Rashme Sehgalrashme-sehgal

 

Here is a collection of most recent poems penned while the author spent time in Geneva, in retrospection of old places visited.

 

Bhajji House- Simla

Like darkened jade,
Bhajji House stands alone on a hill top
surrounded by wooded mountains:
a toy train chugs past
billowing smoke and the smudges
of uneven memories…

****

Cecil Mansion – Agra

Red saffron painted over a grove of neem trees:
sapphire colored birds flit between the leaves
chasing a plume of bougainvillea
a hiding place for children
who shake the branches so hard
the petals spill over
and spread onto the driveway of their homes,
across the main thoroughfare that leads up to the Taj Mahal.
Cecil Mansion was the place for children
to play `pirates’ and `thief!’ `thief!’
only to discover one day a thief had come in from the roshandan (skylight)
to steal some food items, or maybe not;
he left his footprints on the wall
leading up to the skylight,
everyone glowered at the skylight
as they did at the main thoroughfare
for each day brought a new leader from New Delhi
to see the Taj Mahal:
one morning, Khrushchev arrived here escorted by Pandit Nehru
to see this beloved monument,
as the leaders drove past
my brother scampered up a pole and triumphantly
brought down the Indian flag which continues to be
taken out for every ceremony;
perfumes were made from the bougainvillea flowers
to be sold in tiny glass bottles
no one ever told us we would leave this home one day
except the bees that collected the pollen of the neem flowers,
the bougainvillea and the flowering mango trees;
a misdirected stone hit a massive hive
hundreds of bees buzzed around
stinging a few of us, and telling those who did not heed them,
the time had come to move on to a new destination.

****

Bhajji House

Bhajji House is where we returned
every year to spend our summer holidays
two crowded rooms
comprised our grandparents home,
refugees, from a sectoral division, that neither
the Indian or the Pakistani people had wanted
but was forced upon them by the British.

*****

Race Course Road -Agartala

There is no race course road in Agartala
no horses and little riding,
and yet, every morning, three horses arrived
at the roundabout in front of this red brick house
to take three enthusiastic children for a conducted tour
of a lake strewn with pink lotus flowers,
and a sprawling garden at the back of the house
where pineapples grew in such abundance,
that early one morning, a group of monkeys arrived,
dug out scores of pineapples,
as they did the ripened fruit growing on the lush ber trees
to make a cooling sherbet for themselves;
i sometimes wonder how a home could contain
such an epiphany of trees, animals, birds and flowers
all ripening and bursting to touch the sky
in a burst of happy colour and song.

****

Bhajji House

Bhajji House is where my nani lived
her altar adorned by
a large photograph of Radha and Krishan
resplendent in their jewels.
My grandparents fled their home in Pakistan
to lead lives of impoverished refugees
they had no compass- apart from their gods-
to give direction to their displaced lives.

****

Agartala

Lake kneed and incense rend
i stand inside this palace
with its tall windows and chandeliers
gathering light
coalescing into a tiny window frame
a container of dreams and abstract desires:
an army man’s house
with a collection of family portraits,
an assortment of knick knacks,
a linen cupboard, a temple,
a series of shelves in the kitchen
a large stove lit by a coal fire:
vegetables are sold dirt cheap
as is everything else;
the joys of life comprise decorative flower arrangements,
benches placed under trees, smiling clothes and terrace parties.
love is distributed freely
like incense rafting through the cellar wall
to collect inside the kitchen shaft.

****

Bhajji House

My nana, turban clad, worked as a trader
he sold cloth, piece by piece,
each piece torn apart by a pair of sharp scissors:
my own compass did not point in his direction,
Partition,
and the burden of taking care of a large family.

****

Mokokchong – Naga Hills

An occupying army spread its phalanx
over a hilly nation state
that swore allegiance to a Christian god.
In Tuensang, on January 26 1956, naked Naga warriors
carrying spears and machetes with skulls hung around their necks,
danced in a circular shuffle
chanting songs that expressed an old wisdom,
warning an unwary officialdom
no one could escape the wrath
of a people who demanded a long lost freedom.

****

Bhajji House

The dispensary was located on a steep slope
a dark looking building with a bespectacled compounder
dispensing potions and powders of frightening intensity;
we ran past it, not daring to look back,
hoping the road would soon open up to a series of yellow buildings
covered by a mosaic of apricot blossoms in full bloom.

