The old city
Here are the steps leading down to the lake
choked with water hyacinths crowding
out the lilies, and algae thick as serum.
There is the rusted tube-well that once
drank deep from the earth’s waters,
its handle cranked like a question mark.
A donkey twitches its ears on the dust path
and vendors hawk their wares—hair bands,
hairpins, scarves, bangles, and nail polish.
We have been here before, in this old town
called the city of gold, of muslin spun so fine
that a six-yard sari could pass through a ring.
We have walked among the arched doorways,
the crumbling colonial walls, the moss, mud,
and lichen, the peanuts, popcorn, and candy-floss.
Somewhere nearby, a path leads to the shrine
of some local saint. People pray for answers,
for miracles. They leave garlands of flowers.
We have asked about the eternal pantomime,
about our part among these actors and props.
But no answer came, and we expected none.
Weekends, growing up, I’d watch my father
as he sat on a low stool in the veranda
surrounded by half a dozen pairs of shoes,
their laces taken out, each meekly awaiting
its turn. Facing him, assembled on a spread
of old newspapers: the small round tins
of Kiwi shoe polish (its delicious smell),
a couple of stiff-bristled horsehair brushes,
an old towel, and a couple of cloth rags,
one damp, one dry. One by one, he’d hook
each shoe gently in his left hand, and work
his right hand from toe to heel, first along
one side, then turn it around for the other.
Putting one down to dry, he’d pick up
the next, then clean, brush, and buff until
they shone like new. How loving each stroke.
When my thankless teens intervened,
as they will, I withdrew from him who
continued to shine his shoes, and go to work,
and put one foot in front of the other.
That summer of my eighteenth year, as I
hungered for new adventures elsewhere,
I found him hunched in the half dark hall
polishing a pair of leather sandals—mine.
Now that he is ten years gone, I recall how
quiet was his love, how mute his farewell.
(Reprinted from 'Not Elegy, but Eros' with permission. The collection was published on the occasion of DLF 2017 by Bengal Lights Books)