Conversations with Children by S. Murali. Puducherry Co-op Book Society, 9, Jeevantham Street, Ashok Nagar, Pondicherry 605008. 2005. 38pp. Paperback. Rs.60.00. ISBN 81-87299-10-06.
S. Murali is a painter of repute, and a literary critic who has specialised in Indian literary theory and aesthetics. He is Reader in the Department of English, PondicherryUniversity. Conversations with Children, his second collection of poems, lives up to the promise of his first collection, Night Heron (1998); however, unlike Night Heron, it has no illustrations.
The twenty-five poems here have a variety of themes — the title poem deals with the problem of communication, while “My Father and R.K.Narayan” is a moving tribute, mourning both his father and the eminent writer, who “died a few days before R.K.Narayan did.” As in the earlier collection, love of nature is an important theme; “The Bleeding Tree” which laments over deforestation has an allegorical quality about it. Some poems, such as “I Like to let the word fly about”, “There’s no Wisdom in Poetry” and “Afterward” deal with the art and craft of poetry. Some poems are based on the Puranas. There are five poems about Krishna, and his miraculous childhood exploits. There are poems expressing the feelings of Eklavya, Garuda, Krishna, Karna and Kaikeyi. “Amba Upanishad” expresses the anguish of Amba, the princess forcibly brought to Hastinapur by Bhishma to be his brother’s bride; she confesses, “I had not known enough of hate/ Before now, to hate so much . . .” In “I, Bahuka”, the protagonist wonders who he really is, the glorious King Nala, husband of the beautiful Damayanti, or the dark, ugly Bahuka he became when bitten by a serpent. Murali’s poems are characterized by careful craftsmanship. His free verse experiments with a number of stanza forms, such as four-line stanzas and three-line stanzas. Some poems have a refrain, but he avoids rhyme.
The title poem is representative of his work – there is deep thought, a feel for human relationships, closeness to nature, and striking imagery. “Conversations with Children” is a meditation on the way children casually avoid listening to adults and their sermons about “general rules of behaviour”, and “dos and don’ts”. The imagery is concrete, and original:
Like cows in the mid-stream of highway traffic
nonchalant they stand, letting each word
glide by; dodging and ducking, or with a simple
toss of the head disengaging artha from sabda
as simple as peeling bananas.
Waste water cascade.
Most Indians will respond to the unusual image, as the picture of a cow placidly chewing its cud in the middle of the road springs to mind. The next image, of peeling a banana, starts on a new line, to highlight the ease with which unpleasant conversation is side-stepped, for it is considered only “waste water”. Two lines are used as a kind of refrain, occurring thrice in the poem:
Fly away, fly away word –
there’s just not any space for you.
But the poem is not a facile condemnation of the younger generation; it is only after “long years of wandering” that the poet has realized that “Conversation is all”, earlier he was among those who thought that “it’s all conversation”. “Now my children beside me” indicates that it is an older (and wiser) man who is speaking. There is a note of hope as he sits with his children; communication can take the form of responding together to nature, its fury and its beauty:
Now my children beside me, I sit and watch
the slow fading of light in the new monsoon
trees all agog with words, the wind
and lightning; thunder calls across the sky.
So much meaning being tossed about
in the open. Shall we reach out
and clutch? Conversation is all
But they do not understand the importance of conversation, the response to the plea for reaching out and clutching is negative:
and clutch? Conversation is all
empty dispensation of words
a loose cloud over all
And the poem ends with the refrain: Fly away, fly away word –/ there’s just not any space for you.”
One does not know (and the poet probably does not care) how a non-Indian reader would respond to such imagery. Would they slot the cow or the monsoon into the category of the “exotic Other”? Would they be able to understand the reference to “artha from sabda” (and the implied allusion to Kalidasa)? The same questions could be asked about Murali’s poems about figures from Indian mythology. But there is no doubt that these poems are a rewarding experience for the Indian reader; they are thought provoking, and present fresh perspectives on characters like Kaikeyi.
Prof. Shyamala A. Narayan
Journal of Indian Writing in English 14.3.2007
[Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London]
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.
Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight: and though now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
‘Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,
While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.
—-SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE
I have not seen the sun set so peacefully like this evening
Receding from this sea shore with slow valediction.
Here you stand with wide eyes
And gaze at the rising waves, your hand in mine, warm still.
How many dawns have we seen from this tiny corner
Of our world slowly climb up the mounting waves
And close in over the darkening hills! It is all about
Light and shade: nothing more. But I have seen it all
In these wondrous eyes. Day and night, sun and star.
Now the dark closes behind your floating hair. And then
With the suddenness of a flickering star your eyes widen
Again and again: the village by the sea floats up in a sea of light.
Fireworks lighten sky and night—their flares swell
With the sea’s delight as you break into sweet laughter
Letting the night slowly merge with the palm leaves and sand
Your hand in mine, warm still, and a blue moon above the sea.
Dr Murali Sivaramakrishnan
For some things we have channels of pure silence:
Here word and image pass side by side
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.
an ashen bird’s
In the distance,
of a waking child
to blink; the
of the cicadas—
here let us
one by one,
only to move on
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)
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
what it had take for me to build in devotion
I have ravaged in violent emotion.
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.
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.
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 ,
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
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.
There is a line of light that traverses the hill
And bisects the valley below. All day
The sun looks down at this amazing sight
Where hill meets valley and breaks
The fall of light and shade.
Purple, grey, brown,
And blue the hill radiates the ray’s fall.
Until night wipes out the light and blossoms
With the nightjar’s quivering wing.
Many flowers bloom and fall, many-petalled
And bright and dull.
In the valley some are heaped
And piled on the breeze’s reckless swing
Some lie awake all day all night
For the rain-priest’s ritual shower
And an unknown traveler’s dusty tread.
Water, huge and wide on this one and only shore
Lies open-eyed under a vacant sky.
A large bird floats silently by
Slowly drawn into the slanting line of sight.
All hills are the same. All valleys too.
A boy once eager to learn and know fled home
And the oft-trodden pathway of his fathers
Enchanted by the design that drew him close
To a huge hill’s heart, listening, shivering
Figuring a new will and being from the stony self
He heard the huge heart, felt the rhythm
And seeped into its very being.
A god’s large self.
This large water can hide nothing
It always reflects itself in the sky
Sometimes not knowing
Where it ends and sky begins
Or where they both end.
Daylight breaks shivering
Over the crude shoulders
Of the cold hill.
Night is like a towel
Thrown over the flames of the sun.
What is there to choose between?