Culture

Poems in Saffron Ink: Goons’ Grandchildren Now Cry in Slogans

In the 2014 general elections, the BJP and its allies were able to form the largest majority government since 1984. The NDA’s combined vote share was at 38.5%.

A BJP rally ahead of the 2014 general elections, in Ahmedabad February 20, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

A BJP rally ahead of the 2014 general elections, in Ahmedabad February 20, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

This is the fourth in the five-part ‘Poems in Saffron Ink’ series. Read the first part here, second part here and third part here.

The Wire presents the ‘Poems Written in Saffron Ink’ series that capture the present environment of divisive politics, with threats to freedom of expression, where minorities feel unsafe and incidents of mob lynching have become common.

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General Elections. India. 2014.   

A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

—Agha Shahid Ali

when, in 1992, they came
knocking at the door, I could hear
you hide her in the bedroom,
in the mirror-worked quilts—
with their white stitching
running crisscross
across the patches she’d sewn
—she had tucked you into
when you were a child
—we had all slept in them sometime—
so often that their threads were coming loose
from the corners, like the door-frame
that held it all together, fraying
with those knocks which were growing
into thunder—you were praying
for the first time

as those unfearing
god-goons waved their swords
like benevolent gods
—godliness, that madman wielding
sharp objects at different names—
why did it matter that we never kissed
the floors of mosques with our foreheads,
or ever walked the right way round
temple courtyards;
we just hid in quilt-tents,
embroidered fortresses
made of thread and mirrors, deflecting
those words from the Gita we sold
to the second-hand bookstore, from
the Quran which we were supposed to follow,
but knew only to quote in intellectual
argument, to cry Ali’s name
to damn those who cried it—
the divine was just a convenience
of being articulate:

if I could say it like that, I’d have traded
places, offered you your own womb,
from where I peered as you blanketed
your mother, as your father wept for being
safe, only because he had this name
he didn’t choose to take; it isn’t easy to unstitch
our names, or to drown them
in that ganga-jamni
the goons’ grandchildren now cry in slogans,
as they conceal their grandfathers’ swords
between their teeth and through their tongues,
decked up with saffron and tinsel made from certain
names and certain quilts whose stitches
gave them away;

ganga-jamni,
so easily called secularism,
too easily put into postcards we send
abroad and send ourselves, so easily forgetting
that pieces of card and postage stamps
are never wide enough to hold
two holy rivers,
their waters polluted with those plastic bags,
rotting garlands, those ashes of the hundreds
who die before being scattered  with their burnt-out
names into mingling currents that lap
the banks of the buried—
do they knock at these graves,

like they will at the door? now
again, with their inked fingers
—those blots will always look like swords—
I am imagining things, as you say,
as I imagined from inside
your belly the world ringing against
the door-frame you were too swollen
to hold up with your own weight, or the days
you spent in silence watching the door
that—somehow—never fell,
or the quilt that never gave—
shall I wear it on my head?

call it propaganda,
let its alphabet run in embroidered
calligraphy down my nose, and through
the veins creasing in my elbows, down
to the deltas of a thousand tributaries
caught in these inked hands
I hold up
—shall I read my fate?—
for when they come knocking and I,
un-wombed, too weak to bolt a door, or fit
us into the fold of a quilt,
how will I tell them

Hold off the earth awhile 


This poem was first published in The Missing Slate, 2015.

Poorna Swami is a writer and dancer based in Bangalore.