Keki N Daruwalla
A recipient of Sahitya Akademi Award and Commonwealth Poetry Award, Keki N. Daruwalla has so far published about 12 books, consisting of mostly poems and a couple of fictional works. Some of his important works are Under Orion, The Keeper of the Dead, Landscapes, A Summer of Tigers and The Minister for Permanent Unrest & other stories. He also edited Two Decades of Indian Poetry. The Library of Congress has all his books. His most recent collection is The Glass Blower. His novel For Pepper and Christ was published this year by Penguin, India.
the tribal goddess
there may or may not be a tribal goddess
but I salute her in absentia,
this goddess of the tribals of the forest
of shadows scrimmaging
on the fern floor of the forest
not just the goddess of the dark heart of the forest
but of the forest-fringe
who extends her hand
to meet the vegetal goddess,
protector of those who limp into the forest
trailing a thread of blood,
the ones who subsist on a diet of nettles,
protector against the lords of the buckshot
and the iron trap, hide-robbers, horn bandits
and the ivory thieves
the rational ones continue to despise you
as do the monotheists
who think no end of themselves
who think they are very advanced
and aeons ahead of the polytheists
and the pantheists and solar theists
and lunar- and-planet theists
but as the concrete forests rise
on concrete plinths and smoke belches forth
coating the sky’s lung
we’ll be migrating to you
in barefoot trickles at night—always night
in silence or with din
the goddess of nocturnal silence
and the nocturnal howl are the same,
one eye Capricorn and the other Cancer
you’ll shortly be in demand
for moss-masked as you are
you are the mother of secrets
goddess of the water springs
still hidden in the earth
A Dam in the Himalayas
Valley floor and flanking hills have gone under.
Roof-tiles are paved flagstones now
and shimmer and refract as they never did
whenever a light breeze smears the waters.
The blur that is the temple spire is washed and warped;
it trembles when the waters move.
The palace too has gone down with its veined marble,
— colour of sunsets, burnt sienna–
though its pillars still hold the ceiling
Atlas-like, each pillar
erupting from a carved lotus.
If an underwater flute were activated
its Garhwali melody would gurgle up
in a string of bubbles; and carp and mullet
would scuttle away thinking some water mammoth
on the lake-floor was breathing down their fins.
These are enchanted waters now, mermaid
and water-nymphs, all breast and sinuous waist
move here; flowering trees still drop petals;
kingfisher and blue-jay
sit on an underwater branch looking for prey.
These are not waters, they are mist, memory
I look for your face, your shadow here,
your body and your bier wrapped in water-weed,
but loved one, the waters close in upon
the outlines of your face, now beyond recall,
and mist and vapour rub your smile away.
Before the Word
Corn is great, on the cob or otherwise,
but before corn in the ear there was life.
Fire is holy especially for Zoroastrians,
but before fire too there was life.
Before the bowstring and the flint arrow sang,
there was life.
The word is great,
yet there was life before the word.
We can’t turn romantic and say
we were into bird speech or river-roar then,
into the silence of frost
or the language of rain.
But forest speech and swamp speech
came through easier to us.
When lightning crashed,
the cry of the marsh bird was our cry,
and we flung ourselves to the other branch
like any other baboon.
As winter whined on windy cliff,
we shivered with the yellow grass.
In winter-dark a hundred eyes
flared yellow in the jungle scrub.
When seasons changed, blood coursed with sap
and flowered in meadows. We were at home.
Nor eyes nor bat cries bothered us.
What if we didn’t know
a bat assessed reality
from the ricochet of its cry?
Though there were no words,
fear had a voice with many echoes.
Worship was quieter, adoration
spoke only through the eyes or knees.
What was it like before language dropped like dew,
covering the scuffed grass of our lives?
The sea came in with her and her curved snout
and her tin coloured barnacles
and long threaded rose moles
patterned on her body.
The sea brought her and her curved snout
and her rose moles and her eyes still translucent
as if half aware and half unaware
of the state of her body.
The sea came in with her and her scimitar snout
and her translucent eyes
graying into stone.
The sea brought her in,
wrapped in seaweed
and slapped her on the sand,
all five feet of her
with the armour of her scales
and the filigree of her rose moles.
The tide kept coming in
but couldn’t disturb her
or her resting place—
she was so heavy.
The sea fell back, but even
as the thin-edged foam line receded,
it went to her once more with a supreme effort,
rummaged among her barnacles
Dawn will come as it always has,
escorted with pearls,
spiked with frost.
Sandwiched between your rivers
‘one lament and the other blood’,
the land will flame like a tongue
of fiery green
threading the Sierras.
The bullring will pulse with blood;
the red dust will still whirl
and eddy across the road;
evenings will be as they were before—
light-rose or mauve-shadow
or smeared with iodine,
and chalked with the flight of cranes.
Nightscapes will still be the same:
bars of flamenco carried by the wind
goatherds round a fire
and sheepdogs barking
at the rustle of dry oak leaves.
Only you will not be there.
“Before the Word”, “Fish”, and “Lorca” first appeared in Collected Poems 1970-2005 (Penguin, 2006)