Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Diwali, by Vikram Seth

I send this poem out every year at Diwali time.

I would like to share it with you this year for the festive season.

"And when an alap of Marwa
Swims on slow flute-notes over
The neighbours' roofs at sunset
Wordlessly like a lover

It holds me-till the strain
Of exile, here or there,
Subverts the trance, the fear
Of fear found everywhere. "

Happy Diwali to all of you who are "abroad abroad" and "not at home at home".

Here's a toast to all of us exiles.

Rajeev Srinivasan

===========================

DIWALI --- Vikram Seth


Three years of neurotic
Guy Fawkes Days-I recall
That lonely hankering-
But I am home after all.

Home. These walls, this sky
Splintered with wakes of light
These mud-lamps beaded round
The eaves, this festive night,

These streets, these voices...yet
The old insensate dread,
Abeyant as that love,
Once more shifts in my head.

Five? Six? generations ago
Somewhere in the Punjab
My father's family,farmers,
Perhaps had a small shop

And two generations later
Could send a son to a school
To gain the conqueror's
Authoritarian seal:

English! Six-armed god,
Key to a job, to power,
Snobbery, the good life,
This separateness, this fear.

English: beloved language
of Jonson, Wordsworth's tongue-
These my "meridian names"
Whose grooves I crawl along.

The Moghuls fought and ruled
And settled. Even while
They hungered for musk-melon,
Rose, peach, nightingale,

The land assumed their love.
At sixty they could not
Retire westwards. The British
Made us the Orient.

How could an Englishman say
About the divan-e-khas
"If there is heaven on earth
It is this; it is this; it is this."?

Macaulay the prophet of learning
Chewed at his pen: one taste
Of Western wisdom "surpasses
All the books of the East,"

And Kalidas, Shankaracharya,
Panini, Bhaskar, Kabir,
Surdas sank, and we welcomed
The reign of Shakespeare.

The undigested Hobbes,
The Mill who later ground
(Through talk of liberty)
The Raj out of the land ...

O happy breed of Babus,
I march on with your purpose;
We will have railways, common law
And a good postal service-

And I twist along
Those grooves from image to image,
Violet, elm-tree, swan,
Pork-pie, gable, scrimmage

And as we title our memoirs
"Roses in December"
Though we all know that here
Roses *grow* in December

And we import songs
Composed in the U.S
For Vietnam (not even
Our local horrors grip us)

And as, over gin at the Club,
I note that egregious member
Strut just perceptibly more
When with a foreigner,

I know that the whole world
Means exile of our breed
Who are not home at home
And are abroad abroad,

Huddled in towns, while around:
"He died last week. My boys
Are starving. Daily we dig
The ground for sweet potatoes."

"The landlord's hirelings broke
My husband's ribs-and I
Grow blind in the smoke of the hearth."
"Who will take care of me

When I am old? No-one
Is left." So it goes on,
The cyclic shadow-play
Under the sinister sun;

That sun that, were there water,
Could bless the dispirited land,
Coaxing three crops a year
From this same yieldless ground.

Yet would these parched wraiths still
Starve in their ruins, while
"Silkworms around them grow
Into fat cocoons?", Sad soil,

This may as well be my home.
Because no other nation
Moves me thus? What of that?
Cause for congratulation?

This could well be my home;
I am too used to the flavor
Of tenous fixity;
I have been brought to savour

Its phases: the winter wheat-
The flowers of Har-ki-Doon -
The sal forests - the hills
Inflamed with rhododendron -

The first smell of the Rains
On the baked earth-the peaks
Snow-drowned in permanence--
The single mountain lakes.

What if my tongue is warped?
I need no words to gaze
At Ajanta, those flaked caves,
Or at the tomb of Mumtaz;

And when an alap of Marwa
Swims on slow flute-notes over
The neighbours' roofs at sunset
Wordlessly like a lover

It holds me-till the strain
Of exile, here or there,
Subverts the trance, the fear
Of fear found everywhere.

"But freedom?" the notes would sing...
Parole is enough. Tonight
Below the fire-crossed sky
Of the Festival of Light.

Give your soul leave to feel
What distilled peace it can;
In lieu of joy, at least
This lapsing anodyne.

"The world is a bridge. Pass over it,
Building no house upon it."
Acceptance may come with time;
Rest, then disquieted heart.

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