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In a Scramble to be a Refugee

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In a Scramble to be a Refugee
There is a scramble here
at the Tanaf border crossing -
twenty thousand Iraqis
running away every day
from their war-ravaged land.

Twenty thousand runaways every day,
eager to cross to neighboring Syria –
young people and old,
peasants, professionals and workers -
jostling towards the counter,
pushing their passports and papers,
the pokerfaced officials
feeding their profiles into computers.

Expectant, yet fearful,
of the present, of the future
they wait for endless hours -
sad faces, supplicating gestures -
in the burning heat of the desert
at temperatures hovering at 110,
to walk into the unknown.

Pray, who kindled the fires of hatred
amongst these people,
settled in their homes and hearths
till yesterday,
eking out a life of hard work,
at peace with each other -
what if ruled by a despot
yet, one of their own?

Instead of rising as one,
against the monster
that waged the war
and ravaged their land,
why have they risen
against each other
in their own sectarian skirmishes -
Shias against Sunnis,
Kurds against Arabs -
breaking into mindless battles
betwixt themselves?

People who had been living together,
sharing their joys and sorrows together,
like loving brothers and good neighbors
now have battle lines drawn
in neighborhoods, villages and towns -
their nationhood at stake.

They are at each others throats,
killing each other in hundreds
through their suicide assassins
who die themselves to kill others.
What bizarre martyrdoms?

No doubt, even Allah has forsaken them,
and Iraq may never recover
even if it comes out of this strife -
divided or whole -
the wounds never to heal.

There is a gloom on their faces
as they patiently wait
for their applications to be processed.
There is not a smile
for a mile of their waiting lines.

Oh, how I see myself
and my own people in these faces,
fleeing from the terror
back home in Kashmir!

We also queued in long lines,
the sun beating on our bare heads,
to secure the ‘migrant’ card
and claim a refugee status.

We had no documents, whatever,
to prove we were who we were,
for we were forced to flee
from that frenzy
bare bodied, barefooted,
empty handed.

Eighteen long years
and still on the roads,
yet how desperate we were
to shun that paradise!

How desperate these people are
to walk into the unknown like us!

How little do they realize,
as we do now,
that being in exile
is a newborn plucked from the breast,
a tender plant pulled from its roots.

How little do they know
that exile is like living every day
and dying every day.

(Inspired by a picture in New York Times, 21st September 2007, of Iraqis desperate to flee their country and cross the border to Syria.)

Two poems

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Language of Love
(Two small poems by father and daughter)

(1)
Father (K L Chowdhury)

It is a drowsy afternoon
The sky a uniform gray
A huge cloud hanging low
A pin drop silence below
The promise of rain on hold
Time standing still
But my heart beating fast
To communicate with you
And speak about my dream.

I dream meeting you
in this weather
at this hour!

And we meet.

(2)
Daughter (Renuka Chowdhury)

The raindrop is me
watching you
wondering what laws of nature
keep me from taking that dive
to land on your face
as a kiss.

What sense prevails over the other
is hard to tell –
sight, smell, touch,
or else?

Right now
I want to flow, uninhibited, impetuous, impatient,
breaking all the laws,
of man and nature,
and flow all over you,
and drench you with the monsoon of love.
Sometimes touch is like no other feeling.

The transformation

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Mother is keen

that her son do her bidding -

learn the  three A’s faster than  kids his age,
practice his music longer hours,
and lend   a helping hand in domestic chores.

But the kid seems inattentive
for he  has other ideas
and little time from his games;

her reasoned dialogue,
her pleading and persuasion
fail to make an impression.

Mother thinks of a clever device,
addressing him as if to a third person
and not her own son.

“You know,
I feel bad to speak about my son
for he is good, and I love him much,
yet he chooses to be rather defiant,
for neither does he read nor write
nor practice much on the piano
nor lend a helping hand to his mother;

it makes me sad that he does not care.

‘Oh, is that so?’ he asks, all earnest.

‘Alas it is so;

all he does is squander his time
playing with his ‘legos’ and toys,
speeding his fleet of trains and cars,
skipping the morning ablutions,
and running around the house
while breakfast waits on the dinning table.

He may start the day with Harry Potter,
and end it again with Harry Potter,
often going to bed without  supper.’

Aditya, the imaginary third person
now turns the tables
as he addresses his mother
as if she were him, Aditya.

‘What do I hear, little sir?

I thought you were a good boy
and you would listen to your mother
read and write when she bids,
do the sums with full attention,
and run you fingers on  the piano,
write your journal everyday
even if it is no fun,
and help her in her chores
even it be such a bore’.

Mother now speaks as the boy,
‘No, I rather be a bad guy
than do what my mother says.

What do I need to read or write
or to practice my music
when I can remain a happy bum
take the  gun in place of the pen
and turn a hooligan.

I better be a scribbler
than   a calligrapher’.

That was too much to take;

the boy’s face fell,
and he went into a small trance
to recover from being a third person
and be his own self again.

