When I walk back to this beach
I walk back from years apart, a life away,
Years of growing out of this narrow coast,
Growing into the things and people I now enjoy
Out in the bigger world.
When I walk back to this beach,
I find a beach grown fuller with the world,
Somehow bigger but smaller too,
Not that first little beach, my beach.
I walk myself back only to find
The beach has walked itself forward.

This beach I’ve walked back to
Is not that old bed of stillness and weight,
That blotter for my rage,
The place that taught me fear
The night I saw, washed up on its flank,
A bloat of flesh and bone,
A raft of violence done:
A trussed up, cut-up murder
That was once a living, feeding mind
Who, like me, may have walked to that beach,
Empty, lonely, hoping
For stillness and weight,
Who may have raged like me,
And then feared like me.
No cops marked the scene,
No witnesses, no noise, no moon—
Only the perpetual sea and me.

This beach I’ve walked back to,
Grown out of my narrowness,
Now filled out, filled in,
Enjoys, rather, a bigger world
Of people and things —
People who run to it, run in it,
Who run even in their starched veshtis,
Their burkhas made pregnant by the wind
And delivered by the spray,
Their pink and lemon silks,
Their tie-dyed chin masks,
Part flesh and bone, part kite and feather,
Streaming across the vivid sands
In a joyful blink, a flutter of sunspots,
Unmindful of the changing weather,
Casting their nets, their cares,
While the fishing’s still good.

But fear walks again on this beach,
A living, feeding fear that tumbles in
At moonrise with the Corona cops
In a violent tide of lathis and khakhi,
Truss of bloated curfew rules,
Sostenuto of brass whistles,
Murder in the high Cs,
In with the get-outs and stay-outs,
To cut up and drown the local colour.
As I am pulled away by the receding surf
Of pink, lemon, black and blue
(Running, streaming, silken,
Even in starched veshtis and parasail burkhas),
I turn, for one joyful blink, to see
The beach returned to how I saw it
Years away, a life apart,
Empty, lonely, hoping.

When the beach walks back,
Somehow smaller but bigger too,
It walks back to the self I knew:
That first little beach, my beach,
Bed of stillness and weight,
Old and narrow coast,
Unfilled, unfulfilled,
Blotter of age, of grief,
Binding flesh and cutting bone,
Only seen by me and the perpetual sea,
Raging yet again.

Vinayak Varma, January 2022

Until you reached for me,
we were the old cliché.

spun outside your orbit,
star without system.

consumed by my spirit,
terrorized by glass.

Until you reached for me:
No state, no reason;
no reason, no form;
one to another,
no pause, no surrender.

But then you reached for me,
crossed your heart
and hoped for me;

moved me,
rocked me,
tilted me;

kissed me,
licked me,
melted me.

Vinayak Varma, 2016

Dear dengue mosquito
Trapped in my car,
You think you’re so saucy,
Such a fucking Sheba,
With all your groaning,
Your sighs and whispers,
Your legs and wings
Brushing the backs of my knees.

Yes, keep nibbling at my ankles
And tickling my neck, go on,
When I’ve said NO, like, thrice already.
All this flailing and screaming
Doesn’t imply pleasure, you know.
That’s right, you bastard.
My blood type does not
Determine my consent.

That shut you up, didn’t it? Hello?
Oh, please. I know you’re still here.
I can see you lurking
Behind the dashboard.
Kindly end your tiresome games,
Your silly hide and seek.
Your brooding and sulking
Doesn’t impress me.

Really, you drive me so crazy!
This is the last time, I swear,
That I make the mistake of
Leaving you such an easy opening.
And I WISH we’d agreed on a safe word
Back when this damn thing got started.
(I asked for “release”,
But you wanted “death”.)

Vinayak Varma, 2018

Some moandays and bluesdays,
So dang sprawled across the summer earth,
Your tongue in the air like a poikilotherm,
Most of your joint in ashes,
All the light of the world
Having stripped off your eyelids,
And your hunger a mere
Rasam-itch in your stomach
(Not yet that unpleasant gnawing
For an everything-dosa
Or a nothing-but-vada),
It just ups and happens:
A window begins to vibrate,
Then the whole house gets the shakes,
And it feels like you’re jittering
Between four opposing realities,
You legendary, timeless pendulum,
Rattling through their eggshell skins,
And yet you fear — you know
That when the disruption subsides
You’ll land back in the same soft
Life you’ve always inhabited,
That the adventure of an all-new,
All-shiny timeline will elude you;
And you despair, of course, you despair,
But feebly, politely, without the kind of noise
Needed to drown out your still-baying hunger,
Or the horsefly ranting in your ear —
After all, the sunlight still warms your legs,
And the wind so smells of storm;
So you let those storybook characters,
The bears and crones and superhumans,
Back in your brain again, only because
Some pleasures are multiversal,
Because there are always timelines
Within timelines within timelines,
And because no later is better or worse
Than the sweet pain of now and again.

