Gandhi and the Tree

Gandhi was walking in the sun

that had survived Naokhali.

‘Come, have some rest.’

Gandhi turned back:

It was a shady tree.

‘You? It is not yet time for me to rest, ‘replied Gandhi.

The tree complained:

‘The world is in a hurry. I have grown old;

no more do I flower nor bear fruit :

even birds have abandoned me’.

`Don’t worry/Gandhi said,

‘You are waiting for the axe

and I, for the bullet.’

‘Don’t say that’, the tree was in agony,

‘Someone will need that shade.’

The memory of spring escaped the tree as a sigh.

‘Pray’, said Gandhi.

‘If you don’t stop, I

will have to walk with you’,

the tree now began to walk with Gandhi.

A wind blew. A bird flew to the tree.

‘See, I am in bloom again’,

the tree laughed with white flowers.

`You have started walking? Then

I can cease, ‘Gandhi’s blood

whispered as it gushed out,

like a prayer for every being.

‘See, my flowers are growing red’, cried out

the emancipated tree.

Three birds that had

dreamt of fruits

came flying from the East.

(Translated from Malayalam by the poet)


Old women do not fly on magic wands

or make obscure prophecies

from ominous forests.

They just sit on vacant park benches

in the quiet evenings

calling doves by their names

charming them with grains of maize.

Or, trembling like waves

they stand in endless queues in

government hospitals

or settle like sterile clouds

in post offices awaiting mail

from their sons abroad,

long ago dead.

They whisper like a drizzle

as they roam the streets

with a lost gaze as though

something they had thrown up

had never returned to earth.

They shiver like December nights

in their dreamless sleep

on shop verandahs.

There are swings still

in their half-blind eyes,

lilies and Christmases

in their failing memory.

There is one folktale

for each wrinkle on their skin.

Their drooping breasts

yet have milk enough to feed

three generations

who would never care for it.

All dawns pass

leaving them in the dark.

They do not fear death,

they died long ago.

Old women once were continents.

They had deep woods in them,

lakes, mountains, volcanoes even,

even raging gulfs.

When the earth was in heat

they melted, shrank,

leaving only their maps.

You can fold them

and keep them handy :

who knows, they might help you find

your way home.

(Translated from Malayalam by the poet)


Was it for this you carried me

on your shoulders as I limped?

And saved me from the sacrificial fire

after that fiery speech on dhrama

in the royal assembly? (1)

The poet says you too are

performing your dharma. (2)

Then tell me, what is

the sheep’s dharma?

To fatten you with milk?

To die, turn into your meat?

No one shouts at you,

`Don’t savage!’ (3).

Poets have stopped

that business long ago.

Only, make sure

your knife is sharp.

And don’t go after my lamb.

My udders will ooze milk when it cries.

But what you want is blood.

Be quick, do it in a single stroke.

(Translated from Malayalam by the poet)


(1) The Buddha had once carried a limping lamb on his shoulder and saved it from being sacrificed at King Bimbisara’s court.

(2) Idassery, Malayalam poet.

(3) Poet-sageValmiki’s command to the hunter shooting down a bird in love-play: ‘Ma Nishada’ (‘Don’t, savage’).


Burning on the blazing cross

that pierces the four directions,

your visage, the cosmic image:

Your body is nailed to the Present,

your legs are buried in the Past.

Your head is held high in the Future,

where the evening sun burns.

You stood, O, Lord of Love,

straight , silent , majestic,

your five elements oozing

out of the five stigmata,

on the red-gravelled passage

where the meteors freeze into white flowers,

gazing at the sea where

the conch devours the pearls,

lighting up the dark caverns of ages

with your arrow-sharp golden rays,

wounding grief.

Then, as you writhed into stillness,

your five senses: Your eyes

gave the skies their blue,

your ears lent music to my sun,

your touch turned this dry earth

moist and tender, your sense of smell

lent charming fragrance to this flower,

your sense of taste turned into

the exciting power of wine.

Your infancy became earth’s spring,

your childhood the season of rains

that nourishes tender shoots,

your youth, the harsh, intense, summer.

And I, offering in sacrifice

my five suns through my stigmata,

-these my five senses-,

are you not I?



Last night I saw a chinar tree

scream and run.

Its leaves and boughs were trembling;

its roots oozed blood.

It was afraid to look back.

The sky had drowned in the Dal lake 1;

it was now a river of fire.

A terrible beast with an allegator’s body

and a thousand dragon-faces

emerged from the sparkling lake.

Its eyes sent forth lightning.

Dead infants dangled from its

ten thousand claws.

Wherever the venom

from its forked tongue fell,

brothers began to fight one another

and the saffron and sandalwood trees

withered in the wink of an eye.

The dust-storm its breath roused

put out the sun and led women astray.

The little boats once filled with lotuses

Now carried the unclaimed dead. It rained bones.

Siva danced in the lifeless snow

piled up on the ruins.

His drum woke me up.


I sit alone, desolate, my throat

blue with the poison I drank.

Where are those deodar trees

that blossomed all over

the moment I asked them about Shiva?

Saints of the valley, when did

our words ooze away from hearts

like water from unbaked pitchers?

Springs and stars will not talk

to those who believe in borders.

I don’t believe in borders:

Do the grains of sand know

the name of the land where they lie?

The roots of apple trees

reach for one another

under the walls built by man.

Wind, water and roots

work against walls.

Birds snap borderlines

with their sharp wings.

The lines on the map

do not stop even a dry leaf.