He ran to fetch his pen and paper,
‘No more pretence, dear mother
let us back to our real selves,
let us read and write and learn sums
and then move to the piano
to strike a happy note
and help you in sorting the clothes
from the dryer.

A bum or a hooligan -
no never,
nor a vagabond nor wastrel
but a very model boy I will be;

yet, I am only 7 years old
and your own dear son,
don’t I deserve a little fun?’

Choice

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Choice

Often of a beautiful morning
after I have returned from a walk
I find my grandchildren
in a stretch of confusion
wondering what to have for breakfast
and what not.

I watch them face the pantry
eyeing the packages on the shelves
battling to choose
from the wide range in offer -
cereals of numerous combinations
in so many flashy packages;

baked potatoes, chips and fries,
pastries, waffles and doughnuts,
candies, cookies, and cakes ,
breads and bagels of different makes -
wheat, corn, rice and oat,
whole grain and multigrain,
raisin-stuffed, sesame-sprinkled and plain;

fruit juices, medleys and fresh fruits
of all varieties and seasons;

milk – full fat, two percent and fatless,
and yoghurt of so many cultures,
coffee – brewed and instant,
tea – hot, iced and gourmet….

Alas! they are lost in indecision
even as the list goes on and on!

Then I relate with nostalgia
my days of childhood and youth
back home in India
and tell them all I had for breakfast

was a hot cup of milk from the kettle
and a fresh loaf of round bread
from the only baker in the neighborhood -
the same white loaf everyday
that I would so eagerly await
as the baker tossed it hot from the oven
into my waiting hands

and I juggled it
from one hand to another
to let it cool down
before I fell on it with my ravenous appetite
and ate with such a relish !

When they notice how
the very thought of that flavor
sends my mouth a watering
and flares my nostrils sixty years after,
they shout,
‘That is the bread we would like, grandpa,
that is the breakfast we are looking for!’

Poems

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Language of Love
(Two small poems by father and daughter)

(1)
Father (K L Chowdhury)

It is a drowsy afternoon
The sky a uniform gray
A huge cloud hanging low
A pin drop silence below
The promise of rain on hold
Time standing still
But my heart beating fast
To communicate with you
And speak about my dream.

I dream meeting you
in this weather
at this hour!

And we meet.

(2)
Daughter (Renuka Chowdhury)

The raindrop is me
watching you
wondering what laws of nature
keep me from taking that dive
to land on your face
as a kiss.

What sense prevails over the other
is hard to tell –
sight, smell, touch,
or else?

Right now
I want to flow, uninhibited, impetuous, impatient,
breaking all the laws,
of man and nature,
and flow all over you,
and drench you with the monsoon of love.
Sometimes touch is like no other feeling.

A Helping Hand

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On my way down the hill
from my evening walk
I meet them,
every day without fail –
a man, woman and a child -
hurrying home in tandem
from their day’s labour.

I see them from afar
coming up the gentle slope
against the setting sun.
As they approach near
their worn-out, suntanned faces
strike an accord with the fading daylight.
Their disheveled, discolored hair
and their scanty, shabby wear
blend with the evening shadows.
They stomp home,
dragging their tired feet
in their wafer thin flip-flops -
loose, torn and worn out with time.

They always carry two flasks -
to collect fresh water
from the municipal tap
on their way home -
and a shoulder bag
for their sparse shopping for dinner -
a pumpkin, cabbage or cauliflower
often sticking out,
and, sometimes,
a bottle of country liquor,
bought from the shop below.

Often times we exchange casual glances
as we cross each other.
They are so focused on the path
that they hardly ever look at me
watching them,
and every time we cross
I get this urge to say,
“Hi, hello, how do you do?”
but desist from saying so,
not wanting to startle them
or spoil their natural rhythm,
not daring to distract them
from their homeward course.

As a stranger to them,
I have no reason whatever
to accost them
except this impulse
that I stifle with such care.

As we cross each other
and I miss yet another chance
to accost them
I turn and look at their retreating figures
and suppress another urge
to rush after them.

Every evening,
as they come up
striking that familiar picture -
their noses on the road,
their eyes in the distance,
hardly speaking to each other,
and never pausing a moment
to look around or behind -
I get this impulse
to carry their burden for awhile.
and walk with them to their mansion
of rags, weeds, bramble sticks,
jute, canvass and polythene.

I have this burning wish
to fetch buckets of water
to give them a refreshing bath,
oil their sore hands and cracked feet,
dress their bunions and callosities,
massage their tired limbs and aching bodies,
and cook a nice dinner for them,
even serve a draught of wine
as a night cap,
to refresh them
for the next day’s toil.

We have been crossing each other
for a full year
and I feel no stranger
for I spend hours thinking of them –
a man woman and their heifer.
Does it matter
if they do not know me
or do not care?
I would yet submit to my whim, one day,
to proxy for them in their work
and at their home,
if only to know how it feels like
to be one of them.

Revisiting My Homeland

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No, this can not be my homeland,
not this unfamiliar landscape
not these lanes and bye lanes,
smells so different, sights so strange-
no ducks scavenging the drains
no cackling poultry in the corners
scratching the earth for grains.

