And Then This Shraadh

roopali sircar gaur

“These poems are drawn from human experiences during a global pandemic like one that none of us have experienced before in our lifetimes. They particularly take into account the condition of women in India. Wives, mothers, sisters, friends, mythological goddesses, demonic manifestations, mad women, insignificant women, important women”


These quiet prayerful days when to light an oil lamp 

Is to walk inside memory lane 

beside those who passed over the rainbow a long some time ago.

A time to know the bones and the muscles, which are yours now 

were theirs too.

That smile, the twinkle in the baby’s eyes, 

seem like the fading sepia photograph 

framed on a neglected damp wall.


This time of the year when the sun’s rays slant away

and the torrential monsoons go away 

they say our ancestors visit us.

These are those days when ghosts walk about 

casually dropping in just when it is dinner time. 

Or you may see one under the tall mango tree. 

The one who had so lovingly planted the mango seed 

whose sweetness you had sucked.

Most times the ghost ancestors are men…

fathers, grandfathers, their fathers, 

and sometimes that bachelor uncle who romanced the village girls. 

Stories abound of war, bullets and bravery. 

Of the Yeti on the mountainside

his lock of hair still preserved.


Feasted and feted in their lifetime 

these extraordinary men, are just a ghost of themselves 

Hungering and longing for earthly food. 

Curried chicken or mutton roasted on a spit. 

A sweet and sour pumpkin with puris fried in oil. 

Rice boiled slowly in milk for hours, with jaggery and nuts

all Pitaji’s favourite. 

A patriarchal ghost indeed. 

He will watch in ghostly silence, as the raggedy poor will eat.

And Mother? What should we cook for her? 

Ask the girls! They were always with her. 

Her helping hands until soldiers in uniform 

came on horses and took them away to bear their sons. 

Ammi? What did she like to eat? 

Who? Ammi? Frail Ammi.

No one seemed to know. 

She ate after her husband and children had eaten, they said. 

Whatever little remained. 

Sometimes nothing at all. 

Perhaps, just a cup of tea?

Bittoo's Mother


Bittoo’s mother washes dirty dishes

in Lalaji’s house. 

Chewed chicken bones 

and left over potato pieces

on the nausea piled plates

she takes home with her

wrapped in her damp saree

the stale stench of last night’s food.


Some smells bring memories 

of her clinging to mother’s saree 

and the never-forgotten angry voice 

“again you have brought her with you!”

The voice echoed her sad childhood 

never allowing her to bring 

the weeping pleading Bittoo along.


Lalaji’s wife was kind 

she sometimes gave her the broken biscuit pieces 

left in the tin. And on Diwali, a box of laddoos.

Her mother had also collected smells.

The Sudarshan Chakra looking Corona

chased thousands like her over

many barefoot miles towards the 

the yellowing sugarcane fields.

In the smoke of the dusty city 

she had forgotten home.


Bittoo fell asleep on Lalaji’s 

battered red suitcase, trundling wobbly wheels 

singing a lullaby on the melting hot tar road. 

Whirring TV channels, like alien flying saucers 

brought the stoic exodus into our air conditioned homes 

making us very angry,

and the hungry thirsty days

on the road gave way to oily fried puris and 

cool bottles of mineral water! 


When the gaunt faces and 

shrunken bellies could not smile for the smiley selfies

we muttered “ungrateful wretches”.

The sleeping child on the suitcase 

had become the brand ambassador 

of an exhausted Pandemic panic.

Nobody knew it was Bittoo. 

His mother’s saree no longer smelt of Lalaji’s dirty dishes. 

The hot summer wind had blown it all away.

They were going home.

Rape and the City


          Woman! Walk wearily

         your honour lies between your legs

        One act of vengeance will ravage forever 

        your beauty of mind and face

        Blood trickling, your accomplishments ground to dust

        you will be disrobed, dishonoured, dismembered

       ceasing to exist – no longer a woman – a cipher.

       Your izzat your honour looted by brigands

        A leper-stoned out of the city walls.


