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The things that make us who we are are also the things that make us stand out from the crowd.

I grew up
in a pious family
a borderline atheist
who was a disgrace
God wouldn’t forgive
they said, in haste.

He would take care
of everything, they said
if I prayed long and hard.
A few moments to bare
my soul before Him
was all I could spare.

I would never become great
if I couldn’t learn to be
more serious, they wept
as if I had pierced their lung
when I said, so be it
I shall die unsung.

They said that I should listen
to the elders, and never tell
a lie. I said I couldn’t
promise, but I would try
for I had my own opinions
even as a kid.

My father’s cousin, once
removed, called me a soft knife
because I kept devising
devious means to end the strife.
Why don’t you wear, he had asked
the thread anymore?

I said I needn’t, as I was
– although not hardcore –
a little left-leaning anyway.
I am not sure he caught the pun
and warned me of the fate
that awaited, for mocking tradition.

***

I said the times are changing
he’d know in due course
we needn’t spar.
He invited me when his son
got married, of course
within the community!

To such niceties
his daughter paid
no heed; for her wedding
I wasn’t invited. Poor man
he needn’t have had such dread
I wasn’t going to pick up the thread.

They said join IIT-M for a future.
I went there to avoid the torture
at home, like the naughty boy
who ran away to Scotland
in this case, to see the trees
the does and deers, at first hand.

They said they wouldn’t give
their daughter away, except
to a professional with a good pay.
I had to reset my heart and forget
my could-have-been wife, wedded
as I was to an amateur’s life.

Physics at an IIT, they scoffed:
it doesn’t give you wings.
I like to get, I said
to the root of things.
Get a PhD then, from the U.S.A.
they said, it won’t be in vain.

I went to Calcutta instead.
The journey was as long by train.
Indeed it was
also a lot cheaper
because I travelled
by second (class) sleeper.

***

Eat fish, to survive in the hostel
they said. I taught them how to cook
sambar; they loved the new dish.
Don’t discuss exams or marks
anything else was alright
they said, especially Marx.

This I liked, upto a point.
And asked for the right joint.
They took me to the Coffee House
to drink tea, smoke cigarettes;
to find a spouse. I went to ogle
the chicks and take a few pics.

There is no feeling, like being
in love, they said. Do you know
I countered, how rejection feels?
Don’t worry, they said:
marry a bengali.
She will fix you up nicely.

Show me a vegetarian
– not one in a white sari –
I said, making them a little wary.
Marry the person you love, and be happy
they said. I married a total stranger
who is a bit snappy.

They said every man must
learn this lesson: It isn’t
enough to make ends meet.
I had to be more flexible
and make a lot of money
to impress the Honey.

I said no matter what
there is a good reason
for not putting
pockets on shrouds.
They looked at me as if
I had dropped from the clouds.

***

A teetotaller in a pub
in the land of Guinness!
You ought to be kidding
they said. I found the music
spiritual, I said
for the record.

No meat, no fish, no eggs?
What do you eat?
Grass?!
fumed the blonde waitress
shocked to meet
a vegetarian in Beefeater nation.

Yeah, I like grass
especially if I can get
the down and dirty type, I said
if you know what I mean. She didn’t
understand the accent, perhaps
or she wasn’t particularly flirty.

They told me not to return.
India was so bad, I had no idea.
I like the dumps I said
whence, the only way is upwards.
Don’t be foolish, they said
apply for a green card.

I returned with a renewed blue passport.
Lesser people than you make a lot
of money, in the the software industry
they said before giving up.
For teaching and research
my mind was made up.

These kids are bright
they have come through JEE
and are the flag-bearers
of brand-IIT, they told me
give them good grades.
At first they sounded right.

***

Let them do well in my test
I said, only then can I tell
the best from the rest.
Don’t be so rigid, they said
if you want to be popular.
I quit the job to make things simpler.

A physicist in a mathematical institute?
they spoke, as if mathematics did not
constitute a great deal of physics.
I tried to educate
students and colleagues
at any rate

about Newton, Leibnitz and Jacobi;
they said they only believed
in Bourbaki.
I turned to some of my own ilk
whose equations seemed to work
smooth as silk.

They said quantum field theory is passe;
General Relativity is not general anymore.
The sexy thing is
a theory of strings.
I tied myself in knots and went
a step further to explore links.

Family and relatives
friends and enemies
neighbours, acquaintances
and passers-by
who don’t feel the need
to say hello or good-bye.

People, and events
that changed destinies
wedding vows, rituals
bows to cover up flaws
and banish thoughts
of could-have-been in-laws.

***

Blondes who waited on me
brunettes for whom I waited.
Beggars with infants
at the signal, children
in the back seat
sleeping tight.

Teachers and students
colleagues and peers
some rooted like trees
others flippant like does and deers.
Everything in the Universe
linked to me, as stated

defining me by completion
by simple mathematics
or by Gods and Godesses
by their magic tricks, always
telling me what’s good for me.
So, at arm’s length I let them be

lest the links dissolve
in love, emotions overwhelm
making me forget who I am
from root to stem.
I watch them plunge
headlong into brackish embrace

with the ocean of endless desire
leaving others in the race
also thirsting for salt
in exchange for sweetness
desperately yearning
for the same congress.

We once shared
the bed and the body
but not the dream.
On the karmic river
I am adrift
they are the mainstream.

***

Madras Courier originally ran as a broadsheet with a poetry section. It was a time when readers felt comfortable sharing glimpses of their lives through verse. If you too have a poem you’d like to submit, do mail us at editor@madrascourier.com.

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