‘Tigerwatch at the Sunderbans in May’ and other poems

Roop Majumdar

2022

Introduction

In a parallel life I work with school textbooks, and am fascinated by how often the text is a pretext. It may appear that the students are tasked with writing commentary to a cricket match, but they are actually being assessed on prepositions (discussions on sports are full of over, above, between, into, through and every preposition imaginable). Students earnestly focus on cricket technicalities, while teachers keep the illusion going.

Roop Majumdar’s ‘Tigerwatch at the Sundarbans in May’ has this quality of inversion. The poem is not what it claims to be. The title may insist it is all about watching tigers, but the poem is actually watching the watchers. The gaze has turned, and humans are under observation. From the first verse onwards, we’re presented — along with visual imagery — the act of seeing itself (‘stare you down’, ‘eyes up’). The reader gets the eerie sense of mimicking the actors in the poem; through the binoculars of language, we zoom into these creatures who are busy with their own sightings.

Majumdar’s gentle ironies continue through the other two poems, further emphasizing the speaker’s sense of being a witness to his own life. This estrangement creates an interesting distance, almost as if speaker and reader are standing together on one side, watching the poems make their turns.

— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Tigerwatch at the Sunderbans in May

Only two-headed honey collectors enter these swamps,
masks of Dakkhin Rai—Lord of the South—stare you down
when they turn their backs.
Eyes up in the trees,
Bonbibi in their hearts.

We skirt the islands, busy ourselves with the not-exultant,
the blissless confluences, the dolphin spotting spot.
Late afternoon shallows
brim with mudskippers.
Some of us doze off lunch, some return to the gunwales;
the sputter of motor we cannot shake off.

What sanctum there is against the sun,
where the foliage thins out, laying bare
outcrops of trails—the comings and goings
within these marshes—
is truly mapped from above.

Sundari-tree pixellations at eye level:
not even water at the margins can lure.
Only chital
look up as we pass,
one leg primed to stamp.
The lady from Pune has had enough:
Sher! Sher!, she screams in Hindi. All turn
to starboard: a shrub
bristles. Ignition
killed, cameras
trained, we bob
about, but nothing more.

I had spotted the foraging monkey
she hopes does not re-emerge.

The guide leans in, smirking,
Better she goes to Bandhavgarh
or Ranthambore
,
in English for my friends.
They have pugmark-wallah stamps
for showing ‘fresh marks’.
Around a bend, a dead tree
holds up the commensal birds
that didn’t leave. For a moment
the sun doesn’t scorch at the prow—
a shrill rattle: the ruddy kingfisher
and we are no longer vigilant.

 


 

Alipore Zoo Reprised

I’m back in the car
learning how to drive at the age of eight.
.        Could never tell a turn at the steering wheel

would come at a price until his left hand
unclasped my right and came to rest on my chikna thigh,
.        salami-slicing its way groin-wards.

Even back then I knew not to shout
at a whisper, not to repay an after-school treat—
.         a breezy detour around the zoo

—with rejection. The lie
we cooked up for my mother, that it was traffic,
.         was one I’d lived too long to confess.

I learned to be awake at the wheel,
a better driver now
.         for all those afternoons.

Give me an Ambassador,
and I’ll tell you a man’s hand lotion down to
.         its rose and almond.

 


 

Oriole

I

Prussian blue winter.
Too late for my grandfather
to go back to bed.
Cawing
came to us
from the palms
on the unhoused
plot. Picking
the crows
out of the birdsong
he addressed the insoluble
chorus and parsed it
in Bengali;
my interest
turned parabola
with sleep in the
papercut air.

 

II

I ceded land.
The birds
went back to
his Chattogram.
From a hill
you could see
the mouth
of Karnaphuli
planted on
the coastline.
Thin strips
of bare earth
rib water into
ponds, bandage
the paddy fields he
had to give up.

 

III

A clang orbits
centripetally
to rest: plates
and pans put back
(china when
guests are over).
Vegetables on a cart
covered with gunny
sacks, a grocer
gone for bhaat ghum—
rice sleep.
The fan burrs,
a jostle of birds
on the kamini tree.
An oriole
lords it over
the stalled hour,
a বউ কথা কও—
its name its call.

Acknowledgements

Image Credits: Victor Vasarely, Tigres, 1977. Perhaps more than any other artist, the Hungarian-French artists Victor Vasarely (1906–1997) is responsible for taking optical art out of the realm of cheap visual tricks. God indulges in optical art every so often: the peacock, the birds of paradise, the giraffe, the zebra and of course, the tyger, tyger, burning bright.

Contributor

Roop Majumdar

Roop was born in Kolkata, India. His work has been published in The Poetry Review, The Manchester Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Transect Magazine.

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