New | Poetry | Haiku | Joe Sebastian

bird poo on head

the Buddha still

counting his days
on two and a half octaves
of the bansuri

on the distant notes 
of a bamboo flute...
descends dusk

on a clothesline...
a hen pigeon
missing her surname

on a potters wheel
yet to take final shape
child bride

taro leaf...
a  mountain waltzes
in a droplet

belated wishes...
taking time to write
the right words

dawn light
how it fills nests 
of night birds

*Image of Meditating Budhha via Wikimedia Commons


TSC Book Reviews | Aaine Hairaan Hain | Shahid Parvez Sayed | by Md Yusuf


I was asked to review this collection of Urdu poems by my dear friend and an editor of The Sunflowercollective, Abhimanyu. To be honest, at first, I was a bit skeptical due to lack of any experience in such an endeavor, agreeing only for the love of Urdu and more so when I came to learn that the author, just like me, has also done LL.B. (I am a lawyer by profession and he has chosen engineering to make a living).   


Before I proceed further, there are certain pertinent issues with regard to the business of a ‘book review’ that I deem appropriate to mention. First, it has to be mentioned that Book reviews are a recent and modern phenomenon. In medieval times, readers - if they were moved enough and were capable of, used to write new books in rebuttal. Nevertheless, I have never heard of any rebuttal vis-à-vis a collection of poetry.


Second, while submitting oneself to a review, the poet risks inspection and criticism with regard to the style, and the contents of the poems. It would not be out of place to mention that the poet also risks his reputation, which may be formed only on the basis of the review and not his poems. To me, a reviewer is an unnecessary hindrance between the poet and the readers. Nonetheless, I will proceed with the task, as requested, at the risk of being proved true to what Mr. Shahid says in the collection:


                                             Sukhan ka dawa hai aksar, unhi ko ‘Shahid’

                                              Jo jaantey hi nahin hain, ki Sukhan kya hai ! 



The collection - consisting of Ghazals and Nazms, is titled as ‘Aaine Hairan Hain’. Rumi has said that the heart is like a mirror, and it stops reflecting the divine light when the dirt and dust of worldly desires and attachment covers its surface. The title of the book suggests a feeling of awe or wonder, which perhaps is the motivating factor behind Mr. Shahid’s words. The book starts with a brief introduction about the author, which has been quite interestingly rendered in a diary form (titled as Flashback). The diary mentions important occurrences/events in the life of the author which made him into the person that he is; the introduction endears the reader to the author and helps him learn his background .


The collection turns out to be an expression of struggle, faith, courage, and love – lost, and gained. The observations are profound and the expression delicate, maintaining the rhythm and musicality of Urdu. The aesthetics - misty, mild and pleasing.    


The Nazms (Fee Verse) are varied. Some of them recount personal religious experiences. The Nazm titled as ‘Mandir’ is witty and observant.  


Is mandir ke baare main mashhoor hai

Ke yahan jo pehli martaba

Darshan ke liye aata hai

Uski pehli dua zaroor qubool hoti hai

Ik qadeemi madir ki seediyan

Chadhte waqt usne ye khabar di

Main is ittefaq pe hairan tha

Aur soch hi raha tha ke kya maangoon?

Ki us ne thehar kar

Meri nigahon main dekha aur ilteja ki

Please mujhe mat maangna !


The same may be said about the couplets titled as ‘Swami Chidanand Ji ko Samarpit’. I especially liked the classicism and emotion contained in the verses of this poem. There is something in this poem, that establishes Mr. Shahid as essentially a man of classical taste. Though he may flirt with modernity, at his heart there lies something that is beyond the realm of the conscious mind, something that is evocative of times past and other-worldly.

Wo dekhta hai to manzar sanwarne lagte hain

Wo bolta hai to lehja dua sa lagta hai


Har ik phool use dekhey ba-wazoo hokar

Wo aadmi hai magar devta sa lagta hai


To bring about a contrast, a few Nazms remind one of a very ‘Gulzarish’ approach to life and poetry, wherein objects and concerns of daily life have been used as metaphors. A case in point would be the Nazm titled as ‘Label’ and then ‘Be-ghar’.


Suno aaj subah se wo dibba nahin mila raha

Jis par tumne kahin jaatey waqt

Zindagi ka label lagaaya tha


Apart from this, there are several Nazms that gather the attention of the reader instantly for their wistful reminiscences: some of these are ‘Faasley’, ‘Din Raat Zindagi’, ‘Eid ka Chaand’ and ‘Yaad tumhey kaun aata hai’. The importance of a woman in the life of a man is reflected in the Nazm titled as ‘Do-Aurtein’ where Mr. Shahid writes that there are only two important women in the life of a man: the first one is the mother, and the other one - the faithful companion in the journey of life. While the one titled as ‘Tanha’ has a beautiful rhythm, ‘Rotiya’n’ is another gem. The distress, injustices and hunger of the world are more than apparent in ‘Surab’ and a sense of loss in ‘Aitraaf-e-Shikast’ and ‘Waqt’.   


The collection presents an interesting tapestry of modernity and classicism, where one will not just come across the struggles of worldly life; but simultaneously, also discover the Elusive: hope, fear, death and love. Though a man of struggle and action, Mr. Shahid still recognizes predestination and says,


        Wahin pe kheench ke le jaaegi meri qismat

         Mere naseeb ke daane jahan-jahan hongey


Mr. Shahid is not happy with the ‘new culture, which he thinks has come to devalue humanity and says,

Nayi Tehzeeb ka pairahan

Saari insaaniyat kha gaya


Kisi ne shokhi se angdaai li

Deher main inquilab aa gaya


Aarzoo main teri, humnasheen

Main kahan se kahan aa gaya


He has a solution in faith when he says,


Chha rahi hain deher par taareeqiya’n

Mashal-e-Imaa’n jaalana chahiye


Raaz-e-Ishq paaney ke liye,

Bahare-Gham main doob jaana chahiye


Another couplet reminds of the Quranic verse ‘Wad-Duha, Wal-laili-iza-Saja’ (Quran 93:1, ‘By the morning brightness! By the night, when it is covered with darkness!’)


Hai shaam main pinha teri zulfon ki syahi

Muzmir terey aariz ka ujaala hai seher main


There are hints of Hafiz, Rumi and many other Sufi poets, the pain of unrequited love, and the importance of a form, Mr. Shahid says,


Jo mubtila-e-gesu pecha’n ho na saka

Wo apni zindagi main pareshan ho na saka


Tum ne nazar ka phe’nka tha, dil ki taraf jo teer

Wo teer, teer hi raha, armaa’n ho na saka


Insaa’n hona chahiye, ae aadmi tujhko

Tu kaisa aadmi hai, ke insaa’n ho na saka


The much celebrated metaphors of wine and the tavern have been used liberally in the collection, which yet again point towards the classicist inspirations of Mr. Shahid in his Ghazals. The Persian poet Hafiz says, “Manam ke gosha-e-maikhaana, khaanqah man-ast /Dua-e-Peer-e-Mughaan, wird subh-gaah man-ast”. Mr. Shahid, writes, 


Jo pee kar hosh main aa jaayein, wo may-kash nahin may-kash

Wo may-kash hain jo pi kar hosh main aaya nahin kartey”


Ja raha tha su -e- Haram

Raah main maiqada aa gaya”


Pila kar mujhe, mast aankhon se tu ne

Bharam lakh liya meri tishna-labi ka


Apart from the ones mentioned above, there are multiple ashaars in the collection that would prove fit to be sung as a Qawwali; this is what the Gnostics call as ‘Arifaana Kalaam’. I can hear the one listed below as a Qawwali being sung in a Khanqahi Darbaar. in Raag Darbari or Shahaana perhaps; set in a suitable taal. Over-all a promising debut, I must say.


Kamalat-e-tasavvur se jo waqif kaar ho jaaye

Use Deedaar-e-yaar, ik baar kya, sau baar ho jaaye


   Main is ummeed pe baitha hoon terey koochey main

    Ke gham ki dhoop, shayad saaya-e-deewaar ho jaaye..



I am reminded of a couplet by the young Pakistani poet Mr. Ali Zaryoun, Tumhe main ishq ki sargam to sunwaaon, ye batlao/ Fana ke raaz se waqif ho, samwaadi samjhtey ho?”, when Mr. Shahid says,


Wo zamaane se juda hotey hain

Jo muhabbat main fana hotey hain


Chand lamhey teri furqat mein

Zindagi bhar ka sila hote hain


The gentle and kind approach to life, and his fortitude in doing so is yet again summed up in another of his Ghazal,


Merey Khuda ne us ko bhi bhooka nahin rakha

Wo shakhsh jis ne zikr Khuda ka nahin kiya


Hum ne to charagho’n ki sada ki hai hifazat

Hum ne kabhi bhi kaam, hawa ka nahin kiya



It was indeed a treat to read this book, and get to know the experiences and expression of Mr. Shahid. However, I must mention here that Mr. Shahid has only given a glimpse of his understanding of the world, and we are waiting to get to the secret. As a poet has remarked: “Main wo maikash hoon, jo na masti main kahey raaz kabhi/Laakh Qul-Qul kahey botal se behti Sharaab!” (Qul in Arabic means ‘Say!’).


This is the first collection of his poetry, and I wish, hope and pray that Mr. Shahid chooses to write more, peppered with his inherent humility and human-centred morality, which is so lacking in much of recent poetry. We look forward to read more of Mr. Shahid. Indeed, as he himself says,


Duniya ik veeraana hai

Phir bhi chaltey jaana ha

Kuch bhi na poocho, kya kar jaaye

Deewaana phir Deewaana hai




New | Prose | Kalyani Raghunathan | Hole in the Hedge


Until I returned to Delhi after five years away in idyllic upstate New York, I hadn’t fully appreciated the luxury of having grown up in a house with a garden. I should have known better, since as a very young child I have lived in the kind of house I live in now, one flat in a block of flats amid many other blocks of flats; no garden close by that was safe for a young girl to play in unsupervised or after dusk, not even the standard colony compound with a paved badminton court and central patch of compacted earth and a few straggly bushes, and certainly not a lawn and trees one could call one’s own. But the intervening years completely spoiled me.

My parents taught in Delhi University, and had generous vacations that lined up nicely with school holidays. As a result, we spent several weeks in the summer at my grandparents’ house down south. Theirs was a mid-sized bungalow on a mid-sized plot, but unlike some south Delhi homes the house was set back from the boundary wall and surrounded on three sides by a garden. Not much grass, the fiery red Andhra soil didn’t seem to acquiesce to such frivolities, and  there certainly wasn’t room for a lawn. It can best be described as a 100-metre long winding path through fairly dense, planned undergrowth, fruit trees scattered here and there, from which coconuts, custard apples and red fleshy pomelos were collected as they fell to the ground.  My grandmother also had an entire terrace filled with pots – maybe upwards of a hundred – many of them bougainvillea and cacti, the only plants that seemed to thrive in the harsh, direct sun. I was to learn later that my father had inherited his green thumb from my grandmother, or maybe they both acquired it independently, either way they both loved gardening.

At that young age, coming from our Delhi flat, my grandmother’s garden was simultaneously delightful and dangerous, but the danger was of the sort where you secretly hoped the worst would happen, at least once. The worst, in this case, was encountering a snake. Grass snakes were common and harmless, but I was told by my aunt that a cobra had once been spotted from the back door of the central bedroom of the house, the one that led down two steps into the back garden, close to the garage. A second cobra was later found on the vine growing above the little open-air grill-surrounded room attached to the back of the kitchen, where dirty plates lay stacked in a stone sink, waiting to be washed. We hadn’t been visiting on either occasion, but the possibilities were thrilling.

After snakebite, the second worst thing that could happen to a child that stepped unaccompanied into that back garden was also worth serious consideration - she could be kidnapped by the house help who lived for some years in a room alongside the garage. Or so we were told. I don’t know if this was really true, or whether it was a complete fabrication to keep us kids inside, but my grandmother told us in all seriousness that this household help was ‘cunning’ (her word for anyone she felt had an undisclosed agenda) and posed a threat to her small grandchildren.

The strategy for dealing with danger number one was fairly straightforward. We were taught that snakes felt vibrations, not voices, and so we stomped gaily through the garden, sometimes with a stick in hand for extra protection. My own personal strategy for dealing with danger number two - which even then I didn’t quite believe, but hey, who wants to take chances – was to avoid the garage area altogether. I would navigate the garden path three-quarters of the way from the front gate of the compound round to the diagonally opposite corner, just outside the window of the room my parents occupied on these vacations, then turn around and retrace my steps. Much to my relief – and secret disappointment – I never saw a snake. Nor was I ever kidnapped.

