Within it, the stillness

This is the verdant Cauvery delta. The Vennar distributary glides through lush paddy fields here in Tanjavur, singing songs from a past replete with sea-faring kings, opulent cities, magnificent architecture and enduring culture. Tanjavur — capital of the mighty Chola dynasty that ruled this part of the southern peninsula for many centuries. A solitary pond heron on the far bank studies its reflection. Blood was spilt here. Temples were raised. History was shaped and reshaped on the banks of the Cauvery. The river that knows it all.

water. time.
the relentless movement.
within it, within it, the stillness

A beloved king. A venerated deity. A stunning temple. Legend has it that elephants dragged giant blocks up an inclined ramp to construct the tower that soars over 200 feet. This was more than a thousand years ago. You can sense that energy. You can feel spacetime collapsing. You know several generations have sat where you sit, have felt what you feel, have seen what you see. So has Raja Raja – king of kings. The tower takes on a golden hue as the sun sets slowly. The sun that knows it all.

first light:
the flutter of wings, the temple bell,
a breeze waking stone after stone

That isn’t the only great temple. A few miles down, the heir repeated the feat of his father raising a graceful edifice with breath-taking craftsmanship. A century later, another Chola monarch erected a formidable beauty with decorated columns and horse-drawn chariots carved from stone. The gods were exalted with wisdom and skill, faith and art. Human endeavour that has survived to tell its tale. I wonder as I walk down a pillared corridor, if I have those tools. What do I hold dear? How do I revere? What story do I tell? I see them stand strong and tall. The temples that know it all.

not yet dawn
not quite night, just a fragile hush
as if the sky is about to answer

Paddy fields line both sides of the highway. I stop to watch the white egrets poke around in the water. The roar of the irrigation pump, the outlines of tractors and bullock-drawn ploughs, the bent backs of toiling farmers, kingfishers and drongos perched on overhead wires, large statues of village protector-deities — fierce warriors watching over people and livestock and crops, the romance of pastoral deliberation, the aroma of frothing cups of filter coffee, life as I know it fading into the distance…I can understand how this moment contains everything that came before it. And everything that is yet to come. What matters, what can wait, what we need to do, what is beyond us. That truth has never changed. In all this time. Time that knows it all.

swinging from the branch
of a tamarind tree
the chain from an old tyre-swing

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India Travelogue… Tanjavur (The Three Great Living Chola Temples)

What the heart knows

Before dawn, the devout wait with offerings on one side of the road, tourists wait with cameras, on the other. This is the traditional alms-giving ceremony for monks and novices from the many Wats in Luang Prabang. An affirmation of community, dedication, faith, austere living and resounding quiet. What is it like to live like that, with the kind of simplicity that questions by just being, with a conviction that answers by not just being? To find yourself, how much do you have to lose? To lose yourself, how much do you have to find? Are these my choices?

inside the apple
the worm,
inside the worm, the apple

A bamboo bridge spans the Nam Khan River where it meets the Mekong, a tranquil horse-shoe confluence at one end of this quaint town. Nearby, an adept performer recounts stories of kings and demons, queens and lovers — myths from the rivers, the hills and the forests beyond — to the sound of the bamboo pipes of the Khene. Once upon a time. That place where everything begins. Love. God. Childhood. Memories. Forever. Once upon a time. The notes ring high into the starless night. Two rivers listen together, hand in hand.

soft starsong —
a cloud opens its arms
to a waiting moon

UXO- Unexploded Ordnance. The way wars from the past still continue to kill and maim. The UXO centre is like a slash of dark reality, away from the busy hub where cafes and temples sit cheek by jowl, where the brown Mekong slithers against the mountains, where the night market opens like a magic box with its bright lights and exotic aromas, where saffron-robed monks walk impervious to curious glances, where you are reminded that it is possible, somehow, to have a parallel reality without ordnance, without unexploded ordnance, without wars that don’t end, without wars, without a little girl picking up one of those deadly bombies in a paddy field.

