Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Over the last few weeks I've had the great good fortune to be involved in the production of Sanchari. A play written by Sumarthi Murty, directed by Mangai and performed by Ponni Arasu. It's been a great journey and when I heard it would tour to Bangalore I offered to be a roadie. I hope I fulfilled the needs. Watching a play in a language you don't know many times over is a fascinating experience. Watching it take shape and become a wonderful performance is something I never dreamt would happen while I was in India. Thanks to everyone for making me so welcome - and for the artistic thrills. I loved Sunday's performance in Bangalore from which the photos above are taken and the poem below inspired by.

sanchari dp293
for Sumathi Mangai and Ponni

a movement an echo of sleep as the music resounds
the tree is swallowed by the world snake who in its turn
is borne by that ancient wrinkled turtle
the sun rises over song a song that endures nine hundred years
biblical in its life span

the woman on stage is like a moving part in a Kandinsky painting
geometric colours shining against black
her dance a reminder of Oscar Schlemmer and his Bauhaus theories
these other worlds other lokas intersect across the planes

is she Persian this Kalyani is that a veil or just an ornament
she sings in Urdu and Farsi her rhythms like Greek rembetika
that segue into rap and indi pop
she puts away the veil the scarf the continuous river of connection
moves into the present

she chastises the audience her cloth blooms petals sagging
like an old rose soon revived her future assured
as a goddess that’s her in a glass case refuse her water
insist that she bloom whatever her circumstances
but the washing still has to be hung out on the line

the cloth blows in the wind draped and renewed
pegged and pulled taut the song becomes a dwelling place
nomadic existence va come says another leave behind your old life
I will make you more famous than you ever dreamt possible

and so the raga unravels twists travels and turns
the performer wrapped in music moving to its beat
she throws off tradition pauses lounges in it for a while
stands like a gypsy arms akimbo breaks into song
an Indian Piaf selling her voice

she sits waiting for the song to lift her carry her away
breath becomes sound and her hand lifts like a musical gesture
following the track of her voice but even this must transform
she unpegs the washing the river of song
redresses and asks have you seen my new mobile phone?

Friday, September 25, 2009


Two nights ago I was invited to see a dancer perform a traditional temple dance done by women. This dance form is called nangiar kootu. Kapila Venu, the dancer has the most amazing muscle control over those tiny muscles that mostly we don't even notice. She has great ability for stillness. Thanks to Archana Ramaswamy for inviting me - and the great bike ride through Chennai!

Putna dp289

the world can be lost or made in the blinking of an eye
so Kapila Venu tells us in her nangiar koothu a dance
of moments of moments between moments
in the lift of an eyebrow disaster brews
her hand moves each move telling a story
there are more stories in between
a Russian doll of gestures
Putna’s tale is not a pretty one
she’s been asked to kill every boy in the land
by King Kamsa in an echo of that other king
never the maternal type Putna
goes about her task until
until she comes upon Krsna
that playful god who in his baby form
strings her along
nearby a cow suckles her calf
and Putna contemplates the unthinkable
to feed this child instead of killing him
fear fills her fear of King Kamsa
not known for feelings of generosity
more likely to lop her head if she does this
she pauses she watches the cow
indecision wracks her
you can see it in the twinging muscles of her face
each one separated out
her eyes moving from compassion to fear
fear to overwhelming love
she has the audience mesmerised
still and listening to the muscles move
will she won’t she will love win or hatred
poor Putna gives her hand to love
there’s a moment of complete exhilaration
but women in epic and in opera die young
Putna for all her consuming hatred
is killed in her moment of love
by a baby
her milk her life sucked from her by Krsna
her end agonising
Krsna meantime grows up to play with his brother

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Maruts and dust storms

I'm posting this poem from Earth's Breath for all those people in Sydney. I grew up in rural NSW and we had these on a frequent enough basis for us to have a system in place when a dust storm appeared on the horizon. For anyone outside Australia, the colour of Sydney in the pictures that come up if you Google Sydney dust storm are absolutely the right colour for an Australian dust storm. I don't think everything strange should be attributed to climate change. Even if there is no record of dust storms reaching Sydney (and I haven't checked this) I would be very surprised if one could use the word NEVER.

