Month: June 2021 Page 1 of 2

Gaurav Deka

Isn’t all poetry queer? That is the question that has been running through my mind all these days. Even the most vanilla of poems that talks of some distant fields, full of yellow flowers could be queer. Because, a poem is never just what it presents itself as. It is always something more, a much of a muchness (from another queering work). The unfamiliar patterns of words that dip into palettes of colours or parameters of comparison. There is always a process of defamiliarization that goes on. Recognizing the whorls of meaning a poem can contain and the gradual opening of the same is a spiritual experience. Much like falling in love, or coming back from the dead. Birds in the sky become godlike, terrible beauties are born and dreams become raisins in the sun. That on saddest nights the poet writes the sweetest songs attests to the power of poetry to transcend the ordinary.  To help one feel the feelings.To queer the ordinary. 

If all poetry is queer, then what is Queer poetry? The simplest definition is poetry that is written by those who identify as queer. But that is not the sort of answer that we can get away with. What if a transperson writes of walking a dog? Does the mere fact that the poet is a transperson automatically qualify the poem as queer themed? I would like to think not. Because, that would horribly limit the infinite possibilities that are presented by the idea of Queer. For me, queer is in the insight, in the point of view that a person has. In the way they set their language free and inflict pain or pleasure.

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

(Elizabeth Bishop, Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore)

It ought to be recalled at this point that this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry went to Jericho Brown for Tradition and the citation read, “a collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.” Expressing his happiness, Brown tweeted, “I mean…I dunno…you have to admit, “Black queer men win the Pulitzer for poetry and drama” is a pretty funny sentence, right?” thus referencing Michael R. Jackson’s win for the play, AStrange Loop. Why these victories are significant is that they were seen as affirmative and as beacons of light for all those who nurse similar ambitions. The identity always casts a long shadow. Rarely do we come across headlines that say, “Heterosexual wins the Pulitzer”. It could well be that what distinguishes queer poetry is that it is called so. Redact the poet and the lines will still read the same. But the poem won’t be the same. The poet becomes as important as the poem itself. 

Speaking of the cult of the poet, there is hardly any need to go into the expressions of desire as manifested in the poems of Sappho and others, being as well-known as they are.In fact much of old-world poetry, did not accommodate the notches of differences between same sex or hetero love. The poets wrote of the Divine as a lover but often, this was placed outside the ambit of the corporeal or carnal. The feeling conveyed was one of the sublime. Poetic traditions in India such as Rekthi flourished in the courts of the Nawabs. There were men dancing on the streets in the rapture of the love they felt for their Lord.  They could hardly be called queer. Not in the way the term has evolved politically. 

In the modern sense of the term, queer poetry is not just about the poet. It is about the subject matter. It is about its ability to connect to a community that relies on a network of like-minded individuals for sanctuary and support. The sharing of the experiential is a vital way of reaching out to the community, the members of which often experience violent and destabilizing changes.

To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak-
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.

(Vikram Seth, Through Love’s Great Power)

In an interview with Firstpost, Akhil Katyal, who along with Aditi Angiras edited the anthology of queer poetry from South Asia, The World That Belongs To Us, talks about the fraught situations in the Indian subcontinent and the ways colonialism left its impact. “This debris– along with intractable pre-modern prejudices that our part of the world still carries—resulted in very vitiated positions for queer people who are often viciously attacked on cooked up social or moral grounds. So, let’s write our poems against such attacks together.”

This doesn’t mean that queer poetry is charged with the responsibility of being a round the clock activist. There are heartbreakingly delicate poems that convey very personal narratives of love dare not speak its name and yet is a love story like any other. The ‘everydayness’ and ‘relatability’ of queer love makes it very unqueering and that is what is so queer about it!

Like

In the Urdu Class
I confused my be with pe.
He asked me to write ‘water’,
I wrote ‘you’.
Who knew they’d make them so close,
Aab (آب) and Aap (آپ).
Both difficult to hold on to.

(Akhil Katyal)

See? Just another love story! Or perhaps not! 

And on that note, we bring you our first feature for the month, a handful of poems by Dr. Gaurav Deka. The poems, when strung together, seem to tell a story of love, of coming of age and finally, of coming into one’s own. They seem like a remarkable rite of passage with the narrator finally discovering his own voice that was made for singing. It is liberating to experience the frankness with which his words create narratives not only of love and longing, but also of the complexities of relationships. Deka has a rather introspective tone and the words gradually unspool to reveal the silence at the centre. Though love dominates the conversations, it is the need to survive heartbreak that the poet is trying to come to terms with. The need to break free while being present, is not as potent as the pangs of loneliness that are expressed. The poet says

It is almost fifty years early in
Matheran now.
In your rented house,
you drink alone.
Beneath the immortal evening
moss,
the tamarind tree in the backyard—
in its own sad senescence—is thin in
its roots.

(The Three Doors of Anagnorisis)

Deka’s poems are very physical. There is always something happening. Even while the body is at rest, the non-corporeal keeps travelling between worlds and universes. 

in November
just before we decide
to take the ride
draw his
soul on paper planes
and throw them
off the hills,
she tries to be earnest.
(My Friend Talks of Break-ups in Winters)

Just another love story? We leave it to you to decide.

