Two Musics - Poetry by Leslie Nutting (Xorys)

Anarkali She danced before the paving of the king, transmuted from the violence of her habitat (some say she had already married, but it is probably not true). In any case she bore the small bells of her anklets well as if the analogy to chains were lost on her. Her language was too simple. The harem reached to grasp her with its pride, the rancour of concubines outdone, but she eluded it. Women could not protest the feathering of her grace. She trapped the royal heart with the charm of her stupidity and sealed her whole singing body into the stones of hate.
The Son of the Sun i The king has two legs. His complexion is slightly blue where the wind has burst the veins. He ducks under the jasmine branch so it will not slap him, alights in the momentary clearing like a bird. ii The sun is striate. You cannot look at it. But you can feel it on the back of your neck, you know it by its glow in the red dust. There is only one sun. Even the landscape becomes relative, revolves around its fierce dictation of the wind. iii The king's landscape is the king's idea. It grows out of his thinking like a form of madness. It is not his power to kill you that sets him apart but his delusions, the grandeur of his dreams. iv He depends upon armies, the calloused hand, the sword that sucks the air up in its swing. He depends upon the memory of soldiers, their need to think of him. The whole juggernaut moves into battle, and he sits on his elephant dreaming of his mistress and the lies she spins. v He is a slave to words, the plumage of their meaning, the flocks of paranoia he finds himself amongst. He poses for statues, models for his tomb. Being a convenience each age will change (he knows), he orders histories to tell the lie his way, commissions poetry. Each fiction taps his pride. vi Chiefly, they blame their deaths on him. But he is innocent. The hills exceed his throat. His stammer falls before it reaches maps. Power is a fragile thing, broken like a sparrow's feathered fist by a boy with a slingshot dancing in the sun.
Amongst the Rajahs Amongst the rajahs their were always wars. Their lands were the embodiment of their hunger, and the borders were never clearly marked. They had their cities, the walled orbs of their courts, but beyond that was room for doubt, for armies to move in. The panoply of elephants and jewels, scimitars and statues of the gods, crunched onto the field, weltered in the chasing out of blood, beggars settling into the dusty cries of streets. Royalty grasps out. It surrounds the weather like an idea. And in the villages they made myths. One king is much like another -- his steel, his gold, the slaughter of his horses. Nothing makes rice grow faster, or wheat sprout without luck. The names of battles are useful as dreams, lethal as metaphors for some other conflict, that the poor man fights every inch of history against the singing winds.
Goa In the Bom Jesus Basilica water drips from the pilasters. The Portuguese tried for four centuries to keep the weather out, and now they have finally and irrevocably failed. Not that they didn't fail repeatedly before -- the weather got in and the miracles got out. These things are uncontrollable. Grass captures the central square of the redundant capital -- Panaji (or Panjim as they called it) which never came to terms with the vegetation, now is superimposed upon it like a mouldy double-exposure. Two men with a monkey cross towards the cathedral. In the 18th century a plague killed off this dream, drove the Europeans further down the coast. But dreams are never wholly dead. In the cathedral Jesus Christ appeared upon the cross -- they will tell you still the black wood grows daily a little larger year by year. And in the basilica Francis Xavier, namer of names, lies, his husk forgotten by all the nuns amongst the cold northern stones. Each year they carry him out encased in his silver coffin. He is dry and mutilated -- female penitents have bitten off his toes, one arm was severed by a Pope and sent to Rome. He lies cracked in his shrine, and the monsoon sweeps up the coast, crumbling his empire, watering the palms and all the improbable limbs of wounded gods.
Photograph of Silver-workers, Hyderabad In the photograph they are all laughing: much is omitted -- the noise of their hammers, which never stopped, not even when they laughed, me, the white man with a camera who stopped before the concrete shack they laboured in -- a three-sided room, opening onto the narrow, reeking street, all the crowds, politely passing behind me. (They squat cross-legged, perhaps a dozen of them in a ragged semi-circle, their hammers permanently raised, their white teeth flashing, the only white things in the photograph.) Perhaps the noise of their hammers is not omitted from the photograph, perhaps you can still hear it -- the incessant pounding din of metal on metal, ringing like strangled bells tirelessly fighting each other, perhaps you can smell the sweat that comes from their lean brown arms. They are beating silver, endlessly beating it, till it spreads so thin that it becomes a foil and when sweet-meats are wrapped in it (this is what they are beating it for) you cannot separate it, cannot peel it off, must eat it. In the photograph they are all laughing: much is omitted -- the noise of their hammers, which never stopped, not even when they laughed.
A Moghul Miniature This is a picture -- images arranged upon a plane, black and white markers, like the pieces of a game. First the frame is doubled, tripled -- frame within frame within frame of decoration and an arch set in the least. Geometry is established. Within this the lovers embrace in a curious gesture. A fence or palisade passes behind them, creating vertical divisions. Two servants stand on either side, one fair, one dark. Against the sky trees are arranged like pawns. This is our view of that order -- a stasis implying another move, a set of tensions from which we become more and more distant. Just as suffering becomes architecture, always, the particular failure, pain, desire recedes into the image. But this is not all we need to know. For the figures move upon the page -- the servants go, the trees shed their leaves, the lovers part, or marry and grow old and fretful. And we with them anticipate these deeds. Their loss is ours, the price we know is hid, the wrack, the itch, the ache that twists each superficial line. And it is this that we remember when we turn away from their tiny, arrested forms. The cost of these brief dreams of victory.
