Meditation on the Goddess


Goddess, Durga, lightning-eyed
in the dark fortnight of the moon,
mother, daughter, maiden, bride,
come. Invisibly you ride
a lion to the noble house
of first belonging. Mountainous
it is, and river-full, and wide.

Grant me beauty, glory, fame and destroy my enemy.

Mother Durga. who appears
like the sun at burning noon,
whose sidelong looks will hurtle spears
through enemy hearts – yet whose light rears
the heart in pure leaf – come to us,
revisiting your first-born house.
We wait in joy, we wait in tears.

Grant me beauty, glory, fame and destroy my enemy.

Darling daughter, we have known you
morning, evening, afternoon.
Flower of light we who have grown you
gift you elsewhere, do not own you.
Once a year you come to us,
shining on your father’s house.
For a short time we are shown you.

Grant me beauty, glory, fame and destroy my enemy.

Perfect maiden, fresh and fair,
you too will be with us soon,
loved one, dear one, standing there
garlanded in morning air.
Child of dawn, to be with us
smiling in your family house,
is your blessing everywhere.

Grant me beauty, glory, fame and destroy my enemy.

Bride of Shiva, strange and splendid,
on love’s passionate honeymoon
childhood died and girlhood ended.
Now by children four attended,
woman dominant with us,
we welcome you to your dear house.
Now by love is time suspended.

Grant me beauty, glory, fame and destroy my enemy.

And now the temple of your face
shines with the digit of the moon.
By lightning of a terrible grace
demon-destroying, you efface
the sky of darkness. Glorious
goddess, to your noble house –
the living land, our longing race –

Grant me beauty, glory, fame and destroy my enemy.


On the ghat steps I remember my sister.
Here are a host of men come to the river
to pray, to bathe, to propitiate the water
with a small tray of paddy-shoots and spices.
They are made pure by the priest and the space around them
is made pure, though an army of feet and knees
hustle through it. Each here has lost a father.
Not I. And my sister was in the arms of Durga
and knew her fierceness, and fought with demons
and cleverly they impersonated the goddess to her
and she sought protection in the wrong wrong arms
and they toppled her. Now as youths bubble in the water
and in front of me a shivering dripping man echoes a priest’s Sanskrit
for a breath she is in me. I see with her sharp sharp eyes
and after not. An existence-bit stuck to me
and then flew by, here on these old old steps.
It is as if the river has risen and I am under
and through the drum-beat and limb-medley a fight is boiling
of lion and buffalo, goddess and demon,
a girl and her horror-voices. It is not death that wins
and as I stand in the sun around and the quick quick noises of day
I have been visited by something more than a memory,
a part of Now. It is life that goes in the record
and a record can come to life. It is death that is transient
and death is the end of life, but life does not die,
itself does not die. From the steps to the ordinary road
lit lit with morning. Perhaps this is why she is coming,
Durga, and all her brood: perhaps the visit
of an old truth is a new new announcement.


What is the sun up to at Kumartuli?
In dark small workshops images kneaded of light
flex, transpire. Out of the fingertips of men
a writhing buffalo and shaggy lion
in a low shed claw apart the heavens.
A snake winds to strike a magnificent demon.
And in a blazing wheel of arms and weapons
a goddess at the point of victory,
her face composed of the force of the sun and the earth,
seems to remark a universal song.
But still a war at the heart of things
trembles, threatens to separate the atom,
has matter’s grate and snarl. This the centrepiece
of her tableau. What is the sun doing
that out of families scratching in dust for food
can come this beauty? For a family line-up
develops now of god-like wealth, true knowledge,
all the fortunes there are, pure military skill.
An owl and swan, and rat and peacock carry
the goddess’s most splendid offspring to us;
they glide and scurry here and there. And Ganesh,
complacent eldest child of elephant face,
whom everyone loves, somehow pockets the key
to every enterprise. His sister Lakshmi
advises all to save, with a brass urn.
The other side of the battle-triumphant Mother,
swan-graceful with music and learning is Saraswati,
out-flanked by Kartik, general-god of youth.
And decorations, and Shiva’s head, and colours
gleam on the scene. So they are placed in pandals,
set pieces in a fury of artist’s freedom.
Durga is with us, and her brood. A shining
is taken from the floors of Kumartuli,
where people squat, and cost out the next images
of clay and bamboo and straw.


In Sealdah Station wild elephants in rut
are smashing the cabins of waiting trains
and ticket-counters, lighting, railings, food-stalls –
they are indignant. How indignant they are!
Their foreheads exude juice. Whose army are they from?

Why, once there was a good king, ruler of the world,
who protected his subjects justly as his sons.
But rebel forces threw him off-guard
and pinned him in the capital, where his own ministers
snatched treasury and army. He went to the forest.
He is lost in the forest. He is lost in the forest.
The elephants are stampeding at Sealdah Station.
What is their training now? Exercise-words? Eatables?
They are under enemy control, which is no control
except the fostering of indignation for votes.

And the police cannot hold the elephants.
Bricks from number 1A platform are thrown, a policeman’s cheek is torn,
the guns come out and six are killed.

The guns come out and six are killed
A shock of voices fills the state.
Resentment, outrage and pure hate
at police excess (again) come first.
Schools, colleges and minds are closed.
A state-wide strike next. It’s supposed
that police corruption is the worst
on a long list of ills. Blood spilled
for nothing – nothing. Let me say
I’m lost in disbelief, dismay.
But what I write I dedicate
to those whose bodies have been stilled.

What are the facts? Mr Chakraborty,
college lecturer, of dubious past,
travels without a ticket, is held at the station.
The students say he is treated with discourtesy

and trumpet and destroy, incite to riot –
how indignant they are! The following day
every student in the state comes out in sympathy.

The lathi-charging police are an uglier breed of elephant,
trampling behind closed doors, their vast pendulous skins
stretched around every occasion to gather in a bribe.

The public quivers with elephantine indignation.
The government merely suppresses the whole show.
They are the worst of the blunderers in the forest.

At Sealdah Station six are dead.
Because the police were frightened and
unclearly led, fired out of hand –
the innocent, caught up, are killed.
At Bangalore, too, blood is spilled
for nothing – nothing. News was read
in minority tongue at the wrong time –
and twenty-eight in riots are dead.
The nerve of violence in the land,
a spasmodic going into shock,
a lashing-about, a running-amok –
this is the clearest issue at hand,
the case to try and understand.
And not to do so is a crime.

Mother of us, from their long silence,
bring women in.

Utter the terrible roar that stops the flow of juice
pouring from the foreheads of elephants in rut.

Fill the sky, the earth and the adjoining directions
with the quick, decisive voice of women.

Mother, there was no good king that ruled the world
and men have never been in control.

We are lost in the forest. We are lost in the forest.
Mother, mounted on the lion,

holding in your hands the mace and tongue of the enemy,
Mother now with widely open mouth,

with the noise of the bow-string, the roar of the lion, the clangour of the bell,
utter the sound

to let an idea flash upon the universal mind.
Bring women in.


“Banana-girl, banana-girl, will you be my bride?
I will give you emeralds, sapphires, more beside.”
“Sir, I have more riches than you can find for me.
I have the rich goodness of the banana-tree.”

“Banana-girl, don’t be too proud, I will give you fame,
servants all to do your will, a splendid family name.”
“Sir, the sun and rain and soil are servants all to me.
And all are acquainted with my family-tree.”

“Banana-girl, banana-girl, if you’ll be my bride,
I will give you all my love with nothing else beside.”
“Sir, I accept, for what you will give me
I’ve already given you, long ago, for free.”


I have already given you my heart and life.
I’ve married you, deserted you – but still my wife
you open in me a flower of admiration
more truthful than our “legal separation”.
Whatever you may do, whatever happens,
whenever I think of you the flower opens.
However faithless I have been, or will be,
this recognition, this quiet love, will still be
deeply astir when you are in my thoughts.
It is, at root, a faithful marriage of sorts.
Nine hundred days apart now, and together,
though not so close – in fitful, varying weather,
nine thousand days. And yet a light sun shone
for most of it. And now that I have gone
to write, to travel – I recall those days
of a shared understanding, our two ways
winding apart and meeting, going together
for good. But I sought colder, rougher weather.