We are joined in our work this month by a team of illustrators, who have kindly agreed to work with us. Today, we feature an illustration by Akshay A. S, a final year M.A English Language and Literature student at M G college Trivandrum. He is a poet and has a penchant for sketching. Unbeatable combination. Do look up his works on Instagram at #jotdowntales.

When not to Tell Him of your Longings

because for poetry to begin,
I must write something profound,
for there is no other way I can exaggerate
simple pains of not having you
beside me, in my bed, to hold your hand
and tell you that you matter beyond the skin…

…I, on such nights, begin to wonder
if there were other ways I could tell
you that just like every death
precedes a ritual of longing,
I often find myself sitting on the bench
outside your gate, growing old and dormant
like the name of the dog I’d have for company,
something to do with a chromosome turning inert

Clocks turn into shadows, its slow ticking
hitting the brain’s soft matter, ‘cause
for tonight it’s somewhat different – I am still
waiting for you somewhere outside a mall
where the asphalt is clean and lights are bright,
bright enough to see through God’s plans for the
evening, bright enough to remember that the sad
immortality of a pi can only be broken by
forgiveness, something that I have failed to ask
you while standing there, while staring at the sun,
while letting you become a spectre against
the glass of a running bus that I could never take
with you to that momo shop in south campus

Now that I worry about eating animals
for breakfast, tell you of my misdoings in the world,
in truth I want you to tell me that the true purpose
of the body is to disintegrate, that it’s
something called anthropomorphization to begin with,
that I am being way too eastern, and finally ask
what the real problem is – ‘are you okay?’: to which
I’d not protest and stay silent, for all I want is
to obey you in some sense, feel owned. For all I want,
in the absence of skin, is to turn into a stab
of sweat felt between fingers after a long call

Gaurav Deka reads When not to Tell Him of your Longings

How to delete photographs of a Lover who hasn’t loved us yet

(i)
You are here to hide into a haze,
to like a photograph on Instagram
and unlike it
that is how you begin to let go of things.

(ii)
fading is a
process of death
it’s like being
pressed to the
chest of a lover
and asked to breathe-in
his face,
commit to memory
commit to close your eyes to it
unwrap its filters,
commit to freeze it into your soul

(iii)
I have a string
of polaroids hanging
from across the room –
these are mostly places
that have left us, and lovers
jilted to stillness
I have trashed the rest
from my desktop and
have kept just where
I can see eyebrows and closed eyes

(iv)
One among them is a man who
hasn’t loved me yet,
I wonder where lies the button
to delete his absence that breath
How to like things straight

How can one ‘like’ things so straight?
And by like, I clearly mean sexually attracted.
Let there be no innuendos when I talk of things straight.
For it is normal, to like things straight.
But then, how does one like things straight?

Say for example:

A straight hairy hand, that holds itself out to shake –
and when the intonations of its muscles take shape
when the fingers splay out, breaking at their knuckles,
when the white nerves, the green veins and the black hair stick out,
they must be straight too.

The shake must be proper, firm and manly
It must be brief, and the friction
between the skin must produce no heat:
in such touches, in such measured moments of courtesy.
It mustn’t have any hard feelings, mustn’t suffer
any anxious wetness in the sweat of its palms.

Haven’t you ever confused a hand with a ruler?
a brown ruler, a white ruler, a black ruler,
that is everything wooden, everything hard,
everything that doesn’t know love, or to make any of it.
That only knows to beat, to ram, to touch without intimacy;
the only time it can get intimate is when it makes itself hurt against your skin.

What about the straight-lower-limbs:

Let me not call them legs,
Let me be precise as most young boys like to obsesses
over the calves and thighs of their avuncular lovers:
call them beefy, call them buffy, call them Big, strong and meaty.
But what is there to like about something so tree-like and straight?

You hardly see them, the way you see hands,
You only see them in long-pants, rarely in half-pants
while you may get lucky at dawn during a jog
or your once in a while brisk walk – that you do
only when you see him downstairs from your netted window.
That is the first thing you do in the mornings: pee-p.
and as you do so, you try and keep your hands straight, like his.
you don’t let them travel down and take a shape that involves an arch-
it is difficult not to like things that aren’t straight.

On close observation, his movements are nothing
but pure geometry; no, such geometries are devoid of circles,
they don’t believe in bending, don’t believe in returning,
try as you might to give yourself to them in-whole.
They only rise in one half of a square,
And as your gaze turns to gape,
you are reminded of your Maths teacher and
the right angled triangle learned in class six . Fuck, you curse,
as you hit a pebble: every shape cannot be solved
by the Pythagoras theorem –
If you take his thigh as the base, his calf the perpendicular, you are still left
as the resolved hypotenuse under him when you imagine
him curling up, on top of you.

But I’m sure everyone will disagree with a jeer,
If I call the thing dangling between the legs ‘straight’
and ask, how can you like things straight?

It isn’t straight, will be the first response,
It is curved, the second. “It is easier to bend things”, one will say,
“Without a bone, though we like them boned,
and so we call it a boner, while we like them best.”
“Nothing that isn’t straight goes in,” will be the clincher-last,
“Nothing like being fucked by a straight man!”

Some will sing in chorus:
“That is why we want them, that is why we stare at their crotches,
in buses and metros and cars and rickshaws.
And when they follow us back, when they turn,
we refuse to believe in the linearity of their desires,
with every blow we see to it that they twist and
bend and hunch over us.
With pleasure, with disgust, with
every bit of their straightness sucked out.”