What is this heap of rubble and ruin
where my little house once stood,
and these monsters that surround it now,
eating into land, space and sky,
their fence walls so high
you can not see your neighbors across,
their iron doors like prison gates?

Where is the public tap
in the corner outside my home,
and the neighboring maids
that queued for pails of water,
and held a sheet of cloth for each other
as a screen for passers bye
while they undressed in haste
and, unabashedly naked,
helped themselves to jugs of water.
to take turns for a morning shower.

And what has become of my lawn
where children played hide and seek
behind jasmine bushes and almond trees
and rolled merrily on the green turf
now laid to waste,
and a haven for the creatures of the night.

Oh where is the Nale` Me`ar
that flanked my backyard
from where we slid down the slope
for a dip now and then
and walked along her banks
keeping pace with the oarsmen
that ferried fair-skinned tourists
while we treated them to that folk rhyme:
‘me`m, sahab, salaam
pate` pate` gulam.’

On this asphalted road
where the canal used to be
I find automobiles speeding bye
where boats once sailed daintily
hawking greens and flowers,
fresh as fresh can be.
The gentle cadence of the oars
that pushed the boats upstream
now yielding in helpless abandon
to clouds of dust and fumes,
and the roar of machinery.
.
Gone is the arch bridge across the canal,
a grand mosaic of stone and brick
on whose parapet walls
we sat till late hours,
watching the crows, flock after flock,
flying across endlessly,
cawing all the way,
coming home to roost
on tree tops and house roofs,
the sky a black canopy.

Alas the high risers have swallowed the sky,
the majestic chinars and the proud poplars
seem but a memory
and the birds,
oh the birds driven into exile
like me!

And as I walk along
through this changed topography
I see a bustling colony
where the almond orchards used to be,
the buildings inching inexorably
towards the foot hills,
laying a siege around the Hariparbat hill,
that high abode of my deity
her temple bells silent,
no oil lamps, no incense,
not a single devotee.

No kindly neighbors do I see
in the young men here
with flowing beards and swaggering gaits
pherons, skullcaps and karakulis,
looking askance at me,
and the kids with their frigid faces,
where innocent smiles should have been.
O where are the ladies in sarees
and where the men
sporting saffron dots on their foreheads?

No, this is can not be my homeland,
this changed geography
where neither my house stands
nor the house deity.

I can not stand it any longer,
for this place here sounds
more alien than exile.
There I can think of my homeland,
pristine and pure,
and nurture sweet memories;
here the whole ambience
smacks of a deep conspiracy
to uproot me
and wipe out all traces of history -
of my gods and me –
leaving me crying over the loss,
and lose my dreams in the bargain.

Notes:
Nale` me`ar – a canal that joined the Dal Lake up town with the Vitasta at the end of the town to save the city of Srinagar from drowning during floods, and as a navigation channel in normal.
‘mem, sahib, salaam pate` pate` gulam.’ – Madam, Sir, salutations to you, after you the slave too.
Pherons – long robes with closed front
Karakulis – caps, worn generally by Muslims, fashioned from the fur of a foetal lamb. Two animals have to be sacrificed to obtain karakuli – the pregnant mother sheep and the foetus in her womb.
Sarees – 5 meter long garments worn by Hindu ladies

Temple at San Antonio

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I could not find you, my lord
in the empty hall
of that huge banal building
up the hill in San Antonio,
they call the temple.

The large oblong flaps
in the middle of the forehead
of your idols,
reach down to your nose
to obliterate your features,
caricaturing you in the process
into a brooding visage.
Your comely consort, by your side,
gets a treatment no different!
A tiny saffron dot, instead,
would have been quite in place.

The soul is missing, as well,
in your unique incarnation
we call the Ardhanareshwara*,
incarcerated inside the AC-cooled gazebo
on the ridge of the hill,
by the side of this temple -
sculpted in male and female so poorly,
dressed and ornamented so grotesquely,
flowers strewn around in a flurry –
looking so out of place, so lonely.

Having come all the way
to rediscover you here in this land of plenty,
this utopia, the united states of America,
am I to return with my hands empty,
my lord Siva?

Brooding like your idols,
low in spirits, shaken in faith,
I come out of the temple
to the sizzling slaps of hot air

fuming from the sun-baked concrete of the temple yard,
eyes blinding with the glare,
skin inflamed with the blazing sun.

I sit outside
on a solitary, creaky bench,
under the gossamer shade of a baby oak,
as lonely as your images and idols inside.

And there you materialize,
in your full grandeur and glory -
in so many shapes in the silvery clouds
that gently glide across the azure sky;
in the hot breeze that cools my burning brow;
in the lone eagle circling high,
buoyed by the brazen wind,
flying freely in aimless abandon;
in the distant skyline across the valley
defined by the rolling hills -
their domes like so many temples
to your ineffable presence;
in the limitless vision of your boundless nature,
that can never ever be confined
in trappings of silver and gold
in a dim corner of a mean building
of timber and marble, brick and stone.

*Ardhanareshwara – half female half male