The Poetry of Lynn Chandhok

Distinguished Entry 2006

Muharram at 203 Jor Bagh
The Story of the Palace

Marketplace Kashmir, 1999 The clattering horse-drawn carriages, the horns, the hawkers all fall silent in the flash, then chaos rises, shattering paradise. My loss is trivial: a childhood home to which return would be a senseless risk just to confirm that paradise was real. True, even as a child I understood that bitterness had bled into the earth beneath the dahlias, leeched into the roots of zinnias, marigolds, to murky lakes where lotus lay, flat-leaved, blooming in bright profusions out of quiet pools. I knew that past the ridge we climbed that August day to find a hidden lake one might mistake for sky itself, beyond this, nestled down between the peaks were border guards, two bands of men who, facing off, kept peace: the peace men fought for, not the other peace—the one we found that day along the mountain ridge, the air distilled, the silence cooled by clouds; the peace that let the glaciers age unmoved, and painted Himalayan peaks in grays that shifted off the setting sun to blue; the peace that marked the end of evening prayer, the ancient song drawn down to whispering Om shanti, shanti, shanti, om. We'll move again. Though the borders haven't changed for more than fifty years, we can't forget the train cars burned—a body for a body. On either side, the only truth is loss, and blame is strewn like wreckage or debris, the storylines, disputed maps, redrawn.
Muharram at 203 Jor Bagh New Delhi, April 2001 I see now why they call them floats—they glide and hover just above the swarm of men filling my street tonight, a rising sea of bodies, torch-fires, smoke, song, drumbeats—high above them ride the painted cardboard frames, the portrait hidden under jasmine garlands and Mylar ribbons glittering gold and green. I stand inside our gate and watch them turn into Karbalah Nursery, an open field they say was once a Moslem cemetery. I wonder how it happened, how no one saw the gravestones disappearing, turning to trees. Even the sacred changes. I've been told, in years past, on Muharram, celebrants would lash themselves with branches until they bled. But not tonight, not yet. They sing and dance holding aloft the image of the saint who once was buried—or was it martyred?—there. I'm not sure of the story, but I've heard they come each year to dig a giant pit and toss the floats in, burying him again. I try to concentrate, to understand a holiday of lashings, martyrs, graves. Instead, I find I'm thinking more of them than us, and noticing how thin the lone policeman is. As if for the first time, I see the picture windows of our house, my children fast asleep inside. The lights announce we're here alone! Beneath my hand, the wrought iron gate is rusted where it latches. The drumbeats amplify as darkness falls. I'm not sure any more which way the stream of men is flowing, or if they'll ever leave. What sparks a crowd to riot? Suddenly, a man comes closer, lurches into focus, gesturing towards my house, excited, shouting— I try to translate quickly, but I shake my head, push him back, before I comprehend: Madam, my daughter needs to use a bathroom— He's gone before I see, or don't see, her or know which way to look— a deafening crash startles the crowd—the current turns to eddies— screams pitch up, then dissolve— it's nothing, just a bank of thunderclouds, months out of season. The black sky turns pale green and pellets us with cartoon raindrops round as cannonballs. The music dies. The crowd evaporates. By nine, the street is calm, and ours again. The sweepers come first, landing here to purge all trace of festival—the bits of gold, chewed pan, sticks from kebabs—leaving the dust in soft, groomed spirals flecked with moon-yellowed leaves. Before I fall asleep, a bullhorn's call disrupts the midnight quiet, floating past to tell us that a seven-year-old girl was lost in all that. Only one? I think. In all that, how was only one swept under?
The Story of the Palace Fatehpur Sikri, April 2001 Although the palace and city of Fatehpur are remarkably well preserved, the design and decoration present a problem of interpretation. * I've been here twice before. Still, their attack is more than I can stand. Even the book on Agra says the peddlers here are worse than anywhere. I grab my girls and curse my way through outstretched hands—men shouting, "Look! Look! Lovely bangles!" " Madam likes the black? This white one? Every color!" "This for hair?" "Need film?" "Need toy for baby?" Deftly, he's unveiled a brass wire globe that he untwists— "See? Ball... flower... butterfly... snake... bird...!" He lists a dozen other shapes. "Just five rupees!" My daughter is transfixed. She makes me swear: "We'll get one back in Delhi. Every store on Janpath has them. Sweetie, one of these won't last ten minutes." "Mama, please—" "Look, baby, we don't know these men—you know—" She turns on one heel and pushes past to go in through the sandstone gates. What I expect inside—lithe minarets, carved deities watching from every nook, their faces flecked and scarred by time—seem to have vanished. All we're looking at