Then, somewhere in the midst of a realization,
almost in a sudden retrieval of memory,
each of you will sigh, and agree on one another,
A few of you will pat my back and sympathize
On the strange fate of ours liking things straight, not inherently,
but quite cruelly with time, for it is so not normal for us to like things straight.
But then, how does one like things so straight?

When the Birds Left

Sometime in October, when there were
parrots pecking at our window
I had recently left a man who’d cradle me
to sleep every night, kiss my sweaty
forehead; with his wilted fingers
draw the creases on its wetness and
say: we’ll soon buy a house in Faridabad.

Ours was a single mattress on the living
room floor, he’d pull it out every night
from the bedroom, the A.C. wasn’t bought yet.
He’d put a new cover before I had moved
in, some blankets for the child we’d
never have were borrowed from a cousin
in Burdwan: it hadn’t torn even when I
left : the parrots still hadn’t arrived yet,
the lines on the walls smeared with our
knotted whispers, still smelled of the
ittar we’d got from Dilli Haat.

Breathing beside my neck, he’d dream of
the water churning inside my lungs; and
of the domes of Fatehpur, the marauder
inscribing its surface with a compass
the size of a comet: S+G. A+S. M+G.
Such were the premonitions of the
solstice – in September, when the water
rose up to my mouth, I stopped kissing
him, and bathed myself at dusk with the
ittar from the haat, so that he didn’t ask
for more than a piece of my throat.

Almost everything was set. New
cutlery was bought, a shoe rack was
installed, a foot cream was sent from
Calcutta, a brother was called to see
how two men can be in love under a roof

it does require more than just
commitment and a country, he’d said.
A promise was made, we’d soon sign the
papers somewhere in Manhattan:
I’ll get through an MFA and he through
another programme – the strength of
forecasts jolting the bar-moulds of history.
And this is how as the water rose, I felt
I’d lost the shape of my chest

The parrots had still not arrived and the
windows were yet not foggy.
When he’d leave for office, I’d sit down
with the door open and listen to the
Chole-Kulche wala bleating his misery,
the dust on Paris Trance unshaken, lying
limp on my palms, page 63
I’d meet anyone who came with the
same grief, the weight of the world
exerting on my shoulders more than any
other beauty.

When he returned, I wrote a page or two
thinking how a domesticated lady ever
wrote, no domesticated man surfaced in
my mind.
When the doors started creaking at dawn,
We decided to close the middle room,
and light it up to fight
For days I kept thinking it was his twelve
year old dead cat
But when he left for a week to the
mountains, I found my own voice there:
locked in the same cupboard with the
photograph of his dead mother. And this
is how as the water went down, I lost my
shape and turned into the woman of the
house.

Starting with the darkness of the
house, I slammed it on him
How shriveled the
house made him look. How horribly thin! How not my type!
And a friend helped re-iterate , ‘the
air here is as cold as night stones’. I took
that as a cue and cried all night.
We did not quarrel, neither did I write a
letter to Maa.

When the water rose up to my head, and
I was woman enough, I gave my heart
to a twenty three year old chemistry
student near Bahri and Son’s for a week,
took the metro to Lajpat and gave it to
a Kashmiri for another, at Karol Bagh to
a hustler for three, and finally to the
powdery whiteness of blood, where all
the worlds’ miseries end in several ways.
It was sometime in October, when
I’d left a man who loved. The parrots had pecked
breaking into the glass, and left by then;
the water in the vessel kept at the
awning had still not dried. A pinch of salt
was finally added to kill the demon
heart.

Of What is Left Behind

The truth is, I want him to tell me:
that after today
he’d like to carry a photograph
of me to the bathroom
in the hotels he’d stay
the night over on his tours
outside the city – the ones he’d take
a bus to on rainy days to make doodles on
his sketch board and return
with tripod-selfies mailed back to me
stamped every time. No, maybe
steal my toothbrush
to run his fingers over
its bristles on his way to Mysore
sitting on the third left seat
the same I’d see in
every dream I dozed into
somewhere around 2:00 pm
flipping through the theories
of mortality by Kagan, Heiddeger
and Jasper;
my dead grandmother
sitting beside him,
weeping darkening calling me
to her and I weeping darkening calling him
to me and the world
weeping darkening calling God
to the fate of souls like
his that turn to pixellated smoke
before dying,
and fade through the window glass.

This summer, every afternoon I step out
in the sun to
the white tiled verandah
the owner of my rented house
agreed to let knowing
that I bring burnt souls back
to their bodies
for his daughter who
set herself on fire eleven years back
when hanging was difficult in the absence
of a ceiling fan and
a silk saree – those were the years lived
in poverty
we could talk about sometime
when I’m not dreaming of light
slitting through abrasions on my skin left by
sweat-lines of his red T-shirt
he’d forgotten that I haven’t taken off
for weeks
to dream of him in one;
thawing burning evaporating
under the sun
the way he does in to a light pool
outside the window and the way
Grandmother comes back
from the dead
and the way the bus vanishes
through, breaking the rain
and the way the soul that never
ever appears in
the theories of Kagan Heiddeger Jasper.

the truth is, I want to tell him:
to carry the brush instead
for I fade away from photographs too

#GauravDeka #QueerPride #QueerPoetry

Amit Shankar Saha

Some years ago, I read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and was intrigued by the opening chapter. Lila, a character disappears. With all her belongings. Disappeared as she always wanted, leaving “not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.” I thought it was wonderful. Aspirational. To vanish would be to break out of the shackles of being the filling in a middle-class sandwich. But then the mind is its own doctor and it began playing the films of forced disappearances, notions of escapism, the dangers of being unprotected and then the waves of life, employment and love rushed in, inundating and extinguishing a gypsy in the making. This week, I was reading Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field and it brought back all those candy floss memories and the inevitable association with Ferrante. It also made me think of the hundreds who go ‘missing’ because they are uncomfortable citizens. They and their questions cause discomfort or well, they can be disappeared because they can be taken away and no questions asked- or those questions can remain unanswered or unheard. 

