TAMILI

தமிழி

In The Pouring Rain – Kerry Shawn Keys

 

In The Pouring Rain

These poems are loosely based on an ancient Tamil poetic tradition embodied in several works known as the Anthologies—Kuruntokai, Narrinai, Akananuru, Ainkurunuru, Kalittokai—which, in turn, were modified later on by other Tamil poets. They are variations on akam poems, that is inner or love poems, that appeared in Tamilnad nearly 2000 years ago. The classical Tamil poems are a cross of Dravidian and Sanskrit culture and poetics, though the former runs the inside track. The work presented here, in turn, takes this earlier zebrule as if fishing it from the ark of the Great Flood, puts Krishna in the saddle, and overlaps this with the current era. This sequence is, in fact, just one layer in a longer manuscript, A Gathering of Smoke: Gopiah’s South-Indian Prose-Poem Journals, which is a ceremonial evocation of South India.

Roaming through ancient Tamilnad were all sorts of bards and performers—poets, dancers, drummers, lute players, all ritually related, and mostly poor. Something like today, except in the India of those times the caste system was already putting its wreathes in the bloodstreams and the bowls of oil. And the persons who wrote it all down in the anthologies were of a higher caste. They are known to us today as the poets, or the Pulavans. They hung out together at the courts of the kings, and they took the oral traditions and gave them a new kind of permanence, giving them a degree of sophistication unsurpassed to this day. Certain literary conventions and themes began to congeal. There was a remarkable agreement on symbols and design that lasted for over four hundred years.

The poems are full of suggestion, puns, the beauty and curves of indirection. They are poems of passion and discreet love, poems of experience and omens in landscapes where each bird, animal, fruit, drum, tree, or god has an implicit symbolic content. Sexual and romantic parlance relies on the insinuation of place and mood, the season, the time of day. All of this is enacted in a drama, different voices—the hero, the heroine, friends, etc., carrying on monologues arranged in narrative sequence. There are variations on separation and union: the first meeting of the lovers, early courtship and trysts, hints of trouble and despair, possible elopement, marriage, the hero leaving for training or wealth or war, his dalliance with other women while his wife grieves, and possible reconciliation.

And so on and so on in much detail, for these poems are the stuff of one of the richest and oldest of all poetic traditions. Let it be said, that I chose my own way of dealing with this elaborate and exotic landscape, that the poems here, though somewhat faithful in theme and form to the Tamil conventions, in no way follow the meter or syntax of that literature. Rather, they are my own miscreate and modern interpretations, in part biographical, of things that happened to me long ago when I lived in the Deccan looking for the pearls of Argaru, trying to make some sense of the beautiful languages, strange customs, and the bards and women that I found there. And these poems are dedicated to one lady expressly, Balakistama. And though she speaks Telugu, not Tamil, I knew her as beautiful as the clove-scented women of Tamilnad wearing these leaves taken from a tree that the wind turned into a drum.

Kerry Shawn Keys (Gopiah)

*******************

 

and so the Thirukkovayar was rewritten
all because Gopiah met Nair D’Cruz and Balakistama
(Little Krishna Gopi), and these lines were spoken
throughout the passage of their trysts.

1.
after first meeting of lovers

What she said

He came across the bund
like a bull
pulling the night
behind him
all blue
and his eyes seemed blue.

And I turned away
not knowing what to do.
My room is barren.
At the window
the moon glistens
on my shoulders:
a butterfly
of white jasmine
abandoned
in the shade of bamboo

 

2.
after a second meeting with the reluctant
help of her confidante, the languishment
of the ladylove for a further meeting

What she said

It seems as though the kurinchi tree
has bloomed and bloomed again
since he came last.

His horse was beautiful in the pouring rain.
I was only a young maiden
then,
but last night
on the maidan
a thousand parrots
screeched his name
and I bear the cross
of his conquest
in shame

 

3.
another meeting – without
confidante(friend of ladylove)

What he said

She was out guarding the millet,
in the green night, the evening star.
There are many thieves afterdark.
It was cold.
Her girlfriend had gone
to fetch firewood.
I told her,
I said, love,
the monkeys on the hill
say good-night to each other
clinging and laughing in the jackfruit,

and beyond that hill
there’s a waterfall
where a jazh makes sweet music

in the brief days of winter
in brumefog
in a cave
sheltered from the cold rain

 

4.
hero seeks assistance of ladylove’s
confidante in furthering his love

What he said

Gandhi slept with a young woman
without touching her.

