Monday, 18 August 2014

Navroz Mubarak 2014

Navroz Mubarak! Today we observed Navroz in college. At least I did. The awareness of this beautiful festival is almost absent with only dominant traditions getting space on the newspaper and air waves today. Today is also Janmashtami. Is it that for all its pluralistic traditions the Parsi New Year is not even assigned a footnote in History? So I took it upon myself, poet that I am, to question this aporia and launched into Leeya Mehta's haunting 'Towers of Silence' from my very own copy of Chandrabhaga (now defunct). Final year students are studying a clutch of the Bombay poets for their rather lopsided course grandly titled Indian Literature in English (ILE) which has a raft of writers born post-1930 or thereabouts.

For the First Year undergraduate course where I teach spoken English I strode in to class and asked students to pair up and role play a situation where one visits another's house on a festival of their choice. After much prodding, they showcased Diwali, Janamashtami, Id, and the Feast of Three Kings (a Catholic Feast celebrated at Cansaulim, Chandor and Raia in Goa on 6 January). I then told them about Navroz and the landing of the Iranians at Sanjan, Gujarat and the celebrated incident of the sugar and milk -- of how the Parsis requested shelter and promised they would blend with India like sugar did with water. For my ILE students I jettisoned Amitav Ghosh's Glass Palace  for the moment and paused to do the out-of-syllabus Leeya's poem. Students gave the poem the reverence it deserved evoking parallels in the poets they had studied, viz. Kamala Das 'An Introduction' and Daruwalla's 'Boatride Along the Ganga.'

With the Second Year students I spoke about my wonderful association with Dr Lakshmi Chandra, my PhD supervisor and friend from Hyderabad.  It was her inspiration which alerted me the cultural traditions of the Parsis. Together with her mother Mrs Ruttonsha she hosted a reading of my poems at the Secunderabad club in 2006. With the students I spoke of the Tatas who had built Bombay. I drew their attention to the documentary film titled Qissa-e-Parsi: The Parsi Story made by two 27-year old lasses, Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati premiering in Delhi at the Open Frame Festival on August 30, 2014.

See 'Documenting a Dwindling Race' by Nishitha Nair Shrivastava, in Herald Review, Herald Goa, Sunday 17 August, 2014; Pix courtesy below Tower of Silence, Malabar Hill, by Bea Gomez in www.touristeye(dot)com.

The Towers of Silence

leeya mehta

High on the hill,
beneath a fern sky of speckled spores
there is a place I long to describe
in a language I do not know.

The passing of each
beloved one into the rocks and
ivory heart of the pit
in that solitary place is not a passage
we will accept for ourselves, mother, you and I.
Nor did your father, who chose that box of fire,
only fire.

But the thought that we could all
rest together in the sepia shadow of a pit
drilled into the centre of the core –
that is not an empty wish, for after all,
where will our children go to find us?
Will they have to slice through the shifting sky like vultures,
searching for me and you and your father:
ashes choking the sea?

How we thought your father’s
singed remains would be reduced
to one biscuit box, but saw instead
a suitcase of black static residue and
small pieces of bone and how you coughed -
wreaths of minute
grey dust rose through the chimney of Chandanvadi
into the soundless glare of that June day.

It is good, mother,
to have a resting place for family,
a spot to mourn the passing of the centuries and
that which we are;
to remember.

But there are places
that I long to describe
in a language I do not know.
And the Towers, by our not being in them,
that is our sacrifice.


Until the time my Spanish is not worthy of anything but mimicry, I will have to describe this place in words I can create especially for the Towers.

If you are an outsider, not one of us, you would be interested to know what happens when we die. Most of my people, if we have been blessed by our exclusive priests in our special temples, in a language, Avesta, which is dead, if we haven’t made the mistake of marrying a man who is one of you, will be prayed upon and carried up the hill on a cherished path, up two stairs or three, through a door and onto a cement bed at the edge of a precipice. The birds do their job (eating us), if there are enough of them, and our antibiotics do not make them immediately sick; and our bones are swept into the pit. The men who provide this service are poor, lower caste and dedicated, they are born to this profession – body carriers, body sweepers, maintenance engineers of the Towers of Silence.


Why Spanish? It is a knowledge that there are words that can describe this place better than the ones I already know. Silent spectacles of words that form like clouds and beat thunderous drums with brocade batons.


Shadows in a garden of ochre thread
Vitiligo branches which echo
The brown whispers of a festering pea-hen
Hay fields, grass grown yellow from the start.
The English description of this hill is so still, so deathly quiet.

Spanish would somehow make it eloquent,
the Hill that drips with human dead.
More distant than Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi. These are too close and yet impassive to my touch.

This is no English green, where graveyards rise, like fresh,
dew kissed soldiers in the valley of life.
No Tintern Abbey, roof collapsed,
not even a river here, blue and sweet.

This is one landscape
too burnt for English words,
there is no poetry
in the English sounds
nor richness in their beats.
Why look at this that escapes onto the page –
there is a place high on a hill, surrounded by a malignancy of skyscrapers.
No rhythm there.
So there must be some other tongue to say-
this is a place I long to describe
in a language I do not know.

First Published in the UK, in Poetry London 

in India in Chandrabhaga

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