An English Professor and a Painter

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The Flight of the Peacock

The highway stretched purple and steely blue under the fabulous spread of a blue sky. Wisps of clouds hung around wafted in the strong breeze, turning grey and greenish blue sometimes even a darker shade, but mostly tendering into grayish white as they  twisted and split, sheared off by the force of the breeze above. Through the windshield of the car I could see the road below quietly spreading nonchalant and unending. They have widened almost all the highways than run through Tamil Nadu.  And in the process changed the landscape of the Tamil country. My hands rested lightly on the sturdy wheels. My eyes were focused on the fast shifting landscapes shaped and sculpted by the roads. The car sped at an amazing speed, wheels perhaps barely caressing the road.

I recall those days when we drove through the plains of this part of the world with shady tamarind trees lined on either side of the dark bumpy road –bullock carts tottering along with men with reflective shiny eyes and creviced faces in white dhotis and large turbans. And women in multicoloured saris scrambled across with bronze water pots balanced over their covered heads. They had such wonderful heavy gold coloured ornaments that dangled on their ears and noses. Their dark smiles spread a natural charm over the golden land blessed by the yellow sun overhead. Life was peaceful, silent, and pleasant.  Deep crevices split the red soil on either side of the road on the undulating softness that touched a steely blue horizon. And straight grayish palms shot upright into the relentless blue of the skies. An occasional black-winged kite hung wind-treading overhead.  The skies always held floating clouds that never rained.  All this is now changed. The road bifurcated a flat land smooth and indifferent to the traffic that flowed at break-neck speed unmindful of the carts and bullocks and the sleepy-eyed stray dogs that barked away at the strangeness of it all. In between the binary roads ran a parallel patch of greenery with rose-pink flowers, as though to break the monotony of the steely blue of the road.  There were several breaks in the highway between miles to allow for the villagers to greet each other across this great divide.  At any point any day or night one can easily sense the indifference of the motor- world  blaring by,  and come across the mashed carcasses of unfortunate dogs cats and squirrels, which even the hungry and adroit jet-black crows or pariah kites, however nimble they be, couldn’t get at on account of the increasing traffic.  Life in these parts has changed and so has the sky-scape. It is as though all of a sudden someone has opened a huge hole above and let in the massive spread of the sky dominating everything below.

Inside the car we were relishing the exotic nuances of a rare Dhumri of Swati Tirunal rendered in the amazing voice of Ramesh Narayan, disciple of the maestro, Pandit Jasraj. All of us were literally transported to another world another time. It was near perfect.  And then, the peacock flew across from east to west.  It was just a flurry of colours and forms plastered on the windswept terrain. With the large tail drooping, with the heavy wings flapping, desperately straining against the tearing wind and the onrush of the charging motorcars, the bird flew.  Its mate followed close by. The magnificence of it all! The moment that remains frozen in all eternity. If I could rewind time slowly and unwind it leisurely I could stay frame by frame and relish the moment. Nevertheless the moment has lasted in its long-drawn-out, lingering, lasting, enduring.  The sky, the wind, the song and the flight, all in one unending thread of being. Nothing lasts forever in nature, as everyone knows, but all things move and in their movement there is a design. The design of life, existence, and meaning. The road had taken us so very far from the point where our vision was bisected by the flight of the peacocks. We had left an experience so far behind in time and place. And yet the road was never the same again.  It was as though the land had closed in all of a sudden and a moment frozen in all eternity.

In the Mahabharata there is a minor episode of the famed Nala-Damayanti story narrated during the Pandava’s Vanavasa, jungle days and nights. When Nala in his transformed state as Bhahuka rides the chariot with the King enroute to the professed marriage of Dhamayanti, the angavastra, or the upper robe of the King slips off and is caught in the fleeting wind. When the King asks Nala to retrieve it he is informed that they had moved miles by then because they were riding at the speed of the wind! Nala as Bahuka was supposed to be the master of aswahrdaya, or a special knowledge of the horses that enabled him to ride at breakneck speed. The angavastra that flew in the wind had disappeared the moment it left the chariot, like the peacocks that fleeted across our dreamy eyes. We were all in the epical chariot for a brief moment that transformed us. The birds, the car, and the song all trailed in the timeless flow of being. Myth and reality had become one. Fable and fact were frozen in time and place.

