An Old Bearded Poet Walks the City

3 Khasi Hills poems by Hoshang Merchant from his collection My Sunset Marriage

An Old Bearded Poet Walks the City

Causing consternation
Among grown bachelors walking their mothers…
Rain clings to his long hair
his rabbit-fur beard.
Who does he think he is?—Leonardo! Durer! Aurobindo! Tagore!
Did Rabindranath stand in line for a postage stamp
to tell of marvels of the Khasi Hills
to a slumbering, golden Bengal
as he dreamt up a Bengali script for Assamese
so they too could write their own tongue?
Did he gingerly pick his cloak hem through the wet
only to be greeted like Baudelaire’s ‘Albatross’ in 1870s Paris
dragging his wings in the mud?
Or, did he go by in a horse-drawn buggy
lent to him by a love-lorn lady
who but longed for his locks?
Did he wire home for money?
Did publishers line up at his door?
Did girls spy him spying on them from balconies?
Did he secretly lust after young tommies
too old to stay back with their Irish moms
too young to slumber in the British cemetery?
Did he long for ilish or kulcha tiring of pork braised in bamboo-vinegar
Or, worse, sweet-and-sour dog?
Did he, at breakfast, bite into rolls that were hard?
Did the prices on the card make him feel a little lonely?
Did the chauffeur eye him through the mirror?
Dear, O dear! What’s an old man to do?


Rishi Debendranath took his young son, at 14
confused by all the femininity in the Tagore house
for a walk in the Himalayas to gawk at all the naked Kali bhaktas:
Men caught and liberated by the Great Mother!

Confused no more
the young Robin walked a clear path in his cloak, locks and shawl
His high-pitched voice flowing with song
like clear air, like clear water.


In Praise of Limestone

(After a visit to Cherrapunji)

‘For You I have fallen from a high place / said the waterfall to its lovers’—Robert Duncan

Rivers bring down sediment
Sediment turns to limestone

Limestone trickling like rain into caves
Becomes stalagmite
The heart is such a cave

The heart has layers of sediment
Most layers are porous:
But some hearts hit bedrock

Bedrock does not give way.
Water comes in the form of rain
cloud river or fog

So does woman in poetry
Shakespeare knew this
All his lovers in Arden are bewildered:
Exchanging bodies but not souls…

—Lost: Lost the forest, the cave, male rocks
menhirs, abysses
where the heart feels found out

Hence groves were sacred
And caves
So was woman

Only the erect cock
could subdue her
But the Earth was first sea.

Water can make shores, deltas, lands
Valleys: water can wear down stone
Water is akin to Love

Love is hard like rock
Love is hard and inflexible like hell
Love can wear down stone.


Visit to St Edmund’s, Shillong

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
This was a serious question the Scholastics asked.
The Enlightenment swept them away
They tried to keep the flame alive in Asia / Francis Xavier started the Inquisition
Patrick had braved the wild bears of Eire; Edmund, Khasi arrows
An innocent morality became a fit subject for the Inquisition
A teaching priest once said of his 11-year old Khasi charge:
‘I can smell she’s pregnant!

The Novitiates become Scholastics poring over Aquinas
In-between they play football: Nothing wrong with that except
football beautifies your ass but does nothing for brains

The toilets are open-air: to keep the Devil out
And the watchdogs are humorously named Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub.
On a Sunday the Church is locked; the parched bee at the window
A priest has drawn his lover’s portrait to pass off as Christ’s.
‘Nothing wrong with love’ says Robin, an alumnus
The angel boys’ choir stops singing abruptly—



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Hoshang Merchant Written by:

Hoshang Merchant (b. 1947) has authored twenty-nine books of poetry, literary commentary, translations, memoirs, and anthologies including Yaraana: Gay Writing from India (1999) and most recently Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant (2016). In the mid-1980s, Hoshang made Hyderabad home and taught generations of students at the English Department of University of Hyderabad till he retired in 2012. My Sunset Marriage represents the life of Hoshang Merchant told through the best poetry he has written over forty years.

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