Death by Darjeeling and other poems
By Sumana Roy
27 May 2016
Nephew, Verbs, and Hiding
Death by Darjeeling
You are grateful that the wind doesn’t cast shadows.
When you spot it testing the arrogance of flowers,
you reach out to protect their torn shadows.
You are already Darjeeling’s prisoner:
you mistrust your watch –
how can its hands hold the death of daylight?
Because rain is always a trespasser, you carry the fear like a secret:
wetness is always a surprise, its body an earthworm.
There is Giri Niwas and Sharma Cottage and Lama Building,
but before all of these is Madhu-di’s shop, her voice like a sleepy pigeon,
asking why you’ve stopped buying tomatoes.
You say something about the colour red.
‘‘They killed Madan Tamang near the Planter’s Club …’’
Age has done her life great violence – now only her shop can hold her girth.
Her words move at the speed of hunger: ‘‘Death digests everyone in Darjeeling’’.
On Lebong Cart Road are the town’s children.
There is always a newborn on someone’s lap.
Here the streets are nurseries.
Children are born. Crematoriums grow.
Even the dead must be employed –
so they bring in tourists.
Pilgrims hunting for ancestry in damp soil,
that makes life look like an immigrant. Death is a drug.
Candles, flowers without baptisms, silk khaada.
You see your breath turning to cold smoke
and you wonder why the dead should only be respected.
Later you apologise to yourself, for this wayward meanness –
it is only the wickedness of sorrow, this long tourism of illness,
the failure to remember that you were also dead once.
To your right is Happy Valley, where tea is more expensive than gold.
On the left lies the Hungarian linguist Alexander Koros.
Both need strangers and the secret education of tongues –
the man, his picket fenced language; and tea.
You hear the accent of its history in the crack of the blue china.
And you think of death as a season – why else would it return?
You begin to concede that there is only one season in Darjeeling:
it lives inside throats of hawkers at Chowrasta – ‘tourist season’.
Here, at the town centre, severed heads of men were hung once:
traitors, they thought Gorkhaland was cartilage. Violent hermits.
The clouds nudging the hills are blotting paper.
They will wipe away these blisters of sight.
All the tourists need is the mountain sun. A metaphor to trap a holiday.
And so Tiger Hill, its sunrise and sunset a Darjeeling day held in parenthesis.
In your sleep you hear the tourists move, walk on socks and shiver,
you hear the jealousy of rain and their search for the sun,
the holiday’s beauty spot. Your dreams search for a corridor,
the sun for a camera, its right to love outsiders.
In your stolen sleep, two things are turning into statues –
a tree and its dying shadow; the other is a poet with a placard.
On the placard is the horoscope of a poem,
its words gathering into a murmur, collected futures,
words its caged warriors: ‘Gorkhaland, Gorkhaland’.
Revolutions, like dreams, begin untitled.
* * *
My Nephew Grows Into Verbs
Even curiosity demands ceremony.
The three-year-old’s voice is a ripe fruit thudding to the ground.
On the wall are spit marks, coloured rust by betel leaf.
For him these could be photographs on walls.
The human form is not a standard design –
everything doesn’t need a face.
Time is damp. It’ll soak him into agedness.
Running water is wildlife to him.
Anger has loose innards.
The horizon is a monkey.
Emotion has fingers.
Danger is a stimulant.
Everything is a sculpture.
And happiness is a piece of coincidence.
An aunt’s love is always tropical.
There is extravagant moisture in that affection.
My nephew wants to see love as if it were a thing –
breakable, malleable, chewable, and like plastic.
I want to tell him that transparency is overrated,
that it can’t hold my love.
Imagine your intestines visible, I say, as you eat.
The little boy can’t. And so he asks for a glass of water.
Nothing happens in the mirror, he withdraws.
I know he’s looking for architecture,
for a building that will lock away all affection,
that which doesn’t let him fall or pull him to bed at nine.
For affection is like gravity –
it holds without chains.
My nephew overestimates the intelligence of water.
He wishes that the wind was prettier.
Smell is an enemy that he’ll tame soon.
Heat he treats, rightly, as competition.
Light is his parents’ religion.
The tongue is a Lego toy building –
it’ll collapse if too much is piled on it.
He still can’t grasp the hangover caused by books.
The window is a camera with a perennially open aperture.
The bed is a roadless park.
And life as temporary as a ladder.
My nephew grows into Verbs.
* * *
What are you hiding?
It’s too hot to play hide and seek.
And so I trap my nephew into rest.
There are words hidden inside words, I say.
The little boy prepares to tear paper.
Look how an “ear” is hidden inside “hear”.
He looks at his ear in the mirror –
That smooth surface is his lie detector.
He sees what he’s always seen.
And so he isn’t convinced.
I want to tell him how men hide inside women.
There’s an “Adam” inside every “Madam”.
He is so little, metaphor’s lost on him.
Soon the body becomes a toy.
See, I say, pulling him close,
there’s an “and” inside “hand”.
He sees only green veins, not conjunctions.
“Egg” he declares, jubilant at finding it inside his “leg”.
Spelling is such a spoilsport.
He is sad to discover that there is no “I” hiding in an “eye”,
or that “foot” and “boot” are not related.
His body’s letting him down and so he moves to the fridge.
“Rice,” he screams in joy. “Ice?” his next question.
I smile. This is a new family tree.
I’m suddenly competitive: “Eat” hides inside “meat”.
But it is he who wins in the end,
when he finds “air” in his “hair”.
And we return to our bodies.
~ Sumana Roy’s poems, essays, and short fiction have been published in Granta, Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Caravan, India Quarterly, Himal Southasian among others. She writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, India, and her work is available at http://sumanaroy.in/