All birds live in the air of their own spaces. Big birds like the peacock need large spaces to dwell and fly. They described their time and history only between the sky and earth, inscribing their lives in the space of timeless life. The Dodo and the Passenger pigeon had passed without trace through the history of life on this planet. The Ostrich could always duck its head under the moving sands and lurk within the confines of its own biology. But the peacock is the national bird of India and painfully preserved in its fast depleting natural habitat. In our hurry to conquer new spaces and reach against the rush of time, we have very little space in our minds and hearts for the soft swell of its usually lazy unhurried flight.

When our roads become wider and wider and the huge spreading tamarind trees uprooted perhaps for a better cause, no doubt, uncaringly we have deprived the innumerable other forms of life with very little choice but to flee at our approach. The birds had so little time to reach across to the other side.  When the first venturing seamen arrived at the isles of Madagascar, we have known, the innocent Dodo driven by inquisitiveness and curiosity came by to investigate only at its own peril. Having had little or no competition or natural predators these ground dwellers had become flightless. They found new danger—in the human being. What began as mere easy pickings for food came to be slaughter eventually. Perhaps humans were innocently unaware of the consequence of their actions.  Just as what happened to the Passenger Pigeon in the great lands of the North American continent. At one time, we are informed by researchers, large flocks of these birds used to flood the skies to the extent that the sun threw huge floating mass of shadows down below. They would block out the sun! Such were their numbers that anyone could easily bring a few down by a merely flinging a casual stone up into this cloud!   It really didn’t require a Billy the Kid or a Mad Tex McGraw or any other famed shooter to drop a dead pigeon down. Anyone could have with the mere fling of a stone done that! Such were their numbers so that no one expected them to vanish as a species completely. We humans are used to thinking only around ourselves at any given time. We think of silently and secretly disposing of one plastic bag or a beer bottle or some such environmentally-unfriendly garbage so naively over our neighbour’s wall or fling it across away from our own walls. Little do we think of the consequences. It happened: A certain guru was to celebrate his birthday and so he ordered his disciples to bring buttermilk for the lunch get-together the next day. One little fellow went home and consulted his mother about what to do.  His mother told him: Look, everyone in your class will be bringing butter milk and pouring it into the big vessel in the corner.  They will only notice each other in the act of just pouring. So then why don’t you simply carry water in a bowl and pour it innocently into the buttermilk vessel! The boy did just that.  And what happened is anyone’s guess. The big vessel held nothing but water. Each one of us thinks that our little actions will go by unnoticed and their consequences would be so very negligible. Of course we would outsmart others! However, all of us apparently think so very alike when it comes to deception and wrong doing as this tale proves! More than everything, there is something of a collective responsibility that we humans have to share. Seldom do we think on these things.

There are many instances in the environmental history of the earth when many species of life forms—birds, mammals, insects, reptiles—have disappeared due to human intervention and what goes under the name of habitat destruction. Living things no doubt are dependent on the land they inhabit, and when we change that landscape those which can easily adapt to the change survive as a species; others die and disappear. Every little act has its consequences; even our casual deeds have their reactions whether we are aware of these or not. In Chaos Theory they speak of the tremor of a tiny butterfly wing causing huge ripples in the cosmic dimensions eventually.  All things are connected—the living the nonliving and what we usually consider as empty space. The earth is just another extension of this emptiness. Just as we move through our roads on the face of the earth, the earth traces another invisible path through space.

Our roads are our signs of progress and development. They are our nerves in our great cultural and civilizational structure. We cannot do without these anyway. Our history is scribbled all over the globe through the ever expanding network of roads and highways.  The landscapes that we saw in our childhood have definitely changed for they have to change. The birds and animals insects and reptiles, trees and bushes we cherished as children have disappeared, no doubt. Some that remain are transformed completely. After all, nothing remains the same forever. However, when the land disappears like the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon it leaves traces of nostalgia, of tragic sadness. The innocent trail of the peacock’s flight hopefully has not traced this path! Perhaps it has found its other-side of safety!

smurals@gmail.com

Red Shift In Memory of Cleo, the Muse (9th November 2011)

Cleopatra

For some things we have channels of pure silence:

Here word and image pass side by side

Sometimes submerged

In memory

Like long leaves of thin grass stems in rain

Like huge trees that blend into the quiet of night

Like slow lightning that freezes the monsoon skies

Like the flight of green pigeons against a blue sky

Like the flattened mount of clay and sand

What is else to remember but the sadness that darkens all?

Cleopatra. Cleo, our muse.

Each time the heart recalls your name, your eyes

We look this way and that

Forgetting the distance between a million stars.

Everything is an after thought

Filled with pain and distraught.

Your last wave of that flowy tail.

Your valediction and the tale trailing our deep silence afterward.

All pain is forgotten in time, I know.

All memory will suffer the touch of forgetfulness.

This is life’s simple truth. The plainness of reality for us humans.

Each of us know this, but we carry our precious pain

In an eternal present. You have eased into memory.

I saw the light go out in those pearly eyes.

You taught me to love and to treasure each moment.

The spectrum of silence that now veers between red and blue

Is hastening toward red; all things move from all others.

And it is the light that has gone out of our eyes.

smurals@gmail.com

 

Night Heron –Poem

Red trees

in evening’s

darkening

glow.

Breeze,

cat-footed,

stealthy,

alert.

Like

an ashen bird’s

first

awakening,

your

eyes

take in

the night.

Eight

night herons

voyage on.

Eight

silent

pilgrims,

or

prospectors.

In the distance,

mountains

loom,

like destiny.

With

the bitter

reluctance

of a waking child

a star

begins

to blink; the

landscape

blurs.

No more

the song

of the cicadas—

here let us

part.

And

peel off

the pearly

flowers

of rainy

afternoons,

one by one,

only to move on

like

night herons.

Note: This poem first appeared in Chandrabhaga in the early eighties. Later it was included in the poetry volume titled Night Heron: Poems and Sketches (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1998)

GANGA

GANGA[1]

1

Ganga,

frivolous, as yet the girl

you flirt with countless millions everyday;

silver trinklets tinkling over the smooth round stones,

whispering ecstatic love songs;

but waken anew into the awareness of aeons

as softly the evening sky buries his flushed face

in your cloudy tresses;

with a singular valediction you move on.

Far in the tamarind boughs

crows assemble.  Their cawings add another leaf

to the chronicle of your loneliness.

2

The wheat fields turn yellow, then brown.

Sometimes a lone night bird cries on the wing.

The moon throws silver behind the mountains.

Fragrance flows downwind.

Ganga,

Flow to me.

Fondle me with your thousand little fingertips,

nibble me with your thousand little silver lips,

curl around me, sweep me into your lap.

Ganga,

Ganga, my love,

how you tremble, marble-cold.

Hold me closer to you.

Snake-like I slip and slither

on the soft swell of your breasts

on the languid slip of your thighs,

only to deliver myself on to the misty grounds

of your remoteness.

Each intake of my breath

tears us farther and farther apart

drifting into the vast regions of the formless

till you are all but lost to me.

Ganga, I can hardly feel you.

Like death you remain unseen, yet too near.

But sever not these chains of sensation

that still bind us together;

my heart needs them all.

3

I dearly love the wind in the trees.

It reminds me of your floating hair

which streams like a burning banner of love in the moon.

Tonight the wind storms into my room,

wild, hectic, unappeased.

I look on helpless and disarmed.

It bloats out my letters as they are formed

and breathes into my lines and swells them.

High in the mountains they are caught

in the lofty trees, your tresses and my love.

Ganga,

my deliverance,

what it had take for me to build in devotion

I have ravaged in violent emotion.

4

Night feels its way into me. Gently

unfolding me layer after layer.

Like the desolate cry of the lone lapwing

my mind soars in empty space.

A mute yellow landscape spreads its nonchalance

below me. The stench of burning sand invades me.

And souls devoid of gravity and reality fly up to me.

What each has gained in faith

the other has lost in despair.

Staring vacant eyes bespeak of a bland fortitude

conceived in helplessness.

Somewhere in the reaches of my corroding memory

I hear you lapping; or are you chanting

the vedic hymns garbed in the saffron folds of a sannyasin?

The dead have found salvation in you.

The living with garlands adorn you.

Prayers dissolve in you, to vanish in dark circles.

Then I find you—

a silver trickle in the bosom of Himavant.[2]

Perhaps this is the place where you descended

with the might of a million Akshouhinis

to be caught in the tousled locks of a Savage God.

5

The mountains know the hand of God.

They are so mute, so huge, invincible.

I have lost my bearings confronted with such vastness.

One moment I am the Brahmin pundit

performing the funeral rites,

absolving the sins of the past;

another moment I am the corpse, soul-flown, half-cremated[3] ,

tossing amidst your immortal caresses,

in a crystal present; a pariah kite dips

and takes off, and I with him fishing

for still-smoking remnants

on your sun-stretched shore-lines;

the  I am the derelict seeking the hermitage

lined with sensual feathers; a breath, a pale whisper,

a flutter of wings, and as a dove I descend

into your silvery depths.

6

As when the mist lifts its veil for a moment,

and blue mountain glimmers into view

for a moment only, to eclipse into eternal quiet,

regions of the soul hitherto unvisited

heights I never knew existed

manifest through my naked self.

People, places, things and sensations

harmonize in a new rhapsody of timelessness.

7

Dark nomadic patterns of grim silence

mingled with the subdued crying of a child;

flash of a low-flying bird in the night sky

across the flares of a few dying stars;

the eternal wakefulness of tiny relentless waves,

and the footfalls of everyday death.

Often, now, I would weave on the same relief

gospels of assurances, surmises, and faith

in a prolegomena to sleep.

8

Ganga,

Ganga, O Ganga,

let me, love, with an ear to my heart,

withdraw in selfless meditation

into the deeps of my mindscape,

and find you, flowing gently

over the smooth stones of my unknowing,

unpossessed, eternal, unceasing.


[1] Ganges the sacred river of India is known as Ganga in most Indian languages. The river is symbolic of the unified Indian imagination, for it remains sacred in the minds of all Indians, through out the land from the southernmost tip of Kanya Kumari to Kashmir in the Himalayas, from the north east wet-evergreen forests to the western deserts, irrespective of cast, creed, community, and it has been so over a long time in India’s history.  It is the archetypal Indian River. The poem explores the terrain of the river from its source in the snow clad Himalayas through the great Indian plains where the river merges with the life of the common folk.  Even today dying beside the Ganges is held as most holy and so death and cremation are quite a common sight on the banks of the river in Banaras, the holy city. The poem visualizes the river in its various images and avatars.

[2] Himavant is another name for the Himalayas. Legend says that King Bhaghiratha, of yore, underwent severe tapas (askesis) and brought down Ganga from the heavens. To break her mighty fall, Siva caught her in his matted hair and allowed her gently to sprout forth ( Siva referred to here as the Savage God, and the force of her descent equated to that of a tremendous force of arms: akshouhinis—a very large number of armed soldiers [An Akshauhini was an ancient battle formation that consisted of 21,870 chariots, 21,870 elephants, 65,610 horse-mounted warriors and 109,350 infantry, as per the Mahabharata ( Adi Parva 2.15-23)] . The original source of the river is shaped like the face of a cow and is called Gaumukh.

[3] Bodies are burnt on the banks of the Ganga, and the Pandas or Brahmin pundits who help to perform the long-drawn religious last rites for the dead are ever so hasty to get more money in the bargain that they rush through their work and many a time the half-cremated bodies are pushed into the river to accommodate another body in the same pyre.

(Adi Parva 2.15-23).

NOTE

This poem was first published in the Chandrabhaga edited by Jayanta Mahapatra, in the early eighties, and later appeared in Night Heron : Poems and Sketches(Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1998.