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The Lost Children of America

Here

in the dusty malarial lanes

of Cuttack where years have slowly lost their secrets

they wander

in these lanes nicked by intrigue and rain

and the unseen hands of gods

in front of a garish temple of the simian Hanuman

along river banks splattered with excreta and dung

in the crowded market square among rotting tomatoes

fish-scales and the moist warm odour of bananas and piss

passing by the big-breasted, hard-eyed young whores

who frequent the empty space behind the local cinema

by the Town Hall where corrupt politicians still

go on delivering their pre-election speeches

and on the high road above the town’s burning-ground

from which gluttonous tan smoke floats up

in the breeze, smacking of scorched marrow and doubt.

Here

like the unreal stirrings

of incense smoke in a darkened shrine

like the languid movements of mangled lepers

around a temple of the goddess Chandi at dawn

like a wounded whale drifting away

sadly in unknown seas

like the dark winds of Asia

which murmur joylessly in slums but do not answer

they wander, these lost children of America,

flaunting their long unkempt hair and their feet;

a man naked to the waist, the fringes

of his torn shorts two weary chapped mouths—

a woman, her face of old porcelain

burnt in the harsh sun

clothed indifferently in a discoloured sack

her breasts weak and sagging

having lost their glimmer and their power;

the lost children wander bare-eyed

smelling of incense and living on grass and flowers

like scavengers accompanied by their impassive shadows

perhaps in search of many gods, to ask for strength,

with their appearance of sibyls and witches,

limp and cold with the ablutions of another

separate world.

Or perhaps

like she-jackals pursued

by invisible hunters who retreat

with their wounded cubs into jungle depths,

and prompted by something stronger than fear

seek refuge in some forester’s shack for succour

and for that fierce bond of air

or to find whether these tropic winds

would catch and belly out the sails of their minds

that have been woven

with the strands of sardonic guts.

No one knows them,

they are the free, the common men

soft and green of gesture, preoccupied

with their hidden songs of mankind,

mind blown by acid and amphetamines

and we watch them go by

with vague feelings of exaltation and disquiet.

They are the people we do not need to know:

they, for instance, do not travel as guests

of Rotary International or the UNO.

They are the lost children

who do not need to ask us oft-repeated questions:

Why is my skin so brown, my birth not final?

Why do I clean my arse with my hand?

Why do I seek a virgin woman for a wife?

Why do I grovel before that grotesque god

of bitter wood I have helped to carve?

And why do I seize wisdom from this swaddled sod?

I have no need to ask

why they come ten thousand miles,

for though their eyes are open they appear asleep,

and perhaps they too are men with dreams:

these men rushing through endless supermarket aisles,

the calligraphy of hallucinogens in their blue eyes,

the incredible flesh in whose innocence they hide,

the breathless thighs, the motor of the precious pubis:

harmless obsessions

that take them only for a ride.

And in desperate sleep they move their eyes

opening their hidden faces

like lonely picture postcards of unknown lands;

perhaps some sing, and some others

chant the mantras of the dead

with that benign resignation of all children,

or perhaps like victims waiting out

the relentlessness of time,

keep watching the skies with terror in their gaze.

For at the dusk’s edge

blurred by the glare of unearthly flares

feebled by a sticky silence of faraway flutes

they learn to come to themselves

at the threshold of the void

as the emptiness of the sky’s luminous bowl

fills their eyes with a single hue:

the colour of the Third Eye, the oblique, the great,

the colour of eyes when the light goes out of them

the colour of nakedness and of flayed skin,

and they recognize states of humiliation

and hunger and the well-being of a woman

drying herself with her only wet sari

after her bath, and the nameless solitude

that has nothing to hide behind,

no tragedies small or big,

and they find the secret of dying

without realizing that they are dying.

We gaze at each other in silence, the lost child and I;

who knows who is playing a joke on whom?

What can drive me from these mean, sordid alleys

where I live?

Who is the one among us misled by vision,

more real than real,

that has filled homes with tremulous ash

and has brought from hunger unassuaged

the haunted wood and the hunted myth?

In the Hanuman Temple last night

the priest’s pomaded jean-clad son

raped the squint-eyed fourteen-year fisher girl

on the cracked stone platform behind the shrine

and this morning

her father found her at the police station

assaulted over and over again by four policemen

dripping of darkness and of scarlet death.

In this time of darknesses the lost ones and I

will dim like lamps and go back to the moments

we caught once in the uncertain light of dawns;

to balance ourselves in falsehood,

in the colour of dead leaves on the earth,

falling upon the unreal word of simile and metaphor,

glorying in hyperbole

as we wait to be allowed our manner of quieter joy,

and silencing the world with borrowed voices

of the dead that sing homage to clay

in crippling ennui:

echoes of an isolating idolatry.

And now we will endure the pain

when the words of our songs droop like lilies

in the dark without standing in judgement,

passing by the abandoned cocoon

through the stench of blood over the pure dawn wall

across the stinging smoke of burnt-out doubts:

perhaps like ageing men

in their bitter-lemon gaze who look up wearily

from their doorsteps when the truth-light of day

is levelling.

So to find the time among us,

here on earth

when history does not reverberate any more

with the pulse of the drum

or with the chant of the tide on a sacred Puri shore

but with the echoes of a bruised presence

lying like a stone

at the bottom of the soul’s clear pool,

feeling the virtue that is there

in the refracted light, the earth-sense

of what pleases us and of what is lost

forever beyond us,

as the burden of ununderstood things billows upward

like smoke.

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