Vinayak Varma, 2020

(I love drawing hands, especially wrinkled hands that have learned to hold time.)

The evening flappers –
the crows and the hawks,
the crap-happy rodent pigeons,
the rubbernecker ducks,
and the lightning-rod bats —
they litter my terrace skies
like torn plastic liners
and brown-paper bags
relieved of the bin life.

If I could bird like them,
I would forget the earth altogether —
for why, then, must I,
grey-eyed and mysterious,
persist with the gravity of things?

An old poem from when I lived in a barsaati and spent my sunsets perched on the watertank — a dull, wingless thing watching those splendid things with wings doing unimaginable things in the sky. The accompanying illustration is from my book Jadav and the Tree-Place (Pratham Books, 2016).

Vinayak Varma, 2020

1. Coronayana

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!)

Vinayak Varma, 2020

Is no one else troubled by the lie
that lets these water parks function
while our reservoirs and dams run dry?
Nobody? Just me? Oh, come on!

And you’re all perfectly at home,
are you, with those ghastly little brats
there, drooling their entire microbiomes
into the goddamn hydrostat?

Not to mention that gassy grandma
who’s been yellowing the children’s pool
with a steady dribble of piss and drama.
(“I checked,” she claims. “I’ve broken no rule!”)

And those Speedo-goggled aunties
in their salwars and nighties,
hurtling down the water slides,
their faces deliquescing
like daydreams in the noontide,
like a salad undressing.

And check out the boxered brah-men
blessing the musical fountain
with their dripping holy threads,
their tripping, bobbly heads,
exorcising guilt and lust
with plangent pelvic thrusts.

Oh, that food stall’s meant to look like a bird.
(It looks more like a dinosaur’s turd.)
The poor ticket seller’s dressed like a bat.
(Seriously, boss, what’s up with that?)

I’ll come clean: I was only lured here
by the promise of free lunch and a beer.
So, no, I’m not getting in that queue.
Yes, I’m quite alright, thank you.

While you’re all swimming in e-coli,
I’ll be right here, chilling, getting high,
safely wrapped in raincoat and umbrella,
jotting down ideas for a horror novella.

(For G. & K.)

Vinayak Varma, 2020

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.

For the students of Srishti, old and new.

Vinayak Varma, 2020

“Elgin Talkies” / Copyright © 2020 Vinayak Varma

She was last seen in the abandoned house on St. Mark’s Road,
Floating above the broken syringes and beer bottles,
Lotus-legged and arms outstretched,
Radiating a swirling white light,
Scaring the shit out of stoner trespassers and bandicoots.

They say it was this fear of her inside it,
And not the fists of the goons outside,
That knocked the old house down.
Some know enough to know better
Than to know what they know to be true.

The City has moulted
Since the old house was broken,
Since that nasty, smelly witch —
With her judging eyes and shimmery hair —
Was last seen floating in it.

We’ve traded that rotted, storied skin
For this glorious armour of steel and glass.
And good riddance, boss. God only knows
What terrible dark magic those sags and wrinkles held.
Good fucking riddance.

(First published in Black Horse Review, November 2019)

Were you the nit who decided
that north is up, south is down,
west is left, and east is right?
Are you the hack who rhymed
“West” with “the best”,
and not “pest” or “infest”?
Is yours the East
that’s a mythical beast,
or, at the very least,
a weird sensory feast?
And are those things lining your soles
a pair of tiny magnetic poles?

In Space, every which way
is this-way-that-way.
Ignore all imaginary arrows,
only go by what your eyes can see,
travel far enough in a straight line,
and all norths become souths,
and all easts turn west.
Directions are meaningless
for excellent reasons
when you’re a cosmic turtle:
world-burdens are lightest
when down is also up.

In my unoriented map of India,
Kanyakumari is its crown,
while Kashmir is its spiky,
furry, prehensile tail.
Dravidanadu is the head and chest,
and MP, its queasy belly.
Gujarat and Assam
are its outstretched hands
(or perhaps the hems of its frock),
Bengal is a saucy hip,
Kerala, a bloodied lip,
and the NCR is on its knees.

“Quit messing around,” you sass.
“You can’t turn this country on its ass!”
“Shall I put the Centre here,” I ask,
“in the middle, next to its…
uh… place of business?
This makes both strategic
and semantic sense, yes?”
“No, you urban naxal,
the Centre always sits on top.
Nations can’t be ruled
from below the belt!
Brains can’t be stored in one’s legs!”

Because you’re such a mussel
(shellfish, mass of nerves,
and not an octopus
(eight twisty limbs
and nine twisty brains),
my omnidirectional atlas remains closed
to you and your crusty kind.
You may return once you’ve grown
an extra heart or two,
and ink sacs with the power
to blot out every latitude.

Vinayak Varma, 2020