Poems by
Hari Sanyal

Mid-may and the room

a poem by Hari Sanyal

A mynah pecks at the withering bird’s nest
Among the rich yellow laburnum flowers
The green leaves dusty relieved against
A blue grey smouldering sky of Delhi May

The large neem is a different yellow
Imperial in its foliage
The other with its still green leaves
Is flanked by another with new leaves of spring
A cuckoo calls in startling trills
Defying the heat-haze or with a mad feeling
Of continuing spring
Is answered by long ascendant cries
Billowing the afternoon from all directions.
The heat and the steam palpable all around.

Sitting on a morah at five in the evening
I see a cigarette and potato wafers’ kiosk
At a short distance in front
Beyond the small field with yellow railings
Where children play cricket or badminton.

The houses are all alike-
Two-roomed and painted dull yellow
In various states of disrepair
Residents working class or babus
In government offices.
The pitch road burn
Offering blinding mirages
Not a soul in sight
Don’t forget, this is Delhi in May

The ‘Room’ though is saved by less light.
On wooden shelves and a steel one
Stand a few hundred books, mostly old but ageless
Undusted but always used
A single-burner gas stove
With a small pillar-box red cylinder
Which hasn’t been filled for months
An unmade bed, general dishabille
The only window blocked by a cooler-
Soap-box, medicines, some dusty books
On a sunmicaed rickety study table
With hollow angular steel pipes for legs,
An obsolete portable, an ash-tray
Heaped with cigarette-butts

A bag of vegetables, a shaving kit
Used up razor blades, unwashed tea-cups
A large plastic jar of powdered milk
Another of sugar, soiled tea-spoons.

The eight-by-ten room made seemingly
But only seemingly grotesque
By the large framed Louvre prints of Le Moulin de la Gallete
And Girl at an open Half-door
And the inevitable but always endearing
Blue sun and cornfield by Van Gogh
A photo of Aldous, a Xerox of Oxford
The peeling walls of are stamped
With Cavaleanti’s Donna Mi Priegha
And Arnaut Daniel the troubadour,
Painted in blue with a large brush
And good paint
The cement floor firmly thick with grey dirt,
A broken chair piled with unwashed clothes
Even a quilt, nowhere to tuck away
And it is already the month of May, (no maying though)
Last used In January
Even now sometimes used by my god-son
Who visits me once in a long while
And spreads it on the floor to sleep
Snug among the darting rats and piles
Of unread ‘Statesman’ on the morahs.
There is even a tattered blanket
Which can’t be tucked away either
And is used when the cooler works
And late nights can do with a coverlet
Or even the quilt and the blanket for my son
To curl up in the tiny space
Beside the book-shelves and the morahs
Also piled with books and other objects,
The originally intended as stools.
A giraffe of a table, a straight-backed steel chair
Also a divan (six and a half-by-four)
To sleep on and sit on for the guests
And the real occupant of the Room.
Also a chest of drawers
Not one article has anything to do with another

From the front porch I can see
An absent-minded ceiling fan
Whose speed can’t be regulated
Spiders very quick with cobwebs
In four corners of the roof
On top of the chest of drawers
The complete OED in two volumes with a magnifying glass
Webster’s Third International
(Prize possessions)
A few ancient silver cups
And a depleted foil of good Darjeeling tea.
Inside, the top-shelf has all the Arden Shakespears
Tagore, Villon, Cavafy, Chaucer, Rimbaud and Baudelaire,
Also the cantos and a copy of the facsimile of the original
‘Wasteland’ mercifully emended by Pound,
A few files, the others crammed with clothes
Xeroxed copies of a few rare books
And bags of worn-out audio cassettes.
In the small loft, a pair of large
Woodstock speakers of a record player
(Which no longer works)
A far less effective cassette-player has to do
The ‘Room’ watches me go to sleep
At two ion the morning when my son visits, otherwise
Plagued by the fears of insomnia.


Visualizing the ‘Room’
I am reminded of the ‘other’ room
Same size as this, occupied
By the legal allottee of the house, a pahari
Five of a family live and sleep there.
Children study, watch T.V, fight
The father, a dark paunchy rogue,
Snores or sulks like a brooding Achilles in his underwear
When not drunk or not at work.
Never talks to anyone while sober
Merely snaps if there is need for command
Or condemnation radiating tension and fear,
The mother, a ruffled sweet lady
Who can be a tigress when pushed too far.
The kitchen, the toilet and the bath with dripping walls
Are tiny pits of hell
Roaches, rats and stink all over
This particular stink of cooking oil
Sweat and certain spices
Is far out-run by the spewing
And suffocating stench of excreta
In the tiny toilet there’s hardly any room even to squat
Where one has to hold one’s breathe for quite a while,
These three odours along with odours
From clothes, bed-sheets and sweat
Combine to give the whole house
An unidentifiable fourth smell
A sort of house-smell
Like a household god or deity
Which is all the house permanently,
And makes anyone who comes in beyond
The sitting room for the first time throw up.
The stink hits like a wave of nausea
Producing a disorienting shock and disbelief
Not only the first time but always.
A still dread to enter the toilet
Or go anywhere near it but one has to
So I retch quite frequently.
And it is not only the stink of excreta
It is much worse
Quite obscure and filthy
In a nightmarish way
In which one sees the toilet bowl with the floating turd
(Except that it is no nightmare but real).
I have had this nightmare a number of times
After coming here, and sometimes this horror
Happens during the day too, a day mare,
And I throw up my lunch and tea.

You may well ask why I live here then,
I have no option, strangely for health and pocket-book reason
The flush doesn’t work, the water trickles
Through the pipeline for two hours a day
No water collects in the over-head tank
Not does it have a connection with the pipelines,
I’ve bought the house a ‘motor’
Which speeds up the trickle to a slightly faster flow.

Yet everything here goes on as in any other family.
Innate loyalty despite the fights
And a belonging to hill-inheritance
Through language and memory
Which cuts both ways into a capital city.
One of the daughters, Janaki, tries
To tidy up the room once in while
Vainly retrieve from the deshabille
Makes the bed and puts
Clean covers on the pillows
But doesn’t know what to do with the books,
The large quilt and the blanket
And heaps of clothes.
She dreams of speaking English.

I teach her once in a while
They all have dreams
I mean the three older children
Of coming right side up in a losing battle
In the air of competition
They envy the effluent young people
In a nearby college, their clothing
And the brand of pathetic English
Taught in the so-called public
Or missionary schools in the capital city
Meant for the affluent and the traders
These children yearn for their sang-froid
And the curious dialect
Rightly knowing no better.
Can’t blame them
Or stress the futility
From what to them will seem
Superior height
As I have already known what they don’t
The language, western education and travel
And all that comes with it
At least a better job than their father’s
However ‘nouveau pauvre’ I may be


It is now the quite a few years in the ‘Room’
The children are getting used to me
But are still baffled by Bach or Beethoven
Howe can there be long stretches
Of music without words?
A tune on the flute one can understand
But surely not the concertos or the symphonies
Or silly things as the elaboration of ragas
By Roshan Ara or Bhimsen
Lalgudi or Subulakshmi
Opera is worse, nothing but shrieks and screams!

But they no longer wonder
Why I am here
Or that I should be somewhere else
Yet my presence only a passing dream
Or just a contribution to the family coffer
As long as I am around
They won’t mind terribly if I left.
They are too used to such things
Being realists before their time
Life has taught them a lot quite early
Another pahari will occupy the Room
With whom the man will drink liquor
As he does noisily every other evening
And in the weekends with his chums,
Talk in the hill tongue
And feel well rid of me, a stranger,
For really there is nothing but envy and hatred,
At most unwilling toleration.
Stranger will not be missed
Except perhaps by the little girl
Who tries to look after my room
And who, in an uncomprehending way,
Has grown to like me a little
(Unlike the others who frankly flash hatred
Even the good lady who doesn’t care)
Janaki is a gifted girl whom I tried to guide a little
Through the mazes and the grammar
Of a tongue alien to her
But whose magic and practical use
She can’t resist, boxed in as she is
Like many others in her circumstance.
All the inmates of the house despise her
And drive her nearly mad
And will certainly do so when I leave
They persecute her and merely call her a ‘lunatic’
And revel in her tears and grief.
I intervene when I can’t bear it any longer
And they hate me for it
And would like to put me in my place
Once and for all and ask me
To mind my own business

Like many others, these kids are attracted
By the younger breed of Bombay film-actors
And the anchor persons of FM and television
Who have learnt to alternate between
Particular brands of Hindi and English
With ease and confidence-
Products of mass communication centers
And drama schools,
Some of them quite bright
But tuned the wrong way
Or rather compelled to be tuned the wrong way
For obvious reasons by the policy makers
Politics and sponsors,
Lopsidedly trying to follow
The primrose path of the West-
Of different history past and present,
Different problems, different demography
Different climate and economies
Different health and different count of people
Yet I can’t expect these children
To understand all this,
As none of them, although born here
Have so far seen the Connaught Place or the zoo
Never ‘seen’ a train
What to talk of rides
Never seen the Red fort or Purana Qila
What to talk of the Taj!
How can I expect them to see through
The innocence and the tricks of FM anchorpersons
Some of who are naturally inclined
Towards what they vaguely think
To be Western media and values
Unchecked laissez-faire
And all that comes with it
The other anchor kids don’t lack cunning
(And not in the old sense of the word)
Lead entertainment towards money making
And conspicuous consumption
(An irreplaceable jargon)
Suspect values inherited from capitalist nations
Some magical programmes of Beauty
Thrown in like ‘Aawaaz aur Andaaz’
But it is still the well known tricks of the cash gods’
Grudging space for Dylan or Lennon
Begum Akhtar or Hindustani
And Carnatic Classical (often corrupted

By mixes with noisy ‘modern’ songs)
With the knowledge of shock absorbers
Like all shock-absorbers in Western nations,
Particularly United (?) States
Will absorb and kill everything
By airing it with patronizing detachment
As universities in America kill vibrant texts
By putting them on the courses
Delhi is doing it too, as I find
My son in the middle of it
Struggling hard to keep alive
With classics in the original tongues


Where am I? Where was I?
Enough of reverie and the tricks of the mind
Mind does strange things with time
And time with mind, with memory,
Not only the past but the present,
The present memory
What does the mind select
From the conflux of images, feelings, events,
From the long past, the long present and the short present?
Even memory, grief , sensations of beauty
(A leaf here a colour there)
Of the future are present ‘now’
As in the past and manifest present

Thoughts and facts involuntarily
Covering so much as images and visions
Not Proust or anyone else
It happens to me once in a while like my poetry,
Not much shape of the usual kind
Nor a thought or a poem leading
From A to B and finally to Z,
Not terse or imagistic, nor complex necessarily
Nor just visual or symbolistic nuances
Or impossibilities of farthest concessions
Nor any present day English poetic,
Nor any definitive style of my own
If these waves in the billow
Caress or gleam, they don’t always
Lead to a poem
After all how does one tell? What form?
How loose? How terse?
Syllabics and metrics?
How does one end one line?
And begin another
What stresses, what rhymes
Internal or otherwise, what line-lengths?
How combine free, blank and rhyme
And ‘where’ to achieve the inevitable poem,
A product of an infallible ear
And the unconscious of a poet?
How sure I was about all this
When younger and just wrote and ‘directed’ others!
More plaint and various then ‘The Golden Gate’
I was in command.
Where has all that gone Agni Mitro?
Is it because you don’t hear the language any more
And forced not to speak it?


A poet friend of mine says
One gets more and more logical
As one gets older, finds some images
And metaphors quite absurd
Not only surreal but utterly wrong!
That should cancel a lot of good poetry
Of the last century and this, especially in France
And some century poets of Britain
As Dylan Thomas and some country poets
On both sides of the Atlantic and in Bengal
And other parts of India
Wherever there are makers of poetry and verse
Wherever people feel and know their words and rhythms
I too am becoming too conscious
Of logic and grammar (blast my classicism)
But I must resist this ageing
I’d miss so much, I won’t read or write
So much I won’t love or dream about
Or recite silently to myself in waking or sleeping
And die in joy over and over again

I am where I was three hours ago
And have taken a journey,
As an imp played with time and mind
Now it is eventide. I so like the word-eventide.
Eofontide. Eofontide


Still no respite from the heat
Soon I’ll go in, request someone
To fill the cooler as I still don’t know my way about,
Stand in queue for a bath.
Dream of sleep which won’t come
Till the stirrings of dawn
Yet like most evenings
I’ll go on sitting on the morah
A while longer, on the tiny cemented porch
In front of the house
Watching the withering nest
The rich laburnum and the green leaves
On the gaunt and the spare tree
Relieved against a blue-grey sky.

Now the light fades
Colours change
The sky is no longer blue-grey
Leaves, the flowers and they fields are shadows.
I continue to sit on the morah
Waiting for no one