The cross-legged sittars
know the inmost
secrets of desire.

We embraced
like the greenbriar
and laurel.

And she painted
a poem
on my cock
as if it were a fox
on the run.

And this isn’t all we’ve done.

Tell her to come
to the well tonight.
Tell her that if she doesn’t
I’ll ride the palmyra.
And the whole town
will know of my plight

 

5.
hero turns up casually….confidante’s
suspicion that hero is more than wooing

What her girlfriend said

In Konkani
they speak of the Old Conquests
and the New.

When he showed up
with his cross-staff
his storm-blue body
and that smile
like the anchored shape
of desire,
I knew this was
no pen-pal.

I told him,
she is no lateen sail
to curve, at your bidding,
around your yard.
But he just looked at me,
and told me,
that though he was a poor sailor now,
his father was a chieftain,
that he was known as Shyam
in the high passes,
that he owned forests of tuskers
and cows with udders
the size of the moon

 

6.
confidante’s detection of love-affair
and querying of her mistress

What her girlfriend said

Half-wasted,
you look like a yogini.
Are you trying
for pabhassara, that foolish
purity of light. You,
who were once like a laurel,
most lovely of all, evergreen
flower of light.
Now you languish pale
like the bloodroot
folded up at night.

They’ve consulted a soothsayer
in Panjim,
but Andal tells me
that the conch
in your bedroom
smells like Krishna’s
honeyed lips

 

7.
hero offering to do the bidding
of the maid and her attendant, and
the confidante’s clear awareness
of the love affair

What he said to her girlfriend

Almost womanish
like an utkanthita
left alone in the fields
at night,
I faced north
and fasted nearly to death
for a whole day.

Monkeys were chattering in the trees.
Elephants, in heat, raged through the bamboo.
I will do anything for her.
My heart is like the Shepherd’s clock.
And the jasmine of her brow
the rising
and the setting sun

 

8.
confidante’s attempts to depict scenes
of terror and danger that await the hero,
with a view to fish out the truth of her
mistress’s love for him

What her girlfriend said to her

Even though he does love you
don’t you know

that when the flame of the forest,
the kurinchi blooms,
that he must go to challenge
the Samorin king

and pass through thick jungles
where even the turtles
part the tall grass like elephants,

and savage bowman
set arrows to the string
like sharp-eyed hawks
on wing.

Don’t you know?

 

9.
after confidante’s attempts to gauge
depth of love between the couples

What she said to her girlfriend

And how would you know
the true nature of love?

At the place
where the three rivers meet
when I first met him
I trembled like a leaf
on the white waters,
my heart like those rapids.

And when he came again
strolling through the cardamom forests
of Perry like the Pole Star himself,

I stood leaning
into him
almost on fire,
and my breath
in him
was like sandlewood smoke
climbing to heaven

10.
when hero finds that confidante and
mistress do not respond to his love,
he threatens

What he said

As water slips
off the lovely lotus
and returns to the crocodile
infested waters

and as the beautiful rose
in the garden, unpicked,
falls into the quick hands of thieves,

so I will slip off
to fast women and dark nights
the rest of my days.

Take your broomstick horse
and shove it!

 

11.
confidante, won over, pleading to her
mistress for the young warrior

What her girlfriend said

The bees are drunk with honey.
The rice-flour is mixed
with the jelly.
The rhododendron blossoms
are lying on their leaves.
The moon is asleep
in its burrow of clouds
like a squirrel asleep
in its nest of feathers and leaves.

Go to him.
Cross over the chasm.
Even the blood of a Portuguese,
despite the wivestales,
isn’t poison.
It’s more like a baptism
crossfired with passion

 

12.
hero offers leaves and flowers; confidante
first declines and then accepts for her mistress

What her girlfriend said

These he found under the cross
at Casaranello.
These he stole
from the crossbows
at the battle of Arsuf.
And these flowers he took
from a graveyard in Calcutta
where the black she-goddess reigns.

At first I declined,
but he was so strong of mind,
poet, lunatic and lover,
blue-blooded and eloquent,
a bonita bhanita, lovely lines,
and he’s so handsome, with bright-red lips,
and shakes a spear like Velan.

Surely, though you have no dowry,
we can find a way.
He mentioned a lay-away plan?

