Three Poems by Isha Singh

Painting: Lenore Senior

By Isha Singh 

To My Country

In my mind I am still in the 90s
in India, where I grew up.
Government is not God,
And at tea-stalls people have the freedom
To criticise the government over steaming cups of tea.
We go to school early in the morning
And our bus-driver is well-educated
But drives a bus. The country is far from perfect.
We go to a convent with lush fields for march-past
And on republic day, we sing the pledge.
All Indians are my brothers and sisters.
And inside the rusty red walls of the school,
We follow that. We are more concerned with boys
and grades and inter-school fests where we can
Hike up our skirts.
They tell us about Godhra, we collect funds,
Someone shows me a video clip of the ones
Who destroyed Babri masjid and that’s all I know.
Communalism hisses in the far-distance
and my life is unswept by its tides.
India, for me, is a land of many things, jugaad, chai
Himalayas, the Thar desert, windswept and drenched,
Hot and dusty at the same time.
In college, I learn about Benedict Anderson, and
That a nation is an imagined community.
It seems like an idea worth holding onto,
I have never felt patriotic and being a free radical
Sounds appealing. Che Guevara, Jim Morrison and
Patti Hearst and Patti Smith all become synonymous
To me as the epitome of the rebel.
I don’t involve myself a lot in politics, it doesn’t concern me.
I shamelessly act as a fence-sitter when the drums
Of protest sound in my university
And cries of ‘Lal, Salaam’ echo. My friends and I
Go to Saket, DLF and PVR Priya and eat at outlets
By big MNC’s, dance at Turquoise Cottage.
What are the protests for? Who won the electoral majority?
Do we care? The country won’t change, we think.
This is India, yahaan sab chalta hai.

But the country changed, when we weren’t out on the streets,
Fighting for its soul.
Some came and changed its soul to a bituminous one
And now poison runs in its veins.
And the country where I grew up, is in my mind
It is no more.
Outside the air is not the same anymore
It is dark, heavy and laden with chemicals
The smog we learnt about in our textbooks
Is now a permanent fixture
And our lungs are hurt
Our souls are broken
And my friends who are of a different religion
Get persecuted everyday
There are new words in the atmosphere
Lynching, polarisation, communal
Secular, a word they drilled into our heads
In moral science classes as the crown jewel
Of our nation, is now a bad word.
Godse is the saviour and Gandhi is a relic
His portraits carry dust in betel-tinged corridors
And cobwebs mar the book of the Indian Constitution
This is not India, and the ones I grew up with
In the rusty-red precincts of my school
Some of them believe this has always been India
And I cannot for the world, fathom where they learnt the hatred
And I cannot choose not to be political anymore.
I cannot let the love vanish from the world,
I cannot let my country perish.
I want my country back,
And in my mind, I remember it as it was.
A quiet, broken but soul intact kind of
Civilisation, one that Tagore called syncretic.
I want to feel proud of India again,
A world where its men are not toxic
And its leaders are men of virtue and grace.
I close my eyes and let the India of today fade.
In my mind, it is the same, an idea that sweeps across
This land, its soil, its forests and rivers and lakes.


The System

Hello to the system
You’re breaking us day in, day out
All we wanted to know were the answers to the universe
And swallow it whole
And to walk on grass with bare feet
And stare into eyes for the longest times
Maybe listen to Patti Smith
Make some art
Write a poem with a broken poet for company
In neon-lit places at night
But every moment we snatch from the system
is a taboo, a dark desire that the system won’t let us have
Its tentacles have reached into very souls
poisoning what was once pure
Making you run around in circles
Till the very fact of running or walking seems like an anathema
I don’t want to walk anymore, you’ll say
I want to rest, you’ll say
You’ll sleep till eternity
And miss the grass you never walked on.
You’ll lose the forest of dreams
Where your unstable, unsafe dreams
Dangle like forbidden fruit
Which Eve can’t taste
The system will break her ribs and give them to Adam
And put her like a cog in a machine
Tell her to marry and have babies
Tell her to make money and die
Before she finds out the answers to the universe
Because they don’t exist.
And the rain will fall on her grave one day
Where the grass grows and reclaims her soul
She lies with Satan,
And both swallow this universe whole.


On Writing Poetry

Writing poetry is a disease,
Which never goes away.
And the poem, it can talk of many things,
The poet wants to talk about Patti Hearst
And how she sprayed ‘Stockholm Syndrome’
All over the perplexed face of urban society
Who thought they raised her well
On warm milk and bullshit.
And they worried for their nubile
Young daughters, kidnapped by men.
They said she was brainwashed by a guerrilla,
A strong, black man and like him,
She donned a black belt full of bullets.
And the poet will tell you that was love.
Poets can tell you anything
Which they create out of thin air
And their raw and bloodied poems
Crawl feebly to the gutter of human devotions
And sacrifice themselves to the altar
Of love and romance
And smell like caviar and champagne
And also, death and blood
And great loves
The falling and breaking of hearts
And you have to believe it.
The poet is a madman, drunk on ecstasy
The poet is blessed but broken.
Writing poetry is a curse
And poems are to the poets
the albatrosses
Around the neck of sailors
Just a tad too much weight
And the neck snaps
As if a strong guerrilla man broke it.
Can just hear Patti Hearst laughing.

Isha Singh, Assistant Professor, University of Lucknow. She obtained a Ph.D. from the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her book, Where Do You Go in the Dark, My Love?, was published by HarperCollins India in 2019.


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