Republic Day, 2001 & Nation Language
[ poetry - june 06 ]
Republic Day, 2001
Only to an ear familiar with the sound of clarity could the muffled voice of god be heard and seem strange, pressed against the starched mesh and metal of an antiquated box of wires. Today, perched upon the concrete rooftops, they are not making their usual plea. Some have fallen and dangle by a single wire. Others are being beaten by men with mud-encrusted shins who yell into the mouths of these fickle gods and demand to be answered. Flocks of women dig their hands into the January earth around bare-bottomed babies who fetch new diversions from disaster, finger the remains of a ruined altar. Small fires start up. Bonfires become pyres. A metallic voice instructs: turn your celebrations into funerals. The villagers do as they hear with one ear upturned, the other to the ground listening for survivors, their tears running from eye to eye, from ear to earth. A parade of school children ebb from beneath shifting sand, closer and farther, with the usual rhythm of youthful flesh longing to be in some way permanent, but that is now animated by the draw and unfolding of strange hands. A thickly bearded man appeals to an invisible face through the smoke of flesh, incense and dry dung. A plume rises and snakes to the jaw of a widow bound in white crepe that tilts to the sky mouthing out a song, or is it a curse? The banners have torn where the rattling buildings pitched and screamed on their heels like greedy, fighting children, and cry Unified India to each other, from opposite ends of the severed yellow cloth; tattered walls hold raw fistfuls of promise. A low caste boy picks up a slate, rubs out the characters with the side of his rudely balled hand. He tucks it into his dhoti, pleased with the cool, slick surface, forgets the wordless chalk. An aftershock sends the last of the speakers down mid-sentence. One falls into a pyre, where for a moment, a man turns to run and then stops, not knowing which way to go. Instead, taking up his shovel, he stirs an unsuccessful fire, muttering a prayer into the guttural smoke.
Nation language *
Maybe it is something to be pitied
like lizianthus in Arab heat...
Or listened to like a dark-handed
calypso and then agreed upon in
robed council, smoked in a hookah,
exhaled to distill, imperfect from men's mouths.
* Nation language is a term coined by Kamau Brathwaite to describe that language which emerges in a colonialist setting from the submergence of a mother tongue by the conqueror's language.