 

13.
day tryst

What she said

When my man came
like a peacock
from the mountains,
like a waterfall rainbowed
with color,
into the paddy fields
behind the mosque,

I was startled by his boldness
and cried, U ma!

But it was Spring.
There was no one around.
And my thighs were quivering
like young saplings

 

14.
night tryst

What he said

She wrote, “please find me a solution,
Gopiah darling, after this terrible
mistake of meeting. I would want
to be with you always.”

Half-moon that night,
my pen empty, the stars just right.

So when she opened her window
I climbed in.
It was early Spring. The larva
of blue butterflies
were feeding on the dogwood,
sachets of honeydew.
The heptica in the forest were pale blue.

But her body after twilight
settled over me
like whitest snow falling
on a lake, ice-dark-blue

 

15.
hero stays away at confidante’s advice
because of a scandal in village

What her girlfriend said

Like a deer
set upon by wild dogs.
Like a seabird
plucked by savage icchantikas,
her honor is torn
by the gossips of this town.

Stay away awhile.
Things will die down.

Though she wanders mad
and talks to stones and trees,
we’ll set her sail
square in time.

When the wind’s right
and the weathercock
points out the periplus,
I’ll send you a line.

And we’ll skim over the highseas!

 

16.
elopement

What an onlooker said

Her brass anklets caught in the thorns.
The wild omai trees like scarecrows.
Horrible buzzards
circling the poisoned wells,

they fled, crag over crag,
into the wastelands.

He, as green as an unripe
neem fruit. Though,
surefooted and brave.

And she, steel-blue
from his shadow,
covered with weapons of war.

On course with the sun,
and leaping like bass
at dawn, the two of them
into the cloud-wet horizon

 

17.
confidante urging hero to expedite
consummation of marriage

What her girlfriend said

You said that of all the Pierian maidens
this one was without peer.
Hah!
And now that you’ve enjoyed her.

But let me tell you-
you mistake the flower for the luscious fruit.
She knows benedictions
you’ve never heard the likes of
for charming a flute.

If you can’t take her now
don’t take up her time.

Have a heart! Hari.
Don’t make her take her lovely dress off
like a Lombadhi, only for Yama at death.
The astronomers say that this year
the tapioca will yield the finest yams.
And that he that doesn’t marry
will cross and be crossed over
on the lam

 

18.
separation of hero to seek a fortune;
languishment of his lover; return for
consummation of marriage

What she said

Rathod, Pamhar, and Chouchan
were the progenitors of mighty clans.

And here he stands
bent at the waist,
at the neck, at the knee,
one leg crossed over the other,
a graceful dandy.

They are preparing the marriage ghee.
But all I can think of
is the other night when he returned
secretly to me from far away,
shedding everything but his dark blue skin
on our bed-our hands made fierce love.

And the gifts that he brought me.
How can I express it? His moon-shaped face
colored like a forest dove,
his hair smelling like flowers from Goa.

And that other,
that chrism of intoxication

 

19.
bride’s mother’s visit to the married
couple at the bridegroom’s house, and later
the glowing report of the happy conjugal life

What she said

We went from Secunderabad
out past Massab Tank to their house.

She’s quite happy there.
There’s the flowering smell
of jackfruit everywhere.
Late at evening the yal makes lovely music
like an aeolian harp in the southwind.

There are bushes of blue sapphires
in the garden. Jasmine.
All the appropriate pujas were performed.

At night the virgins dance
circle dances in the village green.

And the lingam on the altar
is covered with a coconut-oil sheen

20.
hero after marriage goes off
for higher studies

What her girlfriend said

Big stuff
off on the Goa coast
leaving your mistress in tears.
How many years?

A seafaring student-
taught how to shinny
up a cross, not a shipmast, I bet.
Even a smelly goat in a fortnight
could learn that.

They tell me the dark sea mussels
lay pried open all over the sand.
That you wash behind your ears
with an ointment of lilac.

Don’t you know, friend,
that the spangles
over your love’s
mound of Venus
sparkle while
“holding the coral pestle in her hand,
she pounds the pearly grain, with beautiful eyes,
she pounds the pearly grain, with beautiful eyes.”

 

21.
departure of princely lover for military duty

What was said

He has gone off
to join Lingama Nayaka
at Devarakonda.

War is everywhere.

