Poems by Tabish Khair

Tabish Khair


Listen to the song of the reed flute:
It sings of separation.
Torn from the leaf-layered, wind-voiced
Banks of the pond,
It is joined to sorrow and joy
By a slender sound.
Who, asked Rumi, can understand
The reed’s longing to return?
                     Let its raw lips rest then;
                     Let all words be brief then.

And I, O Believers, cried Rum
   (Having lost the man he loved),
I who am not of the East
Nor of the West, un-Christian,
 Not Muslim or Jew, neither
Born of Adam nor Eve,
What can I love but the world itself,
What can I kiss but flesh?
                     Let my raw lips rest then.
                     Let all words be brief.



Down the stairs of this house where plaster flakes and falls,
Through the intimate emptiness of its rooms and hall,
I hear your slow footsteps, grandmother, echo or pause

As they used to through long summer afternoons spent within
The watered down four-walls of khus  and fragile drinks
Of ice, mango or lemon, the circle of water-melon crescents.

Slowly you shuffle examining each new tear in the curtains
Which will have to be mended when the first monsoon rain
Provides a respite from sun, curtails the need for shade.

Slowly on arthritic joints you move from room to room
Marking the damage of the years, evaluating how soon
The past will collapse or how long the present last.

You never need glasses to mark the contours of your house
Though you can’t see grandsons at a distance, once wore a blouse
Inside out. Nothing has changed, grandmother, no, not yet;

Though your collected steps never turn the corner into you
In a starched and white sari, the fragrance of soap around you.
And all the curtains have long been taken down.



Twenty four years in different European cities and he had not lost
His surprise at how birds stopped at the threshold
Of their houses. Never

Flying into rooms, to be decapitated by fan-blades or carefully
Herded through open windows to another life, never
Building on the lampshade

Or on some forgotten, cool corner-beam where droppings and straw
Would be tolerated until the fateful day hatched
And the world was fragile

Shell, feathers, a conspiratorial rustle of wings above and of
An intrigued girl below. Even the birds in their neat towns
Knew their place. They

Did not intrude into private spheres, demanding to be overlooked
Or worshipped. They did not consider houses simply
Exotic trees or hollowed

Hills. Not being particularly learned he did not know the thread
Of fear that knots the wild to the willed; not
Being well-read he

Did not remember the history behind their old and geometrical
Gardens, could not recall a time when the English
Parliament had killed a bill,

Shocked by a jackdaw’s flight across the room. He simply marked
The absence of uncaged birds in their homes. He thought
It was strange.



Theirs the city of the sayable. Hers its suburbs,
Filling with the screamed obscenities of graffiti, gestures
At coherent articulation, the word within that world
Of splashed red, aerosoled blue, skulls and crossbones,
Crashing cars, rose out of a gun barrel, space monsters, all
Unable to utter a sound that will count as speech.

It is in such a moment of sheer scream, unsayable,
That Shakuntala looks in the mirror and is surprised
To see fangs and fire, a gaping mouth like Kali’s,
Goddess culled from the anger of colonisation:
It is a vision that lasts only a second, but in it
Are contained the silent stories of her history.

Her lineage is monstrous. Scylax said so:
Daughter of the dog-faced and blanket-eared.
Such many-armed, hydra-headed ancestors
Shocked the evangelising white man, puzzled
The aesthetes of Europe in later centuries:
Truth and beauty have long been denied her.

Did her mothers know what she has forgotten:
The choice was between mirror and monster?

How to keep their devdasis from turning nuns

In Danse des servantes ou esclaves des dieux,
They loosened their limbs in the cosmic dance
Of the oppressed – fingers, arms, heads flew off

Leonardo da Vinci’s symmetrical bodies
And the mirror of that white gaze shattered
On develish formes and uglie shapes. Adam
Stood speechless before monstrous Ada,
Which hath foure hands with clawes
The better to rip you with, coloniser?

Faced with humanity, they could not look
Into those eyes and fail to be struck blind
By the injustice of it all, their own greed:
Monsters filled their mirrors. It was safer
To lose in that adytum of demons the truth
Of bodies with blackened teeth, minds on fire.

(From MAN OF GLASS, 2010)