(For the migrant workers who came under the wheels of a train on the night of the flower-moon in India)
A year later, perhaps when the fever
is past, the bloodstains on the tracks
will gleam like glass
beneath a May morning
such as this – bright and flinty,
with the lunging nips of angry thorn
bushes growing beside the rail lines,
and rebuffed too many times
by the iron waists of passing trains.
With the factories closed, they had feared more
for their livelihoods than for their lives.
They had known long queues
at the end of which, ever so often
lay dust and emptiness. The growls
from their bellies told them they lived
with greater beasts.
A tight group. A brotherhood. Escaping
the highway patrols and the virus
vigilantes. They walked along
the tracks winking moonlight back.
And then, they laid down to rest.
For just a little while.
Perhaps, they dreamed, deep
luscious dreams. With dawn
a mere shoulder-stoop away. Perhaps
visions of home muted all undesirable sound.
The rumble, like distant thunder,
heralding that longed-for
on their endless trek home.
Like roadkill, track-spill too, is a small
and mashed up cataclysm. As fleeting
as scrolling news. Perhaps Death understood.
Perhaps her kindly arms were quick. And, her kiss
as tender as the blush of the flower-moon.
Gurugram and Gumti are more
than 800 kilometres apart. Like you know or care!
Gumti has no airport nor railway station.
You wouldn’t be able
to afford a ticket anyway. Even if you sold your blood
you’d still be a sucker and a fool. All flights,
trains and buses have been cancelled.
State borders are closed.
Enterprising goods-lorries and cement-mixing trucks
offer rides part of the way, for fat wads of cash. You have
two legs that don’t ask for much more
than a night’s sleep in a field. You have a dusty cola bottle
quarter-full of water. And a bundle of clothes
on your head which shields you
from the sun, a bit. It’s May already. It was just as hot
in April. But at that time, you had hope.
Dripping into your parched throat
like the rusty water you’re cranking out
of the tube well now. Bless the kind soul who dug the well
and fixed a hand pump to it. There is no guarantee
when you’ll be this lucky again. You don’t know how far
you’ve left the city of your erstwhile dreams behind.
You didn’t count the distance in days, let alone miles.
Progress is slower than you’d like. And someone or the other
in your group drops to the ground. Or gives up and
falls back. Both mean the same
thing. You don’t even know when you will
reach or if at all. You would rather die walking
than stay back and starve. But deep
within you’d rather die at home, assured
of familiar hands for your pyre.
The earth is dry and cracking now
under the weight of your collective resolve.
You keep walking with your remaining comrades,
Your bare feet split their heels like smiles.
VERNAL EQUINOX IN COVID TIMES
She inhales the aroma of last night’s Spring shower.
“9.18 AM,” she says. “That’s when it’ll happen.” He is pouring
over his smartphone, frowning, and almost in tears.
“It’s like someone pulled the plug out
of the share market. It’s all draining away.” She plans
to stand at their balcony at the correct time, to see
how evenly the sun can distribute light on Earth on this one day.
“Sunlight kills germs,” says her mother’s voice, from deep
inside her head. She sees herself, her frock billowing
as she runs, silly as the March hare. That year they were Spring elves
in green crepe paper skirts, singing to burst their lungs
at the school play. She sees her garden, the air streaming
sunlight like ribbons. A sneeze would alert
someone motherly. And her older sister, precocious already
in class two, would cry, “achoo, achoo, child bless you,”
in the rounded vowels of convent English.
Outdoors. Always the blessed outdoors.
Now there is TV and the children next door
are quiet. Bicycles grumble into their spokes.
Skateboards crouch in the corners of corridors. She wipes
the newspaper tossed at her door with a rag dipped
in diluted disinfectant. Tomorrow they will both venture out.
For food and other supplies. No panic. But just in case. It’s only
the two of them now. The children are far away, but visible
at the tap of a finger. This too is a blessed togetherness.
To stand beneath the sun together, and the thought now walks on padded feet,
will the light be the same buttery-mellow-yellow? Will the air be as lightly
pollen dusted too? What can they make out from each other’s phones?
Here, the cranes are still. The workers have all gone home.
Birds and other small creatures have returned to scout out new dwellings.
Silence provides a dome of safety. Time wraps light arms around their days,
flowing now like a shallow stream, eager to caress a stone.
Sun-tide will dip into moon-tide without the hiss of fire on ice.
Bees have retracted their stings.
Everything is playing safe.
Today the sunlight is equally balanced.
Stay safe. Nothing else matters. This shall pass. Like Spring,
so achingly beautiful, and fleeting. This too, is a season.
I am the one. I pass through
time with my load. Pausing
only when I find a willing soul
So here I am again. Like the sun,
risen again. Like the earth turned
again. And grass grown back
after fire. Eggs hatched; lives patched
and sacks stitched up again.
Thus, it is written. Thus, it flows.
It grows and then it goes. Porous
human bodies dangling beneath stony minds.
Thus, the epidemics and spillage.
War and pillage. Everything needs
an outlet. As wine needs its cup.
And, pen its ink. Paper is re-incarnated
from trees. Like how I am
released and spat back by men
again, and again and again.
Indian writer Shikhandin writes for adults (Immoderate Men, Speaking Tiger) and children (Vibhuti Cat, Duckbill-Penguin-RHI). She has won awards in India and abroad, and was twice nominated for Pushcart.
Face Book: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorShikhandin/
While at Hyderabad, I read and watched news reports about the migrant workers who had come under the wheels of a goods train. This was during the first phase of Indian lockdown. The government hadn’t factored in the effect it would have on migrant workers, a largely invisible (economically, politically and socially) group of working class people who are directly responsible for building our cities and surrounding infrastructure, among other things. No preparations had been made to take care of them as they lost their livelihoods by the thousands. Driven to near starvation, and thrown out of their rented accommodations by their landlords, most of them decided to return to their homes, located hundreds of kilometres away from the cities where they worked. There are many stories of the fates of the workers. I was, still am, haunted by the sixteen who died under the train. So, as any other writer/poet would, I too wrote.
Shikhandin: While the first two poems are about migrant workers. The third, as the title suggests, is about the vernal equinox, as experienced by a middle-aged, middle-class Indian couple during Covid 19. In the fourth poem, Scourge is an entity, and provides his point of view. Scourge, written before Covid 19, related to various historic pandemics like the plague and cholera. When I re-read it, I felt it was relevant for our times as well, with a little adjusting of lines.