Rashme SehgalRashme Sehgal

 

 

Editor’s Note:
“Trees” is a collection of poems that Rashme Sehgal wrote in her notebook during a week long silent retreat in an Ashram near Mumbai in 2006 in the village of Ganeshpuri. The retreatants were however encouraged to spend time at the library where she came across an amazing book on trees and how they helped provide us with the alphabet and how most of our civilizations were built around them. “That is how the poems came together. Of course, as is my style, I wrote them and completely forgot about them. Working as a full time journalist does not leave me with much time. I discovered this notebook accidentally a few weeks ago” says Rashme. She adds: “how important these poems are for a country like India where all our natural forests are getting destroyed and the trees in our cities are getting scarcer and scarcer. So, my poems are like an ode to them.”
Although not similar to Zen Haiku poetry in style, the spirit of discovery and an accurate verbal rendering of that satori-like enlightenment are similar. However underlying this appearance of effortlessness is a degree of pruning and rearranging before it becomes a poem.
She has already published a book of poems called “A Home For Bhadrakali” which was well received.
Other Biographical details:
It is no accident Rashme Sehgal was married to Cine critic theorist and poet Anil Saari. Rashme started her career in the 1970s as a poet and short story writer. She moved to journalism and went on to work for several leading Newspapers including The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times of India. Some of the landmark events she has covered during her journalistic career have been the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley; the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. the Kargil War, and more recently, the Taj Corridor scam. Her first novel is an insider view of the corrupt world of Indian journalism viewing politicians at work and play. It is appropriately called Hacks & Headlines.
She is currently working as an investigative journalist for the Asian Age and working on an ambitious second novel integrating the Mahabharata into a present day story.
Here is a non-literary assessment of her brave first novel: Hacks & Headlines

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1.

The Cherry Tree

Daughters of the mountain god
Regard the cherry as a sacred fruit
They ordered a thousand cherry trees to be grown
In the ancient city of Kyoto
Himalayan hill slopes were once covered
By these fragrant flowers
Sheaths of white, deeper than the winter snow,
People say they spread tranquility
In Kashmir, when the trees blossom,
Young women cry, go to the to the mosques,
Heads covered, eyes lowered,
In fervent voice, their girlish hands rest tightly
One against the other, they pray once again
To become, abundant like the blossoms of spring.

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2.

Lady Elder

Lady elder
Protect me from the malevolent forces
Of poverty and disease
Every week I will bring you
An offering of beer and cake
If I pluck a piece of wood from your bough
You can take all of me
After my burial
My bones, like sleeping logs,
Will be ready to be reabsorbed
In the trunk of your form
Lend me the richness of your shoot,
Take from me my wood built from deciduous darkness
These are my riches, my great store.

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3.

Keekar Tree

In one obvious moment of perception
When the light coalesces
On your narrow arms and finely-chiseled leaves
We begin to understand
Your appetite for scrawny behaviour
For you are constantly
Hiding behind ledge or fortress,
Growing without gusto or fear of proximity
Into the surrounding environment
A peacock will give a raucous cry
From your branches. You do not care.

His sound is as contrarian as your form
For sheer brevity and willfulness
You are the impossible to control and difficult
to please.

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4.

The Willow

The nine muses, high priestesses of the moon goddess,
Came to rest in a willow grove,
Yodeling loudly, their cry spread through the forests,
Through the many creatures of the land
Through rocks and stones and undulating soil
Till finally its reaches the ears of a conclave of poets,
Diminutive creatures swearing profanities.
The muses were wiser than the poets
We can’t give you swords
Let us give you a harp instead;
The poets broke into song
About spring time, the feminine graces,
Of overflowing abundance
Of ancient music echoing through our future song.

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5.

Gingko Tree

The only living creature to have survived
The atomic blast at Hiroshima were four gingko trees
How did they manage such a feat?
There is no easy answer. Botanists believe
It takes 300 years for this tree to grow an inch,
Gingko trees grow around Taoist and Buddhist temples
Slowly and surely, they rise, with grave persistence,
Hemmed in by heavy leaves,
Patriarchs of the soil
Their solitude echoes through hills
Without borders. Knowing they are immortal
They are deserving of praise: Offer them fruits
And sweetened waters: Offer them praises
For they stave off death standing at each man’s door.

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6.

Mango Tree

My father’s mango tree
Stands tall behind my house in Race Course
Lichie and shrubs surround it
As does the faint light of the morning sun
Its dark trunk tunnel has taken root inside me
Filling me with fear and astonishment
For I am homesick after my kind
And yet I cannot endure another day on this hearth.
My father lies buried beneath this tree
Without a coffin stone to pin him down,
He keeps leaping up, flailing his arms,
Determined to find a way out
Through the foggy pathway the dead must traverse
To re-embrace me through the rhythms of my life.

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7.

Amaltas

Rivers of green flow alongside roof tops
In one straight line, without discord
Like shooting arrows
There is no monotony in this rhythm
Leaves grid together
To possess each other’s amulets
Exchange secrets
Harmony unclouded by breath and longing.
We who stand by and watch
Arms swaying incessantly in the spirit’s own sphere
This rooted blossomer is the carrier of the golden sword
Fountain of yellowness
That is both sap and beauty, containing within it
All contiguities in the bowl of prosperity.

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8.

Neem

A neem tree is a friendly visage
Announcing the presence of a village tea shop
Villagers gather here to drink tea
And exchange petty gossip.
The neem tree grows near the village sarpanch’s house
Built atop a steep hillock
Ghost-shrouded, he wants to remain in touch
With all the goings on in his village.
The neem tree provides a convenient resting place
For newly married couples to take a breather
Feel their love ripen within their bodies.
Oh rooted blossomer filled with flowers
Keeping your branches aflame
Like do the stars over the palm of the sky.

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9.

Pomegranate

My farm in Kosi Kalan had pomegranate trees
With blood red flowers shining like neon lights
Through dark, moonless nights
When the fireflies went into a trance.
The sarus cranes come down from the heavens
To dip their beaks in this unutterable redness,
Its blood alright, singeing blood
Carry it into the heavens
Splash the grey skies, the salty earth,
The muddy waters of the Kosi –Agra canal
Let all creatures reverberate in this soulful redness
Blood flows from the farmers, the workers, mutilated children,
Oh sarus cranes! Oh pomegranate trees!
Return us to our quiet sorrows, to the quietude of an evening song.

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10.

Pear Tree

In Kashmir, they plant an apple tree
For the birth of a boy
A pear tree for the birth of a girl
When spring comes to the valley
The pear fills out with flowers
The apple creaks and moans, like a craggy
unkempt uncle
Standing at your doorstep: with too many
Warts on his bones and ague in his heart.
O thou unmindful pear tree
It is the woman who must carry the legacy
Of bearing children, reading the gold
Scribbled across the wall, men ask if breasts are
pear or apple shaped
For each maid an unlikely treasure hoards.

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11.

Walnut Tree

The pines and conifers have disappeared from Kashmir
A few willows cling along the banks of the Jhelum
And then, just when one has begun to believe
The Ladakh desert has spread to the valley
A mighty walnut tree will rear its autumnal head.
Its fruit ripe for plucking; the children know this only too well
When the leaves turn a doggerel brown
Its time to scramble up the branches and pick the fruit.
Army men stand alongside the roads
Watching the children shuffle up and down the tree
One of them lets lose a few rounds of ammo
Children fall like dead leaves to the ground. Who says
The walnut tree was brought here by the Iranians
Zoroaster brought it from the heavens to give us an alphabet
of gun shots resounding.

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12.

Cypress Tree

Bathing in Japan
Meant taking a walk in the forest
Breathing its healing air
Enjoying all manner of mystical refinement
The trees are our sages
They speak a language easily understood
Alexander the great, marching his army to Persia
Arrived at a tree sanctuary
He kissed both male and female cypress tree
Then asked his future. The oracle of the trees
Told him he would conquer India
But die on his return to Babylon
The earth spirits dwelling in this grove
Speak about despairing wisdom and ecstatic gain.

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13.

Oak Tree

No one told us the solitary oak tree
Growing in my school in Tara Hall was sacred to the sky god
Not the nuns wearing their long black habits,
Not the teachers with their tightly pursed lips.
They never told us,
Carrying rosaries in their hands,
The oak tree could withstand lightning
Or that a terraced mountain slope would,
When the trees were cut, turn into barren hills.
Rather, being Irish, they fed us stories about King Arthur
About the brave knights who gathered at his round table
Living in Shimla, I spent my days
Wondering about this round oak table
And the many dimensions of its trophies and mysteries.

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14.

Date Palm

Did the Egyptian goddess Nephtys
Offer a tray of dates to her forefathers?
I do not know: I did not live in ancient Egypt.
Did Allah fashion the date palm
With spare clay left over from creating Adam?
I do not know: I did not live in ancient Arabia
Did Deborah, the Jewish prophetess,
Sit under the date palm to dispense justice?
I do not know: I did not live in the hilly country of Ephram.
Did the Assyrian look upon
The date palm as being the tree of life
I do not know: I never lived in Assyria
All I know is the tree is our true ancient, its slim white trunk,
An old man’s beard, overflowing like a high rising river.

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15.

Gulmohar Tree

The gulmohar carries the arrogance of earthen riches
Its apparel wears a distinct flavor,
Standing alone along a street side
With no walls to tie it down
Its bright flowers burst out of the branches
Hanging in mid air, like a red kingfisher in flight.
Home to parrots chattering so ignobly,
Like quarrelsome women fighting over small change,
The mynahs occupy a lower berth of its hollow trunk
Swarming about without accoutrements
Hard fights get no reward, the birds just fret and fume,
Chasing the flowers and grass and leftovers thrown along the street.
The green surging of the leaves, below them,
The wide earth and the soft patter of receding feet.

