Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Write...Edit...Publish... October 2014 : Ghost Story

Wow! where did that October go? The start of autumn is always a happy-busy time - all our main festivals are lined up one after another, beginning with the Navaratri and ending with Diwali.  Incidentally, there is a Halloweenesque festival tucked in that month of Indian fiesta too, the day before Diwali fourteen lamps are placed around the house as a mark of respect for "unsatisfied spirits".

So glad to sit down for some quiet and get back to Write...Edit...Publish, the monthly bloghop hosted by Denise Covey, wish you good health and happiness and happy writing always, Denise! The prompt for this month is a ghost story. 

Just want to mention here that a mushaira is a gathering of poets to recite their poetry, sometimes in competition, rather like a musical/poetic duel. A literary face off.  It is an Arab-Persian tradition that came to India centuries ago and survives in many parts of India and Pakistan. But Ruphail and its fair are completely fictional, of course.

The Mushaira

For most of the year, Ruphail was a village that lived in happy anonymity, minding its wheat-fields and corn-, its livestock and tractors, its library, station and a single school.  But every autumn, it was transformed by the biggest, grandest month-long fair, from the first night of the Navaratri to Diwali. 

The highlight of the fair was its annual Mushaira, where shayyers and qawwals from far-flung villages vied against each other.  For all its insignificance, Ruphail had consistently produced the champion -  Saif-ud-din Akhtar had held the trophy for several years now.  This year too, it was understood that he would walk away with it.


“Do get up, Pratap!”

“What are you doing poking people awake at the crack of dawn? What’s happened?”

“Saifu’s been bitten by a krait.  He’s in the city hospital.”

“My god, Bhule!  How is he?”

“No news still.”

“Will he be able to come back and compete in the Mushaira?”

“Pray that he comes back, Pratap.”

“Less than a week left for it.”

“I know!”


Pratap was practicing his routine for the fair – he was an amateur mimic and ventriloquist - when Bhule came in with Saif-ud-din’s notebooks.

“What’s the idea?” Pratap cocked an eyebrow.

“The idea is that you will take the place of Saifu.”

“What are you, crazy?  Everyone knows Saifu, they will make out instantly!”

“Well, actually they won’t, the judges and the other competitor-poets are all from outside, they might have seen him last year, not likely they’d remember every detail.  But that wasn’t what I had in mind.  You go as yourself, only recite his poetry there, that way Ruphail still has a chance at the trophy. Simple.”

“But that’s kind of cheating.”

“I suppose.  But no other way to the trophy.”

“And it’s very dicey indeed.  I won’t be able to respond properly to the cues.”

“Just learn the stuff by heart, whatever fresh material he’s written after the last Mushaira. Poetry’s all the same you know, moth-and-flame, wounded-hearts, blushing-rose, wine-and-Saki, same wine and same bottles, always the same blah.  Anything can be a cue, anything can be a response, and poetic licence is always there as a last resort.  Piece of cake, really.”

“I have a very bad feeling about this.  It’ll probably go horribly wrong.”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“How’s Saifu doing?”

Bhule looked troubled, the scheme blurred and the focus moved back to the real reason for it, lying miles away.

“He’s still critical. But stable.  Whatever that means.”


Pratap finished his routine early and moved to the other marquee alone. Though Bhule was supposed to meet him, he had not turned up.  Pratap made his uneasy way to where contestants were queuing for the competition. There were around ten people in front, a woman in a green sari; a suavely dressed middle aged man, too slick by half; a man wrapped up in a great khaki blanket-like shawl three places ahead of him.  He fidgeted nervously as the queue shortened.

Naam, janab?
Saif-ud-din Akhtar.

Pratap looked up electrified, it was the man wrapped in the shawl, his profile visible past the edge of the cloth on his shoulder and head.  He wanted to call out, but checked himself just in time.  It would be difficult to explain what he was doing in the poets’ queue.  So Saif-ud-din was back! Just in the nick of time too!