It is one thing to pack a bag, plug in headphones and set out to search for the meaning of life and quite another to be plucked off the road while on your way to school or while taking food for your parents working in the fields. The history of political violence and disappearances of political activists or innocent people is not restricted to any one country or specific struggles. It is an almost uniform pattern. Of power. Of the ways power desperately exerts itself to stop having to hear dissent. 

Poems

Tali Cohen Shabtai

I once saw a poster that read, “A woman who reads is a dangerous creature.” It made me smile. Truth is often as simple as that. I had an addendum- Beware the woman who dares. I stop that statement there because, while there are writings and writings- the sort that grabs you by the collar and drags through the mire requires courage. It is that sort of writing that bleeds out of you after you howl at the moon and slice your eyeball with a paper-thin razor.
When I first read Tali Cohen Shabtai, I thought of Frida Kahlo. The wilderness of colours that pervaded Kahlo’s art, the way her body was an ambassador of her art and how the person in totality was art. And when I went through Tali’s collected works- I found I was not far off the mark.

Inebriated/ Also a poet
That with him we looked like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo….

These are the opening lines of one of her poems from her bi-lingual collection, ProtestThe more I read her, the more I began associating her with the sort of lineage that gave us poets such as Eavan Boland and Hollie McNish. The sort that carry the ghosts of Plath, Sexton, Rich, Angelou. Those that disrupt the conventional lines of what poetry by ‘women’ must sound like.

Debarshi Mitra

Postcards to no one

I am the patient etherised upon the table. It is midnight already, the steady hum of crickets merges with the clatter in my head. The words I had once written, now return every now and then to haunt me. Perhaps the words that return are not mine alone, they arrive without warning, fragments of lines, now longer tethered to the text, they arrive like the breeze on cold city nights. “ You always seemed to go round in circles” , I murmur to myself. I discern few other sounds. A leaky tap in the kitchen, must get it fixed, I make a mental note. The sound of the clocks ticking go on as ever, “No man goes down to the same river twice”. I think of entropy for a while, the second law and time. The tap keeps leaking. By now I have almost become used to its incessant rhythm. “All of art is resistance against entropy”, I scribble on a piece of paper, knowing once again that I am indeed going round in circles. The phone rings, I let it. The traffic lights blink. I have grown tired of conversations, of platitudes, of “art, beauty and the meaning of it all”. Hollowed out from inside, I roam these streets like a shadow of myself. This city, its neon facade, its filth, its contradictions, look at me questioningly. I smile back at it and keep walking in this “unending chorus of human feet”. I slip into my dreams. My dreams are of smoke and death. Stray faces appear behind glass, a dog bares its fangs, licks a bone clean, mannequins walk gingerly , a one eyed man grins.

Neon

A faraway house
overlooking the highway,
the lights of which
always flicker the same way
in my memory, always the dim
yellow of longing chasing me.
Just as a seafarer knows
the sea by the way starlight
meanders over it,
I discover the city
late at evening,
walking along
its illuminated contours,
and find in every corner
the disjointed strands
of time and distance
and being and non-being,
shaping their own narratives,
even as I keep searching
for effervescent light trails
of headlights and cold neon
.

Tonight

Here I am
in this cafeteria
having a bowl of noodles
all by myself
with a dozing watchman
and the soft, mellow glow
of an electric flycatcher
for company.
I put on my headphones,
my playlist switches to Norah Jones.
I think of my friends for a while
and then my mind shifts elsewhere.
The song begins ,
“Come away with me “ she sings
and I here alone
in this midnight shack
think to myself
that I would if only
I knew where.

Movement as Metaphor

Droplets of light
condensed on night lamps
split open
caught in a flux in
spools of thought
held in equilibrium
mid-air nesting
in the emptiness
of every atom in
every cell and the
continuum in between
where motion begins
only in the mind as
a single twist of phrase
unlocking doors,
as a trickle going down
the endless slope,
as a nameless soul
receding from its shadow.


Notes from an unfinished diary

I

Criss cross zig zag pools of light, comfort is disappearance and then oblivion…oblivion…oblivion just writing the word is bliss, poetry is tapping buttons on a phone and auto correct results , erasure is art is life and the continuum in between , the excess of everything has choked me , life is perennial asphyxiation, an endless process of fading away moving zipping past cities, civilisations the old man under the tree telling us tales of our dreams and the mats that waiters dry at night, the lover’s hand groping in the dark , How do I trust anything?memory , literature is artifice, art is truth , truth naked without embellishments of language, of anything , thoughts clear as water, clear as a sentence that does not employ a metaphor. Must wake up sometime before they arrive, then again the next day and the next, life is a series of such days , how does one break away ..