I do not know if it is coincidence,
that Durga having captured every sense
of a city dazzling in fiesta-homage –
I too am lit up by a woman-image.
Calcutta tells the glories of its culture.
I too play merry heaven with a sculpture,
a thing shaped out of memories, warm with life:
I welcome back, I jettison a wife.
Into the Ganga with her! so amen.
Ah, but I know that she will come again.

Though I have run away, left you behind,
you are the visiting goddess of my mind.
Though I have turned to travel and living solo,
it still can seem your image that I follow.
Past girl-friends all, a rapturous love-affair,
beyond heart’s dead-of-night you still are there.
If I have prompted you to a divorce,
if you accept; if stars take a new course
across our different, disregarding heavens –
if ships drop anchor in unrelated havens –
if different times and solar systems bury
the spot outright where we were seen to marry
and something shone – I know, against all reason,
our festival returns, to have its season.

Through all the city’s streets a warm fire breathes
amazement of the heart. Excitement seethes
in narrow roads of open-at-all hour stalls,
in open ground transformed to carnivals,
in pandal-goers who move on, laughing in streets,
in those who stay and pray, offering sweets
and flowers. And those ephemeral palaces,
look-alike Taj Mahals (or Town Hall offices) –
those dreamlike pantheons, as if by stealth
hung on the city like jewels – are the heart’s wealth.
In them the Mother, and the rest, reside.
It is as if, in such a city inside,
a festival of love and newness happens,
and thanks are said, and welcome. A flower opens
in time that is no time. There’s no cessation
of love, despite our “legal separation”.
And though we are, and though we stay apart,
in time that is exclusive to the heart
there’s a return of being. The city inside
admits again, honours again its bride.
A richness has been mine I cannot lose:
the streets and crowds, lit nights, all tell the news
I’ve married, you, deserted you – but still my wife
I have already given you my heart and life.


On the sky on the sky
on the outer wall of the mind a splintering hurricane
shocked the sanity of the gods and as they spoke
sound drowned in a gale of devil’s laughter
light died as matter flicked inside out
time blinked something slewed through space and then
madness and evil

the sky torn away by a raging ocean
the gods babbling and looking for their home
they had licensed a demon let loose a demon
that grew and grew and as if to end a cosmic cycle
shrank the world.
Reason, order, kindness, justice were bitten through.
The cloud of what could happen had swelled and broken.
It was all lost in a chain reaction.
Reader, you know.

The awfulness of the demon’s careless reign
is not to be spoken of.
Who understands? Who understands? Only the blind fight of the human atom
to keep itself going is set against it.

When each year the goddess comes
and in extraordinary battle with the demon
arrives at victory’s stab-instant – it is as if
something is exorcised of ourselves. It is the moment
the festival deepens and we celebrate further.
But what is it? What fear, what sling-about brainstorm
blots out the sky breaks down a wall
blasts away breath and it seems needlessly, needlessly
bludgeons out beauty of being? The answer is missing,
the gods are helpless. The time is waiting
for the next time, the darkness, the raging ocean.
Is there a means still to resist the demon?
Reader, you know.


A pretty little youngster
next to the priest
hardly hears the ancient words.
His not to understand.
With a restraining hand
on him, he waits there
contentedly at least.

He is made much of now.
An orange-flower head-dress
on him, he’s carried down
the steps. Drum-beat. Long sharp knife
sweeps. At the loss of life
heads turn, hands pray
upward to the goddess.

Durga, I know now
it takes blood, takes death
for the good to carry on.
In front of you a black goat’s head
seems to say, the demon’s dead.
As if sliced though, I know your power
in that loss of breath.