Relieved, Pratap smartly moved out of the queue and into the spectators’ area, keeping an eye out for Bhule.  He would give him a piece of his mind when that worthless so-and-so came in.  Imagine not letting him know that Saifu was back! Suppose Pratap had been in front of the queue rather than three places behind? He sat among the audience and tried to compose himself.

Meanwhile, the draw of lots was over, and the mushaira started.  Someone was reciting the opening quatrain of the competition.

“Where will you go, beloved, without me?
I’m the goblet, the wine too, and the Saki;
in your quietest taverns, I am the peace,
I am your passion and your poetry.”

Before the applause had fully died away, Saif-ud-din answered:

No, I’ve come too far, can’t feel the spell of your smile
open like a music box and reveal inside
the dancers, fuzzy-white, magical, fragile,
twirling against my heart, on that final divide

between melodies of dreams and reality.
A minute’s restlessness, a door ajar, the rise
of a road in early moonlight, a silvery
trembling, a shadow-chase somewhere has meant this price.

Pratap joined in the chorus of “wah-wah” and clapping, he could not remember reading those lines in the notebooks.  The exchange of couplets and quatrains became brisker, the words flashed like jewelled daggers, back and forth.  Pratap forgot that he was keeping a lookout for Bhule, forgot his relief at his split second escape from Bhule’s hare-brained scheme, just sat entranced.  Saif-ud-din outdid all his previous performances as the evening deepened into night.  The trophy, this year fashioned like a silver inkpot and quill, was awarded again to the defending champion.


“Where the hell have you been?  Why didn’t you turn up at the Mushaira?”

Bhule raised an exhausted face, “Couldn’t.”

“You should have come.  Saifu was in top form. He got the trophy, decisively too.”

“What are you talking about, Pratap?! Saifu died last evening at the hospital.”

Pratap looked dumbfounded.  He finally said when he found his voice again, “But it wasn’t just me, the whole audience saw him, heard him winning that trophy.”


Saif-ud-din’s body had been readied for the burial procession.  There were people coming and going, his mother and sister were receiving condolers on one side, the men huddled at the other end.  Bhule and Pratap sat with them for some time, then slipped away inside to the room Saif-ud-din had shared with his brothers and cousin.  Pratap lowered his notebooks onto his rickety desk. On a shelf above it, stood a brand new shining trophy in the shape of an inkpot and quill.


*Naam, janab? - Name, Sir?
shayyer - poet
qawwal - singers of qawwali, a particular form of Sufi devotional song. The form is also used in competitions and/or a point-counterpoint format.
Saki - literally the one who pours the wine. Usually the Saki is a metaphor for the beloved, either an earthly one, or God.

Read the other entries and/or sign up  here:

  1. SUBMIT your name and URL to the list below NOW and post on October 31st, Halloween
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  4. PUBLISH your entry on your blog on October 31st, stating feedback preferences.
  5. READ other entries, giving feedback as requested.
Email Denise if you have more questions:
1. Denise Covey  6. Laura Clipson  11. Trisha @ WORD+STUFF  
2. Stephen Tremp  7. Lisa Buie-Collard  12. Feather Stone  
3. Jenny Brigalow  8. Roland Yeomans  13. T. Powell Coltrin  
4. DG Hudson  9. N.R. Williams  14. Anna Nordeman  
5. Nilanjana Bose  10. doloral  

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Point me to where the answers are blowing

Does the wild moth care where the flames flicker,
naked, or within the baubles of glass,
flaunted at the points of wicks and brass,
or is mud kinder? cleaner and quicker?

Some wild tale’s heard in the depths of childhood:
how peace and stillness stick to paths of light,
how plenty comes on tiptoes in the night,
and a single wick can make or break the good.

Is it that simple? does it signify
that singed-winged wild moths are of no account?
that peace and plenty finally amount
to glass and brass and things that cannot fly?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Diwali 2014

This Diwali, there’s no lamp, trimmed or otherwise;
oil always needs a wick, to soak up and burn.
The stars align for a moonless night,
a pensive Parvati  rolls her dice.
Here’s the other cheek, let the dimmest starlight
or the darkness strike and take its rightful turn.