Maruts: storm demons

Afterwards, like new lovers telling stories
we talk of all the storms we’ve ever
witnessed, all the storms
that have snatched at our lives. Stories make
sense of our new state of existence
in the post-cyclone world.

I tell you how dust storms coloured
my childhood, the blue sky died
to dark, then red with dust.
We ran to every window: bolt shut
pull down the blinds, tie in a
figure-of-eight, our mother calling
out each place, Is this checked?
What of that? The doors closed
with dust-jamming snakes.
A cold wind runs over the roof
blasting us, and later we roam the house
drawing stick figures in the dust.

You trump me. Tell me of the
sandstorm in Tunisia, getting caught
out in it, not listening closely enough
to the locals’ warnings. Ant-watching
you miss all the signs until it’s
almost too late. Diving into
the car, you plug every gap, every millimetre
but still the sand comes in. You say
It’s the roar of the wind that is the same.

I remember the snowstorm on
Mt Kosciusko. It is nearly summer and
we leave the resort after lunch
dressed only in shorts and T-shirts, walking
compassless, we follow the snowpoles
losing our place on the map, not really
knowing our course. Unplanned, late
afternoon we stumble on Seaman’s Shack
a stone hut above the treeline. In falling
dark, I go in search of firewood
finding a single fallen pole. We cook
eat half-warmed food and pull the
sleeping bags over our heads. At midnight
the roar comes, the wind blizzarding
the walls. We lie with our bodies
curling the stovelegs, our ears filled with
the resounding echo of storm demons.

With each storm story, another
ricochets through our brains, our
startled synapses in overload. The
flood of ’74, the fires, the snowstorms
in your home country. You say
it’s like being in a washing machine
tumbled, thrown, strewn driftwood.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I stood in awe at this temple this morning. The sheer complexity of all those stories. I've been walking around Chennai for more than a month now, have passed the Kapaleeswarar Temple many times on foot, bus and auto-rickshaw, but getting close was unexpectedly overwhelming. The little pink cows are lower down and you feel like patting them, I'll save them for another day.

Parvathi dp288
for Chris

Shiva is such a softy his temple is filled
with small pink cows with blunt golden
horns and a cheeky smile their mouths
also soft put your hand in feel it

like cows amid traffic these bovines
keep their cool five stories up on a ledge
surrounded by a world Hieronymus
Bosch might have conjured they graze on

all those people to judge all that grass to eat
there are dragons and elephants demons
and devas the judgemental and the forgiving
the flippant and the playful hooded cobras too

it’s Parvathi I’ve come to see dressed in red
her right hand raised in blessing I’ve come
with flowers of fruit hand them in hope
that Yama is too busy to notice me

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Durga Puja

It's festival time again across the subcontinent. The festivals on now are Eid, a day of celebration at the end of Ramadan. It is also the beginning of Navaratri a nine-day (often extended to ten) or literally nine-night festival (from the Sanskrit) in celebration of goddesses. The first three days are for Durga (also known as Kali), the second three days for Lakshmi, and the final three days for Sarasvati. The Kali temple on my way to T. Nagar this morning was filled with people offering flowers and other devotions.

The following poem was written after a month-long trip to Bangladesh in 2005. This is a revised version of the original poem. I took the above photo about a month ago at a local temple in Kotturpuram, Chennai.

Durga Puja

It’s a human struggle–this rising of the soul but in the rising a host of players.
On these few days rivers meet–Ramadan, Durga Puja and my own post-christian
pagan soul. Kali is no slouch and Durga’s lion will eat our lamb for Sunday lunch.
She could be your own black Madonna from Switzerland swathed in that blue gown.
Imagine her interceding on behalf of Elephant Man, the braceleted Ganesh!

