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Durga sextet

  • Published at 02:05 pm October 11th, 2018
Durga Sextet

A poem by Sudeep Sen


1. Panchami

I dream of the celebrations tomorrow 

amid neighborhood women 

selling home-cooked food,

handmade wares,

children running around unfettered,

at the annual puja’s Ananda Mela.

I sit thinking of the night ahead

with her wearing white, sheer white,

dhaker shaaj revealing to me 

what she might want—

                                                                                there is desire —

except now is not quite the right time

with so many people milling around us.

Light as a cloud bearing her name —

crystal glass in hand —

she half-leans on me on the blue linen sofa,

brushing against my side ever-so-slightly, 

not once, but a few times, subtly,

enough for me to feel

her heat.

She swivels her neck, 

her night-black hair 

tousles beautifully in an arc

periodically covering her brown eyes —

her eyelashes and luminous strands of hair

weaving a magic 

that stares deep into my pupils.

Out on the balcony as she smokes her last,

she tells me the secret of singlehood —

fragile cigarette ash-tips fall off the ends 

of her long-nailed slender fingers.

It is time for everyone to leave —

though she might have wanted to stay on.

Today’s celebrations must end,

as must the joys of this evening’s high.

Most, except you, have dispersed by now.

As we say our goodbyes, 

                                                                hug and kiss —

she surreptitiously slips her lilac lace handkerchief 

into my breast pocket 

and whispers

a ten-digit code into my ear.


2. Shashti

Durga’s light fragrance in Delhi’s night air —

a bracing hint of late autumn.

Incense-smoke waft, spiral effortlessly—

its perfume mingling with new-spun silk

sarees draping bodies—

fluid and idol-struck.

You pick up the old threads 

across many oceans in a land faraway,

where the afternoon air is similarly crisp,              

where leaves are turning 

from green to yellow to gold — rust and incarnadine —

blood’s love-promise to be kept 

for a future fleeting meeting—

for a dream that is yet to be fulfilled. 

But for now, 

fantasy is real, jovial and feather-light —

as are the elements outside.

Your heart skips a beat in joy’s frolic— yearning. 

Breathe deep the season’s prayer, 

arati’s incantatory pulse —

puja’s beautiful delirium.

The shiuli-petal bracelet around your wrist

brands my skin with its leaking invisible orange-hued juice —

etching forever, secrets on our skin.


3. Shaptami

Morning’s afterglow. 

I wake up alone —

my bed full of crushed shiuli,

its scent infusing my tea 

with a taste I had not known before.

I sip the heat gently, 

I inhale in slow-motion,

I imagine the dawn’s light to be brighter

than it actually is —

                my lips, stained with memory.

It is only the seventh day.

She will bloom 

in her full glory, tomorrow —

Ashtami’s climax, awaiting.


4. Ashtami


Evening air is filled 

with perfumed incense-smoke,

sound of beating dhaak leather-drums,

brass and copper cymbals,

and baritones of conch-blowers—

you dance,


from side to side in slow motion

wrapped in your pink dhakai saree,

shiuli petals pinned to your hair —

tiny flowers, so fragile

that even their slender orange blood-filled stems

string themselves together

into a bracelet or garland

cannot resist the intoxication of kama

Navami’s love stored for tomorrow.


Where you are, it is meghala 

overcast, grey lenticular clouds 

threaten to burst —

but instead, withdraw in the shape

of a convex halo, in shy deference.

You are preparing to sing

for a concert tonight —

Rabindranath’s lyrics drenched in Bengal rains.

Like your sari-pallu pleats, the notes 

of rabindra sangeet are carefully gathered 

within Gitabitan’s pages, 

secretly, just for us.


5. Navami

Goddess Durga

is so mesmerized by your grace

that this year, the two days of Ashtami and Navami

coalesce, condense as one.

You are blessed, as I am.

You choreograph— ‘In_terrupt_ed’ —

rehearse its new dance-patterns

invisibly and magically,

gathering fragments into a whole.

Sculpted letterforms 

and numbers roll out of a dice


the latent architecture of a song-sequence

that is yet to be composed. 

Somehow, we sing it aloud

in a language unknown, 

every beat and step

in perfect asymmetry.


6. Dashami

Durga’s face, totally effaced,

red and white with sindoor and sandesh

or perhaps it is the residual stains 

of fervent worship ….

— S.S., ‘Durga Puja, 1992’

Even the worshipping must close,

chandipaath song-cycles must end for now too,

dancing must stop —

not cease for good, 

but just pause for a moment —

to reflect and pray

for peace, love and well-being.

The tenth day is here —

and I have to immerse you 

in the river-waters of Yamuna

with my own hands. 

Letting go is difficult, 

but it must be done for catharsis,

for celebration, for camaraderie — for us. 

As I gently lower you in the waters

amid the fading evening light, 

clamour and din of all that is familiar —

your body melts in my hand

slowly dissolving away,

mingling as one —                            my beloved and me.

