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Karthika Naïr

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Karthika Naïr

Ahalya: Raja Ravi Varma. Courtesy : Wikipedia

Ahalya: deliverance

I. Glosa:
No More

No more now do I have to wait.
No longer now, those cascades, do they rush.
In a hamlet of my eyes, dreams once dwelt at night.
If touched, they would flow; if asked, they would reply:
"There is no trusting volant dreams."

- Gulzar, Ab mujhe koi intezaar kahan (Ishqiya, 2010)

Translation by KN

No. No more. No more lies, no lapses. No more myths
sown on time from slivers of early monolith,
the mirror you call truth. Ballads sail down millennia,
hurl livid blooms - kapala, shapita, kalankini….
wretched, accursed, adulteress - on my name, smithed
once from heaven's ore. Denigrate
me no more - or not yet: hear first, and firsthand, from women
like me, the tales they never sing - the myth-makers, the saints,
the gods. Stones, too, can rise in spate.
No more now do I have to wait.

For it is time. Time to rouse the skies, reinstate
Earth's archives, seek the seas' lost chants. They'll vindicate
virtue, speak in my stead, resound: I am she, Ahalya.
Mahabhagha. Mind-born to Brahma. Flawless. Free - free, like
thought was, and should be. Eternal. Inviolate.
The first maiden, forged, full-grown, in the hush
of nascent time; matter mixed and cast with planets, seasons,
stars. They said he'd minted dusk's flame for my lips; shaped rivers -
their flow, their tumble - from my tresses. (They're lush
no longer now, those cascades. Do they rush

out - pale, fraught - to drown underground? But I digress).
Yes, my father - architect of three worlds, no less -
had decked virgin moon with my glow, scattered the smells of spring
between my thighs, my breasts; smiled in naïve, paternal pride
then summoned gods, gandharvas, yogins, nymphs, "Witness
these new wonders." Like fruit flies to coloured delights
they gathered, buzzing in envy, awe, greed and lust. Desire
spread in nitid plague: some clamoured earth; one, thunder; one bid
for death. I'd be the big prize - not love to requite.
In a hamlet of my eyes, dreams once dwelt at night -

once. Now, this scene walks there, sleepless: Brahma, aghast,
skirting whirlpooling plaints, seeks shelter in the mast
of a seer's voice, 'Chattel she shan't be. No creature may claim
earth, air, heaven. Ahalya binds all three. Them I worship,
her I've guarded.' Thus does great Gautama, steadfast
scripter, win my hand: with words fluid and spry.
Thus do fathers belie their own premises; swap suffrage
for safety. In fear lies the key. But I, unafraid,
am not heard, nor asked, for desires are not coy.
If touched, they would flow; if asked they would reply:

'We are born to soar, not self-destroy.' Thus was I
wed - with sour gods to witness, dark rain to defy
the bond Agni alloyed - then sent, in fulgent wrapping, with
this aged, agelast, sudden spouse. Co-wives, their scions
and sacred books of cosmic law would await my
service: what else could, my sire deemed,
reflect my worth? 'No human should hope for more, devotion
will now be your awl. Amsa of my breath, forget the lore:
those pledges you cannot redeem.
There is no trusting volant dreams.'

II. Glosa:
Until late have I stayed awake

Until late have I stayed awake, let me sleep awhile.
A trace of the night remains; wait, let morning appear.
Those half-grown dreams that could not be fulfilled…
Let me sow, in my sleep, those dreams once more.

- Gulzar, Jaage hain der tak (Guru, 2007)

Translation by KN

Time was all things: tenebrous, tall, sometimes winged. Peat
were my days, growing piles of wet, spent earth replete
with husks of dead rites and prayer, untold hermits to serve.
Like tendrils of smoke blew dawn and dusk - weightless, swift as grace.
Then night. Night was the triffid that prowled the mind's streets,
sucking every sense. Night when Gautama would exile
my will, his mouth sowing into my skin cobalt letters,
twenty-eight chapters, a thousand texts on women's dharma,
four varna, the rank and file of sins, the price of guile…
'Until late have I stayed awake, let me sleep awhile,'

even those sutra would plead, whilst I - frontispiece
for his wisdom, his virtue, his spells - craved release
from safety. From the words thrust in my veins, cauled in lore, rose
Shatananda, my husband's son. Another sainted one,
warm and tender as rime. But no more threnodies,
for you seek else: the reason for my eternal smear.
You may know the who, the what, the where-and-when: Indra, lord
of heaven, came in Gautama's guise, clamouring congress.
I'd laughed, undeceived: 'Such knaves, you gods that men revere!
A trace of the night remains; wait, let morning appear,

Ô heedless king, breach not occult walls from inside.
The sage and son walk in with dawn: through her chinks, slide
out unseen, unharmed.' Was it chagrin, fear or shades softer,
less certain, that made the rake blurt, 'I covet, never court;
win, with arms or wile. But this time, you shall decide.'
Truth and choice: two strangers, my whys. Greed stilled
at the edge of doom, the monarch bowed. And I claimed: the nape
of his neck, an instep, both palms, then the flanks, that groundswell
of lust … marked all with lips which had distilled
those half-grown dreams that could not be fulfilled.