It’s a Disco Durga, a multimedia event–Myer Window meets Durga Puja.
The stage is set, a proscenium arch of pantomime figures. The mannequin,
blue Krishna, gives an oration before heading to his early morning chores,
raising the sun, milking the cows, rounding up life. The stage is a waterfall
of milk. Is this a story of milk and honey? Romance between Krishna and Parvati?

No it’s a story of blood, of betrayal and murder, of protection rackets. Enter
stage left, Buffalo Demon (BD) a Zapata moustache scarring his upper lip.
A winged cobra slung across his shoulders. Enter stage right livid Kali
doing a haka. Kali lops BD’s head. Help! Help! he cries, I’ve been killed!
BD retaliates slashing at heads as if they are weeds. Battle frenzy escalates.

A giant maw opens stage rear spitting bloodied torsos. Kali, fed up, ends it all.
She cleaves BD in half. It’s a Mediaeval Mumma play with paisley peacock
reminding me of colonial days, gin-and-tonic evenings. We wend our way back
pass shrines of devotion, smoking incense, fruit-filled platters, the holy man,
praying women, the sacrificed goat, the whiff of its spilled blood still in the air.

How high did our souls rise tonight?

Saturday, September 19, 2009


This poem is a companion to the poem Amba which I posted in August. The dancer is N. Srikanth.

Arjuna dp267

volte face of Amba the archer Arjuna becomes a girl
while Amba the girl becomes an archer
these are tales of twisted destinies
where people and gods intermingle
the sexes flow across the now-static boundaries
sky and sea cannot be separated
hills and clouds are mistaken for one another
the world is in flux and history
is yet to be made
here is Arjuna doing his level best to make it
to be remembered because the god-child
spoke to him so eloquently
but first he must shed his disguise
his woman’s attire with the muscles showing through
he laments that it’s a waste
to spend so much time as a woman
what use is it I’m good at archery not wiles
meanwhile he flicks a finger turns his wrist
and sticks out one hip in a grimace of imitation
he’s been married if sharing your bride
with four right hands and four left hands
can count as matrimony
bows and arrows are his passion
even beating old Indra of the rainbow
his archery always on display in the sky
Arjuna is fretting for battle and like all men
in serried ranks casting their eye
across the same vision on the other side
his innards turn to water
the war machine never stands still
Arjuna is roused to battle fury
the men around in awe even before he begins
none knowing if they’ll see the light of the next day

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Liverpool Plains

A few months ago I saw on TV a program about the proposed mining of Liverpool Plains in New South Wales. It is rich farming land and underneath it runs a coal seam. Today, sitting in a conference on climate change I was reminded of my poem, and so I'm posting it here. I know, I have veered away from cows for the moment but it's all connected. Indeed, the use of cow dung in India to keep the soil in good shape is not far off these same issues.

armour dp225

she dreams of making armour for the earth
a helmet to prevent the drillers from beginning
a breastplate so they cannot cut open her heart
greaves to stop the underground lines
breaking through to the water table

it confounds her that anyone would want
to mine Liverpool Plains
to make the earth a corpse to strip
back the muscle layer by layer
to let light in under all that rich deep earth
to groom her for profit burn coal embers
in the asthmatic air the heat increasing
to burn away everything for the emptiness
of waterdrained lungdrained flatlands

Let them eat coal not food.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Everything, you promised everything

I had fun in Manila, but shopping is hell.

everything dp277

The rain is falling puddling the doorway to hell. You step around the puddles in your bright pink shoes. Is it heaven with St Petra at the gate, or is it hell with its teeth showing?

Beside the door a guard white shirt blue trousers fake gold badges of authority on her breast.

Where you going? she asks. I don’t know, you say. Supermarket? Yes maybe, you reply. You go mall, you not come in, not open. You go supermarket. Yes, supermarket, you say in this cold anteroom of denied options.

You show me bag, she says. You show. You open bag. You open. She pokes at it with her demonic prod, looks inside.

You go supermarket this way, she says pointing to the travelator descending into this underground maw of hell.

You pass the other people in your rush to descend, find the supermarket, then wander out into the darkened limbo between the shops selling every gizmo under the sun.

It’s 9.40 am and nothing else is open so you turn to the neon brightness of the supermarket, go looking for the glass replacement for the coffee plunger.

You ask, show them the shiny metal skeleton of the small glassless object you depend on to start the day.

You go up, third floor, department store, not here, he says. Where is that? you ask and he waves his hand vaguely up and out.

You wander between the aisles and aisles of packaged coloured product and then into the fresh foods area where fruits and vegetables are cling wrapped under organic signs.

Your stomach is not responding well, your nose twitching, every sense moving toward overload. You almost run to exit this underworld, to return to life. You don't look back.

Outside the supermarket you find a lift going nowhere until after 10 am, you’ve finally grasped that while hell is open 24 hours, heaven has it easier and opens late. With time to kill you set off up the stairs.

Standing at the top of the stairs you see through the windows of McDonalds where faces are filling themselves. A man approaches, says something, you say, No thank you, to his offer of junk food.

He persists, repeats his sentence, No thank you, and again NO THANK YOU, through gritted teeth. You turn to the stairwell, look down at hell's entrance, notice by the railing a woman with a walkie talkie.

You turn, see the man you’d thought was offering McDonalds see that he too communicates between realms with a walkie talkie. Then the plainclothes man approaches you, directs you to a chair, Over there. Wait.

Your puzzled look prompts, Not open, from him and a touch of his watch. As you turn toward the chair you see the bulging crowd of the clamouring dead at the main entrance, guards holding them back.

You sit, watch from purgatory as the last cleaner sweeps the floor lights flicker rollerdoors open and all the things on sale burst into visibility.

It’s open M’am, says a passing guard. You rise and join the swelling crowd moving toward the department store.

If this is heaven, I’m not coming. Plastered smiles greet you the escalators pump people upwards to the celestial realms and blasting from the speakers a jingle.

Welcome to SM stores
We have everything
Welcome to SM stores
We have everything

Rising through the layers of clouds to the transparent zone of kitchens and glassware you are filled with hope for success. You look you trawl the shelves no plunger of any shape or size no glass replacement.

You ask at the counter. The woman all celestial smiles says, No glass for these, maybe we have whole item. You follow. But no, no plungers of any kind. Quietly you say, So you don’t have everything?

Inside you are screaming, But you promised eternal life, you said you had everything everything everything.

Descending into disconsolation you return to the supermarket disoriented by this torture of sound and lights uncertainty and despair. You stumble into the cyberzone no longer dark buzzing with zombied youth.

For a moment you are lost then recall the travelator rise up the smooth ascent to the doorway where you were searched exit into the freshness of rain the relief of silence the stillness of monotoned walls.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Draupadi again

I've been mulling over the story of Draupadi since the performances I saw a couple of weeks back. Here is my poetic response to the final performance. The dancer is Sheejith Krishna in the role of Krishna.

Draupadi’s Krishna dp268

even before Krishna is on stage
I am worrying about Draupadi again
she’s the lynch pin of the story

let me set it out
a woman has married an eligible young man
a famous archer
as she’s arriving at his house after the betrothal
his mother Kunti in ignorance of the ‘prize’
tells her five boys to share it
only when Draupadi enters does Kunti realise
that she has condemned her to five husbands
when gods decree such things
there is no escape
Draupadi bonds with all five
takes on their interests and passions
becomes the most important person in the household
after her mother-in-law

then the gambling begins
it’s the eldest brother who gets them into this scrape
and he has a problem a gambling problem
he bets everything
his land his people his cattle his houses
his brothers himself and finally

she is in her room taking time out
because she’s bleeding
she is fetched
dragged by her hair into the assembly
her sari is being torn
her body exposed
to a roomful of men
none of them moves
none of them protests
none of the five brothers
not a one

