Five poems by Perumal Murugan from his days in exile

A selection from the poems that the Tamil writer wrote after being persecuted by caste and religious groups for his fiction.

Never have I not been engaged in the act of writing.

Of course, the pressures of material life have kept me from writing now and then. But even then my mind was always ticking with ideas. I don’t know whether I had the ability to stem the flow of my thoughts and to exert control over them. But I know I never felt any desire to rein them in. Many of those thoughts just ran away and never came back. There have also been those that only appeared to run away but actually stayed buried inside and later expressed themselves when I put pen to paper. Writing to me is a habit of the mind. And poetry is my ideal. It is close to my inner being. Right or wrong, it allows me to give vent to my feelings and emotions.

Poetry, to me, is a vehicle to recover from anything. No matter how stressful the situation, I have been able to endure it, hanging on to the tip of the one word that takes shape in my mind. This habit of talking to myself sometimes even manifests in the movement of my lips, when my thoughts are given shape as spoken words. That has caused some amount of trouble in the outside world. And there are many lone words and phrases that have never got written down. While it is true that I cannot take pride in every such word that takes shape in my mind, I had always thought of this mental habit as a boon.

But there came a moment when I realised this boon was a curse, and I stifled it. I thought I was done with it, that I could perform the final rites for it and get on with my life. But I couldn’t. I felt like a dead man walking, though there was nothing I could do about it. I had throttled the voice, killed it. I hoped that I’d soon stop grieving. But that did not happen either. Perhaps I was not strong enough to kill. Thus, for a long while my mental habit lay ailing. But finally it rose with a roar and possessed me again – words, thoughts, poetry. And then it seeped in all directions like an unstoppable spring.

When I found an opportunity, I set the words down on paper. They kept coming forth like never before. Poetry is a great medicine, a rare herb. It was poetry that revived me.

A Great Stream

Nameless, endless
impassable forest

Alone, a lamb bounds about
making new pathways
as it runs

As it runs
it leaps
to cross a great stream
that has appeared suddenly

It is possible
that it would cross the stream and look back in wonder
It is possible
that it would falter in its leap and fall in and die

May the wide-mouthed stream do right
by the lamb

~ 22 February, 2015

A Strange Beast

My very existence becomes a threat to anyone I meet

As soon as I enter
they close doors and windows
As soon as they see me
they hurriedly send away their guests
They drift away from my words
and look anxiously around
They fall silent
They make plans to send me away quickly

They text from their cell phones under the table
informing god knows who about my visit
They take photos with me
and leave
They try to make a rare wonder of my voice

Someone has painted over my head
a pair of horns everyone can see
Someone has turned me
into a strange beast

~ 22 February, 2015

Names of Days

Names of days
have become ruins of antiquity
We can give them new names
by flinging up new words
from the warehouse of language

Week, month, year
all such calculations too will go obsolete
Even day

We shall name a day Cuckoo’s Call
We shall name a day Scattering of Snow
We shall name a day Stone’s Softening
We shall name a day Mountain Peak
We shall name a day Crescent Moon

Each unlike the other, each unlike the other
So many days

We shall name some days
Devil’s Scream
Fool’s Grunt
Corpse’s Stench
And get past them easily

~ 23 February, 2015

A Language Without Nouns

All that get caught like cobwebs in the broom
of the man who set out to cleanse language
are nouns

He keeps clearing away
at the reeking mass
that are the names of people
Trash piles up high

Names of places go into the pile
along with names of people

Nouns for things, nouns for time
Nouns for qualities, nouns for body parts
Nothing survives

only verbs leap about
all over the dictionary

Conceding to the pleadings
of the language-mother who stands frozen
he magnanimously allows some nouns
but not the ones for people
and the places they live in

Unable to bear the sting of her entreaties
he allows pronouns too
and sets the broom down
in a corner.

~ 23 February, 2015

A Divine Tongue

I am angry enough
to sing a song of curses at all of you

I am angry enough to curse
that the hands that burnt my effigy
shall char in the same fire
That the words that flew at me
like poison-soaked arrows
shall turn back to go
and wound and kill
the stone hearts that sent them

I am angry enough to sing
Oh you guardians of morals
May the screens part
and expose your truths
May the lord of cremation grounds
dance, smearing the ashes
from your powdered bones

I am angry enough to sing
a song of curses
That lips that spout lies shall burn and wither
That crowds that gather quickly shall die

But my divine tongue has no words
for curses
Go away, live!

~ 26 March, 2015

Excerpted with permission from Songs of a Coward: Poems of Exile, Perumal Murugan, translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin India.

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