A poem by Sudeep Sen
I dream of the celebrations tomorrow
amid neighborhood women
selling home-cooked food,
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
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
a ten-digit code into my ear.
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.
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.
Evening air is filled
with perfumed incense-smoke,
sound of beating dhaak leather-drums,
brass and copper cymbals,
and baritones of conch-blowers—
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.
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.
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.
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
clenched tight in my right fist —
its flame-colored veins
marking my fist’s arteries
that it glows rust-gold in the night-sky —
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.”