Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Winning Poem


So often, this sort of thing will happen.
A man will meet a woman and find his voice
is deeper than a well in the sort of village the
Central Ground Water Board has notified ‘dark’, where
you aren’t allowed to dig tube-wells any more, and you need
to be registered with the district authorities
to get a new hand-pump outside the kitchen, and where
you itch all over, after a bath.

Or, a woman will meet a man and will find that her eyes
are flood-prone: low-lying swamps, the sort into which
the rubbish of decades of suburban non-planning has been tossed,
making them look hard when actually, you could just sink
into them. Especially when it rains.

Often, a man will meet a woman and find that his gut
is a sort of womb: a space in which something grows
from seed to obsession, where his roots curl into the certainty of failure.
An instinctive sort of space that swells and contracts and
even bursts. Like a second, misplaced heart.

Or, a woman will meet a man and will find
her arms are collapsible, like a set of folding chairs
creaking in the sort of balcony that gets swept once
a week by a servant who has turned into a domestic cry
for help: a servant with fifty layers of lard dimpling
her elbows and a lumpy belly, who stares off into space
leaving the chairs out in the rain, rusting.

Often, a man will meet a woman and find
a mountain on his back: a dusty hump at the base of his neck,
floating low like brown fog, and things are uphill
or downhill from here on. But there is no stopping
from here on.

Or, a woman will meet a man and find the distance from
highway to home triples overnight, and that some nights
are three times as long as others: when bad news
has crawled back all the way from the city center, riding
between sheets of the morning paper, which arrived two hours after
he left the house, six rotis wrapped in the torn aanchal of her oldest saree.
The sort of night that cannot bear to end.

So often, this sort of thing happens, that a man and a woman find
a word buried behind the balls of their eyes, and they dig all around.
They will speak of fish, the price of things, the temperature outside.
They will bite into the word held as a cube of ice in their throats.
They have seen mountains fold up in despair, but they swear
they will beat another year out of this one: hauling home a cutting wind
or boiling river, or a flower. They will kidnap oasis noons to string a sagging cot.
They will not say it, but they will sit, dumb. Defiant of what may come.

(C) Annie Zaidi

This poem was chosen for the first prize at this year's Prakriti poetry contest. Money and reassurance. What more does a writer want?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

You and I have a long and fruitful relationship. As a schoolgirl, I was stuck in a place that was, effectively, rural. There were no bookshops for miles and miles. Perhaps there were some in the nearest town, but they did not have what I considered real books - novels, stories, plays, poetry etc.

My mother stocked up on books in the summer vacations and carted them back in large, bulky cartons for the school library. When we began to visit Mumbai in the summer, her major stops were Danai and Crossword.
And look at me now! I'm grown up and sitting on your shelves! True, usually on the wrong shelf. But never mind. It's been a long journey. Almost destined, eh? (And I am quite pleased to see that I'm a generously discounted title on your website)

But remember that first store near Mahalakshmi, where your staff actually knew their books? They seemed interested in books. Or else, they did a good job of pretending for they seemed keen to help you find what you might be looking for. But then you opened another outlet, and then another. Now there are probably a dozen (or more?) Crosswords spread across different cities. Which would have been nice, if only your employees were better suited to their jobs.
I'm not complaining as a writer. Although it is strange that a book clearly marked 'Non-Fiction' should be so insistently placed among 'Fiction' (in five different Crossword outlets) and it is not nice having to point this out all the time. In one store, I did complain, only to have a frightened-looking youth repeatedly say: 'Excuse me, ma'am?' and 'Sorry, ma'am!'

I guessed the poor fellow had no clue what 'Non-Fiction' means. But my book being mis-classified is not such a big deal. It's relatively new and nobody's heard of me. But why was Pankaj Mishra's Temptations of the West lying under 'Indian Fiction'? You may not agree with our views, but that is no reason to insult our reportage and memories.

Jokes aside, it is a huge waste of time trying to find a book buried in the wrong section. I'm complaining as a customer, dear Crossword.

I've been pretty faithful. I keep coming back, despite being disappointed, despite knowing that Landmark is better stocked (Oxford is worse, however. Their staff is so laconic, so disinterested in books, they have told me they didn't have a certain book when in fact, I did manage to locate it on their shelves - in the wrong section, of course. And the fact that the home page of their website bears the cover image of a fashion magazine rather than a book is seriously off-putting).

