Love in Mumbai
(from Kamal, Book One)
My dear New Zealand, so tiny and so distant…!Recently I read, with these persistent
rains we’ve had, that unsuspecting walkers
wading through the murky liquid streets
— a trishaw driver, a serenading hawker,
a bride with gold-bejeweled hands and feet
— will suddenly vanish, as if an unseen stalker
snatched them from below; and — gulp — a treat!
It seems a “killing” (so to speak) is made
when thieves in manhole covers trade.
And even I, on reading this, was struck
by how these unsuspecting people, sucked
into the ground, amused my comic sense
— until I read the part about their bloated
bodies, several hours later, dispensed
into the ocean mire. This was, I noted
to Sheela afterward, a crime against
potential readers! So there and then we voted
(Sheela, Camera Joe and I) to use
my growing fame to sell these views.
And just last week, on live T.V., in front
of cheering fans, my call to action was blunt:
“Enough of this manhole madness! We can’t just shrug
our shoulders and ignore it! How many dead
will we accept expelled like grotesque slugs
into the violent sea? Deplore it!” I said.
Cry out! Complain! And my ‘Campaign to Plug
the Plunge’ – or CaPP – which I myself will head,
is meant to give a voice to those who feel
a safer fate is ours to seal!”
I gave an example of a recent victim
(a twelve-year-old girl!), recited Donnean dictums
on why one needs to take a stand (“No man’s
an island to himself,” etc.) and heard
an orchestra of sniffles. I mentioned plans
to punish thieves; and cheers drowned every word.
A lady stood up: “The fault is Pakistan’s!”
she said – but she was shouted down, which stirred
up chants assailing crime, corruption, fraud.
“Zireaux, Zireaux hai zindabad!”
And on the drive back from the new Doordarshan
studios — beside the re-claimed marsh in
which the Worli slums distend and simmer —
Sheela took my hand.
“A thoughtful, brave
performance tonight,” she said, a tiny glimmer
in her eyes despite a twilight clave
by tinted glass, which made the dim yet dimmer.
Her bangles were subdued. Her necklace gave
no glint of life, the gems no longer shone.
Just dimples on a neck of stone.
of night-sedated lake, or somber glade
(which once – an hour before — was bright with dew
reflecting studio lights). A black ice sheet,
it froze upon her curves and slipped into
the darker mystery depths around our feet.
No, just her eyes, her eyes were all that drew
the muted lights around our shared backseat,
compressed them into tiny snowball sparks
to pitch at me with her remarks.
Those eyes caught every muffled source of light
that passed outside: the phosphorescent white
of open “chemist” stalls and “sweet-mart” stores
and “ladies tailors” sashed with silk and sequins,
the clinquant jewelry shops with guarded doors;
each blazing blue-tongued welder’s torch, delinquent
cooking fires, the aircraft lights that soared
across the sunroof’s starless space, the frequent
lamps and flames of makeshift camps and each
snack-seller on Chowpatty Beach;
a smoldering moon above the Arabian Sea,
the streetlights lacing Marine Drive as we
stood still in traffic; and a double row
of faces gazing outward from their bus
like photograph transparencies; the glow
of second-story rooms; the blue stardust
of diesel fumes which hovered near, as though
to spy its kindred cloud inside with us;
Diwali sparklers tossed by servant boys.
The driveway of the Oberoi.
Where we pulled in — “Good evening to you, sir;”
and from our air-conditioned claire-obscure
we hatched into a brilliant vestibule.
And Sheela’s costume suddenly dispersed
a swarm of luminescent animalcules
around her pink silk sari; others burst
out from her spangled purse and dangling jewels.
We still held hands! We drank a nightcap first;
and then — my room. And as we talked and teased,
her eyes cast out the light they’d seized.
“This country’s, like — in love with you,” she gushed.
More drinks. More fingers squeezed. More lightly brushed
me, please — just what is ‘country’? Land? A figment
of the mind? A fiction meant to quell
aggression toward a mother god, as Sigmund
Freud might say? A place? A people?”
she stopped to reason what my verbal tricks meant.
“I’d have to say I mean the people of
a country when I speak of love.”
“Astutely said,” I said. “And cutely.”
a smile – a smile just inches from mine. We paused.
The ocean lay in clumsy camouflage
outside, the lights of passing boats too bright
against the starless cosmos. Her soft massage
“The people, Sheela?” I whispered. “Might
I not include you in that entourage?”
Her zaffer eyelids drooped. Her smile took flight;
How strange is passion! Reckless, clumsy, delirious,
absurd, insane…and yet, so serious.
of their act; as if the fevered flush in
which we weightless grope is less a furnace
in our glands than some new atmosphere
of circumstance which heats (and burns!) us
in our mad approach. And it’s this fear,
this dread of how our lives will change that turns us
into solemn, stone-faced clowns, content to smear
ourselves in flaming streaks across the sky.
In every kiss a wish to die.
I wax too lyrical. Fact is, most lives
are serious, with heartbreak, loss — and wives
and kids; and “Sheela…I –” but just before
we plunged into the blue ionosphere
and neared that no returning point, some snore,
or constant wheeze, which we could clearly hear
but which we’d both decided to ignore,
erupted like a tractor shifting gear,
and spluttered, gurgled, hacked then brayed no more.
A shadow rose beside us. “You’re back already.”
It lifted a camera. Held it steady.
I must admit relief that Camera Joe
had woken up just when he did. Although
my will is strong, I might have found it hard
to formulate a courteous excuse.
As Sheela knew – our threesome knew – we bards
are unpredictable and might produce
immortal rhymes upon a calling card
at 3am; then thinking it refuse,
discard it somewhere, never to be found.
But not with Camera Joe around.
(“Afflatus glossed and turned,” I’ve joked) to keep
my special quirks for curious Posterity.
Why not? All Byron’s news Trelawny dispatched.
And Sterne with good La Fleur produced a parity.
And Johnson with adoring Boswell was matched.
And me? I have my Camera Joe – a rarity:
A Sony lens with grown-up body attached.
Each night he fills up half my king-size bed.
So Sheela headed home instead.
Published as part of the dVerse Poetry Group.