A Pawn’s Impression of Chess 

Am I the teller 

Of a story? 

I try to grasp it with both my hands 

And all my mind 

But it often, 

Inexplicably, 

Floats away. 

Sometimes I feel 

Like a story 

Of the tellers. 
 
 
Who was I 

Before they gave me my name? 

If I didn’t choose it, 

It is anything 

but mine. 

Indeed, who am I 

Without my name? 

A lost pronoun 

Irreplaceable and mourning 

the loss of a word. 

Symbols, they say 

Are for the symbol-minded 

But I’ve questions in mine. 

Are the questions my own 

If I am not? 
 
 
I feel 

Like a tune 

Composed with care, 

But not yet written 

And still unheard. 

Real, 

But not quite. 

There was a queen long ago 

Who was birthed 

In the mind of a poet. 

When they wrote her down, 

They made her history. 

History can be forgotten. 

So can music, 

If it isn’t put to pen. 
 
 
I feel 

Like a gamepiece: 

Wooden, painted, 

In the hands of another,  

Taking a two-step 

And then one at a time, 

To be sacrificed at the altar 

From which a More Important One 

Can be saved. 

Indeed, I feel 

Like I could be pawned 

For something 

Of more immediate value 

In the future. 

They never call it 

A herd of soldiers 

Although that it is. 
 
 
I feel 

The world is beautiful – 

But feeling 

(The world is beautiful) 

Is not the same 

As knowing 

(The world is beautiful) 

And know I not: 

The tellers never 

Wrote it for me. 

You see, the story 

Can only read 

What is written for it. 

The story never writes 

(The world is beautiful) 

Itself. 
 
 
 
 
[The title and primary metaphor for this poem is inspired by the literary criticism on Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass. ‘The Queen’ refers both to Alice Liddell and to Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavati, who has recently become subject to national controversy.]

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The Finish Line 

 

To the future –

I hope you and I are flying.

 

I write about the race against time

Which I keep running for, and I’m

Wondering why it never seems to end

As my aching feet of despair portend:

 

I long for hands to hold, and to be held,

For stories of happiness unparalleled

But alas, no hands are held in running race –

There’s hunger for victory, not love’s embrace.

 

Oft I gasp for breath, wonder if anyone else

Can see it, or feel the music of my pulse

Which rises and falls and makes me a whole,

A river running to peacefully end at its bowl.

 

But I only run in a want to stop running

I run in search of an undefined something

Not found without life and much ado;

I draw the finish line, and name it ‘You’.

 

Time builds its course up and up

And a faint determination helps me to lollop

Through it all – even the rough affection

I run along, not losing direction.

 

I write of you, a glimpse of colour in the grey

Flashing, beckoning to meet me halfway

Promising you’ll stay put, patiently wait

Where you would, even If I slow my gait.

 

And I shall let destiny be the ink to my pen

And guide me to the very moment when

On your shoulder I will find my shore

And run I will no more.
 

An Emotion

I am no great conversationalist, and sometimes I have exchanges with people which I end up concluding in epiphanic letters to the known and the unknown – to people, places, objects, thoughts or emotions. So, when I ask you about whom you want to be, and you think about what it really is that you want and respond with ‘happy‘, I have this to tell you:

Being happy is an emotion, not a second skin you can slip into and forget to ever take off; and emotions are volatile – especially this one – and you can’t ever mistake them for the complete person you are. You have it in you to be happy, but happiness is a wanderer – it comes and goes.

I think you have to be okay with happiness being fleeting, with it being just a mood and not something as permanent as the indestructible refuge of the house you build for yourself in your mind; because the bricks you stack upon each other to make it stand aren’t mud, sand and cement – they’re sadness and loneliness and ecstasy and love, they’re the gold and silver of your experiences, and they shine and sparkle differently when the rays of the sun hit them from different angles.

It is important for the sun to beat down on your mind from different angles for you to know just how radiant it is. Each little memory you keep in there is like a tiny memento from the game of life which you see in a new light every time your eyes gloss over it. Maybe happiness can be the dust that settles on these mementos as time passes by, maybe it can be what you find beneath the dust when you pick them up in your hands to reminisce. Maybe happiness can be the reflection you see in the many mirrors that hang on the walls inside as you run along to whichever corner the butterflies of everyday life lead you.

Maybe happiness can be a passing moment in the journey you take – the glimpse of the face you catch in the sideview mirror as your car speeds by it – and not the destination itself; because it is already yours and you just keep letting it loose to take itself on morning walks, because happiness is all the more happier when you find it again and again.

