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The Poet’s Crime

The Poet's Crime and other poems by Ashwin Kumar

The Vigil’s Progress

We begin with the immediate memories

Grandpa’s last phone call to each one of us

only to hand over the receiver to grandma

both hard of hearing and full of love

Armed with pliers and a length of copper

he repaired our mixers, transistors and bicycles

changed the chandeliers and polished the doorknobs

while grandma kept her third fast of the week

Slowly but visibly, the body is growing cold

the sockets of the eyes are sinking in

the peace that’s settled on his face

is unlike any we knew when he was around

His honour had real tokens - an unending supply

of soap at home, the freedom to watch

gooey serials with the TV at full blast and a roof

he paid the rent for till he breathed his last

The gathering has now dwindled to a circle of cousins

The night has grown deep, with a tiny pill

my cousin sedates grandma to save her

from going mad in the diaphanousness of grief

We recount his days match-making and house-hunting at large

the day he saw a fellow line-man electrocuted

when someone closed a circuit before the men came down

He always ended the tale by saying that could have been him

The lamp needs ladles of oil and someone

among us shall keep it alive in the coming weeks

For grandpa, who claimed the laurel of electrifying entire villages,

the modest wick seemed too thin a conceit

He was an infant when the plague took his father away

and made his mother a widow of shaven head

He grew up at the mercy of relatives who grabbed their land,

and it always seemed this tale was of another man, faraway

By dawn, grief has given way to fatigue

whose origins lay in a place beyond words

The Brahmins prepare to send him off

with a thousand names of God

One of them says his actions are beyond reason

and another of his unbounded wrath

My grandma sees her husband in some of them

The rest of us, novices at death, are perplexed by everything

They take him away and consign him to fire

and we have a meal which grandpa relished

The daughters, grandchildren and grandma, then

play a rambunctious game of dice with passion, glee and bile

Through the watches of the night and by the day

we send grandpa heavenward, borne by our mirth

The living vindicate the dead thus

and the inscrutable dead live on in us.

Madonna and Bambino

Clinging to the bosom of the young maid, clad in blue,

lies the infant, Jesu, a ball of light

around their crowns an ancient halo

a tender ivy of light untouched by flesh

The land of deep valleys, with

Judea’s sea behind it, desert country

the pale glow of the breast-feeding mother’s pallorless bones

spread across the canvas like silver flour

Even with the infant at hand, her face betrays no smile

to what immemorial sorrow does she stand testimony?

the cherubs fuss around the firmament

the soothsaying magi crowd

Well before the day

when they hammer this child to a crucifix

and the motherly womb writhes in pain

did the heart foresee a distant sorrow?

Did the Lord’s truth, indecipherable to men

shine through in a moment’s flash

and a thirty and two years ahead of its appointed hour

leave in its wake a face frozen in grief?

(Note: Medieval paintings of Mother Mary and Infant Jesus depict the young mother in grief. Theologians argue, and art historians concur, that her face betrays foresight of the impending tragedy.)

The Poet’s Crime

Urchins have run away with the couplings of the track

The train is here in a moment

Will a concerned eye see this

A child leaning from the balcony

With the ramparts about to give way

Will a hand hook the nape

A lonely girl by the bridge

A beehive bursting in her head

Will a stranger pass by

The blind man's stick taps against the slab

Its cracks awaiting a final step

Will a passer-by shove him

I witness these happenings

But the world's appearances dazzle me

If only someone else were here, just in time.


About the Poet:

Ashwin Kumar teaches writing and translation at Ahmedabad University. His research is in philosophy of culture, and his book "Nationalism, Language and Identity in India: Measures of Community" has been published by Routledge. He also writes in Kannada and translates into it.

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