for the cat
for the pigeon
more than enough sunshine

A small boat speeds across the Mekong. This river is an acquaintance, we have talked before, now it feels familiar, it feels strange. But we talk again. On the other side, on the undulating hills, between old-growth trees, curated gardens reveal surprises of joyous colour. As the evening grows long, the sun mixes in the brown water. Some distance away, in the tropical rainforest, water spills into cascading turquoise pools even as rescued bears recover in the sanctuary below the Kuang Si waterfall. This is tranquil land. Where the breeze gently traces the soft curves of the Wats. Where lotus flowers open and close in ancient ponds. Where the river walks with you. Even when you aren’t walking. Talks to you. Even when you have finished talking. Where lost dreams are found. Where the forgotten lives. Where wounds can, without even knowing it, be healed.

a lone bee
waits for a lily bloom:
what the heart knows, it knows

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Laos Travelogue… Luang Prabang

Some words I feel

Here, in the Dead Sea, I feel possibility. I, who cannot swim, can walk on this water. Here, the sun prepares for its downward journey, slowly, painfully, like a warrior who has seen too much, done too much. Here, the echoes come from a faraway time to brush your skin. Here, nature opens a tiny window to give you a glimpse of her power. This water holds you in a warm embrace even as you drown in the haunting stories of the hills and the wind and the sky.

like the throb of a poem
written long ago
some words I understand, some words I feel

Driving towards Karak, that early Spring, he pulls over, suddenly. Look, he says, pointing to a clutch of black iris plants, standing tall, seemingly alone, on the side of a dry desert road. Fragile, strong, the colour of night, the luminescence of a newly formed sun, a flower I had never seen before. How many things have I met in my life that are made entirely of primal joy?

the daytime moon:
      as if a child glued it to the sky
                     eyes bright with mischief

Within minutes, the dust encircled us, the sandstone rocks seemed to melt, the rat-a-tat of sand on the car-roof was loud, incessant and terrifying. My first sandstorm came without warning to Wadi Rum. We drank tea as we sheltered on a rock. The most morbid of fears are tempered by a cup of tea. This much is true. Storms rage for hours. But then they pass. That too is true. Most life lessons are learnt on that thin edge between how things are and how they should have been. That can be true, if you allow it.

because
the night never ends
it just turns to morning

I leave Petra not through the imposing Siq, but through a longer, more difficult route- Wadi Muthlim, the dark canyon that might have once directed flash floods away from the city. Squeezing through narrow tunnels, clambering over rocks, following a dry river bed, I find my way back into the sunshine. Enough time to wonder about what being in a place where people lived in such magnificence 2000 years ago, tells me about my own life, about what someone or something will know about me 2000 years hence. What is a trail that isn’t a trail left in stone?

everywhere a pebble has been
everywhere a wave has been
a part of me has been there, is still there

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Jordan Travelogue… Dead Sea/Karak/Wadi Rum/Petra

Swimming under the horizon

In Nairobi, after feeding a giraffe, I sanitize my hands with something smelling of lavender and the world I left behind. A safari guide laughs. A driver joins in. And another. They tell me giraffe saliva is a natural antiseptic. Something I should remember if I get lost in the savannah. The giraffes watch us, expressionless.

leaving our shoes at the door
we enter the stranger’s home
with bowed heads

Where the equator crosses the dry asphalt in Nakuru, young men show us science tricks. Water swirls in opposite directions in the two hemispheres. Not just water, I say to myself. It feels strange, standing there, straddling an imaginary line, as if I am larger than life and this planet that neither cares, nor stops to ask, is now, for the first time, beneath my feet.

swimming
under the horizon
fish tell fish ancient land myths

Face to face with a young leopard in Samburu, I wish I can tell what he is thinking. But here, in the wild, I want everything to talk so through their words, through their primal poetry, I can go back to the silence of the beginning. Before I was. Before they were. Before anything was. When everything made sense.

the delicate balance of being —
not one extra movement
not one extra breath

Then the sun sets over the acacia trees, the grass mirroring the hues of the sky, the distant roar of a lion turning everything surreal, the last impalas fading away, crocodiles now invisible in the murky water, darkness pouring down like rain, silhouettes draining into a black sea… between splutter and cough and growl and yawn, all goes quiet.

just the earth
still going round
and round and round…

 

Kenya sunset over the savannah

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Kenya Travelogue… Nairobi/ Nakuru/Samburu

A name he should not know

Of all the ways to encounter loss, I picked the one in which it arrives as a stranger. A stranger who emerges from the bowels of a subway station, into the sunlight, as I hurtle down the steps into the darkness, directly in his path, looking away, refusing to meet his gaze, only a strong musky scent of an unborn morning , staining the air as we pass.

It returns sometimes, that fragrance, like a wind from a faraway place, come to moult its memory skin . Or like a pigeon that flew into a room that it doesn’t know how to escape, thrashing against the glass pane, screaming at the walls in low, gurgling sounds, rising and falling, rising and falling, trapped, afraid…alone.

On some nights, the stranger stops and calls my name. A name he should not know. A voice I should not recognize. A longing that should not be. For a morning, yet to come.

what should we call it,
the sky that does not know
it is the sky?

A sacred middle

We build bridges. Bridges between our realities.

Temporary bridges. Retractable bridges. Bridges that will bring us back. Bridges made of dreams. Bridges made of fear. Bridges made of want.

But bridges don’t unite realities. They become an alternative. A sacred middle. Not belonging. Not owning. Distorting space. Distorting distance. I stood for long on a bridge that night, below a restless moon, above an endless landfill of broken bridges. Here the questions change. The premise changes. The headwinds scatter, directionless. Silence erodes into a roar. Time starts and stops. Starts and stops. Like the staccato hymn of a universe, spinning into itself.

At that point between truths, even then, the answers remain the same.

no road
no destination
but what if we had continued walking?

How does it begin?

I think it is the simplest thing I have to say, but it must negotiate a labyrinth of pride and bile with nothing to light its way. Last night, I studied its paradoxes through the evening’s strawberry haze. How does it begin? Wasn’t failure the first consciousness, wasn’t death the first precept. We know these things like the taste of our own mouths. Not as a taste, not as knowing. Still, we elevate their antonyms — a god, a love, a lover, a time — we embellish them with the infinite, the eternal, one thing containing the other, with victory. How else should we process our own defeat? How does it begin? Always, always with a desire for how it should end. And then we are working our way backwards while trying to move forward. How then, does it not get trapped in the middle? The simplest thing I have to say wants the complexity of your understanding. The first suggestions of darkness appear like clues across the sky.

a different wind
a different night
why would silence be the same?

On the Rough Road

On the Rough Road is a collection of haiku that I first put together in 2016 following a series of prompts on ‘Carpe Diem Haiku Kai’ based on Matsuo Basho’s ‘Oku no hosimichi’ (Narrow road to the Deep North)

Recently, I redesigned and edited the chapbook and though it seemed to take forever, it was a nostalgic walk through old haiku and haibun I had written, giving me fresh insight into my state of mind and writing style, then – and now.

Over the years, I’ve surely learnt a thing or two, but also lost something. I don’t entirely know what that is, but I believe some of my best haiku are in this little chapbook. For more details, check this link.

I chose one haiku to leave here today:

here, finally

i open my book of regrets

to the rain

Theorems of loss

What if you found a one-rupee coin lying in the dust on market street? Is it yours to keep?

What if you wanted to give it away? Is it yours to do what you will?

What if no one cares these days about a rupee more or a rupee less? Is it not something still?

What if the laws of belonging don’t apply to the little things, what if the theorems of loss cannot prove what doesn’t matter? How do their stories end?

And what if I forgot your lips and your eyes and the pain, what if that time fell soundlessly into a timeless sea?  Not mine, not yours, whose is that night instead?

sixth cup of tea —
this morning
is neither here nor there

Because February 2021

because the existential subtraction of the past year laid bare the excesses of my carefully contrived alignments,

because the new minimalist right angles of being are putting to shame the cursive blooms of February after a summer, a monsoon, a winter, of letting go,

because so much was so unnecessary, so exhausting, so mindless that turning away was turning inward, hearing myself, allowing the words to come when they were ready — like rain, like a storm, like the night — filling the spaces between here and sky, between me and myself, becoming a bridge that leads to another chance,

because when this stillness has passed, the chaos will come rushing back but there will be a memory of this time when so much nothing happened that it was still a little something,

because sometimes, something is more than enough

then the sky looked down
at the sea, and asked—
what is that strange colour?