II

Antidote to melancholy :The act of naming ,The colours ,the sounds, the flesh and all that remains hidden In the shadow all that diffuses out of the surface of our being and the air expanded by our emptiness as it passes in and out through the nostrils as days turn to nights, as all that remains of a once familiar name.

III

The currents in the vein ,  blood flowing like a river, the banks on both sides unknown, the day draws to a close, a boatman begins his song, sound penetrates silence, bit by bit, the first poem on a cave wall reaching beyond time to us, gathering silt of time, of memory as the world passes in a long drawn breath, the very act of naming is creating, the rebirth of the world in the head, the sounds ring hollow , a skeletal hollowness, the night endless..

IV

The world held out as if a piece of paper. Plain white eye balls, stars replaced by LEDs, the sky cellophane, I scream and hear the sound of my voice which separates into sine waves.

It moves outwards, upwards ephemeral wisps of smoke. The ceiling buzzing incessant, the sound of crickets in my head, the static from satellites, orbits losing its course, language born in the womb of silence, reaching towards what cannot be known, cellophane skies reaching out to us…us?  thin lights of the night , absolute silence , the mind melting words, sounds, the mind on a sprint out run by light, the first embers of the fire, the signs drawn but never understood, not of death or of  life, a mystery without resolution, words pushing against air, enlarging space, the self diffused , the shadow of the shadow keeping us where we are.

V

Condense droplets cold surface night ice cream blank page the sun lanterns night lamps heat youtube voices.

Voices information the world trapped in a skull , stream of consciousness no boundary , end of the page the point of it all? Deadlines dead line cooler night gives way to morning shifts work and repeat ,what am I looking for, the end apocalypse starting over the physicality of writing poems , people in photographs and people beside you and then people into nothingness me into nothingness, with them who are they ?friends connected by invisible threads, to her whom I love, to her whom I think I love, the way the fingers move over the keyboard backspace backspace heat  boredom solitude split open empty space time body tv series transport in a story of someone somewhere pinned down to time, place , location , country , family , caste , name , universe? Face the man in the mirror thinking in devised metaphors language handed down how does one step out of one’s own feet ?words as vehicles of release, Hormones ?

happy chemical? Sad chemical?

VI

Symmetry breaking triggered by the first word, in the perfect vacuum of silence, the trigger pressed, time – the noose around the neck, entropy fluctuation, a probabilistic blip in the all encompassing halls of nothingness, propelled forward, the brain fist sized presiding over the universe, and you caught in between . All poetry is reminiscence of time when there was no time, space uncharted, a raft caught in the ocean currents of neurons, torn apart by genetics, strands entwined condemning us to a name, to 3.14 , to loneliness, to this eternal separation, to an alpha numeric name next to a blob of green, to anonymous chat rooms, to curious blizzards in Russian novels, to the unsayable buried in the ambient. .

Smoke

We wither slowly
awaiting
our eventual invisibility.
The hourglass fills
bit by bit,
we turn vaporous,
appear as frost
on the windows
of our unborn children.

Debarshi Mitra is a 25 year old poet from New Delhi,  India. His debut book of poems Eternal Migrant was published in May 2016 by Writers Workshop. His second book Osmosis was published by Hawakal publishers in 2020. His works have previously appeared in anthologies like Kaafiyana, Wifi for Breakfast and Best Indian Poetry 2018 and in poetry journals like  ‘The Scarlet Leaf Review’, ’Thumbprint’,  ‘Guftugu’, ‘The Seattle Star’ ,’The Pangolin Review’, ‘Leaves of Ink’, ‘The Sunflower Collective’, ‘Coldnoon’, ‘Indiana Voice Journal’, ‘The Indian Cultural forum’ among various others. He was the recipient of the  The Wingword  Poetry Prize 2017, The Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize 2017 and was long listed for the TFA Prize 2019. 

Kiran Bhat

One among the many odd things I have done is walking at 2 AM through the corridors of a hotel undergoing renovations, in search of water. A friend and I had booked this place online for the duration of a conference and when we reached, we found they had just completed rebuilding…the protective covering from some sections had not even come off. But they honoured their part of the bargain and let us stay there. All was good till at about eleven at night, when I thoughtlessly finished off all the drinking water. Later, finding my friend extremely thirsty, I rang up Housekeeping and Reception by turns…to no avail. So, feeling evangelical, I stepped out of the room in search of water and walked into utter and total darkness. I walked to the other end of the passage, peered down and found the reception a gaping black void. That’s when it struck me that we were the only people in this hotel- all the staff had gone home. There was no guard either. As I walked back to the room, the doorway looked like a block of light in a chunk of darkness. It was a most beautifully desolate sight. Back in the room, I remembered a bag of oranges we had bought earlier. Nothing like freshly squeezed orange juice to assuage guilt and take care of a cranky, thirsty friend.

The real reason we made the trip in the first place was not the quest for academic excellence, but rather, to visit the final resting place of a young man very dear to my friend. His untimely demise had shaken her and this trip was a search for the much-needed closure. We travelled a long, long way, on roads hewn out of mountains, the chocolate brown of the earth covering every conceivable surface. Summer was at its height and I was careful not to drink more than a mouthful of water at a time.

