Long Poem : Shadows Of Shame

I drove my lady out on a Sunday, a monthly routine. What with all that transpired here, there and everywhere, it was late in evening on the return leg when I suggested we eat out, so she wouldn’t have to spend time in the kitchen. And, boy… it had to be street food !

When we were full and quenched, I calculated we had spent a grand sum equivalent of two-and-a-half dollars. Aha, ahoy ! I exclaimed to myself. Why the hell do I rail against govt policies, inflation et al, when I might have great food at such fantastic prices compared to what it would cost anywhere else in the world ?

Indeed, why ? Because, among 60 % of India’s population earning minimum wage for an average family size of four, who can afford to spend Rs 120 on street food and entertainment fare ? On chat – samosa – tikki – golgappa – kulfi ? Which is why. I find it insolent of people when they judge the economy relative to other economies, by their own fortunate solvency or what their colleagues in business and government service opine.

Here’s my introduction to Les Miserables, recorded right off the scene I encountered on a city street in Calcutta, soon after I had started on a my career …

SHADOWS OF SHAME

The city avenue is agog today.

The sun is set, traffic crawls

And a class war has begun

By the quaint lamp from colonial past

In its yellow light and dim cast.


I heard the screams first i
n local din

Before walking up to drama high

Caught in curiosity and mystified :

I see, what…A man chest bare in pajamas

Thundered with a cracking voice

” The bitches ! The thieves !! “

” The bitches ! The thieves !! “

” Mo-fuck bitches !!!

” Guttersnipe thieves !!!!”

Accusing without a pause

Charged, within his compound wall

Looking over with a flushed face

Popped eyes and killing stares

At two women, their three kids

Threatening dire, at them each

Pounding the ground with explosive fury.

 

He rushes back to huddled shade

Where parents stand, family lined up

To watch him sally forth again, and again

Bursting out, yelling full-throat

Trembling with rage

Causing tremors with a finger shake

At those ladies accurst

And I told myself :

This would hurt serious …

 

‘Twas a heart foaming vulgarly

At the pavement dwellers’ family

With a mind so disjointed

Spewing aggression

In fear’s sway !

He raves without pause

Pacing up and down

Brow stressed with rants

With quaking furrows

Meaning aloud, louder

To knuckle dust them proper …

 

I look at the wretches

On this side of gate

In full glare they stand

By their homeless shade

A tiny makeshift tent

Of polythene sheet

With kids behind them

Cowering, ill-clad

Apprehensive but stuck

To their grounded feet

Watching …

 

The man lunged a cane in hand

To his family’s loud gasp

His old parents recoil

But the rambler peaks

Teen brother in tow

Lagging to restrain and looking lost

Diffident and tame

His unease covered

In shadows of shame …

 

The tall woman this side

Now lets out a shriek

Curdles the blood

Of onlookers, I see

She thrust forward the girls

Little, naked and shy

Sad pouts, looks aground

And hovering in tentativeness …

The crowd is mute

As jury glass eyed

Attentive to lawyers spar

On either side

Waiting … to write

On books open just then

To see through the drama

And record their judgment …

 

It’s the younger woman’s turn

To step up the stage

To ” strip the monster “

With her accusing lance

A finger outstretched

And wide sweeps of arm

Histrionics real, I find

So brilliant of her

Spitting fire from close

Quick to back into home

Pleading sharp their essence

Their poverty, homelessness

Plain alibi, she gestures

Of their innocence

Her pitch querying appeal

To mango men in jury …

 

Insinuations dart from stares latent

I observe the verdict’s clear

Among the gathered men

Quiet, erect, listening intense

And spreading their sense

When the aggressor halts

Unsure sudden, in ebb

Now looking around

Bewildered, afraid …

 

There, he buttons up and in

I read his confidence thin

More, a terror writ large

With the brother expressing

Tugging, hinting escape

Pulling him back

While the man himself

Shows his coiled up anguish

Steals a retreat thinking,

“How incredulous !”

Humiliated, chafing, tapered

Pausing just once

To make it clear …

 

But the destitutes right then

Go for the kill

Flaunt their rags

Their bellies caved in

And pinch the hearts

With wails, convincingly

Run the foe aground

Down and down

And the fray’s done in

The parents shrink enough

To issue their call

” Damn the wench !”

” Filth they are …”

Righteousness misplaced

I felt, the manner was small

Face blackened, it seemed

And the dignity was false.

 

The man recedes heavy

On benumbed steps

His sense now laden

And ears were plugged

Bellowing yet in mind

Being unrepentant

Though the frame was slouched

But his eyes were up …

* * *

Soon, I hear the chatter

Loud, from their mansion

Rum to shore up

Feudal pretensions

Nursing the defeat

Under influence

To power built up

And willed violence

Letting out a yelling storm

On the weak and uninformed

Through unreasoned bawls

Innocent questions unformed…

* * *

Outside, the unscathed dwellers chirp

Of their stagy victory

And people then content disperse.

Their poor abode I see

Opens on three sides :

The rooms are imagined

Sleeping mats tattered

A few utensils black

Dented, most mattered …

The older woman, now calm

Sweeps the ground

While the pot’s on fire

Exhorting the kids around :

Up, up, girls !”

Boiled rice in warm whey
And a pinch of salt ! Hey …”

Encore :

Boiled rice in warm whey

And a pinch of salt ! Hey …

Monotony comes alive

Like a playing record stuck …

 

The younger one

On a low stool, sighs

Spits copiously out

Holds her face for long

In her two palms

Staring straight

Into vacuum …

Then, heaves up sudden

On her feet

Looking at her bosom

And her boobs extend

It’s body time,” she nods to herself

To put the breasts

To livelihood due –

To be the goddess, verily

To the ones who wait

For her cue…

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