English Poems

Breath

Went awol, again,
defected until fingers –
constant – on a spine
coaxed thought Piper-­‐like coaxed
light into fractious, shaded lungs.

Then it returns, breath:
untrammelled, expansive, mine
– for now. Time stirs once
more; the world swivels, hinged on
a hand. For now, that will do.

Inheritance

Five-o-clock sorrow stubbles father’s cheeks his eyes
fly swiftly across the room greeting glances with kin
and kith then return like two homing pigeons to rest 
on the small silent figure in a handspun white sari lain
(in that room with marble-flecked floor and seven windows)
upon a braided coir mat beside a carved bronze lamp 
thigh-high all twenty-four wicks on six tiers ablaze
fuelled by fresh coconut oil and husks of early memory
retrieved from half-forgotten teakwood crannies

A kinswoman stretches a hoary hand to smooth a strand
of still-sentient hair flopping across granny’s naked face
her face with newly ironed furrows crisp and neat
as the seven starched pleats on her best white handspun
cotton sari edged with gold brocade and blue flowers
she caresses that face abandoned ground now that the enemy
who swam up granny’s blood hammered holes in her mind
melted muscles into mush and carpet-bombed her brain
has decamped after seven-year-long V-day revelry

Far-flung cousins an estranged daughter-in-law
her resident nurse three betel-chewing crimson-lipped
neighbours nephews and nieces a community leader
or two and packs of grand and great-grandchildren
(three to thirteen years of age from pre-school to puberty)
a few former fellow teachers too flit out and in some
feigning sorrow others breathing honest relief gesturing orders
checking wrists for holy hours or skipping in infant energy
then tiptoeing past death with confused suddenly-caught breath

In a far corner her daughters lip wordlessly together
ancient prayers and invoke ageless wayward deities
in a bid for peace and protection as past present and future
merge into a roiled landscape of the known and unknown
litanies for her soul but not without a plea for freedom from their
birthright rescue from a legacy that could just swim
up their blood hammer holes in their minds melt muscles
into mush carpet-bomb their brains and chain their children
to many-year-long sentences beside desiccating bedsides

Uttaraa: Note to the Unborn Child

They will tell you he was a hero, child: your
father, my husband. They will swear he lived
a glorious death: swift and valorous, the royal
path to heaven on gilded chariot driven by gods
themselves. Abhimanyu: martyr, maharathi –
ace warrior, champion archer – hailed, in awe
and fear, as Indra, as Yama, at once lifesaver,
demolisher, and – variously – sheet lightning,
ancient umbra, supernova, annihilator
of aksauhinis, elephants, evil ambition. They will
sing of how he wrecked the padmavyuha, lotus
phalanx of doom, defanged its deadly petals,
smashed the spinning, hungry hub of a pistil,
strewing armed enemy forces as so many spores
until seven Kaurav generals – all routed in ones
and twos – girdled him in concert like a grist
of killer bees, stung from behind and smote
his breath in one fell swoop.

Choose, child, while still unborn; choose, for we
no longer can, choose to remain free.

His breath in one fell swoop, they will say
that’s how it happened: blood-libation, liberation.
But the dead have no songs, child. No melodies
for regret or pain or pride. It is we that find and feed
them the songs, the words, rhythm, cadence,
refrain; we that redye the moments, each one;
friend, foe and father, grandfather god, doting
dowager, uncle-emperor, courtiers, seers, other
faded maws that scurry to rework histories,
so you will learn and hold as truth a thousand
staves of what you never saw nor heard while nested
in soft caul. So you will repeat what, when,
where and why, the why, yes, why your father –
land, pater, patria, one and many, heir to Kuru-
Vrishni glory – vanished in this giant playground
of carnage, of blocs, of left and right or east and west
or wrong and right, Krishna’s right, always right
by name and number, faith and tongue.

Choose, child, while still unborn; choose, for we
no longer can, choose to remain free.

By name and number, faith and tongue, I cannot
swear, but no path, no gilded chariots, no gods
do I see. I see scattered your father’s brains, ruddy
pomegranates glistening through churned slush; see
his gaze – my husband’s gaze, the gaze that heralds
my night, my day – transpierced, dark grapes that imprint
earth; see traces of his smile in a torn cheek, in slivered
jawbone; see entrails undone, crushed beneath a dozen
armoured wheels; see bubbles of scarlet last breath
straining – still – to rise from severed neck towards
a cloven head: these lungs wish to live. With more speed
and mercy did Death seize sweet Lakshmana, the cousin
– once playmate – Abhimanyu killed: he slumps, speared
through throat and mast. An arm lies farther, my husband’s
or a nameless, lost limb? Too much mud, too much blood,
too much flesh has flowed to read the palm, to know his touch
again but this is mine, the pulse of ruby on a finger, placed
last spring, the day our hands were interlocked.

Choose, child, while still unborn; choose, for we
no longer can, choose to remain free.

Last spring, the day our lives were interlocked, bards
from eight lands crooned of a match made in heaven.
More lies, child, now set to music: we were made for a war
alliance; sheer expedience, the vajra wedding
band to join Matsya and Kuru lands, fuse our clout
to their repute. A dowry of divine pedigree, a sea
of cavalry, prize warriors, and a seat in royal heaven.
For that, if need be, our kin would have married
their children off to a banyan tree. These matches made
in heaven, the bards never sing, are just tinder
for preordained pyre. But even sticks may brush, may
nestle, may intertwine. So it came to be: he wished
to build, not blaze, your father, the crown prince. For some
thing – not quite trust, nor truly love – happened, something
like life, undesigned. The notion of future, earth’s gift
to our sixteenth year – the first, and only, summer
together – that swelled and curved to tempt him:
a curled up, compact quarter-moon in me.

Choose, child, while still unborn; choose, for we
no longer can, choose to remain free.

That curled up, compact quarter-moon in me,
the idea of you, drew him beyond right, might,
duty, loyalty – the alphabet he’d been given
to learn – towards other words and whims, call
them joy, permanency. But happy warriors, or
hopeful ones, are not good currency. Heroes
are dearest when dead, Krishna knows, flammable
fodder for survivors’ guilt, rage, brutality. And what
better to stoke Arjuna’s murderous frenzy than his
betrayed, butchered firstborn? The Kaurav cousins
crushed your father’s skull, child, killed him when
unarmed, outnumbered, and despoiled the corpse.
But it is Krishna – best-loved uncle, guardian, the one named
divine, the same Krishna – that sent him to slaughter, one more
oblation to his famished earth. He was a son, Abhimanyu,
nephew, Kuru prince, brave, loyal, foolishly so; bravely, loyally
has he gone to his end. Here he lies, he that most wished to be
not hero – this, they will not tell you, child – but father.

Blueprint for a Victory

It’s war we’re waging. Look,
    Yuddhishtira, someone must die,
        must kill himself, and willingly, so
        we can prevail. Or a galaxy of dead
    eyes will be your only legacy
to this land, to this age.

Yuddhishtira, someone must die,
    your priest insists. It’ll be amavasya
        in a day: Surya and Chandra are about
        to rise as one in the sky; Kali will crave
    a human sacrifice, from the perfect
warrior on the front. Then

someone, Yuddhishtira, must die
    tonight, before Duryodhana slays
        a white elephant to gratify the gods
        (and collects their choicest boons
    for victory). I can hoodwink the sun,
the moon – and most others – but

someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    and remember, without pain, or wants
        unsated. Three warriors alone on our
        side can make the cut, their skins blessed
    with the ritual signs of sacrifice, all thirty-
two: Arjuna, Prince Aravan, and I.

Someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    but not – you agree – your brother,
        Arjuna, commander of our army, star
        archer, and iris of your mother’s
    eyes. But you needn’t panic, for I
can take on the role, of that

someone, Yuddhishtira, who must die!
    Happily, since my death will bring
        you victory, pledge I gave to Draupadi.
        No, no, let me, cousin, for what is life
    but a garment to wear and discard?
You insist you won’t let me be

someone who must die, Yuddhishtira,
    but it isn’t such a big deal. All that
        matters in life is duty, and mine is clear:
        order in the world, at every cost, whether
    of justice or integrity—order’s the thing,
see, the recipe for empires, the reason

someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    the reason countless others will
        also die, the reason you – and not
        your cousin Duryodhana –  and yours
    must win this war, must inherit my
planet: for order and not revenge.

Yuddhishtira? Someone must die,
    but you understand why. There’s no time
        to waffle or pine: if you won’t let me, Aravan
        alone remains—your uncle Shalya would do
    but he fights now on the other side.
So what if the lad’s an ally?

Someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    and he didn’t come to Kurukshetra
        for a party. Yes, he’s keen on dying
        in battle, but a sacrifice will bring him
    greater glory—for once, it isn’t a lie. I’ll
convince Aravan and his parents too.

Someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    and Arjuna will have to bid his half-
        serpent son goodbye, but he never
        knew the boy, and this is a higher
    cause than family. Besides, he has
other sons; but Ulupi won’t agree

someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    not when that someone to die is
        her only son, heir to her throne. Nor,
        though, will she deny Aravan his whims.
    So we have to ensure this is an end
the boy desires. Not that easy, when

someone must die, Yuddhishtira.
    Convince Aravan he’s the chosen
        one, marked by destiny, marked through
        his very body, proof irrefutable if
    proof ever there’d be of his being
kalapalli, the one, the blessed

someone who must die. Yuddhishtira,
    we asked and here’s Aravan’s reply.
        You were right: he would prefer to die
        in battle, but he will comply. On
    condition, though, that he be wed –
in word and truly in deed – first.

Someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    yes, but not a virgin. Aravan
        asks to be deflowered tonight,
        or all offerings will be in vain.
    We asked and asked again, but
no woman agrees to marry

someone, Yuddhishtira, who must die
    on his wedding night. No woman
        wishes to be widowed quite so soon,
        nor gutted alive as sati. But if no such
    woman exists, I’ll supply a bride. It is one
night’s tale, not a lifetime affair. If

someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    so must another be born, or remade.
        There will be a woman by twilight, for
        Aravan to wed and bed. You may be young,
    but you’ve still heard, I guess, of Mohini?
You can count on her to lie with him,

Yuddhishtira. Someone must die,
    must first sigh appeased, pleased. And hence
        I shall transform, unsheathe my female form:
        reap lush, tender breasts and fragrant hips,
    sate him with the velvet of my thighs and lips,
drown him in embrace all night long. For

someone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    and it is no sin to grant him this wish.
        If that, thereby, entails a change of sex,
        so be it. Why the horrified stare? If I can
    morph into boar and fish and man-lion
to save the world, why not a woman?

Somone must die, Yuddhishtira,
    and that someone deserves a wife to cry
        over his death, if just for half a day. Besides
        I’ve been Mohini once before, Enchantress
    no deity could ever resist, nor forget. If
the gods didn’t mind, why should men,

Yuddhishtira? Someone must die,
    your flesh and blood, it transpires,
        to guarantee your conquest. And all you
        find awry in this carousal of bloodlust
    is that man will love man tonight? Ring
temple bells, garland weapons, and sing

instead, Yuddhishtira: someone shall die.

Constancy I

Before a battle,
grow inwards, like root and rock:
shed eyes, ears; shed words.
Let us speak, your skin to mine.
Touch alone scores memory.

Touch alone will survive
Time

Constancy III

They are here. Again. Night rises in my gut. Skies capsize.
Henchmen. Overlords. Allies. High priests. Demigods. Perhaps
Even kings. Here. A constellation of despots and lies.

Do not speak to us, Masters. Do not blaze Faith Honour Duty
Allegiance to God and Country in hearth and head until we
Yield: pledge future, selves and reason. Do not hail prophets, holy
Spirits, the saints. Do not invoke heaven and hell. Do not

Browbeat, do not cajole. Do not feign pity, nor kinship, nor
Entice with promises of unseen treasures — justice, safety
Freedom.  You would arrive, we knew, with the threat of gifts — and more.
Only answer, then leave: where is the battle this time, on whose
Rightful land? And how many men will you summon from our door,
Enlist as living shield for heroes? Spare him. Spare us. Spare us

Three days. And he is yours. Yours, for we never had a choice.
Hunger or royal dungeons are yet more spears to tear out
Entrails — war but a swifter end. Now leave, lest rage find voice,

Blight you, finally hurl: may you never taste faith or grief,
Amity, awe; you waging war and peace to metre
Time on earth, may your eyes never enjoy your own fief.
Three days, then, to steep each nook of home and heart with his
Lilt, his laugh. Three days to touch a gaze in relief,
Etch smile and sudden frown in folios of the mind.

Constancy V

Before god
Before the dead
Before children
Before a world
Dance.

Before the sea drowns
Before clouds conflagrate
Before the phoenix drops
Before thorns flower
Write.

Before you leave
Before I lose
Before it rives
Before they blaze
Ravel.

Before you leave home, banished to a land named Alone
Before I lose my voice — voice that will roam spheres seeking yours
Before a border rives language from love, marrow and bone
Before words blaze through veins in jagged tongues of fire
Ravel wild cursives from a pledge
      Retrieve its letters — vowels, abjads and all
           Send them to safety, from lip to lip to heart and lung.

Before the sea drowns, gills clogged by a reign of blood
Before clouds conflagrate, scorch the seasons, rain dark light
Before the phoenix drops her song, sealing the casement to dawn
Before thorns flower in bronchioles and branches crowd airways
Write it all — little stories, giant histories, a few myths
      Tie them to cottonseeds, so they fall in distant hands
           Etch a copy on memory’s palms: call it the human crease.

Before god dies, smile trampled, a thousand arms crushed underfoot
Before the dead return like moonlight, trailing white ash and regrets
Before children swap marbles for slugs and swallow darkness at meals
Before a world of straight lines and ironclad right owns your eyes
Dance, dance on vanishing shores between night and half-light
      Return, return to nest like stacked spoons, lock chest with spine
           Twine hip and thigh, knit ten fingers, purl the lips — once more

                    Before the battle.

