poetry picks

Five newly published poets reveal new directions for Indian poetry in English

A selection of their works displays clear-eyed, unsentimental lyricism and sharpness of imagery.

Subhashini Kaligotla

Kaligotla’s debut poetry manuscript, Bird of the Indian Subcontinent, was selected for the Emerging Poet’s Prize by Arundhathi Subramaniam, and will be published on January 15, 2018 by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.


Green Villa

1.

In the late afternoon I survey your estate.
A robin pecks in the front lawn,

prinias disturb the hibiscus; by six
geckos are out prowling the wall, hanging

by the porch. Soon the gardener and his wife
will come. The garden gate opens without a sound,

shuts with a clang. The neighbor’s fat labs bark hello;
I may walk across, or just look up

and say a word. Something to say
I see you in the world

2.

Along the roads’ asphalt, tall trees spread red canopies
and a familiar fragrance; flame of the forest

I retrieve from a distant place. Gulmohar.
To be alive in this heat, to be so unstinting

with flower, when evening brings sweat
not relief is to say being alive is reward enough

for hardship. Then, in the doctor’s yard,
a laburnum in bloom –

chandeliers of yellow, pendulous yellow,
the world is yellow, the stars must be this yellow.

3.

Seven is the time to meet the neighbourhood
on the main road and its arteries.

Like the imported dog and his trainer.
A skinny German Shepherd, young and uncertain,

and the man, stringing the unfamiliar English
into an unbroken song: sit – sit – stay –

stay – good – as he pushes the animal to the ground.
Dog and man, finding their place in a world

where desire is the only master, and who says
who keeps the world and who loses his place.

4.

Turning back, the road is calmer, though some still walk
in the dark and the temple speakers emit

piped devotions. In the last lane beware
of dog,
as two young Shepherds hurl themselves at the gate

no matter who passes. From the garden wall
a single solar lamp lights the path.

The air is humid and the flagstones wet.
The house is empty and the birds quiet.

The gardener has come and gone. The evening’s work
can begin. You left me a world when you left


How Sly the Heart

Send an innocuous, little text, she whispered. Make it short and flirty. No strings, no needs, no plangency. Just a thinking of you in Hyderabad sort of thing. I was tempted, sitting across from mother as I was, cut off from male company, except for the telephone men who wander through the house in their hapless way. While we, mother and I, devour hundreds of pages with our tea, swallow fistfuls of warm air with our bread, and watch honeyeaters sting the red throats of the hibiscus. This is the best time. Flocks of birds pass overhead, the heat subsides. Now is the best time. Scrawny-necked cormorants move in large crowds with quick wing beats. Egrets are slow and stately, intimate in groups of twos and threes. And the parakeets race like teenage boys, but before you can find their sound – a noise between harsh and kind – they’ve gone.

If equanimity should find me, it will find me in this place, at this hour, between six and seven, when the wanting stops and I am happy to sit and watch and have exactly what’s laid out for me.


Akhil Katyal

Katyal is that rare poet whose work is often consumed and loved by people who don’t usually read poetry. Following the publication of his critically acclaimed Night Charge Extra (from Writer’s Workshop, Kolkata), he returns in February with a chapbook from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.


Dehradun, 1990

As a kid I used to confuse my ‘d’s
with my ‘g’s, and that bit of dyslexia

didn’t really become a problem till
I once spelt ‘god’ wrong. That day,

the teacher wrote a strongly worded
letter to my parents, and asked me

to behave myself. Also, as a kid
I couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r’,

so till I was sent to some summer
vacation speech correction classes

at age 5, I used to say, ‘Aam ji ki
jai, Aam ji ki jai,’ – then a teacher

taught me how to hold my tongue against
the ceiling of my mouth and throw it

out quivering, ‘Rrrr, Rrrr,’ she wrenched
it out of me, over many sessions, ‘Ram,’

until then, I did not know god was so
much effort. Till I felt him tremble

on the tip of my tongue, god was only
a little joke about mangoes.


In the Urdu class

I confused my be with pe.

He asked me to write ‘water’,
I wrote ‘you’.

Who knew they’d make them so close,
Aab (آب) and Aap (آپ).

Both difficult to hold on to.


Linda Ashok

Ashok’s Whorelight (Hawakal Publishers, 2017) is an examination of womanhood which does not adhere to norms and expectations. Featuring a foreword from George Szirtes, the debut collection marked the arrival of a strong new voice.


Before Grandpa Became A Door

When things die
they become doors.

You are walking in and out
of such doors. If it is a dear door,

it will shut the rain from drenching
your heart. If it is a door you once met
in a busy metropolis then it is a door

guarding you when
you are waiting for a bus
in an abandoned street.

If that door is your neighbour,
the silence on your record player
is the door’s favourite number
to hold you from falling.

Every lover who left your sad eyes,
every child you never knew
but made the world a little believable,
every worker who crept into your spine
and woke you up to face the sun –
your family, little insects, trees around
and shelters – when they die
they are doors.