At that point, this house had two of the most fascinating things I had encountered in my short life – the wondrous garden, and a dog. On occasion, one of the several golden Labradors my grandparents owned during my visits to the house would accompany me into the garden, but that was usually in the evenings when my grandmother was watering the plants. At other times – especially through those hot summer afternoons when all the adults were sleeping – the garden was all mine.

I have an elder brother who was always with us on these occasions, so this might seem strange, but many of the games I played in my grandparent’s home as a child were solitary affairs. He was almost four years older, and a boy, so of course we had little in common. Thinking back to that adult-filled house with an old television that only played Sun TV, placed in front of an uncomfortable sofa covered in dark brown rexine that stuck to the backs of your legs, peeling off like a band-aid as you stood up, I cannot for the life of me remember what he did with his time. Sometimes we played Monopoly, sometimes we lay draped across adjacent chairs reading the P.G. Wodehouses we had had the foresight to bring with us, but most afternoons I was on my own, exploring.

One of those summers I had been reading something – Anne of Green Gables, perhaps – and was quite taken in by the story of the protagonist befriending trees. I made four quick friends that summer – young saplings scattered at different corners of the garden - I remember there was an Emily, and also an Elizabeth (my tree friends were modelled on the children from the books I read) and two others whose names I don’t recall. I must have been lonely, because I went to see them multiple times a day. I talked to them, I told one the stories I heard from the other, and as we were leaving, I bade them farewell, even dramatically squeezing out a solitary tear for the smallest and most fragile.

Around the time I turned four-and-a-half, we finally moved from our little flat to a larger one on the campus in Delhi where my father taught. It was well-proportioned; two bedrooms, a large living room and a small kitchen in the window on which a squirrel gave birth to tiny furry babies, year after year. But best of all, it was on the ground floor and surrounded by a small garden with a lawn. There were flowerbeds and vegetable beds, and a harshingar tree that dotted the grass with its little red-stemmed white flowers in September, heralding the end of the hot weather. I was shown how to string a thread through the stems and turn the flowers into a garland, a wonderfully painstaking activity that kept me busy for whole afternoons at a stretch, much to my parents’ relief.

There were other kids on campus and the college basketball court and football field to play in, but that garden, my first, gave me many hours of pleasure. I remember stealing a bit of chalk from the box my mother kept to draw out the patterns of the kurtas she stitched, going out to the patch of earth where the sweet pea vines with their purple, pink and white blossoms shielded me from view, and writing the lyrics to The Beatles’ Obladi Oblada on the wall of the house. I invented an ingenious real-life version of PacMan to be played along the grid created by the retaining walls of a row of flowerbeds. On the few occasions the school bus dropped us off early and no one was home to receive us, my brother reluctantly agreed to play this game with me – he would chase me down these walls, if he caught up to me I ‘died’, so I had to choose my turns wisely. My parents bought us a couple of those tiny plastic crazy balls that ricocheted alarmingly off surfaces, and I spent many hours alone on the lawn, pretending I ran a Ladies’ Crazy Ball Academy where I taught young girls like me how to catch and throw. I watched wriggling earthworms after the rains and marvelled at the little mounds of earth they left in their wake; I climbed the trees and rescued a ginger kitten; on one occasion I even bullied the neighbour’s daughter into licking a slug. My father warned us of hookworms, but I hated wearing shoes, so when standing in one place, I would instead dance from foot to foot, never pausing on one long enough for the dreaded worm to find purchase.

Now, surrounded by concrete and struggling to nurse back to life my three lonely potted plants, I find my thoughts turning to those gardens of my youth. Much as her garden was for my grandmother, that first garden was for me a welcome source of comfort, of solitude and quiet reflection. In fact, the most endearing memory I have of my own self, aged maybe seven or eight, was in my Hole in the Hedge. I discovered that the hedge surrounding our garden had been planted in two parallel rows, and at one spot there was a naturally-occurring space between the tiny branches, large enough for my little white cane chair and myself. On my left was one of the lanes leading out of the college campus and onto the Delhi ridge, on my right, the house, and unless someone knew exactly where to look, I was invisible. Lying as it did on the boundary between the world outside and my home, this no-man’s land was mine to lay claim to. Predictably, the first thing I did was to write up a rulebook – called the Hole in the Hedge (HH) rules – that delineated what was allowed in the HH and what not. No adults, obviously, not that an adult could have fit in that space anyway. I would take my journal in and write stories, or sing to myself, or listen to the conversations of people passing by, unaware they were being spied on. Once in a while my father would come out and knock on the ‘door’ to the HH headquarters, asking if I was ok and if I needed anything.