I keep returning to you, Crossword, for the sake of nostalgia. Or perhaps it is because you offer yourself up for literary events and support local literature in other ways - through prizes and (what used to be Sriram's great) recommendations. I respect that. I want you to do more of that.

But I am annoyed by the fact that you seem to have room for every new, half-literate book but not the ones that deserve to stay on the shelves. Why, for instance, would you not stock Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold in all your outlets? Why would you not stock P. Sainath's Everybody Loves a Good Drought, or Pinki Virani's Bitter Chocolate? These books are great, and have done well over the years and there is no reason to not keep them in circulation.

I understand that you are a business and must cater to all kinds of reading tastes. But if you can stock five different types of books about henna designs, surely you can stock Nagarkar...
Oh, speaking of henna, can you please explain to me what a book called 'Mehendi Design' is doing in the 'Women's Studies' section at your Bangalore branch?

Yes, I know mehendi is usually by and for women, but a little political correctness never killed anyone. If it was just one book, I'd have understood - human error etc. But here are a few choice titles from the Women's Studies shelf in Crossword, Bangalore:

Eat, Love, Pray (everything written by a woman does not qualify as Women's Studies. You do know that, don't you?)

Koffee with Karan (he's not a woman and he does not interview only women)

Mirza Ghalib - K C Kanda
(neither is a woman, and while Ghalib's poetry might refer to women now and then, the themes aren't quite feminine)

A marriage made in heaven
(I didn't bother to look at the author or sub-genre)

Arrange Your Love Marriage
(Clearly, you seem to think women are only interested in marriage)

Perfect Parties
(or parties)

Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex
(or bedding men)

Masti Fictions - Katha
(Masti is the name of the author, not a sexual reference, and it says 'fictions' on the cover, for god's sake!)

The Meaning of Sunglasses
(!!! Why did you even bother?)

Now I am upset both as a customer and as a woman. Also, I could not help noticing that there were no titles by Zubaan, which actually does publish a lot of books that are academic, non-fiction, feminist and even fiction that would qualify to be on YOUR Women's Studies shelf.[Follow the link and you will find a long list to choose from].

I also find it deeply disturbing to discover 'How to make your man behave in 21 days or less using the secrets of professional dog trainers' in the Poetry section. That there were about two dozen Tagores and almost no other Indian poets (English or Hindi) on that shelf is another matter of smaller concern.
Please, dear Crossword , fix this problem. I know that it is hard to find good sales staff who also read books, but can you at least hire fully literate people in the stores, and give them a crash course in book arrangement and broad literary/academic sub-genres?

Every year should bring some improvement, some small change. So here's a request - let's have a wee bit more poetry. Something that isn't Tagore, or Neruda or Ted Hughes priced at 900 insane rupees. Eh? Maybe even the odd performance or screening of poetry if there's enough content and willing providers?

There are all kinds of stores out there. Some are just businesses, who may as well be selling soap or candy. Some invest a little more in books, readers and authors. I trust you belong to the latter category. Which is why I'd like you to change for better, not worse. So dear Crossword, here's wishing you a happy new year. I have your yellow-silver card and I'm probably going to see you soon. I hope it will mean mutual, undiluted pleasure.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The asli, the nakli, and the biases

Had a conversation with a young man selling a bunch of pirated books at a traffic signal.

I asked how much he makes per sale. He said Rs 50-75, depending on how hard people like us haggle. Pestered me to buy one. I said I don't buy 'nakli' (fake/pirated) books.

He said he too has to survive.

I told him I am a writer myself but am not making even Rs 2 on the kind of books he sells, why would I buy from him?

He paused, then said 'But you couldn't have written ALL these books. Buy one book which you have not written.'

Couldn't argue with that logic. So I laughed and shook my head. Then I said I will buy when you sell 'asli maal' (original/real stuff).

The traffic light changed to green. As our taxi sped away, he called out 'When people like me sell them at traffic signals, even asli books will look nakli to you'.

Still chewing on that one. Chewing hard and finding the truth of it stuck in my graw.

An interesting aside - 6 out of 8 'international bestsellers' being pirated and sold by these boys are non-fiction. That's another thing to chew on, eh?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

'An open letter addressed to Spring

Because I could not resist doing this one too. Another poem from Sarveshwardayal Saxena's 'Garm Hawayein', once again hurriedly translated. This one is called 'Vasant ke naam ek khula patr'.

