The Bearded Chameleon

Book Sample

Punjab Pastoral

I cannot hear the mermaid singing here
beside this irrigation channel, dug with hoes
and feeding sugar cane - a sudden crop
of sweetest cash, yet magical as staves,

lifted with their peasants from the tarot.
Who am I to drop out on a trek?
What’s in the sandy soil and running stream
that makes me hunch down like a rustic local?

This cotton shawl is pulled up round my ears
keeping out the fog as I defecate
on fallow field like any other farmer.
I wear a turban, bobbing like a sunflower

and green-checked lungi, that is now hitched up
above my knees, so that my own wet soil
can drop and find its way back into landfill.
It sounds quite pastoral and yet, this is

a place without a latrine, without a job
for every man; a place of raw mixed opium,
strained through muslin cotton, squeezed and drained
from a cup of steel, then put to bed at noon.

They will wake to arguments with sticks
beside the village pond, the tank - so wide
most think it’s like the Ocean none have seen.
Taaro, taaro, say devotional poems
sung through loudspeakers from the Gurdwara.
Swim the sorrow ocean of this world.
The only way a young man gets to leave
is selling his plot for an agent’s dicy promise

of a stamped visa to a foreign sweatshop.
Yes, they all want to leave and yet I’ve come
to squat and shit and chew on grass and spit
like village elders by the panchayat tree.

For what? A cultural look and see and then
to fly back when the travel cash runs dry?
They look and talk of me, the grubby kids,
dragging a stick of sugar cane in dust,

and mothers loading grass onto their heads.
I am the fool round here - that is for sure.
‘He must’ve a stash somewhere,’ Is that what they say?
I hear no mermaid singing by the canal.

Gurdwara: a Sikh temple

taaro, taaro: swim, swim in Punjabi
panchayat: a village council of five

after Federico García Lorca

At 8 in the morning,
at exactly 8 in the morning,
they wheel her through swing doors,
banging like a poltergeist.
The irritated doctor in a white coat says:
‘Why you came late? Too bad. Sorry.’

The taxi is a ticking bomb of commitments
having brought a woman who gasped like a dove.
Narayan, the driver won’t take any cab fare
as seven crows dance with the hospital roses,
and mynah birds stand around like gravediggers,
and black flies play tag above the power lines,
and ring road traffic has no time for time
at 8 in the morning,
at 8 o’clock in the morning.

The clerk asks: ‘Name, age, passport number.’
The attendants are ripping off her wedding ring -
a bangle, a steel watch, a shawl.
They are cutting her dress down the middle with shears.
You see through a slit in the curtains
at the shock of 8 in the morning.

The crisp sheet is pulled over tight.
She is dehydration on wheels, rattling to the morgue
as visitors attend their own rude endings;
and now, you know, with headache clarity
that you are alone, and again, alone.
Her dove-soft spirit flying up has left you
for some other place,
somewhere, where it is forever
8 o’clock in the morning.

You cannot leave the big house of chemicals,
this absurdity of roses outside the window,
cracked cups of chai,
the banging of nerves.
And you can’t wash the caste of ‘foreigner’
from your hands,
the in-triplicate sub-continent red tape days—
you, the machine of man-tears working overtime,
as the wall clock keeps on shouting and shouting
at 8 in the morning,
at 8 in the morning,
at 8 in the period of your mourning.

After the Taxi Halted

I was helpless, a passenger
during the final act of her breathing
that slipped beyond even its coma
as the taxi halted at the traffic light.

Perhaps, at that instant, she heard a call
like the muezzin in the mosque
and flew out through the mouth like a dove
over the morning rooftops.

Who can say? It is quite possible.

And maybe she is sitting now
in a garden where white peacocks roam
among  jamun tree and mango:
a place with no trouble or shadow.

She is arm in arm with those
who need not talk with their lips,
their faces, each, with a fine patina,
a portrait done by an old master.

I would like to confirm this -
with a gold club pass - even a used bus ticket
thrown back from the Other Side,
yet all I can offer is some wishful thinking.

What else on earth is left to us?

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