We moved out of that house when I was about fourteen, to a bungalow on campus that also had a large garden with a beautiful purple-flowered vine above the front door and a ber (wood-apple) tree whose fruit our cook would turn into a refreshing summer drink. A few years later, we moved again, to the last and largest home we’d occupy before my father retired, with lovely twelve-foot-deep verandas and a tecoma tree that dropped its yellow blossoms on my mother as she lay reading in the winter afternoon sun on a mat underneath.

I never did get to say goodbye to any of these homes. In between my leaving to get my terminal degree in the US and my return five years later, both my parents retired and had to give up their on-campus housing. From far away, while wrapping up my thesis and applying for jobs, I would listen with a heavy heart to my father’s stories of their search for a place to rent. Their options once again seemed limited to little concrete boxes, with small balconies and perhaps (if lucky) a terrace. After all, which Delhi resident lives in a house with a garden these days, except the uber-rich and government servants? After several months of back and forth, one of those concrete boxes was selected, and my parents packed up their belongings and moved them into their new accommodation.

Of course, there was no way to pack up our lovely garden, and the two hundred pots of chrysanthemums whose large heads I would cradle between my hands were finally uprooted, much like our family. But the first house with a garden that I ever lived in holds a special place in my memories, and within it, my little hole in the hedge remains very dear to me. Hidden from everyone, this in-between space was my little escape – where I could imagine away the outside world, and even the egregiousness of my parents always taking my brother’s side in domestic disputes seemed to fade. I could just be me in there, Queen of my Hole in the Hedge.

God knows we could all use a space like that this year.

 *Artwork by Edward Munch, Two Women in the Woods at Ekely (Wikimedia commons)


New | Poetry | For the Dark Times | Hamraaz

Reel for Delhi in Springtime

When I tell you what it means 

to me to live in Delhi,

I won’t use trending music

or a dozen flashing photos

approved by the Ministry

of Tourism

just a few words 

to conjure images

that pair of young women 

brushing shoulders 

as they sip tea on the edge 

of the dusty maidan

or the thin, strong man

in the next lane over

who right now

is stripping off his shirt 

as he assesses a growing 

pool of stinking water

and on a good day,

this might be enough

to get you to consider 

one or two simple ideas:

we can remake this world;

we can, and we must, my friends.

Abolish the Delhi Police

-for Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita

Maybe it’s just habit,

but even all these months after

they locked down the city

and took away friends of your friends,

sometimes you still float away 

at that moment when light’s fading 

and the first bats are flying;

and when you wake with a start

it is already dark

you’re not sure where you are,

but you hear the door bang

and then you’re relieved 

to find it’s a friend 

who wants to play cards

or the newspaper man,

bringing the bill

not someone who’s come

to take you away:

we don’t need police,

they spread only fear.


You cradle the purring cat 

like your mother cradled you 

in the old photo 

you keep by your bed

you know the cat 

is not a child,

and neither are you,

but often in April,

as the ceiling fan 

gently spins you,

you remember her 

tender hands.

Questions I Don’t Need to Ask

Do you struggle against 

the deepening dark

because you read 

Marx or Ambedkar?

Or was it the bus 

driver who leered

and hissed in your ear,

or the teacher who failed you,

or the neighbors who 

forced you to say, 

‘Everything is fine’?

Or was the way 

the world treated your parents

or was it the way 

they still loved you?

Excess Demands 

(or Why Such a Shortage of Justice?)

Do not call us terrorists

for protesting bad laws,

or jail us for laughing 

at gods or Amit Shah.

Let us love those we love;

don’t tell us how to pray;

and when we do equal work,

give us equal pay.

In jail, grant us straws,

if we tremble when we drink

warm blankets when it’s cold,

and books so we can think.

Do not molest us or beat us

(in jail or in undisclosed locations

before you take us to jail.)

Do not torture us in any way:

no broken bones or bruises,

no solitary confinement;

we need space and time to sleep,

water and soap to wash.

Tell our families where we are.

Do not take us in the night

to a field or flyover,

and then shoot us before our trial.

Do not shoot us in broad daylight

and then call us terrorists.