Sacrifice, less common now,
does not lie easy.
(As for murdering animals,
I have eaten many,
not a thought for any.
But one kid goat I’ll always see,
as fresh as a daisy.)


Durga, I charge you
in your full power, and by the names of your two daughters,
to free girl-children. As sex-tests advance
back and back to a few-weeks-old foetus,
murder is done, shrug, shrug, shrug. At the bedside
of the delivery of a beautiful girl-child,
there happening to be a bucket big enough to drown in,
murder is done, shrug, shrug, shrug. Shacks and mansions
ram the same codswallop through a little girl’s skull
till a blueprint is there of a life on suffrance –
and murder is done, shrug, shrug, shrug. Lakshmi
where are those coins going that rattle in the brass urn?
To lose a dead-weight. Fathers,
why are you purchasing M.A.s for your daughters?
To lose a dead-weight. Mothers,
why the endless displays of entertainment?
To lose a dead-weight. Lakshmi goddess of thrift,
is this the use of money, to buy a husband?
To buy a prison for the female mind?
A dried-up sea of dumbness for her speech?
An acquiescent smile? The highest rank
to be an officer of food and clothes?
Not even there a general. To endure
leucotomy of the spirit? of the body
an unforgivable slicing. To endure,
endure; but let “endure” become “enjoy”.
Let a girl be glad she was not born a boy.

Sarawati. Grace of thought. Glide, glide
on your swan to the leafy corners of the mind.
The mind of each in truth is as a river
nestling, nudging along to its own time,
and in that current self-willed. It honours the land
it chooses; it rises in rains and snow,
careering new with fresh preoccupations,
dictates new banks; and there is its own queen,
aristocrat and mistress of its own,
still nursing an agreement with its neighbour,
land-tendering its wealth. So for each one.
But when small girls and boys stop at your hut
as they run to your first reading-lesson, goddess,
to pray for the grace of learning – what will you give them?
A dried-up mud-flat. A poisonous swamp. A tear-drop.
Huge classes. Lies, inaccuracies. A tear-drop.
And from that tear-drop yet may roll a river.

Girls, boys, men, women – till Saraswati’s swan
can glide, can stretch its wings in everyone –
there’s no escape from dowry-thinking and worse.
Durga, with your two daughters, lift the curse
the enemy-demon on girl-children hurled
not only in India, but through the world.


What is beauty? Don’t be absurd:
Sushmita Sen is the last word!
What is glory? Controlled aggression:
Mr Universe, T.N.Seshan!
What is fame? A mission that kills:
L.K.Advani if nobody else.
Stop now
Look back a little: beauty in a life
that disarmed all. Goodbye Gandhiji.
Simply there was a soul that was visible.
Look now
at a glory of the present, while there is time.
Nothing in her is breakable. Bent with devotion
whose life is a flash of flame, who needs her name?
words and song are your fame. Thunder and hush
are all the same: the pure note of a poet.
The world breathes with the music of perception.
Now goddess
to separate the true from false in the air,
to be in sight of the good, I need your prayer.

Grant me beauty, glory, fame and destroy my enemy.


Now as you stand prepared for the final act
the great screen burns in elation
of birth, of loveliness, of power – and first
the glow of creation.

A mass of light – a burning mountain – next
a face fine-skinned
with eyebrows made from the two twilights, ears
of the light of the wind.

And what gifts were given you by the gods!
What weapons, what jewels!
The sea of milk gave you a bright necklace.
What killing tools

adorned you for the work for which you came.
Knowing of the slaughter
withing your grasp – you made a very loud roar
with very loud laughter.

The demon took action.
As buffalo he ploughed through the goddess’s troops
Jaw hoof tail and horn tossed and tore
and broke the earth threw mountains to the sky
and he roared
Flogged by his tail the sea became flooded
Split by his shaking horns the clouds turned into pieces
and the goddess hot with anger noosed him
He became a lion a man with a sword a very big elephant
that dragged the goddess’s lion but she cut the trunk of the dragger
and again as buffalo the demon shook
the living, the non-living, all the worlds.

