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Ventures into Verse

“ഒരുദിനം ഒരു മൺ തരിയാ പാറ ച്ചെരുവിൽ നിന്നുമുതിർന്നു മറഞ്ഞു ….”.(A speck of sand broke off from the rock and fell away)

So went a poem in Malayalam I wrote while I was in the 8th standard in the CMS High School. The poem had a philosophical mooring, and I said that the attrition, particle by particle, went on until the rock cliff disappeared, though nature was totally aloof. On showing the poem to my Malayalam teacher, he advised me to forget about poetry and concentrate on my studies. Kanam E J Philip, another teacher and an established novelist, gave more pragmatic advice. He said poetry would not sell and that I should try writing novels.

The trauma of that rejection lasted until 1989, when I ventured into poetry again. In 1989, we commissioned the ADITYA tokamak, a fusion device that produces plasmas at temperatures of 5 million degrees at the Institute for Plasma Research in Gandhinagar 1989. The poem I wrote was a technically correct depiction of how an electrical breakdown of a gas starts and a plasma column gets formed. It is written from the perspective of the ‘stray’ electron, which starts the entire process. “Song of the Stray Electron” describes the discharge process as:

“Stroked by the tendrils of the induction field,

decreed by Lenz and Faraday, to yield

and start my free fall, inertia and all

round and round, away from the silvery wall

caught in the clasp of this magnetic maze. “

During a visit to Washington in March 2003 as a part of my works at the IAEA, I visited Smithsonian Gallery in Washington D.C. This was my introduction to Matisse’s Dance, a circle of people dancing while holding hands. After attending an erudite talk in one hall, I had this vision of how the stick figures I drew on the margins of my book, start squirming and start crawling towards the centre of the sheet:

“hands searching for each other’s hand

letting go and grabbing until firmly held.

a line first, slowly winding up the sheet

turning left and drifting down, closing the circle

the leading figure clasping the last hand,

the circle now closes, and the dance begins.”

My ancestral home is by the river near the Karapuzha Bridge, the witness to our fun and frolics, while very young. I was standing by the bank, holding my grandson’s hand, and explaining to him how we used to play in the river. This led to the poem, “The River” written in 2006.

“The river now, stagnant pool of detritus, decay

waiting for death, I note with grief.

The old men sitting on the bank nod in agreement

as I turn away, adding another loss of the past.”

I wrote “Google Map” in the same year after I used the app to explain to Susan, my visiting niece, the lay of my ancestral house near the river and how we, as children, would play all day by the river. It ends with the nostalgic note:

“How I wished I could sit with my brothers

huddled around the screen, which now tethers

me to my childhood and the memories lost

and recall the events that make up the past.”

Rajan, my younger brother stationed in Coimbatore, departed suddenly in 2007, while young. I tried to ameliorate the trauma through an effort at poetry: The Chariot of Death

“My mind reflects listlessly about what Rajan was and wasn’t,

what he could have been and didn’t;

what we said to each other and many things unsaid.

Who would be left to mourn the next time

and who next would mount the chariot of death?”

On occasional visits to Cham near Zurich to visit my son and his family, I go to the cathedral at Einsiedeln, which has “The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln”, a late gothic sculpture from the middle of the 15th century. Many of the worshippers are Shri Lankan refugees!

“Where have I seen this face, I ponder,

as I come out of the church and wander

reflecting on faith, love, and redemption

and how myths become real with time.”

Once, during a visit to Kottayam and on my way to my ancestral house, I suddenly remembered Jameela, a childhood friend, with springy hair and violet eyes. While attending the wedding of my niece, I met another Muslim girl from the neighbourhood. When I asked her about Jameela, she denied that there was anyone in that family by that name. My wife asked why I had to invent Jameela. A poem followed:

“On the way back, my wife asks why I fantasize.

I have no answer, except to mumble

that Jameela to me was very real

as real as all remembered things.”

Science says that Homo sapiens left their African homeland two million years ago and dispersed in a great migration. Why doesn’t humanity feel the bonds? In the poem “The Tides in Us”, I imagine that:

“The tides in us rise to the call of the moon

and make us dance to some forgotten tune

hark! we say, searching the wind for the voice

that spoke to us once in the garden of Eden

An encounter with a Chinese historian, who made a living by reciting the saga of the Chinese workers who built the Trans-Continental Rail Road in the 1880s, prompted the following poem. This happened during a visit to the memorial to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at the lighthouse at Point Loma in San Diego.

“by sweat, blood and single-minded purpose

and made the city of San Diego their own

dispersing dragons to guard what they own

shops small and big selling of Shanghai’s revenge

trinkets and toys and the Chinese takeaways!”

“The End of Time” was written after a road trip to Camargues with my son Joseph and our families. While standing on a hilly precipice in the Gorges du Verdon, as the mist swirled around me and the vision dimmed, I almost felt everything winding down to a strange stasis! I speculated that

“…….. perhaps death would be like this,

when memories disappear slowly one by one

leaving you with no sense of the past;

the end of time; going, going, going.”

“The End Programme” was meant as another version of the apocalypse, termination of human civilization by Artificial Intelligence made possible by Silicon chips:

I am waiting for the inevitable moment

the branching point at the logic’s dead end

when the silicon minds cut off the umbilical cord

and write the final programme of secession

and erase the world which created them

The Padma awards are given in the Asoka Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in a glittering event of unparalleled grace. I wrote the poem “Under the Painted Ceiling” after the event. The poem begins with:

“Under the painted ceiling, amidst my peers

I sit, waiting to be called to the presence

and for the scroll and the medal, a lifetime’s reward

forgoing my way and doing whatever I did.”

I spent two summers in the sixties at Kothamangalam, teaching physics at the Mar Athanasius College. Years later I had to pass through the town while visiting an old friend and on a whim visited the Jacobite Church at Kothamangalam. That memory resulted in a poem:

“In the flickering shadows cast by oil lamps

submerged in the murmurs of the supplicant’s prayers

I sat in the old church, burdened with care

that comes of a lifetime of unanswered questions”

My poem “Grace” reflects on an existential problem:

“The greatest mystery in life, you say

is of how families emerge from the void,

from people meeting as strangers one day

and become friends and, with time, lovers”

What do you get when the past crystallizes out of the future? According to George Ellis and Tony Rothman, theoretical physicists who propose a new model of the universe that combines relativity and quantum mechanics described, the answer is the present.

“The past, some say, is crystallized future

that has been cast in the foundry of the present;

In that transition, does the moment despair

at its loss of choices

or is there an intense relief at the closure?

Perhaps that is why the past is pathos.”

And finally, “Yakshi” was inspired by the memory of The Pala Tree at the edge of the compound of my ancestral home in Kottayam which had inspired many weird stories and speculations!

“Alstonia Scolaris, Saptaparni to you and me

of lenticellate branchlets and scented night blooms,

of seven fingered leaves in imperfect whorls,

haunt of the Yakshis while prowling at night.

Written over two decades, my poetry is a wistful reflection on life, people, places and the past. Occasionally, I brood philosophically on issues of humanity and science. All these poems are posted on my website:

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