When Vijay Nambisan’s poems appeared in a two-poet volume in 1992, Dom Moraes said the work was “an indication that Indian poetry, after many years of striving, ha(d) at last arrived at maturity.” That volume is now out of print. More than two decades later, Nambisan delivers his first full-length collection, in which learning and insight are animated by lightness of touch and an unmistakeable tone.


Crisp in the winter’s morning,
Softly all through the night,
What is this without warning,
Falling and white?

I have never seen snow
But I can imagine it quite –
Not how it tastes, but I know
It falls and is white.

One morning I’ll open the door
To bring in the morning’s milk,
And all around there’ll be snow –
Fallen and still.

How I’ll roll in the stuff!
How I’ll tumble and spin!
Until the neighbours cry, Enough!
And send me back in.

Nila in flood time
Niļa is a local name for the Bhāratapuzha, which flows across north-central Kerala to the Arabian Sea

Mornings in late July
Stern in the steel-grey skies
Warnings of thunder cried
Reminders of gain

Looked at the hard earth which
Spoke of our dearth, and rich
Smoke curled over the bridge
Praying for rain.

Nila lay cold and stark
Silver though was her spark
Filament of the dark
Thread in the sun

River so kind and cool
Reliever of summer's rule
Giver when to our cruel
Loom she be spun.

Who shall applaud her now?
When in thrall this is how
The call of the arrow
Summons the bow:

In coil on coil the snake
Steels all her strength to make
Always without mistake
That one springing blow.


Slowly she rose above
Lowly reef, spit and cove
Flowed to that one remove
Beneath the town

Then broke the waters pent
One stroke the pattern rent
Dark cloaked the firmament
The rain came down.

Rising to embrace us
Twining through embrasures
Smiling she increases
Giver of wealth –

Winding where she pleases
Minding no man-measures
Why should she displace us
But for our health.

Swelling a mile each way
Felling the palms to lie
Telling their tales to grey
Unmannered sky

Motionless in her sweep
Ocean is not more deep
Chosen secrets to keep
Than this of eye.


Blood and bone cannot stand
Flood and famine at hand
Rudely we understand
The day is now

One hour from the end
All ours may pretend
But powers of a friend
Have become foe.

How she batters the wall!
How she gathers her all
Howling the southwest falls
Upon a shore

That yesterday was ours
That festival and flowers
And arrested lovers
Kept tame ever more.

Lashing our flesh with cane
Smashing to mud again
Cash and the hoarded grain
And our tall walls

Believe, animals yet
Relive, or else forget
To scrive the alphabet
At that one call.


Goddess or madness, this
Glorious gladness is
Tore from us anxieties
Living a lie

Storm and suddenness shook
Form from fate, eye from look
Dormant the master woke
O thus to die.

Brown corpses rent across
Town, village counted loss
Blown and battered alas
We are still here

River we worshipped once
Stealer of spoiled sons
Deceiver, while she runs
What should we fear.

Fever of sacrifice:
Ever the victim vies
With the haruspices'
Vision of time:

Grey water running free
Straight to tomorrow's sea
Faith that I cannot keep
Go, and keep mine.


The poets die like flies but I am lying slightly to one side,
Contented in my Spain or Siam, content too to keep my hide.
How well they wrote, those friends now fettered, how the Indo-Anglian tongue
Allowed them to be lovely-lettered, their lives lived when the world was young.
I’ll live and hold my words in, for I am wearied of hypothesis;
And, in place of getting glory, kisses take from my missis.

Then the world shone, by their showing; then publishers seemed to care;
Then calls for cheques of last year’s owing did not fall on empty air.
Then newspapers asked them for pieces; and printed them unchanged; and paid;
But now there are so many wheezes which make the craft a thrifty trade.
In a wilder whirl of weeklies, tabloids titting on page threes,
I will shirk my duty meekly and kisses take from my missis.

They did not care much what the world said: they taught it instead how to speak.
They did not, when a poem pleaded, to meetings go in Mozambique.
But I will stay my poems, spending strength now with a shriller pen
My theme and language both defending, to live fourscore years and ten.
And if it prove my prime is over, if I’ve no chance at wordly bliss
Why I will spurn so false a lover and kisses take from my missis.

This hand once penned those poems: never shall I find so true a friend.
I’ve a thirst for all forever, but the lines come to an end.
So Arun and Dom and Nissim – I will shun their hard-earned grief
And much though I will always miss ’em, in softer shadows find relief.
And when I’m ninety and young writers ask why I wrote no more than this
I will answer, “But, you blighters! I kisses took from my missis.”


They hammered in the stakes and wound the long nets round,
Blue nets of nylon, about as high as where
They wound their dhotis, and I wondered as
I sat by the raining window what the blue meant,
The blue circles in the wet square of pasture.

Then at evening the boys drove up the ducks
From the river, squat and uncomplaining,
They herded them here and prisoned them in the
Blue cages. Then they went away. The rain
Sobbed till nightfall in the tamarind trees.

When the rain stopped the ducks began their noise,
Hoarse-throated, full-chested, and we heard them
Away in the big house, after dinner, and my niece
Asked, “Are they bullfrogs?” I said yes, or perhaps birds.
But I knew all the time they were only ducks.

Their noise is incessant, like frogs or crickets.
And sometimes to me it is like the river
A mile or two away, groaning of its strength.
Or like the rain as it winds the teak groves through.
Or sometimes, to me, like the song of birds.

I am still wondering what they’re doing there,
What’s being done to them. As I write
Again the rain is washing the still morning small
And the ducks are silent, not at all thinking
What manner of beast creates these hours of sleep.

The deserted temple

The god is gone. His cave is bare.
In shadow from the sun
The clotted bats hang from the roof.
Below, the scorpions run
And pious folk no longer come
Lest evil should be done.

Ruins of flowers on the floor
Bear imprints of his feet.
They point through the door into
The many-miraged heat.
His voice was heard. His fragrance kept
This prisoned air once sweet.

His voice was heard: It told his tribe
To leave this sun-cursed hill.
They went, and left his dwelling here.
They went; it was his will.
Who piled these stones knows when he comes
And where he stays until.

A little better

A little water trickled down a little pipe
Left leaning by the wall when the roofers
Had laid the guttering. It went along
The earth, asking until it was needed.
There is a little green thing there, hardly
A plant, come of a seed which lay in wait,
And whether it has leaves or feathers or
Wings, I must wait to discover.
It is
Not a green I care for: not a green I use
In crayon, or in cloth: too rich, too loud
With treasure, too pleased with itself.
They’d laugh, the harvesters outside
In the fields damp with paddy, their fingers
Clutching goodness, if I showed them such a yield!
The land is rank with rice this year, the price
Is down.
And so this little greenling sits
In the sun, satisfied with itself,
Whatever it is.
Whatever it is,
It cannot make things as they are any worse,
And nobody is the poorer for its pleasure.

Excerpted with permission from First Infinities, Vijay Nambisan, Poetrywala.