By: Stephen Kingsnorth
We drop suddenly,
overtaking the ox ploughing
beside the tarmac.
little mascara boys
wrest the bags from us
before, bewildered and affronted,
we grab them back.
We overload Ambassadors,
unsuited cases and rucksacks
the gaping jaws of convoy boots.
Soon, undergraduating, familiar with wallahs,
wiry pedal rickshaw, then dhobi
and train-calling chai,
the latter like lost
misplaced rag and bone men;
for now we fear for luggage
as anarchic traffic sounds
to assert, insist, impose,
as point-duty police
confirm completed manoeuvres.
Later, in pastel faded colonial,
poor dusty wall, gecko crept,
whilst terraced saffron begs votive puja,
the fridge wheezes with
shelved pre-boiled water,
door ajar with frequent hope
for chlorine cubes.
Unslaked, unsettled hobbling heavy
fans pretend to cool
and we, caught between
adrenaline and decamp,
heavy lids unwilling to miss
share dazed astonishment.
Unweaned, breast strapped, pretended wail,
we fight, then reluctant, after gaol
without proper discharge plan, dismiss,
finger point, and colonial, reminisce.
Frail freedom’s flail, we should forgive,
India’s home rule, grudging give.
Western, good idea is quick response
to arrogance, established firm ensconce.
Loincloth man, stick, fasting swallow,
spinner, Singer claim endorses sew,
but marble now, black ashed, bisects
the site sanyasi and Red Fort protects
this hallowed place; but my eyes dawn
to tended lawn, lush carpet drawn
by mower, slow ox leading feet,
two guides, in heavy folding heat,
one reluctant beast string-whips,
other, Qualcast rust hand grips.
Shouldered moulded cuboidal shape,
stands proud beneath tight-fitting tee,
smoke-ready, his supply
corners, unintended, the image
I plan, but moving meat
does not allow, permit
slow studio composition;
so later I am happy, see
the pack has come, along
with newly pumping glisten gush,
boy-driven to water our beading fores,
engraved on mind, and screened elsewhere.
Finishing their furrow and
returning for another line
I step the crumbling soil, crushing till,
and stand my ground,
view finding through this
ancient accordion camera.
I depress as, rearing up,
white yoked beasts start, shutter-spooked,
directions different harness drag.
The teen needs his cuboidal fag.
Later boatmen, so different,
row us down, mercury up,
hottest known, so river flow –
floating detritus and pyre fuel saving
body parts, perch for pecking –
Curly, other close-cut,
shirted, other bare,
shine, other dried
high cheeked and planed
but both wary, watch us.
Eagles glide while water slugs
and vast brown fish curls in slowest motion,
hypnosis seen as yesterday,
dragging heavy gorged fruit of feeding ground
through filmy dense opaque last glug.
slight stir whirlpools, whilst banked,
saffron sanyasi sit immobile
on bleached wood ricket platforms, waiting.
Plumped pad over the sandy mud
to dip the sacred stream.
A Brahmin, corded girth, holds nose,
and douses thrice.
We sail back.
Another bird balances on
floating flesh, another torso passing
in this place of desolation,
another thrown into confluence.
Bata, global currency of continent
straps shoes as trader dealing swap;
would-be guests the phone line see
in book, so call and ask for price
of room in Regal Hotel, Shillong.
Rupees agreed, the taxi takes to
string-held signage, crooked hang,
with soiled board and battered paint,
shared prominence with cobler’s
wares. The worry is the name-
piece better decorated than rooms?