A Handful of Rupees i Money is blood, carrying a nation's gifts and its diseases, the print of its parentage and the smell of it, by which we trace it from its crimes, the places where it bled. So, in this handful of rupees I hold India. Hold, but do not understand, ignorant of the doubled spirals coiled within it. ii The coins are curiously shaped and half of them so light you hardly feel them in your hand. These are the ones you give to beggars and do not notice that they're gone, like ghosts that pass through you untouched. There are never enough of them. The only people sure to have them are beggars, and in the busiest centres of traffic, the beggars sell them to merchants who sell them to tourists and pilgrims who give them to beggars. iii The fifty naie paise is a modern coin, heavy and circular, it operates the public telephones. And where there are public telephones these coins cannot be found. The post office will not have them. A bank perhaps might have a few (say the Punjab State Bank off Janpath, in its neat compound, half shaded by injured palms), will help you if they can to one or two. iv Notes are a different matter. In high circles far from the dusty streets clean stacks of large denominations change hands in battered cases (or so it is reputed). This money (like much else) is black, because it defies the theory of the law, finds its own way to enforce its truths. v The money that comes in the sweaty clutch, is not like that, curls in the pocket, worn and flaccid, its status uncertain. Nobody trusts it. A note that is given in one shop is spurned in another, grubby, unwanted, even the banks will not have it. But for this too are merchants who buy at a discount, have ways to find profit in this dead cash. vi Yet money, too, is luck, is pinned like a garland at marriages, passed over heads in benediction, is folded inside the band that is tied to the loved one's arm when he leaves, to ward off the demons of transit. vii One thing is certain: the dollar. Not loved but desired. Not blessed with but hoarded. An alien rock in the mirage of days that need not be doubted. An incomprehensible word in a questionless language that speaks of a far land, where all India can be forgotten, her blood, her mingled smells viii and then longed for, rubbed in the fingers, like an old shawl, a tattered rupee note.
Gaumv i The fat Englishman and the ugly American sit on the verandah with their drinks. You do not want to overhear them, much less to join their conversation. ...for one of them, inevitably, will utter some disgrace -- like a drunk observed in a delicate room, a child, in a film, fingering a razor blade. Well then. You leave. Or face the outcome -- shriek on the nerves like the side of the chalk down the board. Or dispute and are caught in vertiginous sense of argument with the weather. Words skid without foothold on ice. The equation maroons you -- since each phrase you add both seems more stupid and more right. ii The fat Englishman and the ugly American are sitting on the verandah with their drinks. You do not approach. You watch the boy goading the buffalo between the houses with a stick. Smoke from the cooking fire mingles with the dust the hooves stir up. You do not speak the same language as the boy, and therefore he is separated from you by air, preserved from your stupidity as you from his (though the buffalo are not preserved from his blows, nor he from their strength, except by his fragile authority). Speech is ungainly, forces us to errors we could otherwise evade in images, mask in our inaction. iii The boy with the buffalo drives them beyond the compound. The pair on the verandah finish their drinks, stare into the evening. You listen to voices calling words you do not understand. Stupidity, then, is a point of observation, a place from which you see or do not see, errors apparent in using certain words for certain things, in living a certain history. Inside your mosquito net you study your grammar, begin to make sense of certain sounds. But this is a long way from wisdom. Commentary Those who imposed a moral absolute were always terrible, worse, in the last analysis, than those who did not know, the merciless crusade of their enlightenment more hard to bear than the chaos that they sought to overrule. -- this was our platitude. We supposed we knew that the cure for stupidity was not, finally, knowledge. But we assumed there was something to know, that the actions never seen clearly, judged for the wrong reasons, were themselves, nonetheless, clear, had reasons separable from the event. But even this certainty of an inaccessible certainty ebbs. You, the boy, the drinkers in their chairs can only be judged within the framework of the day, by other pieces in the puzzle. And action is the final judgement -- the step through the door, the stick raised, the rain as it falls, with a sudden hiss, upon the village, the wave as it moves becoming the water: each foreign tongue whose terms of praise and loathing require a lifetime to translate.
Music for Chameleons (Hyderabad, 1985) It is dusk. Someone is playing an old Shamshad Begum song on a bad gramophone or a cheap transistor radio. The gypsy women camped in the half-built house next door are boiling daal over a fire of dung. The mingled smells drift in with the mosquitoes through the wrought-iron grills at the glassless windows. Somewhere at the back of the house someone starts to practice a raga, the voice climbing patiently up and down the half-learned steps in the air. The two musics twine in what is still felt as an absence, a space between things. From the kitchen a conversation joins, Urdu spoken rapidly, carelessly, so that my foreign ear barely catches at it, odd words, like threads pulled from the hem of a shawl. This is my adopted country, the place I have chosen to be misunderstood in, to misunderstand; the wife I have married, promised my ignorance to. From the lane our daughter runs in carrying a mango, a gift, calling the neighbours' dog after her. She enters the room, still stumbling over both tongues. Room, 'kamra', not 'ma', not 'desh'. Sees me. 'Hi Dad!' she says.

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