It was finally forwarded to Queen Victoria, arriving in time to become the prize exhibit in the Great Exhibition of 1851.
—Bamber Gascoigne, The Great Mughals
Here, in this tower,
Bound by gold clamps to thin walls of gold,
I, who am pure mineral, neither mortal nor ghost,
Remain doomed to abide.
Of those who are sent here only the living escape.
I, endure the doom of rock,
Inhabited by light and never at home—
No, never, never for a minute
Since I was taken from the stomach of this earth,
Except, perhaps, through the week I dreamed unguarded,
Unpraised and unpossessed,
In the waistcoat pocket of a British lieutenant
Who thought me worthless.
Most men who held me beheld only what I showed them,
And I saw much that their pride could not begin to see,
Though monarch and vassal alike,
Minion and minister, eunuch and page,
Cupbearer, concubine, courtesan and queen,
Only rarely guessed that I was watching.
I have seen too many blindings,
Too many tremblings of oil lamps
In mirrored paternal halls usurped by the young:
The banishment of music,
And the nervous weaving of recalcitrant cotton,
Where fountains had leaped and the peacock once danced;
Too many orgies, too much opium, and too much penitence,
Too many depraved flailings in the courtyards of mosques,
And self-assured mastectomies of prurient goddesses,
By incensed, believing hands,
To be moved or repulsed, intrigued or deceived.
These things I have seen, and seen myself too often now,
In the sculpted faces of mute attendants,
While ailing emperors fondled me in slumber,
Then woke before death,
Envious of my transparence, but unaware of my gaze,
Staring right through me with opiate eyes
Or eyes vermilion with wine.
I, who have never cared to be a seer,
Have seen these things,
And ask only now,
To be sheltered from the light that can never be mine.
Return me to the mines.
Carry me back to the dark that scorned me.
—from Mughal Sequence
August wounds him. His friends play games in which he does not join.
His mother is a woman who lives in a cage.
She is there for the Nation, his father tells him
—That man in brown with the big black keys must be the Nation—
He concludes, and aims a pebble at the jailor’s groin.
The boy who casts this innocent stone is only seven;
But soon he will befriend the frets of an old sitar,
Urging the strings to embrace desertion,
Conjuring a lost void, till they are taut with images
He cannot bring himself to remember; or cry to be forgiven
For crimes he did not commit yet fears his own. The Mahatma
He will come to view, with an awkward, half-tormented
Reverence; and of course, he will be drunk often, proclaiming
In his drunkenness that Gandhi was a great man, though his followers
Were mostly fools—prisoners of a barren blinkered dogma
That numbed them to colour and made them believe the sacred flesh dirty—
The use of Gujarati he will forbid amongst his sons—
A coarse unmusical purely functional tongue
That Gandhi thought in, for Gandhi, though of course a great man,
Was wholly unmusical—and then, on an evening, approaching fifty,
He will call home for drinks his raucous bunch of ageing whiskey-swilling
Peers; and they will talk of simpler days, when the streets were clearer,
Houses bigger, and the world more habitable, quaffing them down,
Till he produces out of his pocket, as a sort of joke, a miniature Union Jack
And a quizzically brown, fading photograph of a dead British king,
Crooning to himself, till everyone joins in, that surging drone of a song,
That invokes an alien biblical God—
And which they all remember standing up for
On schoolboy visits to the cinema, when films were only black and white—
Its cadences turgid, frozen almost, as the long
Last note billows out of the living room like a windy tent;
And they drain their glasses in quick nostalgic gulps:
All this, at two in the morning, while at the other end
Of the same long-corridored house, his mother, insomniac,
Knits little dolls for orphaned girls; or looks up from nascent
Amorphous snippets of Gujarati verse at a moonless street,
Her husband awake beside her, up for her sake; both of them
Too tone-deaf to recognize, or be briefly wounded
By the drunken anthem their son lifts in praise
Of an empire they waited so long to defeat.
—August 15th, 2006
To the bowl of my skull, my knees midway
Between a pair of columns, the feet of a chair
In line with my palms, as walls and bookshelves,
Window, ceiling, lampshade and guitar
Converge silently round the axis of my spine.
Now couched on straw matting and niched in wide spaces,
The body might even be a hub of strong forces,
A pivot or a nucleus but for which
These walls might give way, these rafters cave in.
