World Poetry Day: Deeper, stronger, fiercer

Why poetry? Because a poem is a place where anything can happen, and all can be resisted

World Poetry Day: Deeper, stronger, fiercer

NH Web Desk

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.


The Alphabet

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


Dehradun, 1990

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

comes off

every grain

of rice is swollen

with milk,

heady with spice.

somewhere in a gully, I ran toward nowhere.

The strands slip

with precious measure

somewhere a street turned mute.


the kheer

is tinged

with orange,

almost red.

somewhere, a god turned away.


Gujarat, 2002

All these burning afternoons later,

there’s still no hint of rain,

only news

of another lynching.

We burn and burn.

With us burns our longing,

for water

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

Vanished footprints.

This wind carries the odours

Of so many men and beasts.

Even in this rock are

The remains of some

Extinct animal.

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


The Limit

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

Every day

I wake up in this land

Every day

I turn the TV on

Every day

I hold the newspaper in my hand

Every day, while I do this

I rub salt on my wound.


Eggless Republic

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.


February 2020

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)

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