Rahul Soni

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21 Poems from ‘Magadh’: by Shrikant Verma

(These translations first appeared in Almost Island, Monsoon 2009.)


CORPSES IN KASHI

Have you seen Kashi?
Where corpses come and go
by the same road

And what of corpses?
Corpses will come
Corpses will go

Ask then, whose corpse is this?
Is it Rohitashva? No, no
all corpses cannot be Rohitashva

His corpse, you will recognize
from a distance
and if not from a distance

then from up close
and if not from up close
then it cannot be Rohitashva

And even if it is,
what difference
does it make?

Friends, you have seen Kashi
where corpses come and go
by the same road

and this is all you did –
made way and asked,
Whose corpse is this?

Whoever it was
whoever it was not
what difference did it make?


KOSAMBI

Vasavdatta asks
What came before Kosambi?

Vasavdatta!

Before Kosambi
there was only Kosambi

After Kosambi
there is only Kosambi

The only alternative
to Kosambi is Kosambi

Searching for Kosambi
Vasavdatta
has found Kosambi


HASTINAPUR

Consider a person
who comes to Hastinapur
and says
No, no, this cannot be Hastinapur

Consider a person
left all alone
Why should he care about
when the Mahabharata was fought?

If you can,
consider Hastinapur
for which, ever so often,
a Mahabharata is fought
and no one cares

except that person
who comes to Hastinapur
and says
No, no, this cannot be Hastinapur


NO ONE LISTENS IN HASTINAPUR

I say again
without dharma, there can be nothing
but no one hears

No one listens in Hastinapur

Those who do are
either deaf or have been appointed
to turn a deaf ear

I say again
without dharma, there can be nothing
but no one hears

Listen or not, then, people of Hastinapur –

Beware!
An enemy breeds within your city:
thought

And remember
these days it spreads like plague:
thought


THE ROAD TO UJJAINI

An announcement for those
who wish to go to Ujjaini:
This road does not lead to Ujjaini
Then again, this road leads to Ujjaini

Till yesterday I’d show the way, saying
Beware! This road leads to Ujjaini

I show the way today as well, saying
Beware! This road does not lead to Ujjaini

Travelers! The truth is that
all roads lead to Ujjaini
and that
no road leads to Ujjaini

Ujjaini
forever looks to the road, waiting
Ujjaini
has turned away from roads

Then where should those
who wish to go to Ujjaini, go?
They should go to Ujjaini
and say –

This is not Ujjaini because
we did not arrive here
on the roads that lead to Ujjaini
or the roads that do not lead to Ujjaini


NAMELESS IN AVANTI

Will it make a difference if I say
I am not from Magadh
I belong to Avanti?

Of course it will
You will be taken to belong to Avanti
You will have to forget Magadh

But
you will not be able to forget Magadh
and you will live your life in Avanti
without knowing Avanti

Then you will say
I am not from Avanti
I belong to Magadh
but no one will believe you

You will whine, “It’s true
I belong to Magadh
I am not from Avanti”
and it will make no difference

No one will believe you belong
to Magadh
No one will recognize you
in Avanti


FICTION

Before you go, sir, hear me out

The Patliputra you and I are fighting for
is, in the eyes of others, a fiction

Do you hear?

They do not even think it worth
a moment’s thought
What Patliputra, they ask

You have to answer them
sir, make them understand
that this is the same Patliputra
for which Ajatashatru, Bimbisara,
Chandragupta, you and I
are fighting

Did you tell them?

Did you hear their retort?
“Fools!
Fighting for a fiction”


NALANDA

I am going
to Takshashila

Where are you going?
To Nalanda

But this road does not lead
to Nalanda

It used to once, but not anymore
The road to Nalanda has changed
Now this road will take you

to Takshashila
not Nalanda

Do you want to go
to Takshashila?

People going to Nalanda, often
the roads that you are shown do not
take you where you want to go –

like Nalanda


MATHURA’S CRY

Can you hear Mathura’s cry?

This is what happens
when Mathura is no more
Mathura cries,
Mathura! Mathura!

Nor is Mathura alone
Take Avanti –
listen carefully
Do you hear?

Every now and then,
Avanti! Avanti!

It is like I said

When Mathura is no more
when Avanti is no more
people cry,
Mathura! Avanti!

Maybe it has become
their habit
to cry when cities
turn into memories

But Mathura and Avanti
are not memories

And even if they are
will anyone believe
that Mathura and Avanti
are just memories?