The stone Buddha on the shelf no longer
Asks me to probe myself; nor does the jug on the table
Urge the eye, to forage for any meaning
Beneath its jet black. The smooth curves
Of its sides would have me stay as I am,
Wide-eyed and becalmed by the surfaces of things
Willfully arranged to center me;
And it might be wise, if I could, to stay true to their will;
But I have only to shut my eyes to know at once
That I am a vast frozen mountain thawing in the sun;
Huge, heaving chunks of me breaking off at random,
Crashing with a thud into the river below;
The strong, single-minded river,
That is always letting go of itself,
That may possess no single center of gravity,
And knows no direction but downhill and seawards.
He will never go there again,
Hip-flask in pocket, camera at hand,
Far from the crowded confines
Of the human animal he could not trust,
To the lush cricket-choired thickets
He so jealously loved.
Dense, creeper–canopied spaces
Where he would listen eagerly
For the sudden slither of a python’s tail,
Or the persistent mating calls of leopard and crane,
Studying the stealthy ways of predator and prey,
Till panther, bison, hyena and stag
Seemed part of a single guileless continuum
He had only begun to see his part in.
Now home and city hunt him down,
Building about him their busy labyrinth
Of doctors, nurses, brothers and sons;
Though tiger and spotted deer remain,
Frozen above his bed in black and white.
An egret pecks noiselessly at a crocodile’s jaws,
As pale flamingoes, stripped irretrievably of their pinks,
Leap into a flight forever deferred—
Where you are going—they seem to say—
You will have no need for us or all you remember—
And yet the thought of getting there is not unlike
A great lone tusker taking the plunge,
His vast grey bulk sinking below the riverline
Against a clear black sky,
Till there is no more of him to see
Than a single tusk,
White as a quarter-moon in mid-July,
Before the coming of a cloud.
A fortnight after the papers had been signed,
And the old villa stripped of its carpets and furnishings
Its Mughal miniatures and stone antiques, brass plates,
Photographs and leopard skins, and all its stacks
Of files and letters, he went back there to make sure
Nothing worth keeping had been left behind.
Cacti by the doorstep. The musunda in full bloom.
A flight of stairs whose banisters he slid down
As a child, and a bridge table with a set
Of cold maternal spoons, briefly touched and put down,
In a breeze warm with the scent of unpicked mangoes
Ripe before rain to the point of rotting.
That old crooked ladle? The beef platter?
His grandmother’s tattered Venetian tablecloth? Perhaps,
But enough had already been taken and kept,
That kept roots frozen in the permafrost of his past.
What had been lived here, in any case, was barely life,
And the man he was moving on to meet,
Would have no need for these.
Where I go now, he mused, joy will be real—
Though the betel trees shook their heads in disapproval
Mocking his customary dreams of emergence
As he turned his back with rehearsed aplomb
On an overused kettle, and an unopened set of rusty golf clubs;
And the bougainvilleas caught in the Victorian turnpikes,
Brandished their thorny inflorescences like platitudes
Forewarning him against all forcing of the will
When at last he heard the red gates clank shut behind him,
With nothing in his hands,
But a large white egg in a black stone bowl,
That had sat for five decades on his grandfather’s desk,
And now finds itself at home, sooner than he does,
In a plush new apartment on the twenty-first floor,
Niched below the Shakespeares on the library shelf,
And between the brass figurines and a salvaged demijohn:
Speckled light-reflecting oracle, dome-shaped demigod
Sporting its curious message of continuance and hope;
Of hope in change and the continuance of hope
For a life of taciturn sunsets and talkative nights,
Visionary noons and companionable dawns,
All doomed to remain no more real,
Than the long curved neck and scrawny legs,
The beak and claws,
The stride, squawk, charge and leap,
And the ineffable flightless plumage
Of an ostrich that must stay unalterably unborn.
As if to quench the first, flickering wisps of flame,
Rain poured in torrents when I reached the grounds,
Beating wildly upon the low tin roof,
Like a great hurt beast no will could tame.
Sweat covered your forehead, your blue sleeves wet,
As you took the hot brand into your palms,
Turning towards me before you lit the sticks,
Your brown hair drenched as when we first met.
Can I say I still loved the man I saw,
Whose loss I turned so quickly away from?
I saw you through tongues of leaping flame,
And cold eyes of ice no flame could thaw,
Your mother burning as I thought of my own,
Seeking no way into the cell of your grief;
No way out of mine as I heaped her with twigs,
Poured oil on damp wood and watched you like a stone.