We reached the cemetery. There were rows of graves, marked and unmarked. There was no way to find him except ask for help at the office of the nearby church. The office was a relief, with its cool tiled floors and a ceiling fan. The priest called the father of the young man and asked him, “There are two women here to pay their respects. What is the number of your son’s grave?” The poor man couldn’t remember. And I wondered how one forgets the number of the grave of one’s only son. The priest hung up and looked sheepishly at us. “Maybe we just look at all these graves and say a general hello?” I tentatively asked my friend. She remained silent. The priest sensing her grief, sent for his assistant and they combed through a huge register and located the number. Upon reaching that simple, unmarked grave, we stood in a pool silence. Us and a raven that we imagined was the soul of the departed.

Nithya Mariam John

This week, Dr Nithya Mariam John introduces us to her creative realms where poems roam free and unfettered. Her works seem to be leading lives of their own- their rhythms refusing to be scripted. Her gardens are overgrown, the creatures residing in them, fearless. Nature is at her hedonistic best. The tone is simultaneously romantic and genial. 

Nithya reveals “To write is to heal….  It helps me imagine beauty in the beast, look out for the beast in the beautiful, and also believe in different shades of both.”

And it is this world that she throws open for us.

Dr. Nithya Mariam John is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, BCM College, Kottayam. She has published a collection of poems- Bleats and Roars, edited പെൺ-ink and was also one of the translators translating into Malayalam the short stories of the Kannada writer, Vaidehi (Vaidehiyude Cherukathakal).

Naming…

Call me not a garden.
A garden is neat,
tidy,
well – cut,
clipped.
In place.
I am a forest-
Wild,
uncertain,
animalistic.

Flowers, creepers and thick foliage,
not pruned.

Sometimes it rains.
The birds
Keep their wings low,
and crouch under leaves.

And when the fire
spreads,
I let my hair loose,
and roar.
It’s all my cup of tea.

Nithya Mariam John reads Naming

Posthumous

After I die,
please do not visit me
in the morning.
You know that I talk
very less
under the sun.

Come at night.
Maybe,
past eleven,
when the moon brightens up,
and the stars blush.
Let’s talk.

Sit by my side,
I will hold your hand.
Let our tongues
savour the language we understand.

Come,
let’s whisper.

For once,
forget the great philosophers.
Please don’t excuse
our conversation
under the coarse blankets of
well-stacked ideologies.

Let’s whisper
How we splashed in
muddy waters
and basked in the shadows
of the trees,
half-naked,
imagining the Paradise.

Let’s dream all the dreams
we gave up
as we grew up.
After I die,
close to midnight,
let’s live
our dead dreams.

Nithya Mariam John reads Posthumous

When Butterflies Bleed…

When butterflies bleed,
they don’t stop flying.

Maybe the reddened air
they breathe
lets them explode into
the last flutter of fantasies.

Or maybe they are sages
who have already measured the distance between a whimper and a wail
and knows
that
these wings -which had folded themselves in dreams, once upon a cocoon time-

may soar a bit more,
and taste the last drop of honey,
before
slowly,
softly falling,
like a
beautiful,
dead
leaf.

Listen to When Butterflies Bleed…

Bookshelves

When I die
bury me with books.
Keep stacking
those one upon the other.
So that
in the end
I regenerate as a
worm
and eat through
your dreams.

Anupama Raju

A land of eternal dusks, where days and nights are just shades of dark and darker. The lives of the inhabitants run parallel, yet intersect. Independent and interconnected.  The polyphony when listened to, tells stories of people who are segments of each other’s lives and yet live worlds apart. Love is poetry and poetry, a sharp blade in a velvet casing. Take for example these lines:

Blame it on the ocean,
on my frothing sea-breath,
on this opium air,
for all I can see now
are your plucked-out eyes
that continue to dream big
and become planets in your hands.

(Disorientation)

The attendant revelation is sublime. However, sublimity does not guarantee tranquility. Rather, it carries the promise of distant thunder. And anticipation. 

This is the multiverse that Anupama Raju has created out of vegetable markets that might be adjacent to flats from whose windows slivers of lives are beamed across the night sky. It is a place where memories of school days jostle for space alongside mother’s fish curry. Raju’s words echo the rhythm of Time itself. Unhurried and magnificent. She has a great eye for detail. And draws from the world around her. Some of her signature works such as the Windows series came out of her stint as writer in residence at the University of Kent where she was on a Charles Wallace Fellowship. Her time in La Rochelle in France, thanks to the residency programme by Le Centre Intermondes yielded Surfaces and Depths, a collaborative effort with the photographer, Pascal Bernard. 

Apart from the evocative visual imagery, what stands out is the use of sound in her poems.

The lady upstairs grates a coconut,
drags a chair across the room,
hopes it will drown the argument
with the other whom she cannot hate.

(Everyday Sounds)

At her hands, space, like everything else, is rendered transcendental, mutable. People metamorphose into walls, time melts and refashions itself and memories become edible. The effect is fascinating. Her language conveys the intangible longing that pervades maddening crowds and blank windows alike. 

Hailed as one of the most interesting voices in contemporary Indian poetry, Raju has been featured anthologies such as the Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, Yellow Nib Modern English Poetry by Indians, Ten – The New Indian Poets, Big Bridge Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry. Her works have been carried in The HinduThe CaravanThe Little MagazineIndian LiteratureMint LoungePratilipi. Her first book of poems, Nine received great acclaim and showed her capable of, to quote Arundhathi Subramaniam, “…transforming familiar tropes of blood and longing, pain and death, into the “burnt letters” of warm, pulsating verse. Anupama Raju cuts close to the bone….