'An open letter addressed to Spring'

Now you must stop ambushing me.
Look carefully –
Near that row of yellow flowers
On the sprawling green grass
I have just murdered a sentiment;
It is a separate matter that
Instead of red blood spreading there is
A blue circle.

To grow sick of yourself
Is a sharp knife
I carry around in a crowd
Waiting to run into myself.

I recognise that image of myself –
I have often seen him slipping away
In the dark hiding his face,
Or with you
Chatting away, head lowered,
At the slightest sound
Disappearing into a mob of flowers
Or following some tiny bird
Into dusty desolate lanes.

I know him very well –
Wherever a deck of cards is being shuffled
He sits there, quiet,
Morning to evening
At every raid after the gamblers vanish
He gets arrested
And then gets abused
By friends for being dumb.

I know him so well –
And I know too
He has learnt all this from you.
You have ruined him by making him wander
Pointlessly in forests and along waterfalls.
By way of work
All he has ever done is dry out clothes
That you chose to colour.
I have often seen him with you
Grabbing one end of a yellow footpath
Standing in a field against a strong wind.

I know him well
Like a hot iron rod,
He has been thrust into my head and heart
I cannot rest until I am free of him.
That is why I’m saying
Now you must stop ambushing me.
He has begun to see
There is a vast world between
Stomach and bread;
He decorates everything before ripping it apart
He plays the flute before sex.

I am going to kill him –
I have seen him make statues of dry twigs
And use dry leaves to make patterns on the floor,
He extends this world to another world beyond
He knocks down mountains
To extend homes into courtyards.
He has made the world larger
And life harder,
I am counting down
To his last day.
That is why I say
Now you must stop ambushing me
I have blood on my mind
I am lying in wait for him
Tomorrow is his last weekend.

You cannot hold me back any longer
Nor can you surround me and try to explain
That the thirst for beauty and the thirst for life is the same.
You’ve been saying this to him all these days
And making hard work of an easy life.
He peers into empty wells
And throws down pebbles
As if the soul is still asleep
And can be forced awake.

Those for whom he ruins himself
They go about tomtomming
His failures;
He doesn’t have a single friend
He mimics nightingales
He wanders in deserted streets
He suffers stones and abuse from everyone.

Meaning, meaning –
In his quest to lend meaning to life
He has become worthless
Sweeping out temples
And laying mats in meeting halls
He has become unsuitable for all careers.
He lends a shoulder to every bier
He wipes everyone’s tears
And yet, is called idle.

Meaning, meaning –
There is no meaning to anything any more
Nobody wants to look for meaning
The world has lost its senses.
Those who are not sick of sorrow
Are sick of joy
Mountains are drowning in cupfuls of water.
The higher our buildings
The smaller our hearts,
Nothing is true or false.
But he is not willing to accept this
No way is he willing to change
His ways.
Before he can
Die a dog’s death in his beloved world
I am going to kill him.

Now you must stop ambushing me.
Look carefully –
On the green grass near yellow flowers
I have murdered a sentiment
That linked me to him.
I know
The death of that sentiment is my own,
But I am not going to return
To the place where his body lies,
And you too get this straight
Don’t go there to offer flowers.

- Sareshwar Dayal Saxena

Last time, many of you had requested the original poem in Hindi. Am sorry but I don't have that much time, nor am I used to handling Hindi fonts on my keyboard, so it takes quite a bit of time to type out the original text. Do go out and get a copy of his book. It is published by Vani.

And to save you from disappointment, here is another poem I really liked, for which I did find the text online.

Friday, January 07, 2011


Trouble on the streets is always new, no matter how often you've spotted it, smacked it back, run from it. Trouble will always creep up on you in new ways, just when you thought you had its number.

Trouble walks behind you, just a silent step and a half behind your back and you don't know. One of these nights, you are humming. Some old, sweet song because the night is oddly clear for a city sky and the evening star is hard and yellow and the air feels like rain. Not trouble, no. You cannot smell trouble in the air this night although you crossed a big, open meadow full of lounging homeless vendors of peanuts and the last few cricket fanatics of the day, and you remembered to wear your straitjacket of caution - a purposeful walk, quick steps, alert eyes that saw everything but rested on nothing.

Then you crossed a busy road and then a narrow lane full of eating joints shutting down for the night. No, you did not smell trouble that night. You only smelt the city's night. You did not hear a footstep echoing yours. You only heard a light silence that made you want to hum an old film song. And so you began to hum.

