kwaja

 

Triptych

I

At fifteen I had not yet seen the sea:
driving toward the beach I picked up first
the smell of fish and salt strong in the air,
then particles of sand against my face,
the sea itself, scalloped, and crested with
tufts of brushwork foam, dirty white atop
pale green, and blue-black waves, rang with sounds
of far off lands, a subterranean roar
that called and promised much but never quite
revealed its source, soft wet sands subsided
beneath the foot before they held, then gave
again as wave after rolling wave dashed
against my body, leapt, shattered, and swept
back again, the next one taller, stronger
than before, its whip and splash curling on
itself, sands splitting to reveal molluscs
and shells of fervid colors and shapes, each
a treasure that eagerly I gathered:
flat fan shapes, crowned whorls, and tiny spotted
shells pulsing with life behind serrated
lips—and creatures of the sea crawled between
my toes and through them tickled their way
across my foot and up my leg, before
another gathering wave crashed and washed
them away, even as I stepped upon
yet another embedded shell and curled
my toes to pick it up and add to my
growing collection—and ever after
enticed by what till then I had not known
I have yearned for the sea, coast, beach and all,
the hollow boom and crash from distant shores,
the yielding wet slate sand beneath my feet,
the smell of fish, salt particles in the breeze—

II

and hills till I was twelve, when dry heat drove
us north, traveling by train, my first, and all
the way wandering dreamscapes of boyhood years
with an imaginary friend, before
transferring to a bus that dragged itself
groaning over a steep hill road, climbing
higher with each tiered and winding groove
precariously in narrowing rounds right up
the mountain’s side—a new perspective
opening up, houses seen on level ground
now far below, nestled in what revealed
itself as valley, the fertile lap, hill
upon hill, mountain peaked by higher mountains,
endlessly offered to habitation,
and a dazzling mercury vein I knew
as streamlet at the bridge an hour ago,
amidst it all, threading its path past field,
forest, and grove, and over pebbled bed—
through tiny street-wide towns and villages
with all their wares spilled out beside the road,
their fruits, and wicker crafts, and nuts, and shawls,
till in the middle of nowhere, the air
already chill, brook water spilling freely
down the metalled road, we stopped to cool
the engine and drink our fill—beyond this
clouds drifted across streets, and muslin mists
slipped through forests of pine and spruce,
slid around cottages far below, ran
through walnut leaves and sprouting foliage—
another hairpin turn, another stiff climb,
and with a final heave and stammer the bus
arrived, and at that instant tarnished the dream
with diesel fumes and honking cars, the growl
and grumble of buses and trucks, their brakes
squealing, the noise all at once of crying
porters, hotel touts, street venders, beggars,
shoe shines, helpers, the site transformed
to a trading station on an ancient
route—a new kind of magic cast its spell,
a new sorcery of din and chatter—
but in the night when from a cottage window
I glanced below, my heart forgot a moment
how to beat, then came alive suddenly
entranced like a paper kite in the wind—
down in the darkness the valley was aglow
with firefly lights waving their trifling flames,
and a cool breeze from some deep dark hollow
revived with it a dreamscape memory:
a timid absent hand and a promise
of love’s first blossoms on the lips.

III

How strange, that none of this compares
with the city I have lost, the city
that first gave me life, whose air I inhaled
with my first breath, where I grew up and went
first to school—the site of my first transgression,
the city where I loved, and lost, and won,
in that order and no order at all,
separately and all together, at the same time—
dearer to me are its streets and lanes, its
dying sacred river, its flat terrain,
where everything once came without seeking,
as mulberry suddenly on spring trees,
its dust more precious than dreams and promises
of glittering lands and seas, mountains and rivers—
dearer to me is the city I have lost,
dearer all friends and foes of my youth
and years of early maturity and disaffection,
dearest the absent ones—
helpless before the dust of my birth land
whose pores and particles are my pores and cells,
whose undistinguished grey and brown birds,
now on a ledge, now at the window sill,
homely and familiar, now fluttering in the branches
of a thick-leaved pipal or a stately sheesham,
all settle to comfort in some city that grows
and pulsates within, in its dusty streets
and cool lanes, in its crowded, noisy places—
O’ ruined city!, except in memory,
except in these inadequate words I write,
the shades and colors of your passing seasons,
the creeks that sluiced water from the canal
feeding nurseries of garden plants, flowers, and trees
on its way beyond to fields washing stations in the suburbs,
the open sewage with its foul, damp, smells in the evening,
running by the walls of gated mansions,
your gardens and parks
a refuge for young and old
for poor and rich alike
the lighted amaltas, the flowering kikar,
gul mohur, sumbal, gul-e-nishtar,
your fruit trees
mango and guava, the favorite haunts of parrots,
the implanted lichi,
bounteous in its foreign soil,
the native jaman fattening in summer rain,
helpless before your abundance
helpless before your contradictions
helpless before your dust
O’ my city!

A professor of English at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, Waqas Khwaja has published three collections of his poetry, a literary travelogue about his experiences with the International Writers Program, University of Iowa, and two anthologies of Pakistani literature in translation. He is the translation editor of Modern Poetry of Pakistan (2011).

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