House of Grief

The grass is always green on the other side of the glass. Your side is a trap, a greenhouse – it traps you in with the heat, with the helplessness, and it chokes you. The glass is soundproof, and you, like a caged animal in a zoo –  they can all see you, no less as a spectacle, but none can help. None want to, either, for it’s too risky a business – these animals are known to have a sharp bite.

Your house is a funny place, full and empty at the same time – you crave company but won’t wish for anyone to go in, or through, it. You find a new door every time you go looking for the key out of another. It isn’t your house anymore. The house renovates itself. The house owns you, just you – one rentier, one tenant, no boarders allowed.

Maybe a distant lover is your best bet.

So, when the moon peeks through your window at night, you get used to it. You wait for it – the guest knocking on the sill – without even knowing, not aware that your own vacancy signs are alight.

But it knows. It sees, it hears, and one can see the ghost of recognition on its greying face. It suffers, too, silently telling the story of its own plight.

The moon gets smaller and smaller as it consumes itself to satiate an inherent appetite for self-destruction. It takes a holiday ever so often, trying to digest the meaning of its own being. It disappears. The world – your world – is plunged into darkness. The harsh daylight hurts your eyes. The never-ending blackness numbs you down. You wait. It’s cold in here.

The moon reappears, vomiting itself out, forcing growth; all because you’re alone with the night. It walks with borrowed light, always beside you even as you try to run away from the house – especially when you try to run away from the house.

The winds tell you that the moon is in love. You do not believe them, for they do not exist in your world – the window is shut, and nothing comes in or out of it.

Wolves wail at the sight of your white-faced lover at his prime, they say that the shadow on his face is beautiful too. If you listen carefully, you see that the sounds of laughter and wailing are indistinguishable without the emotion. You know how to tell them apart, for you’ve been roommates with grief for a long time. Some say that the moon is friends with her.

You’ve lived together for so long that you think you are friends with her, too.

And how it hurts.

On some day suspended in the time after you stepped inside; the floorboards creak under your careful – but unsuspecting – footsteps as you go looking for the feeling you have been living with, but she is gone. Your lover has wished her away. Your lover, a mere reflection – of your worshipped suitor, of its own daring enemy, the Sun – lacks the heat which makes its competitor dangerous. But he has wished grief away. He has pushed her out, and in her place, there is nothing. Nothing.

The moon never decided to come in himself, either. It stood on its perch in the sky, your lover from far away.

Grief packed up well. She left without a trace, like she was never there. Like she never set foot in a place you verily named after her. And now there’s no reason for your sadness. Now, you’re just alone in a house with no name, waiting.

The grass is always green on the other side of the glass. Your side, it is but a memory.

Barriers 

The writer’s block. 

It’s a big room that reeks of solitude. The door is open just a crack, a suspended beam of sunlight filtering through and making dust motes look like trembling stars. A boy sits by his typewriter, his fingers lusting to stroke the keys. He taps his nervous feet against the linoleum floor, trying to imitate the drum pattern of an old favourite song that he had long since discarded from memory; but which mysteriously reappeared in his conscousness in moments of despair. A dot of light comes to rest on his nose, making him wonder why he cannot absorb its energy. The memory of what he had meant to write eludes him.

The boy flails his right arm in frustration, but the words still hang on to the inside of his sleeve. His gaze runs out the windows and into the vast blue skies, naming the faces he sees in the clouds. He wishes that they would talk back to him.


Introversion.

The street is wide and curves out of sight over a hill. A girl stands on the sidewalk, counting the number of cars that rush by. She listens to the noise of their horns and screeching tires as if it were musical, and lets her eyes follow a certain red Chevy till it can’t possibly continue to. Every once in a while, she focuses her eyes on one of the cars, and loses track of the numbers. Then she starts to count again, from scratch. When the traffic slows, she snaps out of her passive trance, and tries to raise her hand up to signal for a ride. In her mind, someone sees her waving and stops.

The cars keep driving past the girl, seeing nothing. The wind blows her hair over her face, and they are streaked wet with her tears. Her hands are still by her side, for her strings are pulled by something entirely different from her mind. The puppeteer is not her friend.


Love. 

The old brick house stands in stark contrast to its lush surroundings at the edge of a teak forest. It is the solitary red structure in the otherwise unbroken plane of green. A woman sits inside, her wooden chair rocking in sync with the ticking clock. Her breathing resonates in the silence like the heartbeat of the house. Her hands shake as she muses over the past with her eyes open, memories projected in technicolor onto her cataract-ridden irises. A fly buzzes past her arthritic shoulder and lands lazily on a covered dish of food. The people in her dream never let the food sit long enough for the flies to appear. The people in her dream resemble those in the dust-covered picture frame which rests in her lap.

The woman calls out her sons’ names, and is met by the creak of her chair in response. She sighs and closes her unseeing eyes. The people in her dream come home to her.


Death. 

The air is bursting with the sobs of a little boy. He stumbles around, a single syllable fumbling on his virgin tongue.Tears flow down his reddened cheeks and streak his white clothing a wet, salty grey. The faces around him weep for his sorrow, but the sounds he makes are the loudest. Many arms reach out to console him but he doesn’t care for their affections, for the warmth that he seeks is amiss. He moves about, heading for the bright yellow blaze a little ahead of him; but the tall legs of strangers who stand in his way appear like prison bars holding him back. The boy slumps onto the dirt ground, his tiny hands falling to his sides. His sleepy eyes close for a second. When they flutter back open again, they resemble a bursting dam giving way to the beginnings of a flood.

A yellowing leaf performs somersaults with the wind and comes to rest on a stack of neatly piled sandalwood. As the toddler’s wail of ‘Maa’ breaks the pregnant silence yet again, the burning corpse wishes it were alive.

Ashes to Ashes

The battlefield was bordered by a manicured hedge ,

And all the violence which seduced men into abandon 

Took place outside it where the fallen

leaves had blown to with a gust of hot wind.

Most warriors would choose a battle ground clear of trees, but ours was oak-panelled with marble flooring that wouldn’t let the blood of the brave and broken soak through. We lit the torches and the bedroom candles, and watched the flames dance on our skin. Lamps dripped oil into puddles on the floor as we looked on and breathed in the heavy scents of ambrosial sconces that crystallised in our lungs — naïve little soldiers, we didn’t know that armour was supposed to be worn on the outside.

The light from the scented candles cast shadows on the wall behind it — the wall offered no protection, with the offender and defender on the same side. The hungrier twin of candlelight rose higher, uncaring for the velvet curtains which protected themselves from the fragrant flames with help from the winds. The curtains rose and fluttered with their benefactor, and from the doorway they looked like war flags, waiting to be dyed red with violence and to be trampled upon.

By us.

 

Weapons sanctioned by the office of wrath were invisible 

To the onlookers, who wondered why there were

hints of a smile on our dirt-streaked faces even though 

We were being drafted to the army of the enemy.

 

We were knights-in-training and we thought that our wooden swords were harmless, but splinters from wood could hurt almost as much as rusted blades buried in one’s back. Our naked backs were smooth, except for the welts where realisation had struck us hard. We wanted to survive the onslaught and so we encased our hearts in iron cages and called it an armour; we donned heavy helmets so that our minds were actually prisons. Canons were loaded as our fingers caressed each other and found only cold, hard metal where a heartbeat once was. We were knights-in-training, and so, we mounted our high-horses, not caring that all of it would crumble to dust when we really went to war.

The candles had reached their last drip of wax and in some parallel universe — some other battle — we would be smearing it over the slightly sweaty contours of each other’s backs, because the wax never left welts like those whispered lies did. The sweet fragrance was turning pungent and we couldn’t help but wonder if this was supposed to happen as the candles burned out and the wicks turned black. The fire in our eyes wasn’t a reflection of the sputtering flames in front of us. It was almost cruel how the torch burned brighter as the candlelight was eclipsed.

The cry for battle clung to us like icicles in the cold 

which remind one that touching ice often feels like burning

And as it, perhaps involuntarily, escaped our throats 

We were anything but we, with you against me

Offences were many, and our perceptions pierced by the shards of broken glass behind which we were each other’s attackers. We could crush the shards underfoot, if not for the candles we had lighted that smelled like death in retrospect. The whispers, which escaped us while we were against each other and the oak panelling, had now escaped their wooden sanctuary to haunt us. Our union boiled over us till it was just invisible vapour weighing down our breaths — it was here that I understood the fact that I couldn’t vouch for you any more, for gaseous particles drift apart to infinity.

In all the wars we had waged in our heads, we had only been two sides of a coin, the tip and hold of a spear, but now they were two separate weapons — a dagger and a stick. We were two separate weapons, pointed at each other, like busts of Caesar and Brutus carved out of the same stone. I could only find myself choking on my own destruction, while you were building a bunker with your pillows and closing off the gates to trust. Like a deer in the headlights, I was caught off guard, denied access to both your doors and my own. My ammunition and the strength to use it was locked behind my mistrust of myself — and surprisingly, after all the drills, not of you.

Surprise and cowardice had me taken aback, but terms of war 

were clear as day: the battle would start irrespective of how I

had prepared, for unlike more pleasant things 

It didn’t take two to declare.

 

You kept on building bunkers apprehending a devastating fat man or little boy to drop whenever I flew over you in vain, for I didn’t bother getting into the aircraft at all. I was a failed soldier, a sham warrior, and while you settled on a fight for survival, I only wished I could do the same — wished, but never acted. I was sucked into a hurricane-like dilemma and swirled inside with the hope for it to end in a black hole.

Every night that I had pulled away from the kiss first was not a preparation for a possible coup d’êtat , but a declaration of my inability to train for war. The arrows we had aimed at each other in smaller skirmishes came back as missiles — launched, as if, by mischief rather than purpose. You decided to fight against what you could see approaching for afar, the several crushing tonnes of heartbreak and rust. I let it go through me — ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Helium

When I was a little girl far newer to the world than I am now, I was given to my mother as a bundle washed and clothed; and, for the first time, she held me on the outside. My tiny hands kept themselves in fists for a long time after I was born, she tells me. She tells me it’s something all babies do till they gain control of their hands.

I know I did it for a long time after.

When I grew up a little and made a few friends in school whose names and faces I have long since forgotten, I thought that I was happy. I was told to draw smiling faces and sing happy rhymes in class, and I assumed that since it was the only emotion I was surrounded with, it was the only emotion at all. I had no reason to feel otherwise, none that I could catch on to at that age.

A few years later, I learnt that my heart was about the same size as my fist, and I wondered if other people could see how tiny my clenched fists were. I decided that day, subconsciously now that I think of it, that it will be bigger in all other ways that were possible. I had to believe that it could stretch to accommodate important things.

Important things, like promises, memories, and the hope of a share in something beautiful.

Important things, like people.

Many a wind passed, many a solstice I saw, and when the grass was yellowing yet again did I finally get hit. My fists were bigger now, and I had started to feel the beginnings of what they now call loneliness. I breathed in and let it out, and let my heart open to whatever – and whoever – could find it. And so, it stretched a little, and it filled me up. Unable to stop, ignorant of the dangers of going on, it stretched and stretched and stretched, till the pressing weight of others was all my heart was – it had become a fist, it hit me hard and again, and I couldn’t escape.

But fists break too, and things leak out of them. Then they lie by your side, cut open and damaged beyond the point of healing completely.

And so did I.

My illusion broke all at once. There was so much more to the world than happiness, and now, with my eyes wide open and refusing to shut, I could see them all. I was forced to see them all. I saw them right back to the nursery rhymes and the drawings of smiling faces taped onto windowpanes, behind which were faces contorted with hatred.

Hatred existed. Sadness was there – sometimes at first, and later, always. The people  I held close had let themselves out, leaving behind the shell made of my arms. It wasn’t just a prison break, but a breaking of the prison itself. Funnily enough, I was the only one left behind, stuck in a rut. I was hearing the departing footsteps of people who had never really arrived, at least not on my door; and the more I realised this, the more I withdrew. I still wanted to reach out, but my hands were clasped into fists and my nails were biting into the flesh of my palms.

Who knew who I was? I wasn’t sure of it myself. I wasn’t sure if I existed beyond the dying meadow full of withering leaves of solitude that were crumpled underfoot as lightly-packed travellers passed by. Sometimes they stopped to take pictures, other times a relic; and sometimes they left a small token I could hide in a coffer crafted with my fingers – I thought I could never really call them fists again, not allowing them the ability to throw punches and cause hurt. A few people noticed that the meadow was singing, and they often deemed me human enough to ask me about the song.  On days when the wounds in my buried heart would be singing too, I would tell them.

I would tell them, filling them up with my whys and hows like balloons with helium, and whenever they found themselves full enough they would tie the ends and float away. Maybe they let the air out somewhere far and distant, but I – still rooted to my old spot – will never get to know.

Who knew who I was? I am still not sure of it myself.

I took to wearing gloves a while ago. In the cold. In the summer. When the rain would soak through. Even then. They don’t last too long, but they always keep my heart warm. The red wool is comforting. It is like second skin in some places, and bandages in others. Maybe someday my hands won’t be balled up, and a gust of changing winds will take them off. One thing is for sure, though – the day those fists beat again, the heart will not.