by S. K. Kelen
The train pulled into Madurai station early
in the morning. She stepped onto the platform
rubbed her eyes dazzled by the sunlight turning
the world white like a clean cotton sheet
she breathed deeply the morning’s incense
and thought it’s true you can smell India all the time.
The morning grew hotter and the light whiter
and the railway platform led to a street
made of dust compacted by a thousand years’
wheels, hooves and feet, the pavement
exploded with ramshackle stalls selling snacks
and bits and pieces, the whitewashed buildings,
every now and then a garlanded Shiva or Ganesha.
(Brahmin cows strolled where they damn well pleased).
Thousands of people flowed out of houses
to join the crowd in the street all laughter
and gossip; children ran up hawking
gaudy drinks in plastic bags and paper cones
filled with nuts while old men sold boiled eggs
shouting that their eggs were the best eggs
and some beautiful women in beautiful saris
made tea and offered a cup for five rupee.
And in the corner of an eye: the urchins.
Lady Beggar stretched out her hand
breathed slowly a mute scream
performed the first asana from the book
of starvation yoga. Her eyes implored
yet mocked, her lips begged and sneered
her curving right arm pointed
to her mouth then her baby’s mouth,
pointed at her belly then her baby’s belly
muttered soft pleas that hypnotised
(begging should be a ballet)
and tugged the strings a good heart
holds in abundance. There are
many roads to heavenly realms,
not all pleasant. ‘Madam,’ she sang,
‘please madam, just a few pennies
and I can live a while — and my baby.’
The woman from prosperity’s suburbs, her eyes
widened as she emptied her purse of annas
and cents. The beggar yelled delight.
There was a fragrance in the air—
palm wine spilled on a balmy night.
A wild haired man with birds and insects
nesting in his elephantine legs
pointed at the mynah chicks chirping there
shouted ‘Benares! Benares!’
He received her fresh Indian banknotes
with laughing gratitude—
the next fifteen poor souls she gave
all her American dollars & pounds sterling.
The crowd of beggars grew.
Because they were hungry they laughed like crows—
she opened her suitcase and gave away her clothes
signed off the travellers cheques one by one, each
with a teardrop, threw away her camera like a bouquet
and bought every ragged child an ice cream.
The dusty streets are hot with the story.
A young girl asks ‘Can I have your earrings, madam?’
and is given them. A boy runs off with her laptop.
Everything is white light then out of the light (she
recognises) a ragged King Neptune, trident in hand,
steps lightly through the crowd, waves the beggars on.
‘You are very kind madam those wretches will live
on your money like millionaires for a day or two.
Your hand please.’ She stared at him and saw
his eyes held special intelligence of what to do.
She took his hand and came to her senses
and grappled for her master card — lucky.
Her wide eyes narrowed and saw
no matter what she gave away she wouldn’t save
the world, it was weird what she had just done.
The sadhu’s eyes burned like suttee pyres, his muscles
tightened like ropes beneath the dusty rags.
In another life he’d have been a star or a psychopath.
Here, he was a strange man in a strange land.
He bowed nobly and hailed a taxi.
Last updated July 19, 2011