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16.

Sal Trees

Mighty sal forests rose between the Ganges and the Irrawady river
Home to elephant herds, packs of wolves and hyenas
Who followed these herds as they trampled over
These forests
Forests have made way to CPWD flats
The rivers have become trickles
And the only voice that echos through the ra
Are the sands of garish true

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17.

The Spruce

The World Tree is a gigantic spruce
It grows from the navel of the earth to reach the high heavens
Its root rest deep in the earth’s intestines
Sages rest on its branches carrying a message of peace.
Where is this elusive dream
On which branch does it rest its plaque?
The farmer’s teeth are made of pearl,
He wears a red turban and perfumed earnings
But he has become estranged from the soil
This flat land can hold him no longer
Hate and sorrow now plague this countryside.
The turmoil has spread to the valley of the gigantic spruce
The silver harness of the tree has vanished
The winds that blow past the twisting river- bridge are desolate
and despairing.

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18.

The Trees of Ganeshpuri

The trees of Ganeshpuri
Open out from people’s homes
Surging out of the roof top
To touch the fissures of a leaden sky.

All is movement and fruition in their thick branches
Birds hoot, skip, and fret loudly,
Ants and beetles move around like unwelcome guests
The lady of the house is loath to have them in her sitting space
Yet they move in steady procession
Pall bearers carrying venison for their evening feast
The trees grow from the breasts of a house
Upwards like arms,
Oh slenderscape! My head is agog with thoughts and destinations
Built around these transient empires of form.

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19.

Poplar Tree

Poplar trees demarcate the boundaries of trees
In our great agricultural maze,
Standing slender and tall,
Spring time revisiting us in the midst of winter,
They stand guard,
Ensuring boundaries remain strongly demarcated
Against cunning neighbour’s and the money lender’s eye
The plots of land remain rectangular squares
The soil is turned over and over
Water maps these tracts into a muddy opaqueness
Which matches the morning sky
The farmer sits under the poplar tree

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20.

The Peepul

The peepul lends dignity to a temple
It otherwise does not possess
Of what use are these richly clad idols
Covered with festoons and ornate clothes?
These carved stones are marked with hooded eyes
Deceptively smiling faces carrying human skulls
Before which people genuflect, priests conduct prayers,
No one is able to create a feeling of accord.
A temple becomes a space to pray
Only when the peepul arches its head above the spires
Like a ripe fullness covered with
A river cuts through its many crevices,
Its many leaves carry all the civilisational marks
Of ghats, incense, knotted prayers,
Rites and ceremonies conducted along the banks of our rivers.

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21.

Tamarind Tree

I sit amongst a spate of beggars
Standing in line outside Hanuman temple
Pigeons cower on the ground
Under the shade of a tall tamarind tree
The tree is tall, risqué, its tiny leaves make the same footprint
Against the sky as those made by the pigeons on the dusty floor.
The doves scatter and regroup around the bajra seeds
The beggars do the same
Shuffling from one foot to another
Preparing for a special event
It’s their daily routine of gathering and then scattering
They should the learn symmetry of movement from the birds
Or better still from the tamarind tree
Tall, elegant, a fountain of fruit and celebration.

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22.

Cotton Silk Tree

You have to be very special to have a silk cotton tree
as a neighbour
It’s too tall to be clambered upon
Too majestic to be thought lightly of
So it rests its trunk against a mosque
Located on a busy roadside
All day prayers filter through its leaves
As do disjointed snatches of conversation
It has a kiosk built against its lower trunk
A vendor resting his buttocks on the trunk sells hot coffee
Hidden from view, except for a pair of black eyes,
Cold drink bottles and food stuff sashay in front of him.
Two eyes like the goddess stare back at me
No one cares to remember the many eyes the tree adorns itself with
For in springtime, its red flowers are like the many eyes of this trunk.

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23.

Sal Trees

Sal trees live up to their reputation
Of being tall and debonair
The thick rush of the forest embracing us from all directions.
People come here, verily from all directions,
To tear them down, limb after limb,
It was just a few years ago that these forests stood tall
Like the Pandava brothers, lithe, warrior likes,
Strong rivers carousing through their veins,
So many animals stalked through this emerald empire
Moving herds of wisdom and length
It was a lost age, or so it seemed to appear,
An age dipped in the horn of plentitude,
Sal trees grew in abundance
Thick limbed, straight as a generation’s back,
And when I sit back, I often wonder
At that forest wetness, that clearness, of that dark night
When a 12 bore rifle was held against my father’s shoulder
He held it in a tight grip
Before a single bullet felled the cheetal down.

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