The cold steam of my breath manifests the glass like a pebble the surface of penance still water.
Inside, a morgue. I murmur a couplet once sung by Kabir who wept
when he saw proud grains of wheat being crushed to bone-white flour between the violence of two grindstones.
Was not even Father’s charred skull turned to flour when I crushed it with a bamboo pestle?
The toe-tag of the corpse in front is blank. Perhaps, he was a loner, oblivious to the world like that singular shoe
rooted to the sea floor; a baby hermit crab peeks out. Or like the ecosystem of insects
and dust beneath the stained carpet of a widow’s home; her rice boils over and spills, she only stares.
I imagine thumb-prints on the steel of his spoons dangling in the kitchen.
The image is as poignant as when I had slipped into an abandoned house
in our mountains, and seen dated pencil marks of a growing child on the wall.
The toe-tag twirls caught in a draught.
The iron gurney is not padded and would be cold, no different from the hard clay floor
upon which we used to sit cross-legged and nibble dinner: First Father, and then, us.
Brother and I would fight for the spot where he had just finished because of the warmth.
Age’s advance, I realize, is subtle.
The hairline recedes as slowly as Arctic ice, and the flesh dwindles like the thick steak
eaten by a proper lady with a fork, meat stuck between her front teeth.
I murmur the couplet by Kabir once again.
The grindstone of the universe above turning this way,
the grindstone of Earth below turning the other way. And in between, this reaped grain of life.
Nothing survives, weeps Kabir, Nothing survives. Morning’s axe falls hard upon the sparrows.
I really, really want to slide a pillow beneath the acute arch of his neck.
Rosetta Stone, 2017
The sea exhaling and inhaling like pearls in the wind, where
are you staring, my love? Do you wait for the listing
silhouette of Achilles’ galley in the horizon? Do you dream
of his strong limbs locking firm around
your waist? The smell of his sea sweat, that you would
prefer him without a bath, his hair in your mouth,
and you will give up your carnivorous self to his
strength willingly, even more vulnerable than humbled prey.
Do you dream of his furious fever, like most women do,
just before the morning of his last battle? Do you
dream of tying his breastplate, with horse tendon, to his chest and
smelling its leather and bronze and the blood of all that he has slain?
Nothing is truer, my love: In predatory animals of ivory canines,
the bigger, the stronger, and the more beautiful
always prevail. That is why the world becomes taller
and more beautiful. The lion is fiercer than ever,
and so is the wolf, and so is the falcon. Even Man
becomes animalistic, winter wolf-like. Even the palm, whose
dates the thirsty bedouin had once called the teats of God, has begun to twist and gnarl.
This is the age of muscle and sinew and thick veins and cold,
rational intelligence. An age in which anything
can be convincingly defended, and God and
emotions and morality can be conveniently discarded.
Everything short, ordinary, and with a weak voice
will be filtered out by the sieve of heredity and genes.
And because ordinary men have always loved the fiercest,
even true love would be lost like an ancient language
on the walls of a great civilisation. This new world pleafully
brushing the cuneiform like hungry children, deciphering everything, understanding nothing.
Nothing, my love, nothing in the Universe
is deterministic. The unsheathing
of the Universe and everything in its stillborn womb
is no choreographed fall of dominoes, where
the first trigger always results in a certain, exact
pattern of collapse, always. The Universe
is no key-screw mouse in which the gear wheels
of its engine decides its fate: How far will it go?
Hailstones in summer, a new path through the
Garhwal mountains, a stingray beneath your boat:
Anything can always happen, and it always does.
The Universe is not destined. It is a
whimsical Child who may most often
be governed by the heavy thumb
of God but every once in a while
steals sugar, or runs into the deep, dark forest,
or smokes pumpkin stalks like her father smokes
cigarettes, or even lies. But I know for certain
that no matter how many times I
begin over, no matter how many times the
Child rolls her dice and pushes me, a worn riverstone,
onto a different square of ‘Snakes and Ladders’,
no matter from where I begin, I will always end at you.
My love for you, the only inexorable determinant
in the ether of infinite randomness and temptation.
Carnivori is dead today. The graves have cracked and ancient
predators rise to overhaul our herbivorous religion.
The skeleton of a fierce, extinct bird searches for a mirror
to resurrect herself – her atrophied predatory instinct, her muscles
and morality: Kill only when hungry.
Furcula, sternum, phalanges, and joints arthritic, she
stands between two mirrors to precisely wrap flesh to bones: A surgery.
But the mirrors ignore their customer and are engaged
in a pyrrhic struggle to find their own identity.
Mirror, mirror, mirror. An infinite, regular peristalsis of identity.
Kafka’s Imperial Messenger, a Matryoshka doll, Sisyphusian circles, fractals
in the English archer’s tensed longbow that suffers micro tears
while the enemy cavalry is rooted in the wet mud.
Irony of identity, the mirrors yearn to find what lies
beyond the next image, and Alexander and Bucephalous
continue to press East even though the Hetairoi strain and rebel.
The bird turns and hobbles away to some other mirror,
where it again opens its beak like a pleaful
hatchling, holds its arms monastic, and begs the mirror to show her her image.
But this strange mirror reflects the great wings of a Blue Crested
Heron, her feathered tips disturb an African lake: Ripples, ripples, silence.
True mirrors, the honest kind, the silvered kind, are now being turned to face
each other: Narcissistic: Useless. And the only other mirrors that remain are the eyes of the human.
Envious eyes that show the Arctic Tern the strength of the African Ostrich,
and this flightless, heavy bird, the deign of aerial, Heron wings.
The bird desires the Heron’s drift, ties the flesh to its bones all wrong
and becomes a chicken. She even lays three eggs. A sabretooth files his canines.
Swollen arteries have suffocated the nerves of her limbs dead. Her legs, calves atrophied,
dangle like the hollow tubes of the windchime hanging in the balcony.
Grandfather kneels in front of her, the swollen lump of a benign cyst protrudes
through his kurta, and he carves out the thick dirt from beneath her toe nails.
It is my duty, he says, quoting the Bhagvat Gita. Only half an hour ago, he had dragged her to the bathroom
on a plastic stool and plucked out shit through her anus. He no longer uses gloves
because it is too painful an endeavour to slip his hand into their intractable rubber.
Her abdominal muscles have wasted away. Even four spoonfuls of psyllium husk dissolved in water
are too weak an impetus for the vestiges of her lunch – of half a bread, and a bite
of skinned apple – to move through her intestines.
The pale nail dust falls on the old leaf of newspaper he has laid below.
It is not about whether I like it or hate it, he says, it is my duty. The hymns of the Gita have indentured him to her.
Every night he wakes up and helps her pass urine by pressing against her bladder with his palms.
The fan overhead, he ensures, is always on ‘1.’ And he even insists on cleaning her bed pan –
four drops of antiseptic swirled around the pan’s soiled contours with half a mug of water.
I only wish that she goes before me; I have only that singular wish.
Before her gall bladder operation, twenty years ago, he bartered with God his addiction
to alcohol for her good health. Only last year, he gave up smoking hookah because she began to urinate
blood and pus – he learned a word from this disease: Escherichia coli. And, yesterday morning, to rein in
the spread of this nerve eating disease, he vowed to forfeit chewing tobacco.
Unsatisfied, he lifts her leg and digs deeper into her nails. He even scrapes out the dead skin from between her toes.
She cannot live without me. She will be finished within a week without me. Finished. She will die in her own shit.
The wind chime cries. How age has humbled them. He, a retired police officer who used to break
the wrists of criminals with an umbrella during interrogation. And she, a Kumaon 1 Rajput
who used to ride on elephants and go out on long shikaars2 to hunt tigers in the lower Shivaliks.
He folds the newspaper and dumps it in the bin. He allows no one to touch her dirt.
She admires her nails and gestures at her makeup box. Grandfather hands it over and
holds up a mirror. She streaks a thick black with a pencil and fills up the barren emptiness of her
hair bereft eyebrows. Her drooping earlobes, which look like the teats of an old she wolf suckled dry, sway
as she powders her cheeks. Naaniji turns to me and asks how she looks. I only smile.
She looks like the still windchime outside, so beautiful but so subservient to an external force to breathe life into her.
- Kumaon: A mountain tribe
- Shikaars: Hunting expeditions