Waiting For the Dawn

First published in SETU. Click here to read.

As I watch the setting rays smear the sky with hues of gold, red and mauve, the orange sun moves towards the darkness of night. I have been reading about another sky that had lit up with strange vibrant colours under a mushroom cloud to collapse into blackness, wrecking cities and destroying generations of humans. It had happened more than seventy-five years ago, but the residues impact the world and humans to this date. That fateful day, the Little Boy fell from Enola Gay’s womb to bring “peace”. Then, a couple of days later, there was the Fat Man…
I look at the river ripple reflecting shades of the sky and wonder why people miss out on the beauty of life and nature… Were the sky and the water any different that August in 1945? Why would we need nuclear warheads to maintain peace on Earth? Their toxicity destroyed both nature and humans. Was this the ‘peace’ that the last century leadership had brokered for us? 
Long ago there lived a man who tried to get justice as a citizen of the British empire for the unjust treatment meted out to Indians in South Africa. He was incredibly spirited. He wanted justice and he had faith in British fair-play. He returned to his own home country, India, with much fanfare for the young barrister had become a politician. 
That was in 1915. I read his biography. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He was an ordinary man who became extraordinary to meet his need for a just world, a society where people were treated as equals. He said some good things. But was nationalism one of them? I think he wanted freedom from abuse and exploitation for all mankind.
He popularised Satyagraha. Satyagraha, to my limited understanding, is using truth to overcome violence with non-violence, through peaceful resistance and non-cooperation towards abusive laws.
An exhausted man, unhappy with the use to which his ideas were being misconstrued after his return to India, Gandhi wrote that he had made a “Himalayan miscalculation” in his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth.  This is how he described his “Himalayan miscalculation”: “A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his second duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him to the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances. My error lay in my failure to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seems to me to be of Himalayan magnitude.” Can this view be that of a nationalist? 
In any case, I do not understand this word – nationalist — or too many like it for ‘ists’ and ‘isms’ confuse me. I do not know much about Gandhi really or anything else. I am not a specialist….

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Changes

First published in Setu. Click here to read

Changes
 
There was a time when we dreamt,
Dreamt of freedom under the blue sky,
Freedom to sing and write,
Freedom to express.
 
We thought we could forever stay,
Stay with our dreams unchanged,
Live for the songs we sang,
Live to be free.
 
And then came the frightening night,
Waking up, we saw no light, no day.
We clambered for what we lost, we tried,
We tried but we could not get back that life.
 
That life that had changed —
 
Dying was easier than ever before.
The skies were cleared of smog,
Animals roamed. The grass grew wild.
Climate stirred a new tune...

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Two Poems of Rabindranath Tagore: Translated by Mitali Chakravarty

First Published in SETU, December, 2020

1

Against the monsoon Skies… from BhanusingherPadabali

(from Shaongaganeghorghanaghata, BhanusingherPadabali)

Against the monsoon skies, heavy clouds wrack the deep of night.

How will a helpless girl go through the thick groves,Ofriend,

Crazed winds sweep by the Yamuna, the clouds thunder loud.

The lightning strikes, the trees have fallen, the body trembles

In the heavy rain, the clouds shower a downpour.

Under the shaal, piyale, taal, tamal trees, the grove is lonely and quiet at night.

Where, friend, is he hiding in this treacherous grove

And enticing us with his wonderful flute calling out to Radha?

Put on a garland of pearls, a shithi* in my parting…

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Leaden Wings & More…

First published in SETU, December, 2020



Sometimes, 
Sometimes, you need to throw off leaden wings to fly.
Fly — soar the skies. Reach up to the sun, moon and stars. To the universe. Sometimes you need to throw off leaden wings to fly.


