Life is like the tattered coat of a beggar
To which, every day, a new rag of pain is added.
— Faiz Ahmed Faiz, A Few Days More
A mad yellow mongrel
in scabrous heat:
Calcutta’s sun in May,
stalking with its tongue
lolling, red and blazing.
With the paws
of an afternoon breeze,
it rakes its nails
through the gaps in the coat
covering his back.
He cuts a majestic figure
with his tattered robes of office,
his scepter of a discarded umbrella
with broken skeletal ribs
and a patchwork canopy of holes
which lets the sun’s arrows through.
His train comprises
the alley’s floating residents,
his wake leaving a slipstream
of tomcat caterwauls,
barks and howls,
and stones pelted by local urchins.
This Calcutta slum is his dominion.
His realm lies between
the municipal garbage vats,
the fishermen’s slimy bheris,
and the miasma from the slurry
of a canal clogged with debris.
His throne is a derelict easy chair;
rocking on its delirium tremens,
he passes his December evenings
shivering and muttering to himself,
nitpicking his scruffy beard . . .
while watching the smog ambush
Chowringhee’s highrises, towers, spires
and the digital billboards arrayed
on a reflected Howrah Bridge,
blazing with free-market Marxism
and the raw scabs in the west.
August mornings, and the streets
are awash with water spilling
out of drains choked with garbage.
His shack sieves thundershowers,
those munificent blessings
of wounded monsoon clouds.
He sits amidst the puddles,
ganja smoke from a Mother India bidi
gauzing the creases of his face
with a bandage of psychedelia.
The head of his shanty
is no less a sieve, with alms
of the monsoon tinkling
down a honeycomb
of bugs and spiders.
Having put his house
in (dis)order, he lives comfortably
with the tenants he has forgotten:
cocky roaches, greedy geckos,
mice and lice, fleas and flies,
hogs or dogs, or ravenous ravens —
these are the subjects of his kingdom,
his ecosystemic biosphere
of lost lives thriving in peaceful coexistence.
Here is the epistemology of junk,
which de-constructs his only room
into an endless amazement park
of corners, cubby-holes, nooks, and crannies.
He subsists on moonshine,
on the arrack trickling
from the neighborhood hooch joint,
the crumbs from communism’s high table,
and the bitter almonds of memories.
Labor travails claimed his wife
and those of another kind
cost him his job —
once upon a long time ago —
at a jute mill on the Hooghly.
What lost dreams and thoughts
are inside his brain,
stuffed into a coarse gunny bag —
his crowning glory
of matted and begrimed hair.
Head-dress of a lost vocation.
He comes, nimbused, with
an afterglow of twilight;
haloed by a cloud of mosquitoes
orbiting around his head:
for a postmodern ascetic
in a city crazed by suffering.