This ability to transform extends to her presentation of the female. She engages her spaces and language to present a Calypso like persona who takes all or nothing. The demand for the absolute is unwavering and surgical. The trauma of abuse has been a great concern for Raju, who along with Karthika Nair, K. Srilata and Priya Sarukkai Chabria, has written a series of poems that deals with the body vis a vis female sexuality. The ways in which the female body counters violence with instinctual power have been presented in extraordinary language. In a powerful image, a woman wonders if using a conditioner would have helped ‘smoothen’ the systemic abuse she encounters at each step. The word conditioner being a brilliant jibe at the conditioning that women undergo. The systematic recounting of abuse is as much a mental documentation as it is defiance.   The last lines read

Next time, I will condition myself, she thought,
as she brushed her down her knotted hair.

(Conditioner)

When not writing with such smouldering intensity, Anupama Raju is a communications professional and a literary journalist. She is a great conversationalist who can hold forth on any subject with aplomb. Her refreshing frankness is reflected in the honesty of her poetry. This week, we bring you the vinegary, molten, subtle and edgy words of Anupama Raju. Here’s to eternal dusks!

Poems 

Presto Agitato

It was raining here today as I sat down to write this post. So, I stopped writing and watched the rain. And thought. About the long days and the long nights and the incredibly short days and nights that are not long enough. I thought about people who live through these days and who are sometimes sustained by the memories of some wonderful days and nights. Who are encouraged by these memories to remain standing for another day. Thoughts about standing led me to think about two women I saw nearly twenty six years ago on a crowded local train in Mumbai. (Well, there is no other sort of local train in Mumbai). It was that time of the day when people wanted nothing more than to get home and the metal walls of the train bulged with the sheer volume of people inside it. Yet, miraculously, there would be place for more people at the next station. Getting into or out of these trains is an art that no amount of rugby training can teach you. You have to be born into it. We who are from Mumbai can hustle with the best of them. These compartments have a life and ecosystem of their own. Men get in with briefcases and vegetables bought at the overhead walkways of the railway stations and proceed to dive for a seat, place the vegetables in the briefcase, pull out a knife and start chopping vegetables while having conversations with the other season ticket travelers. Women have capacious bags for the same purposes. And conversations flow all around you. Somehow, privacy is alien to these locomotive communities where everyone is an Ai, Tai, Didi, or simply, Arey…. 

It was during one such torrid journey that I spotted actress Sonali Bendre standing right next to me as we hurtled towards Mumbai CST! She was just starting out then, had made a few appearances in the inner pages of the movie magazines that my mother was very fond of purchasing on our trips to Mumbai as these were hard to come by in Oman. For a kid of ten, spotting a celebrity, however minor, was thrilling though I never went up to her and said anything. One has one’s dignity you know. After that, all through that summer, I scanned the railway compartments, looking to spot my next celebrity. On one such rush hour evening, in the ladies compartment of a local train in Mumbai, when women were chopping vegetables and going plunk plunk with their embroidery needles, and people were packed like sardines in a can,  I saw a woman place her arms around the woman in front of her and place her head on her shoulder and apparently go to sleep. I found it immensely interesting that someone could go to sleep standing up. Like a horse. On a stranger. Because both of them did not even have a conversation the whole time they were standing there. 

When the train reached her station, the sleeping woman withdrew her hands, but not before the one in front held her finger for a fraction of a second. And then the hand was gone, swallowed by the millions climbing the overhead bridge. In my compartment, the woman shaped vacuum was filled inside of three seconds. It was like they were never there. Years later, reading Lihaaf, I realised that, that was my Lihaaf moment. It was like discovering a tiny plant with purple flowers growing in between the cracks on your cemented front yard.  

And today, yet again, I thought about them. How would they keep meeting once they retired? Which they should have by now.  How would they meet if they had stopped working or had to take different trains to work or home? What became of them and why did they not care that there were all those people around? Did they know that a ten- year old was watching them with irrepressible curiosity and that they would be thought of decades later on a rainy day? Did they think they mattered? I don’t know. But I know what love looks like. 

Almost two decades later, while taking my PG students back to Kerala after their excursion to Bengaluru, we had office commuters taking up space in the sleeper compartments. A group of them settled themselves on our side berth as I sat curled up opposite my colleague. Like I said, on trains, my space is your space and all Indian are my brothers and sisters. So, these two men sat down and in an instant, began singing Kannada songs. Of them one would sing duets all by himself. What was really hilarious was that he would preface the female singer’s part (mid song) with the words, “ladies voice”, and then proceed. The non-duet singer’s station was fast approaching and he urged his friend to get down and sing some more and go later by another train. Not this time though. He had duets to sing elsewhere. 

The same train had two young men sitting just a few seats away from us. I interrupted their deep conversation to ask if they would mind switching their seats with some of our girls so we could have our group together. And one of them replied, “sorry, we had booked these seats by the window months ago so we could travel like this.” Returning to my seat, I fumed at useless men who gave vapid excuses and mentally suggested they buy a train for themselves. Sometime around ten or so at night, we heard some of the pilgrims traveling to Sabarimala yelling at these two to behave themselves and go to sleep. And was I snarkily satisfied. I hoped they slept by their windows. 