Let us be rivers.


I journeyed from earth

to heaven and hell; I sought no word’s permission.

The flesh remained here;

the soul rode the rainbow.

At times it saw an eagle

torn into halves;

clouds growing horns at times.

Saw Pandavas’ mother gather

firewood in the forest, Krishna reaching Kalindi

on the back of a mule,

his clothes soiled.

Saw Shiva’s bull plough the field,

Parvati roaming the hills S

hepherding the lands,

Sita singing from a tribal’s hovel.

heard. Lava’s laughter

from a tiger’s cave.


I see darkness at noon.

We sit on volcanoes sipping wine,

we dance on the edge of graves.

Perching under the moon

Glistening like Nandi’s eyes2

the nightingale told me

blood knows no borders.

It is one’s own blood the

continues to run in another.

When the two touch each other in love

their blood becomes one;

touched with hate blood flows out screaming.

Even clothes are borders.

So I strip myself to attain my Shiva,

naked like the breeze over the lake.

My lips are wicks that burn,

my breasts, flowers

and my hips incense:

I am an offering.

Ask the peepal and the palash,

the soul has no religion;

nature suckles everything.

The blue sky is

The throat of the Neelkant…3


I asked the skylark to reveal to me

the meaning of her song before she died.

She just said, the embers will die

if they cease to gleam.

I saw her song being baked for the hungry.

It climbed the loom for those

Shivering in the cold,

arched itself to form a roof

for the shadeless.

Then I understood

the meaning of prayer.

Each stone became Sambhu.4

The cuckoo layed eggs in every vein,

Every nerve became the string of a santoor.5

I danced in the leopard’s carve.

The Word lost its boundaries.


I am a lake of measureless blue.

Shiva, my shore of endless green.

No iron curtains, not even hedgerows.

Let rains and deer graze on either side.

Hey, those trying to milk the wooden cow,

arms are meant to hug.

She who has conquered greed needs no sword;

She who has conquered lust, no veil.

Follow the stone’s way:

it is both pestle and Natraj,6

stain it not.

Look here, my throat is

Brahma’s chalice.

A dove and a lion on my shoulders.

I am the childhood of the future,

The badam tree that has seven lives.

I am the alphabet.


I do not believe in borders.

No fortress can stop those

who move from birth to birth.

We were in the past;

We will be in the future.

Infinity is ever fresh,

fresh as well, the moon.

O mind that is ever restless in the body

like a baby on its mother’s lap,

grow from small attachments

to bigger ones,

go to the place that has no directions.

Consciousness has no borders

outside the senses.

Endless is the sunlight of the jeevanmukta.7

Farewell to the vain mornings

where blood-stench blooms

Farewell to the rains of history

that taste of gunpowder.

Come back, vineyards,

come back, my lambs,

sparrows, lotus-ponds:

the Infinite calls

from within the sand grain.

(Translated from Malayalam by the poet)

*Lal Ded (Lalleswari or Lalla Arifa), the Kashmiri woman saint- poet who left the unhappy Brahmin home of her in-laws to learn philosophy from the Saiva siddhas and Sufis, walked naked, rejecting caste, religious rituals and custome and singing her verses, vakhs. Here she comments on borders king at today’s besieged Kashmir.

1 The big lake in the Kashmir valley

2 Nandi is Shiva’s sacred bull.

3 Shiva is called Neelkant, the blue-throated as he drank the poison that emerged with the nectar while the gods and demons together churned the Milky Ocean.

4 Sambhu, another synonym for Shiva

5 Santoor: a Kashmiri stringed instrument, originally , satatantri, having 100 strings.

6 Natraj: The dancing Shiva

7 The one who is detached and ready for deliverance.


(To Lars Lundqvist)

With steady hands

you went on pouring the

ruddy autumn in my goblet.

You read your poems

bright like the maple leaves,

filling the air like a Brahms symphony,

-sipping one mouthful for each line.

I translated your birds and trees into

my birds and trees.

Nouns revealed their core.

Verbs were inert.

There was a meadow

in your coat pocket.

I called out to the Western Ghats,

as if it were a hungry sheep.

The wind was turning

the pages of an apple tree.

I inhaled my childhood.

As I looked on

you turned into a green train.

I boarded it and whistled like the rain.

We left behind the church of the chill.

Words rubbed against words.

When beasts get into language

The dead burst into laughter.


(Translated from Malyalam by the poet)


In Delhi’s cold

I recall my mother,

the first warmth

that had enveloped me.

I could not take mother to Kasi,

not even her lullaby.

That remorse keeps a compartment

in every train that shuttles

between Delhi and Benares.

Standing on the banks

of the Ganga with my companion

I thought: I could have brought

mother’s ashes for Ganga.

There was no shortage of ashes,

nor of dead bodies there;

but mother had lived and died in Malayalam.

`Ram nam sach hei’ would have

turned her an alien.

Yet the Lord knew her

with her coolness.

Didn’t she hide in that unoiled matted hair?*

Here, she flows in front of me

Let me wash my feet in her

It may not expiate my sins

But it is cool like affection, soiled.

Reaching home in Delhi

I open the tap:

Here comes Ganga, purified.

How did mother manage

to pass through this pipe?

‘O, I took a magic potion: Death.

Now I can take any shape,

can go anywhere.’

I scooped her up in my hands:

and was cooled,

in Delhi’s heat.

(Translated from Malayalam by the poet)

*Remember Siva hiding Ganga in his tangled hair.

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