World Poetry Day: Deeper, stronger, fiercer
Why poetry? Because a poem is a place where anything can happen, and all can be resisted
Why poetry? Because a poem is a place where anything can happen, and all can be resisted. Tuning in to the frequencies of their time, poets seek the words that will bear witness— through irony and empathy, rage and tears, tirade and song. On World Poetry Day, we share poems that tell it like it is—only deeper, stronger, fiercer.
Before You Came
for Faiz Ahmed Faiz
A small animal speaks
from my throat & asks
if I should like to die
in a lonely place where
there was once a country
folded in the shape
of my body. On the farthest
edge of its field, it tells me,
days were counted in lock
downs & maps marked
with districts of graves.
My answer: a language
in which I gather only
the smallest of questions.
Translated from Hindi by Sarabjeet Garcha
I want to write the letter A
A for apple A for apricot
but I start writing A for adversity A for atrocity
I try writing B for bat or B for benevolence
but I end up writing B for brutality B for betrayal
up until now I’ve been writing C for cat
but now C has the sound of an impending catastrophe
I used to think D must be for daisies
lots and lots of daisies
outside houses inside houses and inside humans
but I saw that all the flowers were being carried away
to become garlands that would adorn the wicked
someone grabs my hand and says
write F for fear which is present everywhere
I for injury L for lapse
despots snatch away our entire alphabet
they turn the violence in language
into the violence of society
M has been reserved for murder
no matter how much we write mop and moose
they keep writing M for murder all the time
As a kid I used to confuse my d’s
with my g’s, and that bit of dyslexia
didn’t really become a problem till
I once spelt ‘God’ wrong. That day,
the teacher wrote a strongly worded
letter to my parents, and asked me
to behave myself. Also, as a kid,
I could not pronounce the letter r,
so till I was sent to some summer
vacation speech-correction classes
at age five, I used to say, “Aam ji ki
jai, Aam ji ki jai”. Then a teacher
taught me how to hold my tongue against
the ceiling of my mouth and then throw it
out quivering, “Rrrr” “Rrrr”, she wrenched
it out of me, over many sessions—“Ram”.
Until then, I did not know God was so
much effort. Till I felt him tremble
on the tip of my tongue, God was only
a little joke about mangoes.
It is a ritual
steeped in pressure.
somewhere in a valley, I once had a home.
When the lid
of rice is swollen
heady with spice.
somewhere in a gully, I ran toward nowhere.
The strands slip
with precious measure
somewhere a street turned mute.
somewhere, a god turned away.
All these burning afternoons later,
there’s still no hint of rain,
of another lynching.
We burn and burn.
With us burns our longing,
from old stepwells.
Not Only in Humans
Translated from Malayalam by the poet
There is poetry not only in humans
But in objects too.
This chair carries the memories
Of guarding wayfarers from rain
When it was a tree.
This table carries the proportions
And fingerprints of the carpenter
Who made it.
In this book, men and women
Keep loving and falling apart,
Joking and weeping.
This floor is full of
This wind carries the odours
Of so many men and beasts.
Even in this rock are
The remains of some
The sea is a liquid beast
Roaring in the land’s iron grip
It grew so blue being in
Love with the sky for so long.
It’s the eyes of those who were
Drowned in the river that are
Reborn as its fish.
Those who eat them
Are eating landscapes.
It’s the lines a girl
Scrawled in her notebook that
Pour down as rain.
Think of it, and there’s
Poetry in everything, except in poetry.
In it there’s only the self-love
Of human beings, and
Their desire for immortality.
Poetry is nothing but the mourning
For some lost language.
Or the vain scream for a world
That may never come to be.
India’s Season of Dissent
This year, this night, this hour, rise to salute the season of dissent.
Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims—Indians, all—seek their nation of dissent.
We the people of . . . they chant: the mantra that birthed a republic.
Even my distant eyes echo flares from this beacon of dissent.
Kolkata, Kasargod, Kanpur, Nagpur, Tripura . . . watch it spread,
tip to tricoloured tip, then soar: the winged horizon of dissent.
