Poetry: Lakshmi Kannan

Lakshmi Kannan
Said the ocean:
‘Why have you come to me?
You’re always to be found
dwelling on rivers’
I’ve a reason, samundar
I’ll tell you now
If only you’ll care to listen.’
‘What! What did you say?
Oh, listen… all right, I’ll listen
It’s hard to hear you over my waves’.
‘That’s exactly why I’ve come, samundar
to drown my voice and words
in the noisy roar of your waves.
To see how small they are
against the fathomless depths
of your surging waters
I’ve come to feel the sting of salt
in your briny waters
to see you lap the shore, then leave it miraculously
‘What? Oh yes,
I try again and yet again, relentlessly.
But tell me, it seems you write about rivers?’
‘You’ve taken them all in, samundar
in one expansive embrace
you’re swallowed their names too…’
‘What? Can’t hear you. No, got it now.
The rivers, you see, dissolved their names happily
to merge with me.
The name I have now
is a collective, geo-political one
but I remember their names, each one of them’.
The waves chuckled around my feet.
Samundar: Ocean



‘Must hurry up
while there is still running water’ he thought,
rushing into the washroom.
Tossing his clothes into the laundry basket
he ignored the two large buckets of stored
sat on the bath stool under the tap.
He preferred water flowing over his head
while he invoked the rivers breathlessly:
Gange ca Yamune Caiva, Godavari Sarasvati
Narmade Sindhu Kaaveri
Jale (A)smin Sannidhim Kuru.
Inside his closed eyes
the seven rivers splashed around his head
flowing over his cheeks, shoulders, torso
legs, feet, they tingled his toes
while he recited the sloka repeatedly:
O Holy Rivers, please be present in these waters
and make them sacred
jale (a)smin sannidhim kuru.
It worked.
The tap kept its time.
Only after he finished his prayers
it let off raucous sounds.
After one last guttural cough, it went dry.
The municipality supply of water for the day was over.
He emerged from the washroom refreshed,
bathed by the seven rivers of his land.
Gange ca Yamune Caiva, Godavari Sarasvati
Narmade, Sindhu, Kaaveri   Jale (a)smin sannidhim kuru.  It is a prayer in Sanskrit invoking the seven rivers of India.
Meaning  ‘Take birth in these waters
O holy rivers, Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati,
Narmade, Sindhu, Kaveri,
please be present in these waters
enrich the waters with your divine presence’




She was deeply into Nagapuja,

her pregnant mother.
The punishing rituals
fasting, special prayers on Shasti,
abstaining from eating snake gourd,
regular visits to temple- snakes sculpted in stone
where she took her place on aching feet
in the long queue of women
sent by their in-laws to beg:
Oh, King of Cobras
please, grant me a male child.
I will name him Nagaraja
in your honour.’
The tension ate into her vitals.
She gave up wearing nice sarees
(had a pile of them),
shunned jewellery
(from the huge collection gifted by her mother),
stood out like a renunciant
in her minimalist attire in weddings,
yajno pavitas, namakaranams.
Mother had a nocturnal experience
unbeknown to her family.
Night after night, she got the same dream –
a female baby cobra visited her in her sleep
wearing jhumkies, a jewelled girdle
around its slender neck,
the red dot shining on its brow.
Mother watched fascinated, yet fearful.
The baby cobra moved her head sideways
slithered close to mother
to whisper in her ears
I’m coming, wait for me.
Petrified, she didn’t share it with anybody.
Mother got a girl.
Oh, just look this little sunshine baby,’
cooed her mother’s mother,
keeping a dot of kohl
on the baby’s left cheek
to ward off the ’bad eye’.
‘We’ll call her Nagalakshmi!’
‘It matters little what you call her,’
said her gravelly voiced father’s mother.
Now that your daughter didn’t get a Nagaraja,
she can have any name, who cares?
The baby smiled at the intransigent woman
who did not smile back.
‘Naga’ was eventually dropped
to modernise her name.
She grew into a girl
who wondered why her mother
made so much bespoke jewellery
for her, but never wore any herself.
Mother shared her secret dream.
Her Nagapuja was resumed
more stringently than before.
A boy was born.
Amidst much celebration,
he was named Nagaraja.
He hissed at his mother who fed him
bared his fangs at his father
and spewed venom on his sister.
Their girl grew into a snake woman
sloughing off her dead skin every few years
in the jungle, fending off predators, rapists,
#MeToo vampires. She outgrew herself
and slid out of her skin each time
to emerge with a new lustrous one.
Mother marvelled at her serpentine strategies.
‘You know something?’ she said.
I’ve a second secret to share.
I never got a single dream about a cobra
when I was pregnant with your brother.
Strange, isn’t it?’


Jhumkies: Ornamental danglers worn in the ears.

Nagapuja: A fertility rite followed by many families in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, where a pregnant woman undertakes to worship the deity Cobra sculpted in stone in temples. She follows strict rituals and fasts for the birth of a male child, with a promise that he would be named as Nagaraja, the King of Cobras.

Namakaranam:A religious ceremony for naming a child.

Shashti Tithi: Shashti is the sixth day or tithi of a fourteen-day phase of the moon. The word comes from the Sanskrit sas (six).

Yajno pavita: Also called ‘upanayanam’ or the sacred thread ceremony for male children in certain communities.



Bio Note: Dr. Lakshmi Kannan, also known by her Tamil pen-name ‘Kaaveri’, is a bilingual writer. Her twenty-five books include poems, novels, short stories and translations. Wooden Cow (2021), her latest, is a translation of the iconic Tamil writer T. Janakiraman’s novel. Lakshmi was a Resident Writer for The International Writing Program, Iowa, USA; Charles Wallace Writer, University of Kent at Canterbury, UK; British Council Visitor, Cambridge, UK; Sahitya Akademi Writer; Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. She taught English on the faculty of colleges and IIT Delhi for several years before she joined a MNC as a Senior Writer and Language Coordinator.  For more details, please visit www.lakshmikannan.in

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