This morning is bellicose with flame... he thought, surveying the arid landscape. Small wonder that Babur the Mongol hated this.... The Metro rail streaked its hungry lope through prickly thickets, its belly’s churn of bodies bovine and dangle-necked. Scrawny straggles of beefwood groves sped by, reclaiming the land like transplanted hair on flaking scalp. He glimpsed distant thunderheads mastiff the horizon and thought of his own southern valley deep in the western ghats, emerald with paddy fields and tufted cane. Just the place to scold a river and plant sons.... He touched his starched white cap self consciously, and quelled a little bud- burst of pride remembering his leader speak those well loved lines. Not when the rain falls on the leaves, but when it suckles the earth. That’s when boughs fructify.... My lines... he thought, He speaks my lines... What an elegant way to say that growth must be nurtured not imposed.... He looked around at all the talcumed faces birthed through sleeves of morning suds. Me...he shouted silently, I ascend the stage today beside the leader.... He saw an old woman lurch, then clutch her daughter’s sleeve for succor, while straddling a sack of rattling pans. He jumped up to offer his seat. ‘Please’, he said, with a stiff nod at her tired smile as the woman, sitting, brushed a strand of hair from the corner of her mouth. ‘My grandson’, she said in simple introduction, and he saw with a start that it wasn’t a girl, but a pale young man standing by her, his long hair sliding into brown eyes that smiled and looked away. ‘You’re going to the political meeting at the Maidan,’ observed the old woman, glancing at his cap. ‘I’m speaking at it,’ he said, smiling, and saw a few heads turn. He caught a sharp glance from the grandson. The train was approaching the city. The dryad agonies of crow-shat neem trees gnarled the sullen scrub of empty lots. Fresh omelettes of trash steamed a new swept lane. I break my hair upon a stone gray day...ah, I wish I could mouth soft tufts of hair...no squirrel in the crotch is as greedy.... He shook his head vigorously clear. What on earth were these sudden thoughts jarring his composure? He twisted his focus back onto his speech, and resumed cudding the rounded gongs of phrases marbling his palate. The train shot underground, and all was roaring darkness between stops. Each station stuffed the train with yet more torsos. Someone knocked over his cap, and stooping to retrieve it, he straightened to find he was thrust right against the young man, who was cradling his tired head in the crook of his elbow. He could see the glaze of a earlobe, and a hungry pulse above the collar bone. He could see a wisp of fluff adorn a curl behind the earlobe. And slow, drowse-fanned lashes. He smelled the steam of fevered youth. The young man raised his head to a gust of air from closing doors and a stray strand of his hair, lifting, sailed a fleeting wafer of a smile. Abruptly he backed away from the young man, clawing his way through the crowd till he came to a stop at a corner of the compartment. He felt a stampede of tenderness tighten his chest, a gouty pachyderm fumbling. He felt a thrashing thirst. The train roared on. Lines from his favorite lyricist floated in to rescue him. ...what bridge of buttons threadbares the musk near bony hips...what wheeling stars dolphin the ink of sky-dark eyes.... Pretending to stretch a crick in his neck he turned, his greedy eyes brushing the soft hair and bony shoulders again. His temples pounded. His heart was huge and heavy, yet bucked like a whale flipping. Was this joy, this sword of rain in his chest, this shrillness of silent falling needles? How deaf was he to the crowds swirling about him? ...we’re sightless fish in the slipstream of dark rills snaking threads of ore, thrashing crimson-gilled, on sudden morning hillsides.... What were these motes of dust that struck his chest? He saw sunlight again, glistening on the rippling mahogany of a passing labourer’s back, at a brick kiln belching. And congreves of laughter churning nymphs sloshing pots of water from a well. Rippling wheat fields... Wheat fields?!.... He leapt as if lashed by eels. Oh, dear God!... He’d traveled right through the city to the suburbs on the other side! He’d missed his stop for the Maidan! His speech! The meeting!... Nauseous and dizzy he stumbled towards the doors just as the train slowed along a deserted platform. As he emerged, dazed, he heard a banging din behind him, and turning, he saw the old woman, alone, struggling with her sack of pans. She mirrored his surprise. “Hello!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here? I thought...”, she paused, frowning with concern at his stricken face. He felt a mangled sob rip him like a coat-hanger in the throat. “... your grandson?” he blurted, pointing stupidly at the train. “Oh, he got off at the Maidan”, she said, setting down her sack. “He’s going with friends to hear your leader speak. Could you help me with these....”
Prabakar Thyagarajan is a physician and poet who divides his time between Boston, Massachusetts and Chennai, India. His poems have been published in Bluslate and Open Space (India). He finds himself curiously affected by the turning pages of light inside a passing day. He loves Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and the poems of Hart Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins.