New Delhi in Winter

Those mornings in the last days of December,
as the smog deepened over the mausoleum
& the ghost of the emperor’s first wife
lingered about the four gardens, weeping
over her dead child
until a solitary jogger tore the curtain of fog
with a flashlight, making her flee
through a chink in the heavy lid of the small red tomb,
I rose at dawn, washed my face with water
cold as needles & went to work, stomach taut
as deerskin stretched over the seat of a chair.
On the terrace garden above my office,
I drank coffee & smoked a long cigarette
as something unnameable loosened its grip on my neck.
I remember thinking then, This cannot be
the worst of my days, but mostly I remember
myself in some variation of afraid.
Why, I can’t tell.
I had a job, an apartment,
& a woman who claimed to be in love with me
less & less each day. The city’s gray tongue
licked the windows of our room & I knew
they would come for us soon,
that one of us would be called first
to initiate the slaughter, then later
led into a dim corridor to watch
through a one-way mirror the other
slipping on entrails, trying to clamber out of it.
At the parties, I got drunk & cursed everyone.
At home, I smoked anything the women
from the university brought me.
I wrote poems that went on for years into my sleep.
When we finally parted, the city shrank
down to the few bars, her dentist, the hospital
she drove me to where they treated
the third-degree burns from the hot oil
that jumped out of a pan one night
to grab the back of my hand.
The billboards outside the malls looked
vulgar, like my scarred hand in the yellow
light that fell on the pavement. But always
that serious joy in the drunken body
stammering home in the dark.
In the daylight I felt dizzy with fear
of running into her. This vast city
open to invaders & vagrants for centuries
now small for two.
A few things became clear to me then.
The body itself has no use for hope.
It hardens in grief to live beyond hope.
And the only real use of narrative is to cheat
that ancient urge inside us, pale animal
with its face resembling the inside of our death
masks, its long unheeded, persistent murmur
clearing into a deafening verdict: Leave.

The Singing Bone

The shaman comes to the valley after midnight
Circling our boarding house. Pinned to our small beds
In terror, we listen to the clean music of bones.
Later, through a rift in the curtain, we squint into the mist
But cannot see the past from a man
Blowing the trumpet of a suicide’s hollow shinbone.
Twenty years will pass before I understand this music
Robbed from a grave. Sleepless in the new world,
Listening to the labouring salt trucks make rounds
On the frozen streets, it will come back to me
All at once: the echo chamber of the creaking bamboo
Grove where we smoked our first cigarette,
The army of deaf and mute in the village who spoke
Only in obscene gestures, the lonely daughter
From the herbarium who wrote letters to us
In a hen’s scrawl. The old house replaced
By something modern, architecture standing in
For a woman’s death. Her husband’s slow breakdown
Coursed for months, the clocks telling him to jump
Off a cliff, the second marriage hurried in mourning.
The white seed of lunacy sleeps, then swells to its fate.
But all our fears of summer snakes & rabid dogs,
Everything depended on them granting us safe passage
Through fields redolent with the smell of semen
After a night of rain. Caught in the downpour,
We stood under eaves of caves. The wind churned,
Some vegetation pushed up lightless from the silver-blue
Mud. We hollowed hovels out of lantana brambles
Where we spoke in the voices of already grown men.
In winter, I traveled down as the coiling roads of the world
Grew dark. I held my insides, bile-soaked, where joy
Trembled. Prospect of home washed in the retch
Of anxiety. My history of nausea in the cold half-
Light of childhood, where did it come from? Mother,
Or the long descent in the old manner of hell –
The asphalt frozen, slippery all the way home.
The shaman returns the next morning for alms,
Turmeric, rice, strip of black cloth. We circle him,
The mystification undone in daylight. Just a man bruised
From the cold, with children starving somewhere
In the mountains across the border, as we sit here
Goading him to reveal to us the singing bone.

National Grief

After L Cohen

We grew heavier not with grief but numbers
as if we had suddenly become aware of the air
we stood in. As if we had only walked

lightly in a dream before. We heard
on the news a man had trekked seven hours across
the war-torn border into Aleppo to smuggle

toys for the children, so they could play
inside a bomb shelter. Someone heard
the mad sultan’s ghost weeping

near the old mausoleum in Delhi, the day
a man died in a stampede outside a bank.
In a lab in Berlin, scientists tickled rats

till they giggled to their little deaths.
One morning in early November, stunned
silence sealed the air of fall, as if

some brute had risen to power. Nervous
laughter broke in corridors & all day yellow
leaves emptied aspens in a feverish spell.

A man drew a knife inside a city bus
as the thick snow curtained the world outside
in a vast white of indifference. The quiet

that followed, unlike the one that settles after
the barbarians come down. History, that slow child,
kept working on some infinite homework.

Lost, Hurt or in Transit Beautiful

Excerpted with permission from Lost, Hurt or in Transit Beautiful: Poems, Rohan Chhetri, HarperCollins India.