Tuesday, Jun 06, 2023

A Poem For Baghdad

The fact that India's regional tongues have a distinct worldview and a cosmopolitan character has been forgotten. Here's some proof. A poem written in Kannada, 18 years ago, when operation Desert Storm, was launched against Iraq

A Poem For Baghdad
A Poem For Baghdad

The long process of withdrawal from Iraq has just begun for the American troops. It is nearly six years, since they invaded the desert nation in 2003. According to reports, the American troops have moved from all urban areas in the oil-rich country, to bases in the fringes of the cities. They are moving out in stages. While what's happening now is only the first step, a partial withdrawal, a total move out is expected to happen by the end of 2011.

With all the cynicism that clouds our mind, with no permanent guarantees that such military interventions will not take place in the future, I am not sure if this withdrawal needs to be commemorated. But for whatever it is worth, to nourish the springs of hope, I present here a poem written in Kannada, 18 years ago (February 1991), when the Mother of All Battles, operation Desert Storm, was launched against Iraq. The poem is in the form of a prayer and is written by H S Shivaprakash, a remarkably intense writer in my language and certainly the finest among those alive.

The poem traces Bangalore's link with Baghdad through the Sufi channels and offers a biting sarcasm of America's imperial ambitions. It combines a surge of drama with the meandering quality of a powerful chant. The impact that its refrain 'Baba, duva madi' (Baba, bless us) creates in Kannada is too enormous to be captured in translation. Ever since this poem was written it has been on my tongue, like a powerful prayer would get internalised. It was also the novelty of praying to an unknown pantheon of gods that had excited me. Before writing this poem and including it in his fourth anthology, titled Suryajala, Shivaprakash had made known his deep engagement with pan-Indian mystical traditions in his three earlier collections - Milarepa, Male Bidda Neladalli and Anukshana Charite.

For me, this poem also contains a reassurance and a certain politics. Not often do we think that a local and a relatively marginal language like Kannada can have such a mainstream exchange with the world. What unfortunately makes news about these languages and cultures is the shrill chauvinistic talk. On the contrary, this poem liberates you from such narrow alleys. It fills itself with nuggets from across the world and then harnesses it to its unique needs. It is Kannada's window on the world. In the last couple of decades, when the role of local languages across India have somewhat been circumscribed to handle domestic chores, the foregrounding of this local poetic experience on an issue that routinely hits the headlines of newspapers in English and other powerful European languages is a significant exercise. The fact that India's regional tongues have a distinct worldview and a cosmopolitan character has been forgotten. Here's some proof. Translations are a permanent draft that need constant improvement, so improve this as you read on:



At this hour -

When 4 February 1991 dies
And 5 February is yet to rise -

When umpteen pirate swords
Lie in wait for a chicken-thief
In the most civilised abattoir of West Asia

When Gorbachev, the ecstatic Nobel laureate
Snores on his double-bed

Benignly bestow upon us:

The valorous love of a Vietnam mother 
Who breast-fed
Clutching the child in one arm
Holding a gun in the other
Even as bombers rushed in the sky;


The firm resolve of Archimedes 
Who stood unmoved
In the frames of geometry
Even as the Parsee soldier's sword
Passed through his flank;


Michelangelo's grave meditation of colours
That created immortal images
Of divine creation on the Chapel vault
Even as a sword hung over his head;


The eternal quiet of stars
That sparkle through such searing heat;


The mysterious silence of mother earth
Who goes round and round
Without a murmur
Even amidst the explosions;

Benignly bestow upon us
You, who have entered and stayed
In the navel of every atom of each part of our body.

You, who unravel even at star-distances
The pause and the progress

O eternity
Power primordial

But still...


In the magic light of the full moon
As the ships sailed back and forth 
On the ocean's chest in peaceful rest
Did you know in the calm waters hid a volcano?

Did you know
An avatar of bombers
That could blow up the earth's womb
Lay hidden
In the heart of Picasso's peace dove? 

Did you know
The grin of diplomacy 
Preparations for war?

Did you know
In the seeds of freedom
Were the trees of surrender?

Behind the body of light
Were armies of stygian darkness?

It was then an invisible blindness
It is now a visible blindness
Tell O light
Where lies the third eye
Inbetween these two blindness.

Tell O yuga
Where was the day
Inbetween two nights.


I now kneel to pray
As a ripe old man
Besides the tomb of Sheik Ashadulla Kadriwali
The disciple of the unknown saint of Bangalore
Akbar Shah Wali, who's related to
Abdul Khadri Gilani
The disciple of Baghdad's illustrious saint
Sheik Shahabuddin Suhravadi:

Baba, bless us
I know
The planes flying above
Are basically
Eternal birds of the celestial world
What a pity they have become airplanes in America.

Baba, bless us
So that we sleep,
As you sleep peacefully
In the midst of a quaking city
Determined not to move
Even if the earth were to crack open.

Baba, bless us
When this world of clamour and collision
Turns a graveyard
Beneath an inverted sky-roof
That we sleep quietly in the grave
And may resurrect and walk
As you have already walked.

Baba, bless us
That we may follow
Wherever you lead us.

The desert is filled
With your rose footprints
From the feet dipped
In the puddles of blood
Intersecting your path.
Bless that the world may discern
Your rose-blood marks and moves ahead.

Baba, bless us
In the deserts of Bangalore.


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