I chose, yes, chose that once to become beloved.
I reclaimed this self. Of the rest, so much - smudged - spread
into legend: the spouse's fury, the son's desertion,
Indra's odium, my stigma as stone, then redemption.
Most, I let be. But rivers die from truths unsaid,
hence one more: Lord Rama did not restore
my form. I live as agate, granite, quartz - this, the blessing
I asked, and obtained: let me be igneous, everywhere.
Let me retrieve the lustrous dreams of yore.
Let me sow, in my sleep, those dreams once more.

- Pachkanya: women of substance by Pradip Bhattacharya
- The Ramayana by Valmiki (General Books LLC, 2010)
- In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology edited by Namita Gokhale & Malashri Lal
(Yatra/Penguin Books, 2009).

: I. Life Sentences

The sky will not be sky again. It is dead
skin split open, drained of all music and blood.
Monarchs, ministers, nations, elders, fathers:
it will not be the same, the world you now own.
This I promise. You will never hear day break
into mute lucent song, never taste colour

again. Slivers of our trust will decolour
your waking hours; the screaming eyes of my dead,
all eight million, will plunder sleep; their broken
dreams - aged sixteen, lusty, loud -, dance in bloodied
feet at the Council of Kings, dance ownership
of your crown. But, dharma, you state, must father

martyrs to save planets. Why then, Our Father
Who Stays Alive, why bring us new, colourful
balloons - faith, hope, freedom? Why brand us your own,
made in your image? What we are is deadly
disposable spawn, born benign (not bloodless,
imperfectly designed) then programmed to break

enemy battalions, smash unbreakable
armoured discs and self-combust for fatherly
glory. Yes, your dharma is a bloodthirsty
beast, a god decked in the primary colours
of dystopia: rusty, fetid, undead.
Rulers in righteous armour, you will not own

to filicide, nor bare the hands that disowned
your scions in their last hours. I must now break
away from your empire, shed this deadening
white guilt, end all myths on you, Founding Fathers,
and speak, speak, speak till memory brings colour
back to earth's cheek and she rises, sparing blood

in torrents. But hate, once seeped into bloodstreams,
is an abiding love: its DNA owns -
already - our futures. Revenge will colour
tomorrow in shadows and ancient heartbreak,
the terminal kind, for mothers and fathers.
And I, for all my foresight, will count the dead

again with deadpan voice and bloodstained fingers;
will seek father figures for my sons to own,
ones who teach them to break and discolour life.

{ First published in Caravan India, May 2012}


Music class by Pandit Ravi Shankar - Salle Pleyel, Paris

Mrs. Rémy next to me
nods and applauds vigorously,
fingers swooping to snatch
each feathered word from the Panditji;
grunts, mutters, smiles
in private
discussion, shrugging off the two
thousand eyes and ears jostling
for this rare darshan: he is hers
and hers alone
- the priceless
possession frozen as effigy
on her non-flip mobile telephone,
screen-shared with a flattened
elongated Saraswathy.

I turn and stare, her fingers,
her voice treading heavily
on my line of audition;
but the high disdain
in this gaze

shatters before the sledge-
hammer of her bliss
- and the face
of a stranger named devotion.


Flustered eyes retreat, dive headlong
from the balcony, spin into the stalls,
seeking, sifting through the heads below.
Meanwhile, the master's long alaap
in Memory (major) - moving
from Paris, autumn of thirty-one,
to Maihar, then music's destiny -
soars into jodh beyond the Vindhya
with coloured tales of parent scales
in full octave (all seventy-two).
Dhrupad, dhamaal, khyal, thumri,
a forlorn kajari … come and curtsy.

By the time the taal arrive,
ushered by tongue and tabla
for explanation -
ektaal, teental, rupaktaal
then khali to break the flight
(thihai and farmayishen
scampering in quick succession);
mine eyes have found their station,
alighting - relieved! - on a cherished
crown, still shrapnelled with silver
from the skies, shoulders
shambling towards his seat.
We disbelievers too
have our demigods -
favoured, flawed.

{From Bearings, HarperCollins, 2009}


Focus – Poetising Indian Heritage

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