One of his later ‘miracles’ or omens was when, after he had lost all his possessions and he was wandering in the desert, a solitary pack-camel appeared: it was laden with his most precious books . . .
— Rumer Godden, Gulbadan
They call me superstitious,
But this is only part of the truth:
Sure, there were times
When I foraged through your world for scraps of hope,
Scouring the stars and a thousand landscapes to learn,
If I would ever have my harem back, my gardens, my observatory;
But this was not what it was like
When I first looked at the zodiac signs embroidered on my tent,
Or years later, when I was drawn
To the upturned brows of a dying antelope,
A merchant in the desert,
With a single pomegranate left in his sack.
I wanted to know what these things were saying,
Not about me, my fortunes, or if and when
I would recapture the throne, but about themselves,
What they were saying about your world and how it moves.
Most of the time it was enough that you were speaking to me
Through all these images,
Regardless of what any of them might mean.
Opium I loved, as also your love:
Amongst the thousand voices of the poppy
I groped for your voice.
At times, I mistook my little blue tent,
With its painted stars, for your sky.
I sank through the quicksand that is behind the eye.
There was a man in green who said you had sent him,
A flamingo and a hawk,
There were turtles there, bigger than any I had seen,
A tambourine of poplars, white flakes of wind,
A veil of saffron that hid no face, brisk peals of laughter,
A lotus in the east that needed no lake to bloom in,
And upon the sand, an old scroll of odd phrases
Left to me by my father;
Phrases like clouds, placid horizontals,
That no longer cared to grow into lines.
I found no door to any life other than this,
Nor did I search feverishly.
Camels, cushions, the scent of turmeric, a jeweled inkpot,
And always at the edge of the desert, a cave full of ghosts:
A mellow brooding hung upon the air like fog.
I remember walking in—the tall grasses murmurous,
Sand on my tongue—but little thereafter.
I spoke with the dead but never as one of their company.
I lost all sense of weight. I burrowed. I writhed.
A taut muscular spiral held me in its grip,
Till I could see no sense in trying to move.
You hid. You came too close. You stayed for dinner, then left.
So much that had seemed to mean so much,
Shrank in that saffron haze.
When my lost camel appeared in the wastes of Sind,
I was half-asleep,
And it was those around me who took it for a sign
That I would be king once again.
Publicly, I agreed with them,
Because it seemed to keep them smiling;
But for myself, I was overjoyed
Simply to be back with my books.
All through that month I thought little
Of the kingdom I’d lost.
I spent a whole week postponing plans for war,
Rooting through my books for a line of verse
I could only half-remember.
For this and other obvious omissions, as a king,
And for being a hopelessly ungifted builder of empires,
I do not ask to be forgiven.
I made a better career as a reader of your world.
But for the blinding of my brother,
Who now begs, they tell me, in Mecca,
Your name on his lips,
I was trying so hard to be an Emperor.
* * *
Falling is an idea
I have always been in love with.
Whenever I have been king,
I have been uncertain if I had nothing more
Than an empire, to defend or lose.
When I fell from the throne, I knew.
I learned slowly to befriend the pull of the earth;
Though still, I could only rarely bring myself
To rejoice in your ways.
I had a voice nobody else could hear
That summoned collapse,
A voice like a stream,
That could delight only in descent,
As it sang of loss,
And of the clarity that only comes
From losing oneself constantly.
And yes, I can see another fall coming,
Though I do not wish to consult the stars to know when.
It is enough to know that this time,
My fall from power shall be an act of praise.
There will be no fear then:
Only the stars, telling me nothing,
But singing amongst themselves,
Your name warm on my lips,
At home in my ears.
—from Mughal Sequence
ANAND THAKOR was born in Mumbai in 1971. He spent a part of his childhood in Britain and has lived in India since then. Waking in December (2001), Elephant Bathing (2012), and Mughal Sequence (2012) are his three collections of poetry. A Hindustani classical vocalist by profession, he trained for many years with Pandit Satyasheel Deshpande and has given concerts in various parts of the country. He is the founder of Harbour Line, a publishing collective, and runs Kshitij, an interactive forum for musicians. He is the recipient of the National Scholarship for music from the Ministry of Human resource Development, a grant from the Charles Wallace India trust for experimental work in the UK and the Sur-Mani award for excellence in musical performance. Thakore describes his work as 'having arisen from a fortuitous confluence of seemingly disparate cultural Histories'. He lives in Mumbai, where he teaches Hindustani vocal music in the Guru-shishya tradition.