She lived in a land where crematoriums were melting down and hospitals were running out of oxygen. Oh Ishmael, how he struggled to breathe! She lived in a land where doctors were jailed and farmers seen as terrorists. Darling Nazia and Sohrab… Oh! precious Ayleen… How was she going to feed them now? She lived in a land where human beings were expendable and cows were divine. With her little patch of land sold off to pay for her husband’s medicines, where would she seek refuge now?
She lived in a land where promises of statues, toilets and fake citizenship were enough to legitimise atrocities. Even if she survived the endless queues at the graveyard, what would she pay the gravediggers with? She lived in a land where spectacled babus and bibis endlessly argued over comments and cappuccino whether the system was collapsing, or was rigged to begin with.
Sohrab was inconsolable. Nazia was a stone. Ayleen giggled and tugged at her mother’s fraying dupatta . The ambulance wala was demanding 2,000 rupees extra. Her neighbours were warning her not to touch her husband’s corpse. Last night someone had jaggedly written the words ‘ katwa sala’ on her doorway. People were murmuring about a second lockdown.
Yesterday the ration-dealer was caught hoarding 50 bags of rice. Sohrab had fainted. Nazia clutched on to the end of her father’s kafan so hard that her fingers bled. Five drops of crimson to bid farewell to the white. Ayleen had fallen asleep. She lived in a land where everything was sold off to the highest bidder, from railways to vaccines, from ministers to swaddling infants.
She had lost her farmland, yet a lone bottle of Folidol remained under the shed where Ishmael used to keep his brilliant white jubba . He had been the village muezzin . She had lost her mother, brother, and husband one after another to this nayi bimari , yet her three children remained like the mi ḥ rāb and qiblah of her life. Nazia was 9, Sohrab 13, and Ayleen barely 6 months old. Her choice, after all, was simple.
Look my son, there’s a heart in the moon —
With a million holes all soft mehroon .
Dust is a mehfil ,
Dust is a sigh,
Dust is a farmer’s red lullaby.
Hush my darling, learn to be brave —
Sleep like a furnace, sing like a grave.
This land is a cinder,
Trapped like a mirror in the dream of a shard —
We are but a number,
Black like a rose or a carrion bird.
God is a vaccine,
God is a pill,
God is a graveyard’s unpaid bill.
Ballad of a bread,
Or a sky in a scar-tissue
Red is a nus rat ,
Red is a tomb,
Red is a labourer’s cellophane womb.
Tasleem tasleem in a poor man’s cloud —
Drop a pin, tahsin , like a sanitary shroud.
Death is a ghoomāra , hush baby hush!
Look to the flames, how silhouettes blush.
Listen to Sudhanva Deshpande recite the poems.
kafan : funeral shroud
jubba : a long loose-fitting outer garment with wide sleeves, a kind of very loose kurta
muezzin : one who gives the call to prayer at a mosque
nayi bimari : new sickness/ new disease
mi ḥ rāb : a semi-circular niche in a mosque indicating the qiblah
qiblah : the direction towards the Kaaba.
mehroon: the colour maroon
mehfil: festive gathering.
nu ṣ rat: victory, assistance, defence.
tasleem: submission, salutation.
tahsin: to beautify, to enrich.
ghoomāra: traditional Rajasthani folk-dance.