is one closed door, a wall, a single archway. There's no plaque or sign. "Like Alice," I think, stooping to get through, only to find another mud-walled room. * Its parts are better than the whole: it lacks, for instance, an orienting spine. Flattening the guidebook out, I turn, compare, and turn. The fine schematic is, at last, no help: this winding palace is beyond reduction to a single half-page map. That's when I hear a voice: "You need a guide? I'm outraged (once again), sure I've been spied on looking lost and fallen in some trap laid by the hawkers. I look up. A fond old man in white, with specs of inch-thick glass, expressionless, almost, is standing there— where he was not before—as if to say "You know you need a guide." Though in my book it says the guides themselves make up the stories, that no one knows the purpose of each room— ...a granary, or else a tomb, explains the lack of windows— The girls are waiting. They don't really care if what this lovely man says is a lie. He takes us through a tiny doorway I had overlooked, and there's the open plaza, the archways framing cantilevered halls that telescope like mirrors tunneling back.... * The most intriguing building is Panch Mahal, a five-storied pavilion of winds used by the women of the royal household and ladies of the harem... Ruqayya, Mariam, Salima, Jodh Bai... The Christian queen, the Muslim queen, the Hindu... * "This courtyard is where the king and queen played chess." "Parcheesi!" I correct him. "Of course, yes, the king sat here and moved the slaves around— live pieces for his game...." But here's the thing: A dozen years ago, when I was here, I climbed up Panch Mahal. The stairs are closed now. Then, the story was he sat up there. Half-listening, half-nose-down in the pages, half-watching my two girls, who've run to play Parcheesi with themselves, posing as pawns, I hear him say (quite certainly), "The school was over there, and there, the ministers gave counsel to the king." Off to my right, two laborers are carting hunks of stone from underneath a dry reflecting pool. * excavation was undertaken for which no rationale was given. The findings were so announced to give the impression that the Jain images discovered were destroyed by Muslim rulers like Akbar... "Anup Talao—the government believes this site was built on by the Jains, before Akbar arrived." I watch the pool unfill wondering what, next time we visit, he'll proclaim as we regard the watery blurs that are ourselves. My young pawn turns and shouts, "What happens to the slave girls at the end?" "Good question," I reply, then, winging it, "This king is good. He lets them play again." * ...The underlying structure is Hindu post-and-beams, in many cases roofed with Muslim vaults and domes... The noon sun's hot, and there's no wind. I call the girls and step inside a darkened room I don't recall from last time. Lining every wall, red sandstone's carved in complex shapes— stars, diamonds, swastikas—arranged in some sure scheme. I need the guide. "Akbar's great vision. He believed the world's religions all held truth. That centerpiece is for King Solomon— And there! The stars of David— swastikas for the Hindu faith— Shiaz, four pointed stars, and there— Shi'ite, Jain, Christian, everything. 'Din-I-Elahi'—he conceived a new religion, the best parts of each joined on one path..." Beneath the jali-work are scenes of animals and birds, wild flowers, trees. "Akbar knew that when faith began, flora and fauna were, to man, the most, most holy." But the faces have all been scraped away, and in their places black smudges mark where hands have looked for them. "Akbar's great-grandson, Aurangzeb. He ordered that the faces be removed in keeping with the principles of Islam." There never would have been carved deities. We touch the spaces too, as if compelled, then move along. * "And here is where the son Akbar had prayed so long for, for an heir, was born—" The girls pipe up. "A baby? Where?" "For years his wives had all been barren. Then, with one saint's blessing, Jahangir was born and Akbar built this city to celebrate the son who'd carry out what he had started." A cloud of parrots smokes up from the shadow of a lone cypress bent by long-lost winds. * "This city flourished fourteen years, and then.... Akbar left to defend the western borders— It turned out that the ground here held no water— The book says one thing. Our man says another. He checks his watch, and so I pay the guide a little extra too, though I'm not sure I trust a word he said. He disappears into the swarm of peddlers whose bright spheres keep magically transforming in their hands. I pull ten rupees from my bag, "For two." At least the girls are quiet, satisfied they know who-ate-what-where and when and who- killed-so-and-so— "Mom, look what I can do!" She's turned the wire into a golden crown. "I'll be the queen..." and she begins her tale. * As it recedes, the palace takes the pale cast of the picture on the guidebook cover. The plains are dry as ever, but the land's dotted with cypress, neem, and tufts of green— just like in Indian miniatures I've seen where gods come down to chase a mortal lover.