The dark nuzzles cloudsoft against my skin, and gives
everything a rest, no shadows, no fears are rimmed.
I’m not afraid of these moonlessnesses -
stars burn out, and lamps, only darkness lives.
Surely Laxmi’s free to choose her addresses?
and if she sleeps where the night is bright or dimmed.

A very happy Diwali to you and yours if you celebrate it.  And if you do not, then I wish you a happy autumn.

Saturday, 18 October 2014


Maybe I’ll come to love you again
narrow and straight, this eggshell dense constraint
can’t say when and if that will happen
purple blistered disquiet breaking open
scrolls and shells on ways to reacquaint

I have twanged away too far and too long
down one-way streets into such broad places!
many reasons later – I was too young,
too foolish; or not enough; wrongly strung
at any rate, to loiter in those spaces -

I’m here; maybe I’ll come to love once more
these narrow necks, this stripped sky in narrowed eyes.
These thin skinned moons, their scooped out hollow cores,
the cirrus-slim line of foam on the shores
gnawing at shallow sands before it sighs and dies.

Monday, 13 October 2014

An attack of Hindi

I get these sudden attacks of prehistoric Indian songs sometimes.  And thanks to Youtube I can indulge. Anyways, I was listening to this ancient and lovely number last week, and spontaneously this verse floated into my head fully formed.  A little scary even, I didn't know I had any Hindi left in me, certainly not enough for a spurt of shayari.  I am not sure if the genders/grammar are correct, so if you are a native speaker, or a non-native one fluent in the language, please feel free to point out the errors.

हम भी ले आएं हैं कश्ती तुफानो के बीच कहीं
मौजों में है जो सुकून वह न मिल पाया साहिलों में

रखते हैं उम्मीद ज़माना नादान हमें कहेगा नहीं
मोहब्बत दूर कहीं डोलती है न सिर्फ तेरी महफ़िलों में

हमें तेरी छुरियों, नज़रों से क्या? रोक ले इन्हे वहीं
जो तेरे दर तक पहुँछे हम नहीं उन काफिलों में

हम भी हैं तक़दीरवाले - मौज, मझधार, तूफ़ान ही सही
दरिया ने दी है वह जगह जो न बन पायी दिलों में


hum bhi le aayein hain kashti tufaano ke beech kahiin
maujon mein hai jo sukoon woh na mil paya sahilon mein

rakhte hain umeed zamaana nadaan humein kahega nahiin
mohabbat duur kahin  dolti hai na sirf teri mehfilon mein

humein teri chhuriyon, nazron se kya? roke le inhe vahiin
jo tere dar tak pohuchhe hum nahiin un kafilon mein

hum bhi hain taqdeerwaale - mauj, majhdhaar, toofan hi sahii
dariya ne dii hai woh jagah jo na ban payi dilon mein

I too have steered into stormy waters this craft of mine
the peace that's in the waves can't be found in coastlines

I have hopes that the world will not call me clueless
love pulses somewhere far, not just in gatherings you address

what are they to me? your knives, your glances? keep them on hold
I'm not part of those caravans that reach your threshold

I too am greatly blessed - never mind the storms, midstream waves
the river has given me that space which no hearts ever gave

Okay, written, transliterated, and translated, though the rhyme scheme changed in the translation.  Phew!  Hopefully out of my system now.  It'll take some time to recover from this one! :)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Fall fable...autumn you like it


Take the heart.  The heart’s the dragonfly. It’s the grasshopper, that sings all summer and takes leaps of faith, from grass to leaf, from leaf into sky, halfway to the stars and falls back to the grass again, nonchalant.  Who vaguely knows that winter will come but will take care of itself.  Meanwhile the ant, oh god, the ant plods on.  Eat.  Sleep. Hoard.  Clean.  Eat.  Sleep.  Hoard. Clean.   The ant is the body, and her demands must be met, at all times.  Punctually.   To-everything-there-is-a-season-and-a-time-to-every-purpose-under-the-heaven kind punctually.  You know the type.  There’s one in every neighbourhood.  Earnest.   And sternest.  And lectures everybody far and wide about the importance of being both.