Constancy VI

What more is there to say we breathe we act we live until we die*
there will be more there may always be more more thought more
hope more prayer more please more planets and comets more orbits
for moons
more oceans with mountains more scree more rage in the
rivers more livid fear
more waves more trees more lore more birds
more arms their feet
more beckoning shores and yet and yet and yet
more is not enough never nearly enough to hold this day in the heart
of a palm
to lull today to safety to stillness for time does not snag
between our lips
for thought just weighs a syllable for hope leaves no
contrails
for prayers deliquesce for pleas leave no ashes for comets
care little for you or me
for orbits have no desire for moons are
lighted shadows for oceans cannot impale red stars for no mountains
could halt today for rivers will not rise to snare the sun for trees hurl
no branches to tangle the moon
for birds will founder and arms and
legs do tire for no waves stifle divine decrees for the lore always lies
for the song must end for this day this one last day before the battle
must blaze white and die with its colours like hours falling sideways
shredding dry seas with rain staining indigo earth once again for
night flows like sand for night catches like wildfire
for this night is a
beast three lungs two throats a belly with barbels but no eyes nor
ears and never skin its throats spewing anthems of unreason for this
night tonight churns living metal mineral souls old blood for the
battle begins in the night of our fears
for all that is left for all that is
left to sight to claim to own
is a distant shore of yesterday all that is
left to touch to trace to  memorize is the tattoo of my breath on your
brow
for until we die we live we love we kill and there is little more
to say

 

About the Poet

Karthika Nair – Life and Works

K_Nair_by_Mujib_MK

Photo Credits: Mujib M.K.

Karthika Nair is a noted young Indian poet writing in English. She was born in Kerala in 1972. With her engaging poetic voice, she has tackled no less an epic than the Mahabharata in her Until the Lions practically retelling the main narrative from the perspectives of its marginalised characters, mostly women. Until the Lions, published by Harper Collins Publishers India Limited (2015), and Arc Publications, UK (2016), has won the ‘2015 Tata Literature Live! Award for Book of the Year (Fiction).’

Karthika Nair went to Paris in the year 2000 to study for a Master’s Degree in Arts Management, and has settled down there, building her profession as a dance producer and curator in France and elsewhere in Europe, over the last 16 years.

Her debut poetry collection Bearings was published by Harper Collins Publishers India Limited in 2009.In 2011, she scripted DESH, choreographer Akram Khan’s award-winning dance production, along with performance poet Polar Bear and Khan himself. She was also principal scriptwriter on Chotto Desh (2015) its adaptation for young adult audiences.

Her children’s book The Honey Hunter (Editions Hélium – Actes Sud/ Zubaan Books, 2013) illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet, has been published in English, French, German and Bangla.

In Karthika’s Résumé as a dance enabler, ‘one finds mention of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet, Käfig/ Mourad Merzouki, two Olivier award-winning dance productions, Auditorium Musica per Roma, the Louvre, the Villette, the Shaolin Temple in Henan, misadventures with ninja swords and pachyderms, among others, many of which materialise in her poetry (though, hopefully, not into the retelling of the Mahabharata),’ as she quips.

Having spent her childhood and adolescence travelling around the world, Karthika’s poetic self has developed through communion with different cultures, and yet has a definitely Indian thread passing through lending a rare authenticity to her work. In an interview with Tishani Doshi in Granta she says:

‘Do I feel part of a lineage that is particularly Indian? That’s an endlessly intriguing question. Maybe it stems from having no background in literature, and uprootedness as a way of life since childhood, but I take after Kolatkar’s crow (though, alas, am nowhere near as balletic as he) and pick up things from all over, whether shards of mirrors and tangled bits of string or remnants of bone – lineages too, especially mythical – to build my nest.’

The opening poem, “Breath,” deals with the reality of the present, the realisation that one is alive just because one is able to hold breath, however laborious the task is in the middle of the process of inhalation and exhalation. The insistent tone gives the reader a kind of lingering, tactile feel of the passage of air.

“Inheritance” is a memoir-poem that carries personal memories poignantly universalising private emotions through the magic of art.

“Blueprint for a Victory,” “Uttaraa” and the four poems “Constancy” 1, 3, 5 and 6, all excerpted from Until the Lions, courtesy HarperCollins Publishers India (2015), present the reader with the elemental Karthika Naïr. Carrying on with ‘touch’ in “Constancy 1”, the poet elaborates on the theme of the inevitable victims who have little choice in joining sides, and getting impaled on the enemy’s spear, in “Constancy 3”. The prose-poem that is “Constancy 5” turns into a whirling mass of forms and colours reminiscent of a flashing pirouette, performing to a shooting crescendo. “Constancy 6” acquires some kind of a ritualistic effect of chants by the repetitions as if working towards a sacrificial oblation of cosmic proportions which translates into a final battle in which even god dies.

Poet Bio by A.J.Thomas, Poetry Editor, Y Blog