****

Naga Hills

A doll’s house built on a pine tree
is where a hundred legs can dance
bodies float amongst the branches of this tree
that plays host to an eagle’s nest,
we glide down a gushing stream
the music has been arranged to a familiar encore
played over and over again to soothe our frayed nerves:
surrounded by enemies
our own armed guards can hardly protect us
from these armed intruders
Pakistan is breathing down our necks
China can unleash a million brigands
across these northern hills;
the doll’s house constructed of bamboo logs
remains our only refuge
it contains a rich library with a reading list that includes
`How to Become a Ballerina’, `Grimm’s Fairy Tales’, `A Mid-summer Night’s Dream’ ;
we believe we stand protected
by `King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table’.

****

Bhajji House

I am climbing the steep hill of Jhaku
where monkey gods do not hesitate
to snatch the sandwiches of picnic goers
or plunder their picnic baskets
why, I wonder to myself, need we climb a slope so steep,
to reach a temple,
when we have our own temple in Bhajji house
dedicated to none other than this monkey god.

****

Ganghora – Dehra Dun

The jungle began from this last house
spreading across the Aravalli hills
a fine cover of trees spread over these slopes,
the mighty sheesham along with the lusty pine,
all manner of beings stalked these forests
spotted deer, jackals, wolves and the occasional leopard;
children were not allowed to walk these forests alone,
not finding an escort
a young daughter decided to go out by herself:
she never came back,
search parties were sent out to find her
but no one knew which route she had taken
her mother says she has seen her walking on the Milky Way
she points at the stars shining on the distant horizon
insisting all the while
her daughter is walking that lonely road all by herself.

****

Bhajji House

Summers are when entire families congregate
to laugh and joke and spend hours together
in needless conversation
of wealth being created and destroyed
of men trying to escape the law of karma
only to find themselves trapped
under a wizened, unchanging sky,
sad tales of broken families are repeated
over and over again to create this comfortable illusion
of togetherness.

****

Ghanghora

Steep hills surrounded this large red-brick house,
as did a dense forest,
wild animals roamed these forests
searching for prey:
they would come calling every night,
in search of chicken, rabbit and the occasional sleepy puppy.
every few days a hen would be stolen from the pen.
`Cluck !’ `Cluck!’ `Cluck !’ the hen would scream
as the red fox disappeared into the jungle.
finally a German shepherd was brought into this house
to ensure no more animals were lost to these marauders
but it was too late
they had all been eaten, one by one,
finished to the last bone.

****

Bhajji House

Mithai keeps our gods happy
a gourmet plate of delicacies to feed their souls.
our cross road had three halwai shops
every child in this vicinity knew when
the halwai cooked what mithai at what hour :
we lacked the money to make these purchases,
and so, all we could do was wait
for a miracle to occur and for one piece of mithai
to fall into our open mouths.

*****

Birpur – Dehra Dun Cantonment

A large peepul tree saw bats hanging upside down
dark, mysterious, their screeching disturbed nobody,
not the uniformed father who had to attend parades every morning,
not the sari-clad mother busy with her mahjong parties,
not the three children,
who hurried through their homework,
so they could run over to the mess where they spent their time
flirting with handsome lieutenants,
caught up in their endless games
of badminton and table tennis,
Sunday mornings saw the children troop out to see an English movie
in a darkened auditorium where they munched popcorn
with their friends,
mimicked their school teachers and pretended to feel
more important than their busy fathers and mothers
whose lives seldom criss-crossed theirs.

****

Bhajji House

Bhajji house did not possess a single tree
to lend it character
random flowers grew here in summer
it had no hedges to define it borders,
no birds to break into a merry song,
located at a crossroad,
it saw a footfall of people go past
lost in all manner of thought.

****

Birpur – Dehra Dun

I would like to live once again in my home in Birpur,
go back in time to this island of hope;
bats hung from the peepul tree
growing in the centre of the front lawn
they shrieked day and night in a voice so unfamiliar
it reminded us of long playing records on which the needle had got stuck;
it was obvious they liked the fragrance of the magnolia flowers
growing around the peepul tree.
we all believed that bats could be smoked out
so we lit a large bonfire
the bats screeched and screeched and clung blindly to the branches
self- contained in their intrinsic ugliness
but they refused to fly away.

****

Bhajji House

You could not see Nanda Devi from Bhajji House.
not a single sparkling, snow kissed peak
shining like a distant jewel
the peak was admired by passersby
from a few special places in this city,
people sometimes wondered
if they would ever get close
and touch these snow capped mountains
with their own hands –
they soon gave up the idea as being
one more impossible thought.

*****

Dilkusha Gardens – Lucknow

The great Indian summer is a destroyer of homes
it almost destroyed mine,
it left my mother so ill
she had to move to the cooler mountains of Simla
to find her feet again
oh city of tall pine trees and long evening walks !
i used to accompany her
i used to hold her hand and plead
`get well!’ ` get well soon!’
once the monsoon rains set in
we all returned to Dilkusha Gardens
where I made her read Alexandre Dumas
and taught her to speak French
so we could commune in our own special language.

****

Bhajji House

The tiny storeroom smelt of fresh bundles of cloth
stacked neatly, one on top of the other,
large tins of bakery-made biscuits were kept on the floor:
we went inside the store room carrying our school books,
but soon, our mouths stuffed with biscuits,
we found ourselves being transported into a land of magical adventure.

****

Dilkusha Gardens – Lucknow

Dilkusha Gardens resounded with the roar of the lion
locked behind the bars of the Lucknow zoo
we fretted and fumed as we heard his majestic call,
we believed he must be freed and allowed to return to the Gir forest,
so I wrote out a petition to the prime minister,
my entire school supported me,
i received no reply:
I sulked for a few days and then turned rabidly anti-indian:
i wept when president Kennedy was assassinated
but distributed sweets on the death of prime minister Nehru,
he was not an animal lover,
certainly not a lover of the king of the forest
panting and pining as he paced the length of his tiny cell,
finally I wrote another letter to the minister of forests
he also did not care to reply;
i have kept cyclostyled copies of both my letters,
i read them occasionally and worry about why our animals
continue to remain locked in our atrocious zoos.

****

Bhajji House

My nana lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan’s Gujarat
six long months spent with little food and water
`Rescue him !’ `Rescue him” my Nani used to cry,
finally her eldest son crossed over and brought him back by train
despatching him to this two roomed tenement
to rebuild his shattered dreams.

****

Rampur

The heart of the sunflower has enclosed our lives
a centre of darkness embraced by yellow petals
opening outwards to embrace these spacious gardens
a remembrance of our colonial past:
mother and daughter sway and swish
like fish
trapped in an ocean of dazzling light
they seem lost, like a pair of lovers:
in their courtyard grows a large guava tree
parrots come in droves to eat this ripe fruit
the mother stares at the parrots in despair
unable to chase them away,
the daughter is tougher
she picks up a stick and whirls it at the tree
the parrots squawk indignantly
but refuse to take flight,
the mother holds the daughter tightly
and leads her into a waltz
they sway and swirl ignoring the parrots
who continue to dig into the succulent fruit.

****

Bhajji House

My grandfather read an Urdu newspaper everyday
he showed no interest in reading English newspapers
for him, the English speaking world was populated by tyrants,
when questioned about his affinities
he always replied, ` Urdu touches my heart’
`my sensibility has been honed by this special language’.

*****

Kosi Farms – Mathura District

Follow the rhythm of the tiny plants
bursting out of the dark soil
sunshine
to break into flower
and then, as quietly,
allow their sap to turn flower into seed
let the wheat seed ripen
it will feed hungry mouths
living on this vast plain,
watered by rivers which carry
shadows of the sarus birds and the Siberian cranes
as they make their long journey
across distant skies.
water come and embrace us
allow us to capture your beauty
mother earth come and embrace us
allow us to capture your sturdiness
Bhairava, sun god, allow us to follow you
as you travel across the skies,
the rhythms of day and night
comprise a farmer’s life,
Kosi Farms is no different,
the Delhi-Agra canal slides past like a swift arrow
i can still hear the peacock crying from the thicket
of dense keekar trees,
its mysterious eyes match its raucous cry,
hark! the furrowed earth
speaks the language of fertility and richness.

****

Bhajji House

Nana scoffed at our convent education
my school Tara Hall was a melting pot of snobs;
`why did you put them in an English institution ?’
he used to ask my mother.
run by Irish nuns, he believed,
`the Irish spent centuries fighting for their freedom
from the English,
what possible advantage can your children have
studying in an English-medium school?’
my mother heard him in silence but did as she pleased.

*****

F-26 Race Course – Dehra Dun

A home is built in layers –
brick follows brick
dream follows dream
sinews and flesh hold these dreams together
binds them up to keep it in place,
blood must be allowed to flow between these layers,
if they are stitched too tight
there will be a clamp down, a disintegration,
if welded too loose
the soul will escape to another destination.
i wander about amongst these cement walls
my bones and flesh
are haunted by the dreams of my forefathers
their presence overshadows me,
oh subtle beings!
roaming these mighty corridors
speak clearly in a language understood by me;
how did this inner harmony get disturbed ?
why has the music stopped playing ?
the rhythm of laughter has disappeared from this space
it has become a valley of death
leading to the disintegration of all thoughts.

****

Bhajji House

Balram das the bakery man, arrived every morning
carrying a box full of smiles
his face displays a range of bakery products
strawberry pastries and cream rolls along with fresh bread
the children crowd around him and, within a few minutes
he leaves the house, pockets bulging, a happy man.

