’ is the air one breathes
Nothing is mine
Nothing is yours
Everything is ours
No leftover food thrown away
All shared with the birds of the air
They fly in, have their fill and happily fly out
Sorry to see so many young faces
Asked them: “Why are you here”?
They told it all, not mincing words
From each as per capacity
To each as per need
Is what socialism all about
Lo, this commonality is wrought by compulsion
If only all humans would embrace it freely and willingly
All would truly become children of Mother Earth
While all over the world, prisoners are being released to prevent prison overcrowding and infection, we have poets, activists- keepers of our conscience- under lock and key. Under house arrest is our conscience as well. Like the parents of the raped girl from Hathras. Medha Patkar sprinted 100 metres or more to join the protesting farmers in Delhi. Those farmers intelligently came in massive tractors and trailers and refused to assemble in another ground that they described as a “prison”. Incarceration and its many, many forms- open skies, captive audiences, radio programmes, news channels for hire.
The year continues to leave its impact on us- an impact that will continue for a long time. The only thing we can do is remember- remember who we are, what we have done, how and to whom or for whom. How would we like to be remembered? We must write of these times, write of the losses, the gains, the love, the pain, the sacrifice. Because, memory is the only weapon one has against the ravages of time. To be remembered is to be alive. In more ways than one. Anaerobically.
This edition of SamyuktaPoetry has Calendar Year as its theme and we are proud to present poems that cover the trajectories of land, mind, faith, history, body, identity, love, anticipation and isolation. Strong poems that sing full throated of their despair, their anger, their wistful farewells. Our tones are evocative, sardonic, soft as a feather landing on felt, angry yowls in a howling snowstorm.
“A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground,” said Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But nowhere did he say that they must be our kith and kin. This time, let our celebrations mark our survival and be tinged with respect and the memory of those who did not, let us be responsible for the sake of those who are struggling with their health- mental and physical, the precarity of lives of those who speak for others and remember those who cannot speak for themselves. Let us look at the palms of our hands and in the lines etched therein, discover the paths that we have traversed, our histories, our mythologies and our ephemeral existences. This world that is too much with us looks for concrete absolutes. Dead certainties, certificates of birth, documentation, ownership, possession, cards, papers, eugenics and currencies for leaving us our inheritances.
I think back to a blazing afternoon, when a squirrel cried for the canon ball of grief that Time left me holding.
Sonya J. Nair