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Menka Shivdasani

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Menka Shivdasani

Grey-hooded Warbler, Chakrata. Photo by Nitoo Das

How to Kill a Rat

The task is almost impossible.
Beheading comes easy these days,
but not with rats. A swish of tail
behind the dining table; it's gone.
You know it's still there in the morning
when the creamy layer of setting curd
is nibbled through. The lid fell with a clang
at night, but no one heard,

So you try the peaceful methods.
A piece of cheese, you've been told,
will do the trick; lace it with love
and a drop or two from a poison tube.
You watch it gather mold,
then throw it out.

A piece of rat cake, then,
colour of coal,
brittle as your heart.
You hide a piece in every nook,
believe your space is safe.
You've built this world around you,
Mumbai to Mosul,
Kabul to Kashmir,
Pune to Peshawar...
all the world is your home,
but there are rats.

Your sofa becomes an enemy bunker,
nibbled through at the bottom
with holes for escape – safe harbour
from your broom and dying will.
If you get one, nine more
will be born in the trenches.

Sometimes, as you watch TV,
or read your holy book,
you wonder about killing
and your own beliefs.

No, it isn't easy to kill a rat,
but what does it take
to live instead
with the enemy
beneath your skin?


Dry as air; dry as the throat
that is scratched and raw
from the inside; dry as the river
that vanished and cracked
in your bloodstream… this jungle
rustles and shivers.

Thoughts monkey around
on the canopy, nibble,
pick lice from
the branched-out brain,
scratching their groins,
swishing their
scruffy tails.
I hear them, far away,
in the untouched sky.

Sticky as honey,
and sharp as the hive
that houses them,
the worker bees
drone and buzz….

And deep in the forest
the ageing tigress
preys on her own
flaccid skin.

The Waterfall

Let's build a waterfall,
he said; it will be unique,
give this space a special touch.
So they set aside a corner,
and watched the rocks come up,
carefully set on a concrete bed,
with just the right amount
of rustic grace.

Over time, the motor stopped.
The pipes were clogged
with mud and decaying leaf.
The waterfall stood dry
and took up space.

Eventually the snakes
discovered it,
made their home there.
The dogs barked once in a while,
but it made no difference.
The gardener removed the grass;
the ground stayed bare.

Now, when they think
of breaking the waterfall,
the workmen look doubtful,
demand a heavy price.
To remove the debris
costs more than it does to build.

So they decided to pay
a lower rate,
install a new motor,
keep the water flowing.

The River Bank

Wrapping the road with a flourish
around my skin, I stepped into history
and looked for lost homelands;
soothing breezes, aromatic, alive,
steeped in wine, fragrant
with folklore and mist.

The reams fell behind like orange peel as I walked,
seeds moist as they touched concrete paths;
there was much to discover and grow as we moved.

Language, chattering in the cold, sat hunched
over a half-eaten meal and a glass of stale beer,
its chipped tongue slurring, and with pitted bones.

Moomal hid behind the unexplored mountain;
Marui peeped through curtains and cringed.
Popati's sad ghost led the way as I walked,
over a road that was empty and long.

I strained my ears for the sound of bhagats,
storytellers with their dholaks and songs.
But the sounds that emerged from the distance
were like car horns that blared through my skin.

I stepped back and fell into a commercial;
Shah Latif's voice faded back into the book.
My spirit, like Sasuee, lay gently
in its wooden box and floated away.

Now on the other side of the river bank,
I have set my roots in thin earth.
I curl up into this tangled skin,
and the ground cracks above, then stays still.

(All poems from Safe House, a Poetrywala publication)


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