*****

90 Shahjahan Road – New Delhi

Roses at the doorstep, geraniums in the backyard
climbing up the staircase, one step at a time,
i leave this land of flowers behind
to enter a home bereft of dialogue
bereft of compassion
bereft of hope
a strange pantomime is being played out
my powerful father-in-law has lost his status
my mother-in-law suffers a paralytic attack
my husband continues to pummel those around him
no script is followed, no efforts made,
to hold a dialogue
a young bride is made to pay the price
for all this folly
she must expect no respite from all this pummelling.

****

Bhajji House

My father bought me a football
to play a game of volleyball with my friends
he forgot to explain to me
that bhajji house has no walls,
no hedges: two girls had scarcely played Catch! Catch!
when the ball disappeared down the mountain slope
without a trace.

*****

Chitli Kabar- Delhi

To enter the streets of Chitli Kabar is to enter a zone of argumentation
narrow streets sell cheap baubles
veiled Muslim women haggle over the price of potatoes
Hindu women insist the hawker reduce the price of onions by 50 paisa
how does Shanti Masi survive these decibel levels?
a veritable tower of Babel flows into her dispensary:
Shanti Masi’s archangels
Lajwanti and Sita understand only too well
this language of discourse
they are a part of this litany
for they too, sit behind the cubicles, to argue and quarrel with each other all day long:
eyes like hawks,
on the lookout for a new patient,
their job is to bring forth babies
scoop them out from the uterus like a bag full of potatoes or onions,
this fruit has eyes, a nose and a mouth that can bawl-
babies come screaming out like noisy creatures:
Shanti Masi sits upright on her chair
reading the morning newspaper,
her fingers tap nervously on the writing table
she too needs a couple of deliveries
to pay her monthly rent, help nudge her through the day.

****

Bhajji House

Led by his ambitious wife
my uncle left his rich abode in Bombay
to start his own cloth business which sputtered and floundered,
it failed to take off: one morning he arrived at his father’s house
wrote a suicide note and walked away,
his wife wept, my Nani sobbed,
later in the evening my uncle returned
he never once expressed regret for writing the note.

*****

10 Gulmohar Park – New Delhi

The sunflower metamorphosed into a child
with dark black eyes and a long swan neck.
the child stood outside the house
watching the traffic flow past her;
people watched in surprise
to see a child standing at the kerb
looking so purposefully
at this endless stream of traffic
has she lost her way?
is she an orphan?
or a devi with only two arms?
the child stood there for many days
then she entered into a dark, deep tunnel
and has never seen the light again.

****

Bhajji House

Bhajji house has moved out of our lives
all those who lived here have moved away
to their own phantom palaces
faint memories enter our mind space
and then disappear
the players have changed
this chapter of our lives, amidst those tall mountains,
has been closed forever.

*****

M 52 Saket – New Delhi

My house has disappeared beneath the rubble of my dreams,
broken down, brick by brick, to be rebuilt into a skyscraper,
It has become a layered complex
much like the digging done at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa
each layer reveals a new texture of drains, streets, granaries
a new dancing girl
who has stood erect through these centuries :
every century throws up a new figurine
a being who can dance, embrace, bear children,
only to be buried once again under an avalanche of rubble.
Delhi is like this –
one capital city opens into another
one civilizational point is crossed over by another,
no one asks about the people who lived in these cities-
did they dream, marry, bear children’
make a thousand compromises to survive ?
rather, we are taught about the grandiloquence of our rulers,
about their mighty empires
stretching all the way from Kashmir to Kanyakumari,
the solitary individual is left to tunnel his way
through a lonely existence
to live or die in his own private hovel
which is not contextual to the external world
in either his aspirations or his desires.

****

Bhajji House

Who will speak the language of the heart ?
who will speak about the gentle artistry of the old?
of how they wove a music running through generations
where families were held together in a rare artistry of achievement,
occasionally when the front door bangs in bhajji house
the owner swears he can see a tall man wearing a pink turban
making his way inside to hold the hand of his ageing wife.

****

46/1 East Patel Nagar – New Delhi

To listen to my heart is to hear the music of solitude. bereft of a family
I planted a cotton silk tree outside my house
it fills up with magical red flowers early March
their beauty shines through the neighbourhood
when I see these flowers
a flute plays in my heart
like Krishna, I sit on its branches and rejoice,
i can feel a kernel of joy spread through these empty rooms.

****

Bhajji House

Every evening as the sun is setting
the train chugs past us
billowing smoke,
signalling its return to the plains,
it carries a daily load of students, tourists
some businessmen,
a slow train on which my grandparents sat one evening
never to be seen again….


 

Advertisements