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).

To view other poems published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

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