The mangroves stink
with dead elephants,
grizzled monkeys
howling taps
from their great trunks.
Crossbones fly over
the square.
It’s bitter,
frost-bitten roots
of the ravaged almond-tree fruit
covered with kelp and salt,

the women of this village
stammering for Hari,
their throats silted up with grief

 

22.
hero planning to go out with army
but drops the idea

What her girlfriend said

If you leave her now,
Shyam, O Shoreless One,
what good will it do you?
Let them fight it out themselves.

Already with only the thought
of your going, the atumpu creeps
over her with nightmares
of long absence-

hairs all white with first frost,
a half moon austere in the West
half her life spent at best-
blue asters, a few stars,
a few love poems sent
back from the front-
bones in the yellow grass

 

23.
hero finally goes out on a royal
mission, but delays in returning

What she said

Once, I thought he would be gone
only a year.
So I put on my brightest bangles
and strung flowers and pearls
in my hair.

At dusk, the day he was to come,
I let my hair down
and around until like a sari
it touched the ground,

and my breasts
under this silk cocoon
fluttered in the coolness
of the night like dark-spun butterflies
about to light in a dream,

two veiled wells of cream,
ebon, ruffled
by the warm springs
of the moon-

so many words, so many words,
now this crow in winter

 

24.
hero returns with gifts and spoils of war

What she said

He came back with a purple heart
tattooed to his forehead
by the minister’s seamstress in residence-
special services rendered in distress,

and he had the head of a camel
caught by a Bedouin well,
pickled in oil in a jug.

We laid out the red rug.
We sang songs all night.
Our shouts burnt the brisk air,
just like me, this body on fire

 

25.
hero seeks and finds household fortune

What she said

First he gave me

a yac-hair fan from the King.
And then
a diamond from Golconda.

But “the third gift makes the cadence of the key.”
Three times he came to me,
as in that poem of Avvai-like
fire gushing out of the fire churn-staff when churned,
he seethes with fire when the occasion demands it

 

26.
exodos: hero seldom home, associating
with courtesans

What her girlfriend said

And he sent a message, tell my wife
you have seen me, naked, shivering
like a monkey, my legs covered
with red ants.

But cows give milk
to thirsty monkeys
stroking their udders,
and the panams dance
naked in the streets,
and who wouldn’t shiver
in delight covered
with the red marutum
blossoms at night.

Tell him
that he’ll grow old,
that city sheep soon fleece the fold,
the plumpest of mangoes turn yellow
in the dust of the road.

And say to him
that graceful as a gazelle,
clear and eternal
as the still moon
in a well,
his wife bares her breasts for him:
a southwind
of honey and jasmine.

 

***************

 

Glossary

Andal – daughter of Periyalvar, an Alvar. Vaishnavite sage and poet

Atumpu – a creeping vine

Avvai – Sangam woman poet

Bhanita – signature line

Icchantikas – tribes with little modern technology

Jazh(yazh) – lute

Konkani – a language spoken in Goa

Kurinchi – a tree that blooms every twelve years

Lingama Nayaka – warlike ruler of Devarakonda; a poet, Srinadha, went to visit him and retrieved the sword of Konavidu. Srinadha was a prince of poets

Lombadhi – gypsy tribe near Devarakonda

Marutum – maruthum; golden shoots with red flowers; cotton plants that grow near rivers and the sea

Neem – a common tree in the Deccan

Pabhassara – highest state in yoga; attainment of unstainable pure light

Palmyra – a broom-horse made from this plant

Panams – minstrel(bard); consorts with the bohemians in seedy areas

Panjim – city in Goa

Puja – worship

Rathod, Pamhar- three sons of Mola and Radha that married three Brahman sisters and Chouchan who had been unmarried and abandoned in the jungle

Samorin King – a Nayar; challenged every twelve years

Sittars – poets, sages, recluses, and herbalists associated with Shiva and yoga practitioners. Disliked women because they were ascetics

Utkanthita – she who is disappointed when her lover does not appear at the place of assignation(type of parakiya)

Velan – velan; vel; Murugan, Red God of the hills. Also, Seyon. Patron of pre-nuptial love. Called Velan because he carried a spear(vel)

Yal – harp of the ancient Tamils

Yama – restraints, art of self-control; one of the 8 angas; also ruler and judge of the dead

Yogini – female practitioners of yoga

 

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unnatham

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