Then She, the Mother of the universe
drank in anger again and again the divine nectar
and red-eyed made the most boisterous laughter

and as he too roared and threw mountains
she pounded them with heaps of arrows and said,
face red with drunkenness, in indistinct voice,
“Roar on, roar on, the gods will roar here soon.”
And pinning his neck with her leg she attacked with her spear.
Now he in new form emerged half from his own mouth
and was encompassed by the very brilliant lustre of the goddess.
And still only half out he began a new fight with her
and she split his head with her excellent sword and he fell.

And flowers rained down.

Now it’s all behind you
waiting on the screen
erect and proud, triumphant,
beautiful, serene.

With your grown family,
your conquest at your feet,
soon to take your leave of us.
Down the noisy street

to the river’s longboat.
It is a time to mourn
though I know you must be gone
and you will return.


I see you first in the glow of creation, my mother.
The burning mountain of force that a baby is
took eyebrows of twilight, ears of the light of the wind.
The sea of milk endowed her with a necklace.
And she laughed and sang her indestructible song.

It is because I honour you, dear mother
that I lay the hand of a poem on a wrecked childhood
that you yourself can scarcely touch.
May She through my words
travel direct and lightly back down the years
to be both mother and father where you had none
and a small girl held for a moment, healed.

That girl, eager for books and undefended,
was cornered, flung by demonic winds
too soon to womanhood.
And for fifty years
journeying past all weathers, light and darkness
she completed a circle.
They have done so
who have finally known and silenced the demon.
They are of age. Now as she writes her own books
or stands by an old tree, or visits a stone
that is a speaking library of the past,
she is young, young with the life that goes beyond time.

You who nursed me pre-birth and now, so much later
nurture me soundly the other side of the globe,
for the broad sea of your understanding, thankyou.
The knowledge of the power of the goddess
cuts like a ray of light through your existence
and speaks you whole, and more than substance-real.
There is a calm existing beyond matter
that merely to be alive has us in touch with.
There are no words for it. But dear mother
it is because I love you that I know of it.
For gradually the indestructible song
by which a person lives from first to last
is gathered in this extra layer. So mother
now at full strength, jewels of the air surround you,
as your life-song sparks beauty in the calm.


For 200 years the same journey.
Again it’s zero hour:
a trundling exhibition
of piety and power.

An old, respected household
stands round a screen in the yard.
Drums. It has started the journey.
The exit is hard

but at last it stands in the street.
An hour of repair
and then on a low truck it’s levered.
She is taking the air

and the street is shouting about her.
Fire-crackers, lorries and cars
beeping her forward, on forward.

at dusk, and the pulse of procession
in the Indian way.
Mother it is the city, Calcutta
now giving you away.

The truck is trundled on forward.
Victory-shouts racket by
from car-windows. The last scene approaches.
River and sky.

An appointment with dark water
that keeps bright the family name.
Crowds, police. So many households
are doing the same

and far more community pandals
at this ghat or at another
are entrusting their soul to the Ganga
in form of the Mother.

River and sky. The Immersion.
The great screen breaks apart.
On shore some laughter, some horseplay.
And a shining heart.


Oldest true line, often-turning,
chuntering idly, or fast-churning,
river of my own heart’s yearning,
take me back to my lord.

Current of his tresses flowing
all through India, in your knowing
is Time’s wave-line to-and-froing.
Take me back to my lord.

Mountain-leaving, mountain-finding,
through our plains and valleys winding,
thread of India, land-binding,
take me back to my lord.

From the bright and festival city
with pop-on pop-off lights so witty,
in throes of a megaphoned love-ditty,
take me back to my lord.

From the village-field of quiet
where dumb beasts graze in simple diet,
and only the crickets are in riot,
take me back to my lord.

Past all folly, all shrewd knowing,
into your deep endless flowing,
hold a goddess on her going.
Take me back to my lord.

Carrying me in your great freeing,
guide me by a river’s seeing.
Current of being, and of non-being,
take me back to my lord.


Durga Puja, Calcutta, 1994

Share away: