Read Poem: CALCUTTA 1964…, by Urmila Mahajan

When heavy trams whirred and purred
on noisy rails, like giant beetles
congregating in dry shade
during the rain—
when rickshaws were drawn by men
whose muscles rippled, strained
rained large drops of sweat and
seated ladies modishly dressed
or other burdens disproportionate—
when buses roared dire protest
stuffed with human cargo
stacked, pressed,
leaning dangerously low

A child of five years, not more
a girl with leaping, shiny hair
and protuberant teeth
I must admit—
was driven down
a pothole spotted street
where ancient houses met
Crooked, ancient houses
dilapidated, crooked, ancient houses
crowding, merging, surging uneven
like teeth in an old man’s jaw
chipped and stained with betel juice

This is what I saw

She drifted up the stairs
trailed by her family—
the youngest breath of air
in an old, old house
to uphold the weekly ritual
of meeting grandparents

A soft light was cast by mellow brass
while ebony and teak massive-sized
lurked in unlit corners
she dared not approach
for fear of cockroaches—
a mortal fear of cockroaches outsized
that scurried, scavenged, gloated and flew
and worse things besides—
the ghouls and corpses of a mind
tender five years old

So much contained in a gourmet brain
Grandmother’s recipes were ingrained
in practised hands and shrewd eyes
and a purse, I must admit—
with few constraints.
Succulent prawns, sizzling fish
melon ice-cream cold and nice
interspersed with points of ice—
a room enriched with aroma
while a koel tightly caged
hooted cramped outrage
and Grandfather rinsed his dentures
in a silver glass

Grandmother’s hands flashed busy—
a tiny frame wound around
by yards of sari bordered red
a tiny frame surrounded
by household smells
Grandmother’s arms were browned with life
long hours of wear and tear
I remember, I was there—
Grandmother’s arms were imprisoned
in gold bangles

Soft metal gleamed dull
in a feeble house
till fraught with age and friction
the gold ripened on her arms
a glint that brightened old arms
even lit the unlit corners
of a more mature mind—
then outshone the mellow brass
with strength renewed—
old wine in a new glass

Better still the sounds engendered
bangles tinkled, jangled
clashed, clinked
industry twisted metal
into ageless refrain
Insistent strains still
ring in her ears today
as authentic and true

I know, I hear it too

© Urmila Mahajan

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