Soar like an eagle, a bird high up in flight where wingtip to wingtip spans the infinite; where auroras have ceased to colour the sky. Where nebulae blink in the deep of night. Where the Great Bear speaks the truth and Orion’s Belt lights the darkness to a white. Sometimes, you throw the leaden wings to fly — not to be like Icarus and die — but detaching the wings fly, fly —


Like the bird that breaks all bounds despite the loud cannon sounds and across to the neighbouring skies. No lines are drawn. The lands can be at war. But the sky borderless lies. Unhindered the clouds float. Where songs soar in strange silent waves. Where silence a sound breaks with the speed of light.


There, there will I fly
in quest of an unbordered ...

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Bapu

First published in SETU, October 2020

Will he be reborn again?


Nonviolent, tolerant, defiant of norms
that lock people into boxes


Searingly honest


Who said he was great?


He was like you and me —
A student who evaded
difficult courses in university,
who was scared to give speeches.
A timid man was he — looked for easy options.
The only redemption,
his love of truth—


Who said he was great?


A quiet man who silently
sliced, analysed from inside
till peel by peel, he unravelled the mysteries
that life invited. Self-reflected devoid
of the glory that borders weave,
spliced hatred, dirt
till it all changed to tolerance and love.
Weaponised unviolenced silence


Who said he was great?


Lived for his passion — One world
undivided by faith, colour or creed.
Caste he defied when he crossed
the seas. No hatred for skin colours.
Fought with his wife. And yet
tried to give every human their rights.
He was a man — not a divine.


Who said he was great?


He nursed. Loved goats.
His own sons wept for uncare,
for they suffered — no school...

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Bapu in 2020

First Published in SETU, October 2020

The sun streaked an orange-gold across the Himalayan range in Dehradun. There was a chill in the air. Bapu wrapped the shawl closer to his body and looked out sadly. He was dressed in his traditional dhoti and a light wrap. It felt too cold in mid-September to be dressed like that and yet, it was too warm to don a warm shawl. Global warming had truly set in as God had said.
He adjusted his glasses — though they were more cosmetic now. His body was different too — not his own but borrowed from a stripling of twenty-four! 
If you are wondering what was happening, here is the flashback. 
It was 2020. Delhi riots in March had shattered Bapu's dream of a united India — where all religions co-existed. The mishandling of the Citizenship Amendment Act had been a bad blow. But the riots in New Delhi around Holi where there were Hindu- Muslim clashes had Bapu in Heaven weeping and beating his chest. What had happened to his India? 
In Heaven, there is but one rule that is compulsory for all the souls. They need to be happy. If they expressed unhappiness, they were sent back to Earth to serve another lifetime to find peace and happiness. And if it was something that needed emergency handling, God exchanged souls — kept the other in limbo anaesthetised. 
So, when God caught Gandhi weeping, he asked him, "What has happened to you?" Kasturba, Gandhi's wife, was stroking his back with concern written all over her face.
Gandhi, between broken sobs, expressed what had happened, God said, "Fine, you need to fix it now. You had said hate the sin, but not the sinner, and were a friend to the underprivileged. And now, worldwide, there is a spree of envy, hatred — more for the sinners than the sin, widespread violence, intolerance, and no peace anywhere. The world as you knew it is no more. Nature has also unleashed COVID 19 to discipline mankind — so that the planet continues habitable and man ceases to be rapacious in his greed and outlook. You need to get back there al pronto. Let me check with the human resource to see what can be done to have you there."
Kasturba said, "Can I go too...?"
God interrupted, "No Kasturba. Don't complicate matters. Hopefully, this can be fixed fast and Gandhi can return in a few days."


God returned after half-an-hour. "Gandhi, we have found a perfect spot. One 24-year-old boy is in a coma as he has had a motorbike accident. Only his head was injured because he rode without a helmet. So, his soul is already in limbo. You might as well go into his body — do your hunger fast or whatever and get back soon. Then we will awaken his soul and send it back!"


Gandhi had no choice, but to accede to God. He came down on Earth and twenty-four-year-old Abhishek woke up calling himself Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi! 


He was instantly put under psychiatric care. Meanwhile, as lockdown had emptied hospitals off patients, Abhishek or Gandhi was considered safe and non-violent enough to be sent home. He came home. To his mother's distress, he turned vegetarian and took to dressing in a loincloth and wrap! 


When he tried to go on a hunger strike, no one listened. He was back in the hospital with a glucose drip! And force-fed. He did not have the media attention or following that made hunger strikes effective in the twentieth century. The COVID19 lockdown had imposed restrictions on gatherings. He would be in jail if he tried to use Gandhian tools as a lunatic lawbreaker! He had already broken it once speeding on his bike and riding without a helmet.


Gandhi felt distressed. He could do nothing. The hatred raged. The economy was in the doldrums. And the China border skirmish was an ongoing discomfort. No one listened to Abhishek — for that is what the world regarded him as. 
On top of that, there was something called television that raved about the suicide of a Sushant, as if poverty had ceased to be an issue or the collapsing economy or the China conflict... Bollywood, a strange name for talkies makers, hogged all the news! And the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, organisations to which his killer Godse had belonged, seemed to be in ascendancy along with something called the BJP... it was chaos. 
He felt unvalued. His teachings were ignored despite his title — Father of the Nation. Congress had fallen into weaker hands of those who had distanced themselves from the pain of the poverty-stricken. 


He could see it all from a distance so clearly. Why could not his countrymen?


Social media was a major player — he ...

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How a Lotus came into being…

First Published in SETU, July 2020

Once there was a girl who fell in love. She fell in love with the green undulating, grass swaying on the riverbank. She fell in love with the ripples that lapped the wet shore, with the lovely golden oriole, with the open blue skies and the soft clouds floating by. She fell in love with the tall Jacaranda tree and the lonely koel that sang its song every morning and evening.
And then came a breeze laden with the moisture of verses that garlanded her very soul. Her being danced to the rhythm of the trees that swayed, to the waves that swished, to the bees that buzzed and to the colourful wings of the butterfly that flit silently past her. She had the magic to weave silence into her words…an amazing gift as words normally destroy quietness.
She spun a world of magic around herself with her simplicity and imagination. She lived dreaming of rainbows and unicorns till a strange steed flew to her from the skies and turned into a young traveller from a distant land where wild blew the golden sands. He had travelled through deserts and snows in search of his soul mate and at long last the lilting songs of the girl had touched his soul and he became again a man from a stallion. He had a story to tell too….
As he travelled through the Arabian sands, he was followed by a beautiful creature, winsome, doe-eyed with pale skin and jet-black hair. She had a perfect figure and a sinuous walk. She followed the young traveller from one caravanserai to another till he, who was still untouched by the wiles of the young damsel, noticed her. When she threw herself on him and declared her undying love, he turned his face away from her. For, in his soul, he did not love her. There was something in her kohl-blackened eyes that seemed to rankle in his pure heart. And he was right, for the beautiful, sensuous creature was a wicked Jinn who had escaped the confines of her bottle when a drunk looking for free wine in a caravanserai uncorked the ancient jar that had been her home for a thousand years. She had been tricked into the bottle by a clever magician when mankind believed in magic and magicians roamed the world. The first man the wily Jinn saw was our young traveller. He was so young, pure and handsome that she fell in love with him and started following him.
She was infuriated with the young traveller for turning her down. She turned him into a winged stallion who was forced to fly till the strains of his soul mate’s melody bought him back to his original form and life…
He had flown for a decade in the clouds, living on dewdrops and rainbows, till he suddenly heard the melody riding on the waves and touching his heart and soul. A strong draft of breeze came and carried him down to the young, innocent girl in love. Her song and innocence reached out to the purer and rare air where magic had led the winged stallion. This time the magic that had been woven by her song was stronger than the magic that imprisoned the traveller in the body of a stallion. As his hooves touched the ground, the winged stallion transformed back to his original self.
The maiden saw the young man and fell in love with him too. The two of them twirled and danced amidst the trees, sipping nectar of flowers, eating fruit and drinking from young springs.
Then came the mists of the night. They whispered through the forest as the young couple slept on the soft grass. The mists of the night were minions of the doe-eyed Jinn. She had cast a spell on them. They spied the young couple and saw that the stallion had turned back to the young man. They whispered the story to the Jinn when they visited the desert sands. The Jinn was furious. She turned herself into a crane and flew to the tropical paradise where dwelt her heart throb. She did not want anyone to have what she aspired and could not get.
She descended to a branch of an Angsana tree.
“Look, a crane!” cried the young girl in surprise. “How beautiful it is! Pure and black. I have never seen anything like it!”
The young traveller started. He had seen the worst of black magic in his travels and he wondered if it could be…the Jinn. As he thought, she transformed herself back into a beautiful woman with cloudy, wavy jet-black hair, red lips, a pale skin. The boy recognized the Jinn as she shouted, “What I cannot possess, neither can she. I will destroy her and you if you do not come away with me.”
The young man, with a downcast face walked over to the Jinn, to save his loved one. The loved one looked on startled and said, “Where do you go?” As she spoke, the Jinn cursed her to turn to ashes and dust and dissolve into the marshes near the river. The spell flew out of her mouth and where the young girl fell sprouted a beautiful flower, so clean and pure that none of the mud or slush from the marsh could stick to it. The boy, astounded and stunned, fell to his death as he ran to catch his beloved. He fell right where the flower was sprouting and he turned into its leaves, which remained as unsullied in the marshes as the flower. As for the Jinn...

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A Tall Tale

First Published in SETU, July 2020

The spider was spinning its web. Sonya watched fascinated. The web grew bigger and bigger and was perfect in shape. Finally, the spider suspended itself from a long thread and Sonya moved towards the fishpond that was the pride of her garden. It had twenty-four coloured koi in it.
Ayi called out to her, “Tai, tai, ni lai.”*
Sonya, who had been living in China for six years, went into the house and into her kitchen to talk to her housekeeper or Ayi. Her Mandarin was not great, but she managed to communicate to the Ayi. Sonya’s kitchen overlooked the patio at the back of her rented home. It was a huge double storied bungalow. She loved to spend springtime in the garden on unpolluted days. On smoggy days, she was forced to stay indoors with air purifiers running.
That was just five years ago but it felt like an era now. Her children, Adi and Anmol, had been small and they went to an international school for the whole day and her husband, Surya, was at work. Sonya had time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to meet people from all over the world for where she stayed in Suzhou, there were people from many countries. It was like a mini United Nations. People had no sense of nationality when they interacted. The only thing that mattered was they were all united in being laowai or foreigners in China. It had been such a wonderful experience for her — such an eye opener. She discovered that people all over the world were united in their common needs for friendship, food, home, education and family.

Now as she looked out at the incessant rain falling outside her home in Singapore, she missed that world and sighed. The rain fell in sheets like a woman’s straight hair and the dark clouds were reflected in the distant sea waves which surrounded the island at a distance. To her, that island was an unnamed mass of land. Her sons and husband were at home. COVID 19 and lockdown had set in.
How different things had been even one year ago when they could travel freely! They had gone and seen the Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta on a family holiday. It had been such an unusual experience and they had said the volcano would not erupt for another four years. But it had erupted again recently, most untimely, in the middle of the pandemic. She had never thought COVID 19 would turn their lives topsy-turvy. Her aunt had declared that God was cursing mankind for all the evil they indulged in. So many dark prophecies. A friend had even predicted the evolution of a new race of sapiens and end of the current race of men! That had made her laugh because he spoke of the evolution taking place in the forest fires of Brazil!
Other than COVID 19, what was a matter of concern was the conflict that had started at the border of India and China. One country had born and nurtured her and her husband. The other had helped them sustain themselves well. They had such wonderful memories of China. And yet, now she wept that her brother battled to secure the border for India on the cold, inhospitable hills that housed the McMahon line drawn by the receding vestiges of the colonial empire more than more than sixty years ago. How dreadful it all was!
***
Ceasefire had been called but some soldiers would continue living at the border. Still it was a relief to know there would be no war, no more deaths hopefully. And then, un-lockdown mode had set in in Singapore. Her sons did well in their exams. Perhaps time to bring in some cheer. Sonya wanted to celebrate.
The whole family went down to the beach to have a picnic that evening. It was a cloudy day, but un-lockdown mode allowed them to visit restaurants and eat out. They picked up burgers and went to the seaside. As they sat on a mat and ate watching the rush of the waves on the sand and the ships in the distance, the brilliant orange-gold dusk gave way to lights dotting the vastness of a mysterious, dark ocean murmuring whispers in an incomprehensible antiquated language. The night should have painted the sky with stars. But it was windy, and clouds blew in.  Now only patches of stars pushed for a view of the Earth hidden from them by a thick cover of slate grey tinged with white and a veiled moon flitted and played hide and seek with mankind.
Despite the growing threat of another downpour, the four of them continued sitting on the jetty made of stones. They enjoyed the strong sea breeze scented with the smell of wetness. They sat listening to the swish of sea waves till Anmol after finishing the last bite of his second burger and milk shake, burped and said, “Hey! Let us make a story.”
Adi also wiped his mouth and sipped the last dregs of his iced-milo and nodded his head. “Yes, let’s play the game we invented on the way to Malaysia…”
Sonya’s sons just for fun had devised a game to make a long story together. They had played it two years ago when they went to Malaysia by road. They had created such a story that all of them collapsed in hysterical laughter. They had not been able to not stop till it reached the point of hilarious absurdity.
Sonya took the lead: “I always believe in strong women. And I will start it rolling because I am the only woman.”
Adi, now 20, laughed: “Of course Mama. So, who is your heroine?”
Surya, and seventeen-year-old Anmol, smiled and waited. Anmol added, “Mama and her passion for women beating up men – I bet it will be like one of those women from Marvel movies.”

Sonya started, “Yes. I love strength in women. My heroine is a strong woman. She is called Gayatri. She is brave and comes riding, riding on a white horse. Do you see that island? That distant misty island —it is called Avalon — the island where Arthur healed. As the moonlight shimmered on the sea, Gayatri came riding on her horse, wearing an armour. She had an appointment with a strange hooded creature who was waiting for her on the island…” And she paused.
Surya started: “Gayatri was late as usual because it took her time to dress…”
And he and his sons started to guffaw.
Sonya made a face. “And now you have spoilt it all!” She made a pouting angry face.
“No mama,” responded Adi. “See nothing is wrong. I will continue with the story — Gayatri rode up to the edge of the sea. The thick forest was silent except for an occasional animal sound. Gayatri got off her horse and a …”
Anmol caught the thread, “A magical boat appeared out of nowhere. Gayatri tied her horse to the tree and stepped into the boat. A strange mystical looking boatman with an ornamented, glittering beard that shone like stars in the night sky rowed Gayatri towards the island.  He was such a bizarre sight that Gayatri stared spell bound. He also had a crown on his head. His hair and beard were dark as midnight and the beads were like diamante stars. And the sea rose in big waves around them.”
Sonya continued: “Strange mists surrounded the island. The island drew closer. The fog grew denser. There was a cloudy opacity around the island — as if a thick dun white curtain had been drawn on the landing. Gayatri realised the boat had reached the island because it rocked to a halt. She carefully rose from the boat and stepped on a brown wet rock.”
Surya continued: “A disembodied hand emerged out of the mist. As Gayatri clasped it for support, it drew her into the clouds. For a second, she felt herself asphyxiated. The cloud seemed to seep into her innards, and she was smothered by excruciating pain, sorrow and angst.”
Adi said: “She emerged as if purged on the other side into a roofless hall with strange glowing fires hovering in the air. It was not a courtyard but really a hall. A hooded figure wearing a cowl and the robes of a monk stood before her. She could only see an empty darkness in place of his face. A pair of reddish lights glinted where his eyes should have been. Could he be an android — one of those organic robots that were being developed?”
Anmol, who shared his family’s passion for classics, said: “Then a deep, loud, masculine voice floated to her from the open skies. ‘Welcome Milady to our world. You are very late. We have waited an eternity… but welcome…’
“And suddenly there was a neigh and knights who materialised out of thin air descended from the skies on horses, dragging a wretched looking man in a tattered robe behind them. His hand and feet were tied, and he was dragged by the horses in the deep of night, bloody, dusty, besmeared. It was a horrific site — but a reality in Camelot as reported by the Yankee in Mark Twain’s tale.
“Following the Arthurian phantasm was an army of some wild men — bloodied, smeared with gore and celebrating with a dead man’s head on a pole! They were shouting strange words. Were they Huns, she thought? They looked like the Attila in the Night at the Museum, a movie she had immensely enjoyed. But this was different. Their shouts and the claustrophobic smells of blood and fire made Gayatri feel faint…”
Anmol paused for breath and the story passed into Sonya’s hands who tried to tone down the gore. “The strange creature in the hood gave her a chair which appeared out of nowhere. She sat down with her eyes shut against the horrors. Her throat felt parched. She was very thirsty — she opened her eyes to look for water or ask for it if she could.”
Surya gave a wink and continued, “Again, the mysterious disembodied hand appeared with a copper tumbler of water. She drank thirstily and felt her insides on fire and fell into a kind of trance.”
Adi started: “Gayatri could hear shouts. She could see — peasants were being pulled out and their homes set on fire. Then there were rustics marching and breaking homes of the rich — the homes looked like the restored ones of the rich she had seen in China, homes that had been destroyed by the mobs of the Red Guards.
“This scene gave way to mobs who were shouting ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Allah hu Akbar’. They were fighting with each other and killing ruthlessly. Houses were burning. Another mob that grew larger than life had people dressed in modern day clothes. They were beating a young boy with sticks — he was accused of carrying beef. The sounds of weeping and pain were annihilated by the loud clicking of sticks and stones and shouts of rage. Another horde armed with sticks, arrows and stones was attacking statues and burning buildings… ‘Down with white supremist! Down with racists!’ There was a burnt black head of a statue dripping blood and repeating and crying — ‘History cannot change!  Time past is unredeemable! History cannot change! Time past is unredeemable…’”
Anmol continued: “All these strange phantoms invaded her consciousness and Gayatri started screaming in fear. Was she at a ‘futuristic feelie’ envisioned by Huxley in the Brave New World? Where was she? The spectral figures seem to rush in and out of her. She was screaming in agony and fear… holding her head and screaming. They ripped through her with lances and spears and sticks and danced around her. And she was terrified with the sensations of angst and hatred and wounds — the pain of all the world…”
Sonya picked up the thread again: “The hooded figure had disappeared and given way to the Grim Reaper with his medieval axe. Enormous images of fleshy blobs of green and pink Corona virus drifted around the hall. Gayatri was held back and tied to the chair. Confused sounds of mobs, marching, shooting, beating, lynching and the Requeim in D minor, the unfinished symphony by Mozart, invaded her jangled senses. She could not stop seeing or listening. She could not get out. She shouted — shouted oh so loud and so shrill — that the sound cut through the fabric of the time-space continuum and Gayatri was pushed back to Arthurian England.
“There she met the Connecticut Yankee out of Mark Twain’s novel. He was trying to stop King Arthur’s sister from chasing the prisoners he had tricked her into freeing with an axe!  The nineteenth century Yankee, who had also been punched into the past, had asked for a photograph of the innocent wretches who were tottering into light after decades of incarceration in dark dungeons and the uninitiated Milady thought that photography could be done with an axe!”…

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Quest and more…

First published in SETU in July 2020

Quest


Wavering words
afloat in
the boundless blue sky
Shimmering
Soaring, Flying
In quest of eternal lines


Little waves of gold
Flickering against the azure
Riding on clouds of white
Playing with sunrays
Drifting


Wafting to create
an Eternal Line


A Line that
Will no longer
Be yours or mine
Seal all great divides...

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