LOOKING FOR MATTHEW ARNOLD IN CHANDNI CHOWK
It will take you five minutes to cross this world
And reach the next
If you take the road, the gurudwara on your left,
The temple on the right,
If you see off those birds fluttering in the evening sun.
If you brave
The footpath peopled with goods,
It might take longer, but
You will get there.
Holiday pedestrians raucous street shoppers blissful monkeys on parked scooters waiting for the next getaway pushcarts poking your ribs and bursting insides pigeons staringat the great nothingness cycle rickshaws screaming move away move away cow tails swirling dung cow yawning a giant universe –-
Books stare like jalebis and samosas on a counter,
Weighed in kilograms, Garcia Marquez and medical entrance guides
Cheek and jowl, are envious neighbours.
The new medical student cures
Gabo’s ulcer, Gabo teaches her
How to levitate –without blinking.
Once upon a time, a man stood at the street corner.
Boatman, how far, are those literature books?
It won’t take you long, brother,
Why worry, why turn back now,
When you have reached this far.
No pilgrimage is easy, barefoot all the better
Don’t look back, keep on.
Look what we have here - zari embroidery and kurta pyjamas
Come here darling wear me beautiful!
Utensils flashing cook me!
And still more and more ways to enter engineering and medical
Colleges that will close all bookshops.
But, where’s the hole in the wall?
Our brains, our souls, our stomachs leaking.
You could miss it if you blinked
Or joked about the weather. Or remembered
Dr Rajan taught us, what a teacher!
The Eliot we never saw-
Yes, sultry Anita Desai was fasting there,
Mahesh Dattani was dancing,
Amitav Ghosh and Bachchan were looking
At each other, as if for the first time.
Gabo was recounting
A story with a straight face, to Yeats
Who stood there remembering Easter
A hundred years on.
And Soyinka and Achebe, those old men mozz,
Tied in bundles too tough to take apart.
The Romantics wouldn’t give. Shelley never drowned
Keats didn’t leave early.
Post and precolonials, medievals and
Renaissance layered – one on the other,
Like the great leveller of the street
Where the old books live.
When we looked inside, a last rack,
There he was, amidst cries of chai chai,
What else do you need? We have it all.
In an ornate worm eaten shelf, resplendent
As the setting sun,
Mathew Arnold – sitting, a king high
Upon dover beach, inside Doaba Bookstore
They call home, the journey’s end.
Class notes, the book announced, Chatterjee and Sen
Ramji Lall. Primers.
The school of life
Just an examination to somehow pass.
We left him there, he needed no rescuing,
His place in history as assured as the banyan tree next door.
Matthew Arnold had arrived
In Chandni Chowk, and never left town.
While we went on, tasting more soul food from a distance
Finding ourselves in the middle of street cries,
Broken roads of history, the long walk home,
A clock ticking.
The mantras fly, from terrace to sky.
On the way, they meet birds,
Airplanes, a few humans.
I am one of them.
They turn - solid, liquid.
They become soup and alphabet.
A few return, curling,
To the place they started- the priest’s mouth.
A few cling to me, like baby,
Rain cloth on skin,
They were forming musical notes
When last seen, by the sunset.
to get a feel of sky.
I knew then, in a curious way,
How the ancestors, the dust
and my headaches,
Were all related.
Later, in the cold evening light,
I came to know
Only the father’s line was remembered, not mother’s.
Who were they?
Why could the mantras – so spacious, not find room
For them too?
The mantras lost some power right then.
They became just a bunch of words,
As if they were like dust,
Something never born.
A WIDOW’S SONG
No one calls her home.
Alone she lives.
Grinding her day, her lonely night away.
A little hut- a black hollow
No light for company,
Barbs of her own blood.
Well-wishers and strangers looking away.
Water, a tender hand.
No doctor nearby.
Tonight, stars brisk,
A stream of sky, glittering.
The old gone. The young are their
Fathers and mothers when they talk of
Old times at dinner.
Stories for tomorrow.
Tonight, a quiet night,
A full stomach, light headed,
Sweat breaking on the walls,
Quaking in sorrow
The village awakes,
Together and alone,
To her solitary