This is the definitive collection of poems from Sujata Bhatt, an award-winning author of Indian, German, and English experience. With works that span Bhatt’s entire career—from her early pieces when her imagination stays close to India and its languages, people, and customs to her family’s exile and move to Europe and her education in the United States—the poems continue in their vocation of reinvention. More than anything, these pieces show that in Bhatt’s work, poetry is a place where nothing is certain and there are surprises with each reading.
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About the Author
Sujata Bhatt is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the award-winning author of several volumes of poetry, including A Colour of Solitude, Monkey Shadows, Point No Point, Pure Lizard, and The Stinking Rose.
Read an Excerpt
By Sujata Bhatt
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2013 Sujata Bhatt
All rights reserved.
The First Disciple
Sujata: The First Discipline of Budddha
One morning, a tall lean man
stumbled towards me.
His large eyes: half closed
as if he were seasick;
his thick black hair full of dead leaves and bumble-bees
grew wild as weeds and fell way below his hips.
His beard swayed gently as an elephant's trunk.
"I'm hungry," he muttered.
I took him home, fed him fresh yogurt and bread.
Then, I bathed him, shaved his face clean and smooth,
coconut oiled his skin soft again.
It took four hours
to wash and comb his long hair,
which he refused to cut.
For four hours he bent his head this way and that
while I ploughed through his hair
with coconut oil on my fingers.
"And how did you get this way?" I asked.
"I haven't slept for years," he said.
"I've been thinking, just thinking.
I couldn't sleep or eat
until I had finished thinking."
After the last knot
had been pulled out of his hair, he slept,
still holding on to my sore fingers.
The next morning, before the sun rose,
before my father could stop me,
he led me to the wide-trunked, thick-leafed bodhi tree
to the shady spot where he had sat for years
and asked me to listen.
His loud sharp call
seems to come from nowhere.
Then, a flash of turquoise
in the pipal tree.
The slender neck arched away from you
as he descends,
and as he darts away, a glimpse
of the very end of his tail.
I was told
that you have to sit in the veranda
and read a book,
preferably one of your favourites
with great concentration.
The moment you begin to live
inside the book
a blue shadow will fall over you.
The wind will change direction,
the steady hum of bees
in the bushes nearby
The cat will awaken and stretch.
Something has broken your attention;
and if you look up in time
you might see the peacock
turning away as he gathers in his tail
to shut those dark glowing eyes,
violet fringed with golden amber.
It is the tail that has to blink
for eyes that are always open.
Her hand sweeps over the rough grained paper,
then, with a wet sponge, again.
A drop of black is washed grey,
cloudy as warm breath fogging cool glass.
She feels she must make the best of it,
she must get the colour of the stone wall,
of the mist settling around twisted birch trees.
Her eye doesn't miss the rabbit crouched,
a tuft of fog in the tall grass.
Nothing to stop the grey sky from merging into stones,
or the stone walls from trailing off into sky.
But closer, a single iris stands fully opened:
dark wrinkled petals, rain-moist,
the tall slender stalk sways, her hand follows.
Today, even the green is tinged with grey,
the stone's shadow lies heavy over the curling petals
but there's time enough, she'll wait,
study the lopsided shape.
The outer green sepals once enclosing the bud
lie shrivelled: empty shells spiralling
right beneath the petals.
As she stares the sun comes out.
And the largest petal flushes
deep deep violet.
A violet so intense it's almost black.
The others tremble indigo, reveal
paler blue undersides.
Thin red veins running into yellow orange rills,
yellow flows down the green stem.
Her hand moves swiftly from palette to paper,
paper to palette, the delicate brush
swoops down, sweeps up,
moves the way a bird builds its nest.
An instant and the sun is gone.
Grey-ash-soft-shadows fall again.
But she can close her eyes and see
red-orange veins, the yello
swept with green throbbing towards blue,
and deep inside she feels
indigo pulsing to violet
The young widow
thinks she should have burned on
her husband's funeral pyre.
She could not, for her mother-in-law
insisted she raise the only son
of her only son.
The young widow sits outside
in the garden overlooking a large pond.
Out of the way, still untouchable, she suckles
her three-week-old son
and thinks she could live
for those hungry lips; live to let him grow
bigger than herself. Her dreams lie
lazily swishing their tails
in her mind like buffaloes
dozing, some with only nostrils showing
in a muddy pond.
to keep fat flies away,
and horns, as long as a man's hand, or longer
keep the boys, and their pranks away.
It is to the old farmer's tallest son
they give their warm yellowish milk.
He alone approaches: dark-skinned and naked
except for a white turban, a white loincloth.
He joins them in the pond,
greets each one with love:
"my beauty", "my pet" –
slaps water on their broad flanks
splashes more water on their dusty backs.
Ears get scratched, necks rubbed,
drowsy faces are splashed awake.
Now he prods them out of the mud
out of the water, begging loudly
"Come my beauty, come my pet, let us go!"
And the pond shrinks back
as the wide black buffaloes rise.
The young widow
walks from tree to tree,
newly opened leaves brush damp sweet smells
across her face. The infant's mouth sleeps
against her breast. Dreams stuck
inside her chest twitch
as she watches the buffaloes pass
too close to her house, up the steep road
to the dairy. The loud loving voice
of the farmer's son holds them steady
without the bite of any stick or whip.
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Udaylee)
Only paper and wood are safe
from a menstruating woman's touch.
So they built this room
for us, next to the cowshed.
Here, we're permitted to write
letters, to read, and it gives a chance
for our kitchen-scarred fingers to heal.
Tonight, I can't leave the stars alone.
And when I can't sleep, I pace
in this small room, I pace
from my narrow rope-bed to the bookshelf
filled with dusty newspapers
held down with glossy brown cowries and a conch.
When I can't sleep, I hold
the conch shell to my ear
just to hear my blood rushing,
a song throbbing,
a slow drumming within my head, my hips.
This aching is my blood flowing against,
rushing against something –
knotted clumps of my blood,
so I remember fistfuls of torn seaweed
rising with the foam,
rising. Then falling, falling up on the sand
strewn over newly laid turtle eggs.
The Doors Are Always Open
Everywhere you turn there are goats,
some black and lumpy.
Others, with oily mushroom-soft hair,
sticky yellow in Muslim sand
shaded by the mosque.
there's a kerosene smeared kitchen.
We share a window
with the woman who lives with goats.
Now she unwraps some cheese
now she beats and kneads
a little boy and screams
"Idiot! Don't you tease that pregnant goat again!"
I look away: outside
the rooster runs away
from his dangling sliced head
while the pregnant goat lies with mourning hens.
Her bleating consolations
make the children spill
cheesy milk and run outside.
Wet soccer ball bubbles roll out
from a hole beneath the lifted tail.
The goat licks her kids free,
until they all wobble about.
We've counted five.
Hopping up and down, we push each other
until we see
the goat pushing her kids
to stand up, until
mothers call us back
to thick milk.
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shérdi)
The way I learned
to eat sugar cane in Sanosra:
I use my teeth
to tear the outer hard chaal
then, bite off strips
of the white fibrous heart –
suck hard with my teeth, press down
and the juice spills out.
the farmer cuts tender green sugar cane
and brings it to our door.
Afternoons, when the elders are asleep
we sneak outside carrying the long smooth stalks.
The sun warms us, the dogs yawn,
our teeth grow strong
our jaws are numb;
for hours we suck out the russ, the juice
sticky all over our hands.
when you tell me to use my teeth,
to suck hard, harder,
then, I smell sugar cane grass
in your hair
and imagine you'd like to be
shérdi shérdi out in the fields
the stalks sway
opening a path before us
In Kosbad during the monsoons
there are so many shades of green
your mind forgets other colours.
At that time
I am seventeen, and have just started
to wear a sari every day.
Swami Anand is eighty-nine
and almost blind.
His thick glasses don't seem to work,
they only magnify his cloudy eyes.
Mornings he summons me
from the kitchen
and I read to him until lunch time.
One day he tells me
"you can read your poems now"
I read a few, he is silent.
Thinking he's asleep, I stop.
But he says, "continue".
I begin a long one
in which the Himalayas rise
as a metaphor.
Suddenly I am ashamed
to have used the Himalayas like this,
ashamed to speak of my imaginary mountains
to a man who walked through
the ice and snow of Gangotri
a man who lived close to Kangchenjanga
and Everest clad only in summer cotton.
I pause to apologise
but he says "just continue".
Later, climbing through
the slippery green hills of Kosbad,
Swami Anand does not need to lean
on my shoulder or his umbrella.
I prod him for suggestions,
ways to improve my poems.
He is silent a long while,
then, he says
"there is nothing I can tell you
For Nanabhai Bhatt
In this dream my grandfather
comes to comfort me.
He stands apart
and in his face I see
the patience of his trees
on hot typhoid days
that promise no rain.
the colour of a crow's feather in children's mud,
yet filled with sharp mountain-top light.
I'm sure this was the face the true bald man,
Gandhiji saw when he confessed
about the Harijan girl, the six-year-old
he adopted and tried to educate.
I'm sure these were the eyes the true hermaphrodite,
Gandhiji saw while he explained
how this girl cared too much for clothes,
how one day she went and had her hair bobbed,
the latest fashion, she said.
It was too much.
She had to be set straight,
the sooner the better.
So he had her head shaved
to teach her
not to look in mirrors so often.
At this point Gandhiji turned
towards my grandfather and allowed, so softly:
"But she cried.
I couldn't stop her crying.
She didn't touch dinner.
She cried all night.
I brought her to my room,
tucked her in my bed, sang her bhajans,
but she still cried.
I stayed awake beside her.
So this morning I can't think clearly,
I can't discuss our plans
for building schools in villages."
And my grandfather
looked at him with the same face
he shows in my dream.
for my brother
The bird was fat-brown limp feathers,
half-deflated limp dull brown
and seemed to be sweating
all the time. And Nachiketa carried
it around in a floppy straw hat
fluttering orange ribbons with his mother's sunny
rice-paddy green silk scarf inside,
nestling the sticky claws
and half-coma-shut eyes.
Yes, Nachiketa, five years old and frowning,
held the straw hat nest all day, walked
through the house from balcony
to balcony, upstairs and down
from terrace to garden and back again.
Did you know that long ago Nachiketa visited
great Yamaraj? Yes, long ago
Nachiketa travelled through jaundiced grass
past choleraed cows, past black-lunged horses
standing beneath leprosied trees.
And great Yamaraj was not home.
So Nachiketa waited. Hungry. Nachiketa
sat on the dark doorstep in sunless heat.
Nachiketa waited for three days.
Then, Yama arrived delighted
with Nachiketa's patience,
and Yama arrived ashamed
to have been an absent host.
And so of course there were three boons
to be granted, three wishes to be had.
Take your three wishes and please leave,
this is no place for curious children,
no place for the alive and Karma unfulfilled.
But Nachiketa stood still.
Not wanting but asking.
Not wanting a thing but asking all.
And great Yamaraj relented
saying, oh all right, all right I'll tell you.
The first time Nachiketa returned
from the house of Yama, his skin was yellow
and he slept in an incubator for a month.
The second time Nachiketa returned
from the house of Yama,
he found the bird wheezing and croaking
by the dirt road.
The eighth time Nachiketa visited the house of Yama
I followed, cursing every god, every being
every spirit that could possibly exist.
I followed cursing until Nachiketa returned
Each time Yamaraj gives Nachiketa
a different fact, fresh secrets ...
But what did he feed Nachiketa?
And what did Nachiketa drink
with great Yamaraj?
Sometimes I dream Yama's hand
brushing against Nachi's shirt
when he reached for a plate of something.
I walk about bored, I walk about
wishing I had such secrets –
While Nachiketa sits in the garden
by the sunflowers
with the straw hat in his lap.
He sings all afternoon
while the bird wheezes back
and he continues singing
even when the bird does not move.
In the morning, while Kalika combs
her seven-year-old daughter's glossy tangled hair,
she looks at her face in the mirror;
red-eyed, worn out,
she feels she has grown into a mangy stranger overnight.
Her daughter's face: wide open eyes
so much more like her mother's
who died last night
in a diabetic coma.
As Kalika parts the hair in the centre,
a straight line curving down
the back of her daughter's head;
she remembers, five years ago
blisters on the back of her mother's head
grew and grew, never healing,
her mother's scalp cracked and bleeding
until the doctor shaved off
the waist-length thick grey hair
and tightly bandaged the head.
As Kalika watches her daughter open the door
the sun falls on the bright red ribbons
flowering at the ends of the freshly made braids,
and there is her mother in a red sari,
walking towards the sound of temple bells.
Green herbs, white jasmine in her hands,
tiny red blossoms woven in her coiling hair.
Later, tearing out sticky cobwebs
from corners in the high ceiling,
while jabbing at fleeing spiders with a long-handled broom,
Kalika winces, glances out the window
and sees her daughter on the lawn
struggling with her doll's matted hair.
For My Grandmother
Aaji, there was an eleven-year-old girl
who sat on our doorstep
during the feast
of your mourning.
She would not cry or eat
sleep or speak.
Now they make dolls
who do all of those things.
And I could not explain
about my taut
four hours of sleep
in the closet, on the floor
with your softly dying clothes.
I have thought so much about the girl
who gathered cow dung in a wide, round basket
along the main road passing by our house
and the Radhavallabh temple in Maninagar.
I have thought so much about the way she
moved her hands and her waist
and the smell of cow dung and road-dust and wet canna lilies,
the smell of monkey breath and freshly washed clothes
and the dust from crows' wings which smells different –
and again the smell of cow dung as the girl scoops
it up, all these smells surrounding me separately
and simultaneously – I have thought so much
but have been unwilling to use her for a metaphor,
for a nice image – but most of all unwilling
to forget her or to explain to anyone the greatness
and the power glistening through her cheekbones
each time she found a particularly promising
mound of dung –
The wise old men
of India say
there are certain rules.
For example, if you loved
your dog too much,
in your next life you'll be a dog,
yet full of human memories.
And if the King's favourite daughter
loved the low-caste palace gardener
who drowned while crossing the river
in a small boat during the great floods,
they'll be reborn, given a second chance.
The wise old men of India say
one often dreams
of the life one led before.
There's a lion sprawled out
beside his cubs.
His thick mane tangled with dry grass,
his head droops: dusty stooping dahlia.
Then with a shudder,
a sudden shake of his head
he groans and growls
at four whimpering cubs.
(He'd let them climb
all over his back
if only he weren't so hungry.)
The lioness is already far away
hunting in the deepest part of the valley:
a tall dark forest.
gold-flecked snakes encircling every tree.
fringes of maidenhair edging broad leaves.
But now the lioness steps out
into a vast clearing.
She lifts her head towards the east, the west:
sniffing, sniffing. Her eyes stare hard,
urgent, she walks as if her raw swollen teats,
pink and not quite dry, prickle and itch
and goad her on.
She's lean enough, afraid
her cubs might die.
Now there's clear water flowing rapidly,
rippling over rocks, the lioness stops, drinks,
her quick long tongue licks, laps up the water.
Now the lioness is wading through, swimming,
her long golden tail streams through rushing waves;
torn, bruised paws splashing.
A quiet breeze
as if the earth were barely breathing.
Fallen leaves, still green,
and tangled vines swirl in the water,
the lioness circling.
Nearby monkeys, squirrels,
even birds remain hidden, silence
A dead bull elephant rots:
You hold me, rock me,
pull me out of my dream,
(or did I dream you?)
The fur lingers on your skin,
your body has not forgotten
how to move like a cat.
Look, the sun spills golden over the walls,
you grow tawnier with the dawn.
Shivering haunches relax,
the slow licking begins
gently over the bruises.
Excerpted from Collected Poems by Sujata Bhatt. Copyright © 2013 Sujata Bhatt. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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