        Woman! Fix blades on your breasts

         Strew nails in your vagina

        Let your crimson manicured fingers

        Dig out those sin-filled lustful eyes

        Restrain with poison teeth those groping hairy hands

        Savour the blood on your tongue

        Scatter dismembered manhood pieces across the earth


         Let no prostrate Shiva stop you

         Nor a shamed Earth swallow you

         Allow no fire to consume you

         Let no Gods shelter you


         Woman! Walk naked to the temple

         Drag the dripping garland of demon heads

         and lay them at the altar of the dark Goddess Kali

         Light the incense stick and pour oil into the earthen lamp

        Lift the Conch shell high and blow into it your fire spitting breath


          The siren just sounded its trumpet

          The factory doors have opened

          The city sounds are jostling

          “Hurry up please, it’s time.”


Daughters of India

Draupadi, Sita, Savitri and Putna the Rakshasi

Ahalya Manthra and Kaikeyi

walk alone in our stories and our crowded cities

with fired brains and fire in their belly 


Daughters of Gods and Goddesses

Kings and Sages, Farmers and Snake Charmers

They do what their womanhood bids them do

from none other but self, seeking applause

Prophets and oracles, hunters and archers

leaders and decision makers, enchantresses and apsaras

war lords and swordswomen

swift of mind and body, filled with curiosity and desire

spurning virginity and chastity

defying restrain, refusing containment


Each day in farms and fields, carrying spades as their shields

braving the desert sand, Trident in hand

on ramps and in studios, in hospitals and in morgues

in boxing rings, and on wrestling mats

in offices and factories, changing fearless trajectories


From villages and towns in search of golden crowns

leaving the stench of the ghettos, in buses, trains and metros

pushed and shoved, scrambled and trampled

they defy patriarchal laws, with self-sharpened claws

hidden in powerful tiger paws, fighting deathly cannibal jaws


Abandoned and cursed, damned and demonised

violated and beheaded, branded and brutalised

Medusa’s snake hair flowing, turning men into pigs and stones

Kali’s tongue lapping blood, and a garland of red hibiscus


Our Battles yet to be done

Our Trophies yet to be won

Our Songs yet to be sung

Holi Hai

Tonight when the sun sets and the evening sky is aflame 

the rich and the poor, women and men and children

in villages and cities across India will burn a woman on the pyre, 

she will be set on fire 

this beautiful sister of wicked King Hiranyakasyap

Holika a demon woman with magic powers.


Goodbye winter, welcome spring.

The rhythm of the dholak and those Bollywood songs 

makes us all gyrate and thrust gyrate and thrust.

The excited fire leaps high in the air 

as the woman we have only heard of is turned to ashes.


Tomorrow Bunty, Babli, Bholu and Sonu

will colour camouflage their faces, and smear colours 

green blue yellow and pink,

touching any face groping any breast.

Holi Hai Holi Hai 

Bura na mano Holi Hai.

It was all in fun and such fun, they will say.


In not so far away Hathras, 

they burnt a woman’s body

after sunset. 

The dholaks were silent. 

Only the Devil danced.

Dreaming of Dhaka


When you grow up hearing the boat swain

singing as he plies his boat down the river

singing his plaintive Polli geet 

a lone voice, a flowing river and a lone moon 

and you hear of it from your father

then your dreams are filled with longing 

and your sleep is filled with dreams 

of a river called Buriganga.


When you leave behind a piece of earth

the glowing warmth of a familial hearth

the cradle swings slowly , slowly singing 

a lulaby at your birth

Then your father’s dreams are filled with longing 

and his sleep is full of dreams.

of a river called Buriganga.


Did I dream or did I hear of boats carrying to doorsteps

the sugar dripping sweet rossogollas? 

Of the Eeleesh whose scent sends your senses reeling

and the the tree climbing koi fish in earthen pots?

In Venice 

dreams of Dhaka floated in lapping waters 

of the Mediterranean Sea

touching the steps of 

noblemen’s homes.


In father’s unfulfilled dreams lies 

the delicate shuktoh mother refused to cook 

while I run my fingers through snowy rice 

and take a second helping.

What memories made him weep

as the Baul singer sang his song

what dreams of longing and a sleep full of dreams 

kept him awake as he dreamed of Dhaka 

on the river Buriganga?