Now that winter’s almost here, she is rubbing her forelegs together in glee, waiting for the heart to turn up in her somewhat shabby but comfortable pad so that she, the ant, can tell her, the grasshopper, royally off for dereliction of proper duty.  She even tries out her lines with different inflections – you sang all summer? now go and dance all winter, and then tries it out with the emphasis on “sang” instead.  She has both of them pitch perfect.  She’s so conscientious, she doesn’t know when it’s enough.

But the hearthopper doesn’t turn up, she’s MIA.  Making most of the summer before it fades.  Rocking the equinox.  Living it up and down and sideways, burrowing real deep into the moment.  So the ant goes out in search of the grasshopper. Besides being the body, the ant is also a busybody.  And when she finds the grasshopper this is the conversation they have, the hopper and the ant, the heart and the body.

A:  What are you doing?  It’s going to be winter soon.

G: I know!  I have to finish this before the season flips,  this tune is for winter.  Requires some – um - fine tuning hunh?

A: What are you going to do for the winter? Have you got any food?

G (stops singing for a minute):  Food? Food?  Music is food, you illiterate nutcase, haven’t you read your thingamajig?

A: No, I mean really, what are you going to eat? How are you going to keep warm?

G: Listen, I got warmth completely sorted.  This tune? This tum ti ta tum tum ti ta? It’s to learn the shiverdrivel dance with. Dancing is going to keep me warm.

A (flustered and angry because the grasshopper keeps going off script) :  What the hell’s going on here? That’s supposed to be me telling you to dance all winter.  You’re being very irresponsible!  No food, no firewood, and dancing to keep warm.  Jeez!  You’ll freeze to death!  Look at me, I’ve worked hard all summer and gathered everything, and now I am all set for the next three months.  You’d better do something fast.  Because I am not sharing any of mine.  Food. Or wood. 

G: No-o-o! You wouldn’t do that? You would? Not even wood?

A: No, certainly not.

G:  Okeydoke.  Keep it all to yourself.  But you do know that food tastes terrible when you eat it on your own alone, don’t you? Turns to ashes in your mouth.  That’s a scientifically researched fact.  Something to do with horrormoans.  Or is it pheromoans?   At any rate, some kind of moan interferes with the taste buds and screws up the entire chemistry of your oral cavity.  Tum tum  ti tum, tum tum ti tum.  Food’s in one end and out the other/ memories are the thing to gather. 

A: Oh, you are incorrigible!

G:  Yup, that’s my first preference.  Corrigible is horrigible.  Not at all my cuppa. Or suppa. As you like it.

The ant finally sees she is making no headway and goes back miffed to her pad in the anthill.  In spite of being so well provisioned and warm, she doesn’t really enjoy her winter much because she has this nagging suspicion that the grasshopper is having way more fun. 

The grasshopper meanwhile learns the shiverdrivel dance and dances her way a little closer to the equator, where the grass is still green, and the trees are still in leaf; and the river flows sharp and silver like the glint in a rascal’s eye; and the stars hang like crazy fruits from the sky in the early evening even before the light has flickered completely out.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Morning commute

Early dawn drizzle’s polished the pavement
to a high-gloss silver mist this side of blurred;
blinking lights, polished shoes, and pointed end
dark umbrellas fast tap-tap office-ward.
A plane flies overhead, unseen but heard.

The age-old face of time peeps from the tower
the rain’s handed a mirror to old dials
as a puddle smoothens its ripples, the hour
is struck off in bells and an absence of smiles.
A street vendor pulls pretzels into piles.

Each one must travel in his own orbit
in a random bubble of time and space
no hand touches the other inches from it
no eye-contact with another face
each one knows its path and its place,

walks into the lift, maintains a tidy queue
whooshes up and down and no rules broken;
in time a feathered cap or an ocean view
not much eggshell and omelettes are spoken
just that there must be enough silver slogans.

I came across an image of a clock tower reflected in a large puddle on a road, and rather grim faced be-umbrellaed commuters hurrying past it. This was the outcome.