Dibrugarh: five hundred students face the CAA and lathi
wielding cops with Tagore’s song—an age-old tradition of dissent.
Kaagaz nahin dikhayenge… Sab Kuch Yaad Rakha Jayega…
Poetry, once more, stands tall, the Grand Central Station of dissent.
Aamir Aziz, Kausar Munir, Varun Grover, Bisaralli . . .
Your words, in many tongues, score the sky: first citizens of dissent.
We shall see / Surely, we too shall see. Faiz saab, we see your greatness
scanned for ‘anti-Hindu sentiment’, for the treason of dissent.
Delhi, North-East: death flanks the anthem of a once-secular land
where police now maim Muslims with Sing and die, poison of dissent.
A government of the people, by the people, for the people,
has let slip the dogs of carnage for swift excision of dissent.
Name her, Ka, name her. Umme Habeeba, mere-weeks-old, braves frost and
fascism from Shaheen Bagh: our oldest, finest reason for dissent.
Poet’s note: This poem was originally written for visual artist Sofia Karim’s #TurbineBagh, an installation designed for the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, London in March 2020. Artists, participants, viewers (all those of us far away but committed to the idea of a secular, egalitarian nation) were invited to “stand in solidarity with mass protests across India”. But then the pandemic broke out and #TurbineBagh never happened
Translated from Telugu by Rohith
Not the walls of prison
but the sky
is a limit.
Look at that dawn
beyond those fatal threads*.
it’s not even the sky—
the limit is
Imagine the suffering of
nature that gave birth to
*deadly live electric wires on the walls of jail
Every Day in Caste Society
I wake up in this land
I turn the TV on
I hold the newspaper in my hand
Every day, while I do this
I rub salt on my wound.
They start small,
the big crimes.
Like the oval body of an egg
erased from a child’s midday meal.
The oval, once ordinary,
suddenly charged with a secret energy.
Those children, though grown, roam scared
of bumping into Mr. Humpty Dumpty.
Still haunted by the taste of his white innards.
Haunted by the sunny-yolk of his being.
Their old, vegetating pulse
grows afraid of a loud hatching.
They call the king’s men in a hurry.
Shout, arrest this egg for corrupting our genes!
The shape of this desire,
once pure, free,
now the map
of something ugly.
The climate’s in crisis, to breathe is to ache in India.
Too cold or too hot, we freeze and bake in India.
They police our thoughts, our posts, our clothes, our food,
The news and the government is fake in India.
Beat the students bloody, then file a case against them.
Criminals in power know the laws to break in India.
Pick up the innocent and lynch them on a whim.
Minorities will be taught how to partake in India.
Hum Dekhenge, the poet Faiz once said. But if you say it,
You’re anti-national. You have no stake in India.
Women and students and poets: they are the enemy.
Come here, dear, we’ll show you how to shake in India.
The economy’s bust, jobs are few, the poor are poorer.
Question is: how much more can we take in India?
When you say your prayers make sure you pick the right god.
Petitions to the wrong one you must forsake in India.
Jeet, if you don’t like it here, Pakistan isn’t far away.
If you want to stay, shut up, learn to make in India.
Not a Poem or a Song
for Shaheen Bagh
Yesterday, you asked me to write a poem
or a song about the women of Shaheen Bagh,
I laughed and said,
that’s not possible—
the women of Shaheen Bagh
are a poem and a song—
but last night as I drifted
off to sleep in my warm bed,
it came to me that I’d been wrong—
the women of Shaheen Bagh
are not a poem or a song,
they are women who have been sitting
for weeks, night and day on a road—
in spite of cold wind and hard pavement,
in spite of the threat of lathis,
tear gas and jail—
they’ve been sitting because they won’t stand
to see students beaten by police,
to see unjust laws divide the land—
because they are stubborn and right and strong—
and that, my friend, is more powerful and beautiful
than any poem or song anywhere.
We are grateful to the individual authors; and editors Nabina Das and Jeet Thayil for granting us permission to reprint the poems from their respective anthologies: Witness–The Red River Book of Poetry of Dissent (2021) and The Penguin Book of Indian Poets (2022)