(Pandemic Poems for the Devout, the Insensate, and the Faint of Heart)
We assemble in the gulf between the old broken landmass and the unknown island, in our prosthetic muzzles and snouts, made restless and jumpy, panicked by this hairy endeavour into ordered procession, bent in all directions by grain, fruit, and instant noodles, by boxes stamped with party logos that refuse to lighten or float like Rama’s magicked rocks. “It’s all too heavy, man!” We yearn to build bridges, to stack, cement, to work, to huddle and collaborate, but this is an isolationist war, and to stay alive, survive, one must stand alone. Viruses, unlike asura kings, have no motives or lusts. Their kingdoms cannot be set alight by simple fires or cowed into compliance with righteous violence. Their vaccines don’t grow wild on dirigible mountains. Perhaps we are better served by less ambitious tales – of ring-a-ring-a-roses or lonely breadcrumb trails – than empty boasts relayed from long-winded thrones made of loopy monkey tails.
2. On the Nose
Interstate milk truck, sicksweet vacuum-tube of rot: tin can for migrants.
3. Humble Request
Go, Corona, go! Go where the vessels haven’t clanged! Kindly spare the true patriots! (Focus on the Tukde-Tukde Gang!)
Go, Corona, go! Go where you know them by their dress! Kindly spare us Sanathanis! (But please infect the Sanskaar-less!)
Go, Corona, go! Go where the lights are still switched on! Kindly spare the Bhakt brigade! (Feel free to kill some non-Mitron!)
Go, Corona, go! Go after the Sickulars and Reds! Kindly spare our Saffron friends! (We’re running out of hospital beds!)
At unbridled, untethered twenty, I would measure my rides to that (certainly not this) college town — that lemon-and-eggshell homeostatic asylum for creative misfits — using, for signage, succour, pitstops and piss stops, lakes, banyan trees and omelette vendors, barbershops with chrome-and-rexine chairs, crone men with beedis behind ears hunched around the daily weather report like crows worrying at a fallen squirrel, jasmine, jackfruit, flames of the forest, snake-infested ruins of temples for misappropriated gods, the old brick factory, its tall red chimney blowing smoke at the police station athwart like a lonely, ageing pothead courting detention, courting love, this Andhra mess with the curd so thick you could sculpt it, that vada joint with the paperplane dosas, the reaching wind, its fingers running cold and warm,
raking sharply across all of nature, prehistory, my flatted hair, reeking of permanence, every bit of it a glorious lie. Because six hard lanes have since stamped out every living feature, every fold, hair and pimple, on Bellary Road, and I can’t see my place in it any longer. The old map is ash and rubble. The Parsee Tower of Silence jitters with the rumble of jet engines, cash registers, and the screams of ride-sharers and gig-workers hailing swift passage away, across, aloft, anywhere but here. The vultures are dead, gone, eaten, beaten, overtaken by their own morbid function. Townships, Layouts and Communities have uprooted or walled away the hallis like unclaimed, unmarked graves. The granite hills are bombed out shells. No, I cannot reconcile these two highways,
the one I see and the one I remember, just as I cannot fit my bloated thirty-seven into this jigsaw hole that’s still shaped like a crisp-edged twenty. What, then, gives me the right to judge the art, the passion, and potential of these soft young hopefuls who look and sound the way I still feel — bright, brittle, afraid, and full of bluster? When so much of the world they inherited is so dulled and compromised, why must they also tolerate the criticism of strangers? Or must I show them truth and horror so they may harden their backs against the highway’s next assault on fragile, aimless memory? Or perhaps the highway will, one day, wind back around, disappear into itself, and re-emerge as a smaller, milder, less ambitious metaphor for expectations, progress, or the many crimes of Time.
D.I.B.: I told you, you have the wrong number! [Hangs up]
Caller: Who am I speaking with?
D.I.B.: This is DIB XXXXXX speaking. Who is this?
Caller: Ah. So this isn’t the Telecom Ministry then?
D.I.B.: No, it isn’t! [Hangs up]
Caller: Hello? Is this the Telecom Ministry?
D.I.B.:[On intercom to Sec.:] Mohan, pick up the parallel line. Yeh call trace karo. [On telephone:] Yes, that’s right, this is the Telecom Ministry. What can we do for you?
Caller: Yes, well, I am calling to make a complaint. All my calls to the Telecom Ministry keep getting forwarded to the office of the Director of the Intelligence Bureau. It’s most annoying.
D.I.B.:[On intercom] What? Traced? Good. Have this joker arrested, locked up and beaten mercilessly. [On telephone] Sorry, wrong number. [Hangs up]
2. In which a violent death is reported:
31 October 19XX, XXPM
D.G.P. Mr. XXXXX: Directorji, hello! This is XXXXX speaking! I assume you have got the news by now?
D.I.B.: Hello, XXXXX-ji! What news are you referring to?
D.G.P.: That Mrs. GXXXXX has been shot, of course. I called to ask if…
D.I.B.: My god! Mrs. XXXXXX has been shot?? XXXXX-ji, I have to hang up, I’m sorry. I must speak with the A.D.! [Hangs up]
D.I.B.: Hello, XXXXXX?
P.A. Mr.XXXXXX: Yes, sir?
D.I.B.: Connect me to Mr. XXXXXXXX immediately.
P.A.: Yes, sir. Please hold the line.
[Shehnai rec. plays for approx. 15 seconds]
A.D. Mr. XXXXXXXX: Hello?
D.I.B.: Hello, am I speaking with XXXXXXXX?
A.D.: No, sir. This is Cutts, sir.
D.I.B.: What? Who?
A.D.: Cutts, sir. The butcher, sir.
D.I.B.: What?? Who??
A.D.: Hahahahaha! I fooled you again, XXXXXX-ji! Hahahaha! A little Hergé humour there! How do you like that?
D.I.B.: You idiot! You [expletive deleted] idiot! Mrs. XXXXXX has been shot at! Haven’t you heard??
A.D.: Hahaha! Good one, XXXXXX-ji! Good one! But I’m not so easily fooled! Haha!
D.I.B.: This is no joke, XXXXXXXX! It’s a genuine emergency!
A.D.: Aahahahaha! That’s good! An emergency, indeed! That’s priceless! Hahaha!
D.I.B.: [Expletive deleted] your worthless [expletive deleted], XXXXXXXX! [Hangs up]
3. In which a large order is executed:
2 November 19XX, XXAM
Caller: Hello! Hello, sir! [Static] six kilos [static] sent!
D.I.B.: What? I can’t hear you! Six kilos of what? Sent where?
Caller: Yes! Six! The purest grade of [static]… It will be a [static] explosion of [static] sir! Aapke mehmaan sab [static].
D.I.B.: What? An explosion? Where? [On intercom to Sec.:] Mohan, pick up the parallel line. Yeh call mein trace lagao, jaldi!
Caller: Sir? [Static] Sorry, cannot hear [static] hope it will [static]. It has been [static] for hundred heads, as [static] ordered.
D.I.B.: What? Who is this?? I repeat: WHO am I speaking with?
Caller: This [static] from [static] Chandni [static], sir. Where we [static].
D.I.B.: [On intercom] Traced? No? Hurry, Mohan! [On telephone] Er… Hold on. [On intercom] Mohan, do we have a unit in Chandni Chowk? [Expletive deleted] it, I cannot understand if this is our person or theirs. [On telephone] Please explain yourself! Are you making a threat or identifying one? Hello?
Caller: [Static] your house. [Static] sent. I will call [static] bad line [static] okay. [Hangs up]