Kanamma the Mad Woman

The large shady bargad tree

Its hard twisted tentacles

hanging low swinging free

Medusa like just outside the temple wall

where from dawn to dusk the devout

buy flower garlands at the makeshift stall.

The mud hard baked platform around it

where once sat blind musicians, whose eyes did not see

now sleepless Kanamma the mad woman waits all day

her beloved left her and she let grief take her mind away

those who bring incense and coconut for the stone god

with the elephant head say.


His fingers had run through her long black tresses

sometimes touching her breasts, stopping her breath

his dark skin shining like Krishna

they had lain supine in the tingling sands of the river Yamuna.


Her matted hair crawl full of lice

the itchy fingers throwing pebbles

at nibbling mice

the scattered puffed rice

offerings at the altar of an indifferent god.


Kanamma is waiting.

He is not coming.

He has found a pretty girl

whose skin is fair, golden hair…

Boo boo shoo shoo.


Mothers chase the jeering kids

Don’t be bad

She is mad

Can’t you see she is raving mad?


Her wild waiting eyes

Her cracked mumbling lips

Her scratched bleeding skin

Her sunken hungry belly

Her torn sari and blouse

Her hair full of louse

Her home without a house

Her mind nobody can rouse.


Will Krishna never come?

Will Radha wait forever?

The sun has dried up the river

The anklets lie broken and scattered.


The temple bells are ringing

Come, come let’s bathe with milk and honey

and dress in satin, our marble God.

Wars Begin in the Minds of Men



                    Rat a tat rat a tat rat a tat rat a tat.

                    Pain shrapnels through my throbbing head

                    Smoke acrid choking filling lungs

                    Somebody is using a rake inside me 

                    I can taste blood dribbling into my mouth

                    there are shadows behind the Chinar trees 

                    and crawling figures everywhere

                    my hands hurt tremble I am thirsty 

                    bullet ridden I must drag myself into the ravine

                    who is shouting Shiva Shiva 

                    who is screaming Allah Allah 

                    oh God save us we are in hell 

                    my ear drums will burst.


                    A sudden cool breeze blows over the brick terrace

                    the mosquito net torn where the bayonet had pierced it

                    a shredded fibrous webbed netted piece of claustrophobia.

                    A jackal howls across the vast open maidan.

                    Its past midnight the moon is half gone. 


                    Like all nights since they brought him home 

                    Sepoy Ram Singh wakes up howling 

                    gun in hand rushing at terrorists who just won’t go away.

                     He had traded ripened wheat fields 

                    for mine fields and mayhem.

                    It wasn’t his fault 

                    It was for the victory of the flag.


                   Sometimes his leg made of wood 

                   on which he stood

                   drew village louts to hear his story

                   full of brave battle and shining glory.

                   Then slowly other stories spread

                   about the devils inside his head 

                   Ram Singh has gone mad, they said. 

                   It is always good

                   for a soldier to be dead.

                   A dead soldier is covered in glory

                   and others will tell his true story.  


                   Broken in limb and living with nothing more to gain 

                   his nightmares of war and pain, are no longer fit for the sane.


                   Only he could hear the bullets rain 

                   Only he could see his life wane 

                   Only he could feel his mind go insane.

I Am the Tortoise in the Well

When the Frog who lived in the well

jumped out 

I quietly slipped in to live in the well.

My well has a nice brick wall

and I can hear the eagles call

When I look up at the sky

and I see them fly.


You may think to live in a well

is pure hell

but I have my shell and it keeps me well.

Well since then I live in this well, 

frequently washing my hands with soap, 

water and sanitiser

following the medical advisor.

Sometimes I hear voices 

some strange gurgling noises

when a bucket comes down 

I get to the side 

unlike that frog who took a ride

into town like a dancing clown.


Happy to meet his friends 

he shook their hands 

and hugged them tight 

and didn’t let them out of sight

they closed the doors to keep out the bores

the bar was smokey and oh so hazy

it drove the happy frog so crazy 

some wine and cheese and a cigarette later 

when the music began to play 

Frog began to dance and sway

and on the dance floor he met a beauty 

bright and famous and a real cutie 

She was very young not old 

she wore a spikey crown of gold

this newly crowned Miss World he was told

was none other than her highness

in all her brightness

Was Miss Corona Devi


Frog didn’t wear a mask thinking it too big a task

his hands with soap he did not wash

sanitiser he refused to use thinking it’s a medical ruse.

He just kept hopping and hugging 

laughing and talking talking and laughing

Miss Corona was a breathless beauty

to bow before her it was his duty.


She fell in love with him at once

so with him she began to dance 

coat of yellow green she clung

a happy peppy song he sung 

she kissed her Prince he kissed his Princess

very soon he lost his senses.

In a hospital he was found no party friends were around

a solitary doctor on his rounds 

heard a frog gasp for breath 

for Miss Corona he was crying

to revive him nurses were sighing 

they put him later on a large ventilator.


I am a Tortoise in my shell

I am safe and staying well

I have nothing more to tell.

Oh you are asking how 

Frog’s story I came to know? 

It’s from my WhatsApp viral video

of a popular show.

Eklavya and Guru Dronacharya

Five thousand years ago in ancient India

in the epic times of the Mahabharata 

there lived in the forest a hunter called Eklavya 

son of chief Hirnadhanu of the Nishadha tribe

“Father give me your blessings 

I wish to learn from the wise Guru Dronacharya 

to be a warrior, a perfect archer!”

The wise father could not say no, and let his brave son go 

knowing he would face rejection and humiliation

Yet not wishing to come in the way of a son’s decision

To learn skills of war with precision.


Ace archer and teacher, Guru of kings and princes 

Dronacharya’s arrogance turned away Eklavya 

denying him his knowledge and wisdom 

calling him a low born without a kingdom

who had dared enter the princely arena

to learn to be equal with the great Pandava Arjuna.

Rejected yet undeterred, sharp as the arrow 

and strong as the bow 

Eklavya built a clay figure of the Guru

to practice his dharma to fulfill his karma


Arduous years later, Eklavya 

excelled the prize archer Prince Arjuna

Then the learned Teacher demanded to know, 

from whence for a young Nishadha did knowledge of archery flow?

You cannot be a warrior your birth is so low! 

With folded hands him did a humble Eklavya greet 

and the bow and arrow he laid at his teacher’s feet.

“I learnt from you, my Guru, I have only this to show, 

of no other great teacher do I know.

The angry proud teacher said, “You have learnt from me! Now give me

your right thumb as Guru Dakshin – my fee!”

The stunned princely learners watched in horror

As the son of a hunter, the super archer cut his own thumb to offer 

the Guru a gift of supreme gratitude, for his chance to hone his aptitude.

Thus the great teacher and archer Dronacharya

disabled his supreme shishya Eklavya.


Five thousand years later

I stepped into the sacred space of my classroom 

and saw in the lone corner an eager bright curious face,

looking at me with hope, his shirt faded his shoes patched, looking out of place

In his dark eyes I saw reflected the deep forests and the running deer 

and heard the rain clouds rumble.

What is your name? I asked.

In the silence of the noisy restless room, I heard his quiet voice tremble. 

My name is Eklavya. To come to you, I have travelled a long way.

The sky turned blue and the sun let in a bright ray

I walked across centuries to reach this young boy 

who had walked miles to learn, so some day he could earn.

I put my hand on his head and whispered,

“Eklavya, I am here. You must never fear.”

Roopali Sircar Gaur, Ph.D. is a lifelong teacher, poet-performer, writer, environmentalist, and social justice activist. Roopali retired as Associate Professor of English from Delhi University. She is a widely published columnist and writer, who has written for peer-reviewed journals, and served on academic conference panels worldwide. Her interests lie in the fields of gender studies and post-colonial literature. Her book The Twice Colonised: Women in African Literature is a seminal text on those subjects. She is the co-editor with Dr. Anita Nahal, of the poetry anthology In All the Spaces-Diverse Voices in Global Women’s Poetry, and the forthcoming Earth, Fire, Water & Wind (2021). Roopali holds a Ph.D. in Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She graduated from the prestigious Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, and holds an M.A. and B.Ed. from Osmania University, Hyderabad.

Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic is an initiative sponsored by the Poetic Media Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.

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