THE REPUBLIC OF KOSAL

Kosal is a republic in my imagination
The people of Kosal are unhappy
because Kosal is a republic only in the imagination

All day, the citizens gamble
Those who do not gamble
sleep

All day, the citizens tell stories
Those who do not tell stories
sleep

All day, the citizens are peevish
Those who are not peevish
sleep

The citizens rejoice in Kosal’s past
Those who do not rejoice
sleep

Kosal is a republic in my imagination


LACK OF THOUGHT IN KOSAL

Congratulations Maharaj
Victory is yours
There was no war
Our enemies went back

Our preparations, though,
were thorough

A four-akshauhini army
ten thousand horses
as many elephants
No half measures

Even if there had been a war
the outcome
would have been the same

They had no weapons
no horses, no elephants
How could they have fought?
They were unarmed

Each one of them was alone
Each one of them was saying
Everyone is alone

Still, victory is yours,
Congratulations Maharaj
the Rajasuya is done
you have become
Chakravarti

Only, they have left behind
misgivings
For instance –

Kosal cannot last much longer
There is lack of thought in Kosal


AMBAPALI

Vaishali sleeps
Only Ambapali is awake

It is dark

In some other world
morning comes slowly

Stars fall

In Vaishali
people are born, people die

Vaishali sleeps
Or has it died?

Ambapali is frightened
by her dream

Don’t be frightened, Ambapali!


HORSEMAN

Is a horseman who goes to Kalinga
the same when he returns?

What do people call him,
victor or murderer?

Is he welcomed by courtesans
or does he wander aimless?

What happens?

Horseman, where
does this road lead?


HAVAN

I could have saved myself
but how could I?
Those who save themselves
cannot create

I simmered, then blazed
I began to crack

I could have cried
but how could I?
Those who cry
cannot endure

It was not self-sacrifice
It was not self-abuse
Not resignation, not castigation
What was it then?

I could have blamed someone else
but how could I?
Those who blame
cannot create


DHARMA, WAR

How is it possible

for the number of dead
to be the same on both sides

How is it possible

for the flag to fall on both sides

for the widows on one side to outnumber
the unwidowed on the other

How is it possible

for the sorrow on one side to equal
the mourning on the other

How is it possible

that there be repentance
that there be shame
that there be dharma
on both sides

That both lay down their arms
that both be victorious

I say
it is not possible

One-sided the murders
the victory, one-sided

One-sided the arrogance
the fear, one-sided

One-sided the widows
the unwidowed, one-sided

One-sided the sorrow
the laments, one-sided

One-sided the joy
the repentance, one-sided

One-sided the shame
the dharma, one-sided

The number of dead on both sides
is not the same


DESTINATION CHAMPA

We have to go only to Champa

This road goes only to Champa
Those who want to go elsewhere
should go by other roads
They should not confuse us by asking,
Does this road go to Champa?

Those who want to go to Champa
Don’t have the right
To ask anything

Not: Where is Champa?
Not: Where isn’t Champa?
Not: What is Champa?

Not: Is it true
that Champa was
and is no more?

We have to go only to Champa


PEOPLE GOING TO KANNAUJ

Brothers and sisters,
where are you going?

We are all going to Kannauj
because everyone
is going to Kannauj –

those going nowhere
those going here and there

those who love Kannauj
those who hate Kannauj

those who know nothing
about Kannauj

those who know everything
about Kannauj

Who isn’t going to Kannauj?


PATLIPUTRA

This is the way
the coronation is done –
with a tika of blood
upon the forehead

Whose blood is it?
Not his who is
the star of Magadh’s eye?

Whose blood is it?
It does not matter
Even a star can, sometimes,
pierce the eye

The Mauryas do not care
for ill omens, they care
for victory

Between Takshashila and Nalanda
there are the Mauryas
and there is the road

The flag flutters

It is not just the Mauryas
who are to blame

Even before
the pundits have said –

The night deepens
in Patliputra


A YEAR OF POEMS

What I wrote –
useless

What I did not –
meaningless


SHAKTAR

Shaktar! Shaktar!

Shaktar isn’t here, maybe
he has gone to Takshashila

Shaktar! Shaktar!

Shaktar isn’t here, maybe
he has returned to Magadh

Shaktar! Shaktar!

Shaktar isn’t in Magadh
he isn’t in Takshashila

You will not find
Shaktar anywhere
Shaktar comes
when Chandragupta comes

Shaktar murders
Chandragupta embraces
Sometimes Chandragupta murders
Shaktar hangs his head

Shaktar isn’t in Magadh
He isn’t in Takshashila


RETURN

I saw him leave
by this very road

He was not alone – there was an army,
there were elephants, horses, chariots

There was music, pageantry
And him

in the midst of it all
on horseback, serene

As if he was in charge
and the rest, merely following

Twenty years later

I see him return
by this very road

He is not alone – there is an army
there are elephants, horses, chariots

There is music, pageantry
And him

in the midst of it all
on horseback, serene

As if someone else is in charge
and he, merely following