The Brood

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 a younger time when I lived in a barsaati, my sunsets spent perched on the watertank above my room — 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

Coronaries

(Pandemic Poems for the Devout, the Insensate, and the Faint of Heart)

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

Water Bother

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

In Jury

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

The Old Woman of the City, Keeper of its Soul

“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)