You were a hundred steps from one of the city's largest, busiest train stations. It was nearly nine at night and the worst of the fury of daily commute was over. You look forward to quiet train rides in half-empty compartments. And then you heard a voice behind you.

But a voice is just a voice. The city is full of voices and these days, even when people are out alone, they talk. It seems as if they talk to themselves, but they are perhaps on the phone. Or perhaps they are insane. There are enough of those voices too at train stations. The wise thing is to let them be. They may not mean trouble.

But then you hear the voice beside you. It is saying something like: Mera mann to dekh, kitna badaa hai. It seems to have been spoken to you.

And you - you who have forgotten all about trouble today - are taken aback. Someone is saying he has a big heart. Perhaps he is talking on the phone. Surely, he means it metaphorically.

You glance sideways, puzzled, for the owner of this voice is walking beside you. Not looking at you. Just walking beside you, except that when he walks, his arms don't swing.

It is then that you actually notice what he is doing. His *ahem* thing is out. He is holding and what he is actually saying (*ahem* excuse language, gentle readers) is: Mera lund dekh, kitna badaa hai.

You stop walking. So trouble has been tailing you, after all.

The train station is across the road, less than twenty steps away. There are crowds over there and perhaps you should just break into a run now. Or turn and walk back towards the petrol pump and see if the man will follow.

But the man has paused too. He is looking at you now. And though you can see him, you are blinded by a strange kind of anger that doesn't let you truly see (you will forget his face, his colour and features in a few second). You can run, yes. But you will not run. Not from this exposed little creature who thinks you are alone and scared.

This is not the first time trouble has stalked you in this shape and form. Last time, you ran. You crossed the road. You squealed in fear and disgust.

This time, you look at the man and open your mouth. You don't want to scream. You want to say something. Anything! Something that will tell him what you think of him. But only one word will come out of your mouth is: Police!

You stand there, then, shouting that one word over and over at the man: Police! Police! Police!

You wish you had one of those neat whistles you'd been given in Delhi. But you don't really need it now. The man ran the moment you said the first 'Police!', quickly putting away his *ahem* thing away as he runs.

You shout out a few more 'Police! Police!'s at his back. Just for effect. You turn and walk further. A building watchman is staring at you as if you are crazy. He has not got up from his chair though. He sits there and watches you go past. You glare at him, though it isn't entirely his fault.

And you cross the road and go into the station. The night is still clear. The air still feels like rain. But even though you are more bewildered than anxious, you will turn once, twice, to look over your shoulder. Trouble is like that. It returns, and you never know how soon.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

dheere dheere aati hai bas maut

Excited about discovering another Hindi poet I like and once again feeling absolutely compelled to share his work with those of you who don’t have access to the language.

So here’s my very crude, hurried translation of Sarveshwardayal Saxena’s ‘Dheere-Dheere’, from the collection Garm Hawayein.


Like an empty glass
near full bottles
I have been left here.

Slowly the dark
will come staggering up
and will sit down beside me.
It will not say anything
It will fill me, over and over
and then empty me,
fill me-empty me,
and in the end
like an empty glass
near empty bottles
leave me.

You don’t know death
be it man’s or
a nation’s
be it time’s or
a form.

Everything happens slowly
Slowly bottles are opened,
the glass is filled
Yes, slowly
the soul empties
man dies.

What shall I do with the nation
that slowly staggered up
and has sat down next to me?

You don’t know death
Slowly everything is sucked into
the belly of dark,
then nothing is past
Nothing remains to pass
Like an empty glass
near empty bottles everything lies –
nation near flag
man near name
time near love
form near price,
It all lies
like an empty glass
near empty bottles.

‘Slowly’ –
I hate
this word.
Slowly the weevil grows
Wheat dies,
Slowly termites eat everything
Courage runs scared.
Slowly faith is lost
Resolve goes to bed.

What shall I do with a nation
that is slowly
slowly emptying
Like an empty glass near full bottles
It lies there.

Now I don’t want to know god
Now I don’t want heaven
Now I want nothing
Not hate, not love.

Nothing happens slowly
Only death,
Nothing comes slowly,
Only death,
Nothing is won slowly,
Only death,
Death –
Like an empty glass
near empty bottles.

The drum beat is fading
slowly the procession of revolution
is turning into a funeral procession.
The smell of rot is spreading –
on the map of the nation
and in the eyes of love
borders are fading
and like rats, we are watching.
- Sarveshwardayal Saxena.
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