A stray shiuli flower-petal 

accidently remains 

clenched tight in my right fist —

its flame-colored veins

marking my fist’s arteries 

even bloodier

that it glows rust-gold in the night-sky —

incandescent, incarnadine,

involute, interrupted — 

fragments forming a whole. 

                                * * *

II. Durga Puja: 1992

today / man will triumph over gods

— tabish khair, ‘My India Diary IV’


Through the swirling fumes of the scented incense, the arati echoes

as the priest hums, and the Chandipaath chants in a scriptural rhyme.

From the bamboo pedestal she stares through her painted pupils, 

the three-eyed pratima of the Goddess Durga — 

resplendent, statuesque, armed with ten hands, on her roaring chariot,

her glazed clay demeanor, poised, even after the mythic bloody war.

Every year after the monsoons diminish, she comes, high from 

her Himalayan palace — sculpted in fresh snow and open sky — 

to the earth where she once belonged, her home with 

her parents and people, reminiscing the quadrangle of her playful days.

Today, and for the next four days, we worship and rejoice

at her presence and her victory over Ashoor — the demon — 

half-emerging from the deceptive black buffalo, as she spears

his green body crimson in a cathartic end to the Crusades.

These five days are hers, exclusively hers, even her children — 

Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganesh, and Kartik — fade in her presence.

For five days we sing and dance, laugh and cheer,

untutored, unlike the rest of the year.


The dashami comes even before we realize the barone is over.

After the mid-afternoon rites, the procession begins — 

Durga’s face totally effaced, red and white with sindoor and sandesh,

or perhaps it is the residual stains of the fervent worship —

her body weary, her coat of arms mutilated, often dismembered,

as she sits on open lorries, while the young men and women

dance the continuous drum beats, possessed — and Durga, now one of 

the multitude, a rare frozen moment when the gods look human.

Though it may seem today that men will triumph over the goddess, 

that her immersion at the ghats with mortal hands is real,

it is, like some myths, only an illusion of victory and sadness,

as she mingles, melting with the great silting Ganga,

her soft clay body browning the greenish-blue bhashaan waters, 

as we hear the receding din of the last offerings,

see the muted wick’s faint glimmer on the floating earthen lamps,

and the moonlight’s occasional flicker on the damp strewn petals,

as she wades her way upstream — miraculously through the

debris, dirt, sewage and homage of many unknown towns and villages — 

back, to the pristine snow-crowned peaks, where Shiva

welcomes her home in an unusual dance of life;

while we, on earth, await her return the following year, 

perhaps to celebrate, perhaps to pray, perhaps to forget

the life around, but perhaps to believe that really

the life force still lives, that the celestial cycles still exist

just as Durga visits, once every year,

just as, at the close of every season, she whispers from the heavens — 

     “Akhone aami aashi” — that I’ll return once again — Shashti, Shaptami,

Ashtami, Navami, Dashami ... Shashti, Shaptami, Ashtami, Navami,Dashami.

* * *

Reflection on the Poem Sequence

Nearly 25 years ago, the rituals and celebrations of Durga Puja (as detailed in the concluding poem replicating the original chandipaath rhyming couplets) almost seemed wrapped in innocence, in adolescent wonder of love and religion, of song and revelry. It was a yearly celebration (more social than religious for some of us), a time when friends and family united, new clothes were bought for the occasion, time for togetherness, song, food and celebrations.

I have often thought about the significance of religion, more so its rituals, in a fast changing modern society that is time-bound with an acute deficit attention span syndrome, commercial, showy, and transient. Nothing is permanent, even a relationship with another human or even god that melts clay-like in your hands upon meeting water during immersion. How does one address the same celebration of Durga Puja of my childhood and adolescence in a world now that seems to be now validated by Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp posts. 

In the ‘Durga Sextet’ sequence, I go through the actual six days of earthly celebrations of the mother goddess both with a detached eye and intimate involvement. I explore prayer, god, religion, desire, want, commerce, companionship, transience, and loss of innocence while perhaps gaining another kind of value. The setting is largely urban with bucolic echoes of the past. It incorporates aspects of dance, memory, politics, fragility and love of things that are truly private and intimate to be shared only with ones own self. 

A sensitive human being tends to be a person living outside the general arc in solitude with ones own self amid a crowded society that is full of noise, people, distrust and misuse. Only hope is self-belief, prayer and trust in the chakras that rule us. The same macrocosmic elements of science and geographic patterns rule us in our microcosmic lives. 25 years is a very short span  let us celebrate it with love and with hope.

[for further information and background: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durga_Puja]

* * *

Sudeep Sen’s prize-winning  books include Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins),Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015(London Magazine Editions) andEroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House).Blue Nude: Anthropocene, Ekphrasis & New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) is forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over 25 languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on bbc, pbs, cnn ibn, ndtv, air& Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (Collins), Indian Love Poems (Knopf/Random House/Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and the editor of Atlas. Sen is the first Asian invited to speak and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.”

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