Draupadi in desperation calls on Krishna
gods have a bigger view
and he creates a deception
so that Draupadi’s sari never unwinds
like the magic casket that never empties

my worry about Draupadi
is that she is never redeemed

think of this
a child is neglected abused abandoned
even if we can do nothing
we feel we should
we feel guilt sorrow
and inside we pledge something
we try to make it impossible for this to recur

a man called the son of god
is betrayed abandoned by his disciples
then worshipped

a woman
is betrayed in a game of chance
publicly humiliated
her mother-in-law has the greatest feeling for her
and Draupadi is then abandoned by the storyteller
only appearing in her role as wife to the five brothers
now forced into exile

Draupadi is a kind of Christ
but on some level she is blamed for her
betrayal humiliation and abandonment

Friday, September 4, 2009

The tortoise and the mountain

The word giri in Sanskrit has many meanings and these meanings are the source of this poem. The dictionary is a marvelous source of associative thinking.

giri dp269

a tortoise swallowed a mountain
having thought that the mountain was slow and steady
like her good self

the tortoise was shocked to discover
that many hidden things go on in mountains
this particular mountain was in eight parts

it seemed to the tortoise who was learned in mathematics
that it was an infinity of mountains
because on every slope in every ravine

on peaks and in the deepest caves
there were multitudes of mountains inside mountains
each of these contained yet more mountains

in fractal form
not only that but each of these multitudinous mountains
hosted different kinds of creatures

in one a small girl played with a ball
in another a man curled like a ball his eyes blinded by some unknown disease
in yet another a mouse crawled up the rocky slope

a rope climber without a rope
a cloud hung over another mountain in conversation with trees
and there was more much more

but by now the venerable tortoise was getting bored
and regurgitated the lot
she deposited this ball on the peak of the nearest mountain
and let it roll

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sarama and the sun cow

This poem draws on a story from the Rg Veda (10/108/1-11). Sarama, the messenger dog is sent off in search of the stolen cow. For more on this story see Bibek Deboy. 2008. Sarama and Her Children: The dog in Indian myth. New Delhi: Penguin. pp. 69-77.

Sarama and the sun cow dp252

the sun cow has gone on holiday to stay with her sister-
in-law in the mountains there in the deepest caves beside
the river Rasa she slept she slept because she had worked
for too long for too many she slept because she was
tired of being at the beck and call of everyone from
toddler to grandparent and all the old aunties and various
hangers-on she went to stay in the mountains because
the cave was herself that dark interior unexplored
in the cracks of time and then he had to spoil it all
he accused her sister-in-law of being demonic selfish
of abducting the sun cow and leaving the earth those
poor helpless ones in darkness he bribed Sarama
the house dog with promises of all that she could eat
and sent her on a grand search she sniffed and tracked
and swam raging rivers in search of the sun cow
and found her scent again on the bank of the Rasa
River following her nose she came to her side nudged
her flank and said he wants you to come home
the sun cow says stay sister here in this quiet place
is heaven no one to ask you for another drink of milk
no one to make you carry all the shopping home no one
to insist you raise the sun and carry the world all day
every day but Sarama had her orders and so she went
home alone he rages about those demons stealing
his sun cow his world his light he beats Sarama who
quivers and wishes she had stayed he forces her to show
him the way and then he can’t contain himself he kills
his sister and her demon friends he abducts the sun cow
who is raging and kicking and goring him between
the ribs the river still flows the old caves are empty
the sun cow is at her daily work holding things together

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Here is a small poem about the masks that sit beside the doorways. I have a peacock, mayura in Sanskrit, appropriate because the masks are said to keep away the evil eye.

peacock dp249

enter my door but before you do
you’ll be eyed Mayura sits wings
outspread many eyed this bird
is my protection with feathers
shimmering optics and iridescence
without Mayura the rains would
not come the river would not flow
Saraswati would go underground
again this feathered gaze a precise
antidote to the wandering evil eye