‘Lesson’ and other poems

Ranjit Hoskote

2022

Introduction

My grandfather was fond of saying ‘An inch of gold does not buy an inch of time’. In those days I agreed that time was irretrievable; even gold was powerless against it. But I was not a poet then. And I hadn’t read Hoskote yet. ‘Sixteen years to the night the hour’ Ranjit Hoskote begins in ‘Switch’, and in that first line, I know we’re going to be travelling through time. Not as tourists, but in the way that sticks on your skin because you have now lived that life too. An inch of poem for another year, another decade, another life.

Ranjit Hoskote’s sequence of poems are many things of course, but I’ve been thinking of them as distillations and expansions of time. The ancient Greeks had two different words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is measurable, objective, external time that tells us when a zoom meeting is scheduled or whether a disease is chronic or if dancers are synchronized. Mythologically, Kairos is the god of opportunity, the brother of Zeus. Kairos is the time that bends, meanders, freezes, stretches and settles in Hoskote’s new set of poems.

In ‘Lesson’, the couplets are cautiously obedient at first, under the glare of the professor’s warnings. But just as this distilled lesson in history, geography and oppression reaches its peak, time stops being predictable. We realize when the professor ‘clapped his hands and blew on them / clouds of chalk dust settled on our desks / burying them for years in snow.’ It is a chilling moment, a lesson indeed, one that is forever frozen, forever alive. From the rousing ‘now or never’ of ‘Roar’ to the ‘hour of houses with no latches or locks’ in ‘Afternoon Poem’, these lines, these moments, will stay with you long after you scroll away. Here, a few inches of time:

— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Lesson

for Asiya Zahoor
The professor warned us not to say a word
He turned to the blackboard and drew a line

through our country with his screeching chalk
wrote two names to identify its broken parts

From today he said you can forget your flag
leave your spoken language at home

The classroom windows rattled in the wind
He’d forgotten to chain it to the bent willow

The boatman on the lake outside was singing
The professor made a note to abolish him

We won’t be needing these walnut screens he said
I’d like all of you to be completely transparent

When he clapped his hands and blew on them
clouds of chalk dust settled on our desks

burying them for years in snow

 


 

Roar

Roar now or never
as we enter the garden of last lines

In this closing act
recall the shattered mountains

bend to the cough of a car engine
that should have purred

oil that rusty door hanging off its hinges
with a red velvet rag caught in it

nibble at the remembered plate of brown rice
sprinkled with crisp onion rings

outline the man saluting a flag
with a black cat perched on his other shoulder

Roar now or never
ask what is speech

that does not disguise its incendiary intent
does not betray the guileless traveller

does not carrot you with a better world
does not stick you with robot slogans

does not kill a zigzag with a homily
does not claim to save your soul

does not lay down the law on what comes next
does not embalm the hoisted dictator in song

does not capsize as it carries you across
the dividing river of fire

 


 

Afternoon Poem

Hour of quiet lanes and koels’ cries
         when silk cotton trees burst in dead-end dreams
hour of houses with no latches or locks
        each wall a fluttering chronology of doves
hour when the home team’s slogans spray-painted on a wall
        proclaim me a stranger newly arrived
hour of curved daggers with damascened blades
        aimed at my infidel heart

Unsung midway between aubade and nocturne

Hour that asks me to revise
         my trade routes
hour that divines
         my shortcuts and detours
hour that shakes my dusty afterlives
        from tasselled lampshades
hour that withholds
         my papers of departure

I pay this tribute to all the afternoons of my life

 


 

Switch

Sixteen years to the night the hour
             the east windows frame the same moon
             that caresses the ageing terrazzo floors
             On the Kalamkari curtains
                         the hibiscus refuses to wilt

The exile steps into the dark room
                where he wrote his first books and reaches
                for the light switch
                touches flaking paint
                
wakes the cat and catches himself
                 mid-passage in translation
                 between nestling and rattled sea hawk
                 tested by hurricanes

Should he have chalked a quick square around his feet
            waving off help?
            Voices brusque soft and ineluctably other
            crafted him a route out and back

Solo he would have bounced back to himself as drained echo
             Who would have heard him
             if he had cried out? What daimon lost                         
             between hostile languages
                           carrying news from one battlefield to another?

Contributor

Photo Credit : Priyesha Nair

Ranjit Hoskote
Ranjit Hoskote’s seven collections of poetry include Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006), Central Time (Penguin/ Viking, 2014), Jonahwhale (Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton, 2018; published by Arc in the UK as The Atlas of Lost Beliefs, 2020, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation) and, most recently, Hunchprose (Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton, 2021). His translation of a 14th-century Kashmiri woman mystic’s poetry has appeared as I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Penguin Classics, 2011). He is the editor of Dom Moraes: Selected Poems (Penguin Modern Classics, 2012). Hoskote has been a Fellow of the International Writing Program (IWP), University of Iowa; writer-in-residence at Villa Waldberta, Munich, Theater der Welt, Essen-Mülheim, and the Polish Institute, Berlin; and researcher-in-residence at BAK/ basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht. His poems have been translated into German, Hindi, Bengali, Irish, Marathi, Swedish, Spanish, and Arabic. In his other life, Hoskote is a cultural theorist and curator of the visual arts. He curated India’s first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2011); and co-curated, with Okwui Enwezor and Hyunjin Kim, the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008).

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