This moment when you are reading
about the dead becoming doors,
tread gently, you may be crossing a door.


The Pouring

Like the bird that carries worm in its mouth to feed her babies, mother fed us silence with her mouth. Sometimes, it came from her stomach.

When she baked chapatti, the black fume of coal made the skies quiver. They shed a drop or two for us to soak the bread in which our muscles grew.

We harnessed rain. Deep trenches, and sometimes for amusement, mother would release a tadpole and explain how not to wag a tail after promises meant to die.

Our home painted of the grey of her hair, is brighter than the insides of the sun if we can imagine burning has an inward exit.

So many things; the chula that burns with as much fire as it did when she handed over her belly to the nurses in a government clinic. Not once. Twice. Two of us.

Another time, she was Noah, built an arc, saved each species of memories, saved us from drowning. She would feel the wind with her wings before setting our sail.

Like the move of a gazelle under the scheming predator, time has left us here; mother waits. the whistle of train pours like milk in her cup of tea. And we turn beautiful like motes in the sun.


Sophia Naz

Naz is the author of three poetry collections that explore her South Asian-American identity. These poems are from her recent book, Pointillism, from Copper Coin Publishing.


Pecking Order

Your ears ripened early in the glare of the clucking. Reminded constantly that merely being alive was no less than a miracle. Because fourteen hundred years ago you would have been. Buried alive. And how is that different from this you wanted to blurt. But held your tongue. Bitten and hidden like everything else.

It is always and only them. Because they rule the roost. Your father and brother and gangly male cousins and their Adam-appled friends. Allowed to express their hungers. For them the choice cuts, the breasts and legs and for you the throttled neck. So crisply twisted and snapped at the butcher’s.

One time you won a wish bone. Along with it a pitying look. Siblings belonged to other countries. You had an immediate overlord. Nonetheless you slept with a bone like an incomplete heart. An interrupted sentence under your tear-damp pillow. What was the talisman meant to do? The next morning the sheets were stained with blood. You were eleven years old.

The trees are forbidden. As is the cricket match on the street. As is running in the lawn. Because who will be watching. There is always someone watching. The world is made of eyes. You are made of cotton and pause. Day is made of fullstops. Nights are off the record.


The Department of Wronged Rights

You have made a wrong right turn because left is right here and and we just wanted to drive that point home. (Your life is wood. Get the drift?) This is now a checkpoint. Please to sit. While you wait we will check you in a box. In triplicate. Bibi ji Are you by any chance that adâkara’s sister? (You mean the one who still lives on the tip of her tongue tied in brackets of silence stuffed in her straight faced helplessness?) Mutation would require you to visit another office (we only mince words here). On stamp paper. It doesn’t matter if you can sign your name, thumbprints are necessary. Only the right thumb is right. Would you look at the price of pomegranates? Tell me, how can a simple officer possibly raise one’s family in this mehngai? Please have some biscuit with the chai. Where were we? Yes. I was going to tell you about Siyah-gush, the Supari Djinn. It is he who cracks your nuts into a heart, he who folds your teeth into paper thin walls of limestone, your legs into eighths of red ochre, he who breaks your spine into a moist green triangle spiked with nails of clove, he who offers the bite of bruise-bright cardamom shot through with the tracery of electric moonlight jam down your throat. Benevolent or evil, it depends on which way the whim blows. You must not only believe he exists but solemnly attest before we can continue. Before you pass. Out of any port. You must. Solemnly attest. Before you pass out. We can continue.


Michael Creighton

Creighton has written a love song to a city many people would find unworthy of love. Released in December 2017 by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi Love Songs is a lyrical debut with an unusual subject.


In the Early Days of the BRT

I’ll never forget that 522
we waved down on Khel Gaon,
just as it started to pour.

Seeing me in my soaked shirt
and you in your bright red dress,
blue scarf and wet sneakers –

the only woman on that bus ­–

the conductor gave us his seat,
and several men smiled

and stared through
the crooks of their arms.
But by Ring Road,

all eyes had turned outward:
in that September rain,
Delhi’s lights shimmered

like your long glass earrings,
and a film of oil rose
to the top of the tarmac,

leaving the road
a pigeon-neck green.
At the Moolchand flyover,

the driver turned up the volume
and an old song blared
through the radio’s tinny speakers:

Today the weather is faithless,
there’s a typhoon on the way –
then the bus lane cleared,

and we all sped south watching
the stream of cars
barely moving below us.


Stirring

We threw open the windows
last week, and now

morning sweat sprouts
on the brows of city cyclists:

the calendar says spring,
but where I come from,

we’d call this summer,
and you know we have no word

for what comes next.
Give me a cool breeze,

a ceiling fan,
and a cold drink at dark.

Listen to the roads shake
under the rush of night trucks;

the lazy dogs are stirring now,
and the moon is high

and bright as any moon
where the air doesn’t carry

the weight of so much smoke.
Let’s go find something good,

my love. Let’s walk until
we reach new ground.


Curated by Urvashi Bahuguna.

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