Again years, later, it came to me that perhaps, that journey was very precious to them. That months of planning might have been needed to coordinate vacations and book the perfect seats so they could have their personal space. Only to be interrupted by office commuters, women seeking to uproot them and men asking them to shut up and go to sleep. In this world made of ossified thoughts, some loves can exist only in a state of permanent transit. And they do. I wish they did not have to. I know I owe an apology to those young men and the singers. They were only trying to get by. In this vast world of intersecting trains, I will do so, if we meet somewhere. 

This post signals the end of the celebration of the Queer Pride Month here at SamyuktaPoetry. A month ago, when we started down this path, I did not imagine that it would fan out to 10 poets, 12 posts and have over 5600 visits. It is wonderful to receive so much of love. In the course of this month, we have travelled down a number of different roads, talked about issues of vintage and contemporary value and featured some tremendous art. It was hectic coordinating all of this, but with an excellent support team backing me, I barely felt a thing. To all our poets, thankyou for sharing the best of your work with us, for spending time discussing aspects of your life and your activism. For the way you shared our vision. Our artists, Sarah Saju Kallungal, Akshay A. S, Ruchi Sinha and Harikrishnan G who responded to our ideas with splendid works. Thanks to your enthusiasm, I know that this is not over. That we have more to come somewhere down the line. 

It is a fact that this is not the end of the road. It is not even a halfway mark. Because even as we speak, there are laws and regulating procedures that make life impossible for those who refuse to conform to a matrix. A country like India, which is the world’s largest constitutional democracy, is important in influencing the sexual democracies of countries in its immediate and cultural (post-colonial) vicinity. And this is not as simple as building walls to hide slums. We should be an example of how soft power must work. By enabling civil liberties for its citizens, India can ensure that it touches millions of people worldwide. 

I want to imagine.  That the two women on the train held each other, without having to avert their eyes. That the singers got down and went home together. That the young men gave up their seats for the girls because there is a lifetime of journeys they can take.

I want to imagine.  That the two women on the train held each other, without having to avert their eyes. That the singers got down and went home together. That the young men gave up their seats for the girls because there is a lifetime of journeys they can take.

Though I know it’s a solo, I imagine the duet singer singing the Kannada version of Johnny Mathis’ immortal words.

Sometimes we walk, hand in hand by the sea
And we breathe in the cool salty air
You turn to me, with a kiss in your eyes
And my heart feels a thrill beyond compare
Then your lips cling to mine, it’s wonderful, wonderful
Oh, so wonderful, my love
And I say to myself “It’s wonderful, wonderful
Oh, so wonderful, my love.’

(Ladies voice)

Sonya J. Nair
Editor

Featured today is the Google Doodle created by Rob Gilliam, that honours Marsha P. Johnson, the queer activist and drag queen who was at the forefront of the Stonewall movement, which was what we had started our first post with. She also set up shelter homes for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Johnson was an inspiration for all people looking for their identity in a chaotic world. In 2019, New York City decided to honour her and her fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera with statues. Johnson, posthumously, was also the grand marshal at the 2019 New York City Pride March. 

Mumbai Trains, Queer Love, Johnny Mathis, Marsha P. Johnson, Samyukta Poetry

Varavara Rao

Every year, I teach Margaret Atwood’s Notes Towards A Poem That Can Never Be Written to my Undergraduate students and talk to them about how year after year, in many parts of the world, the freedom of speech and expression is squashed by unlawful regimes. I tell them about how people go missing in the middle of the night on account of an article, a sentence, or maybe just for frowning while listening to the rhetoric of a dictator. We talk about Liu Xiaobo and others. We go onto journalists who are never heard from again or are imprisoned for years either in their homelands or in distant lands where their brave coverage of ground realities gets them arrested for conspiracy, treason or dissent or just like that. Like Mahmoud Hussein of Al Jazeera who is being held in an Egyptian prison for more than three years and to mark which, the channel runs a ticker counting off the number of days he has been imprisoned. The personal losses this man suffered while in prison are inestimable. I tell the students, it hurts physically to see that ticker that says Mahmoud Hussein imprisoned for 1200 days and then to see it turn into1201 days and so it has gone on for days and days. 

And then from the poem I read out: 

This is the place
you would rather not know about,
this is the place that will inhabit you,
this is the place you cannot imagine,
this is the place that will finally defeat you
where the word why shrivels and empties
itself. This is famine.

Poems

Nithya Mariam John

This week, Dr Nithya Mariam John introduces us to her creative realms where poems roam free and unfettered. Her works seem to be leading lives of their own- their rhythms refusing to be scripted. Her gardens are overgrown, the creatures residing in them, fearless. Nature is at her hedonistic best. The tone is simultaneously romantic and genial. 

Nithya reveals “To write is to heal….  It helps me imagine beauty in the beast, look out for the beast in the beautiful, and also believe in different shades of both.”

And it is this world that she throws open for us.

Dr. Nithya Mariam John is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, BCM College, Kottayam. She has published a collection of poems- Bleats and Roars, edited പെൺ-ink and was also one of the translators translating into Malayalam the short stories of the Kannada writer, Vaidehi (Vaidehiyude Cherukathakal).

Poems

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