Learning Malayalam – by Soni Somarajan

by TBLM

Learning Malayalam
Manjadithara, Puthupally, 1982


On the layer of sand
that my forefinger parts, the curvaceous overture
begins to reveal an elephant in a
line drawing.

I taste succulent jungle grass.

Say, if I held the shell
of the first alphabet close to my ear,
would it be

a tribute to the mammal’s memory—
something I need
to embark on a journey of language?


In innocence, I saw only
the deer’s horns, doe eyes, and the tense lines,
ready to spring and sprint away.

But there is this recurring dream
of a half-roar. Many years later, I would
sense the cat in me.

The cat remains asleep—
just as the world desires: be good, nice,
even if it means to live a lie.

The wilderness yearns to break free,
the goodness, at times, way too nice.
Is there room for a docile roar—

I wonder.


The steam train muscles through the Coromandel coast,
leaving plumes of soot and vapour. An egg-seller
walks past, balancing boiled eggs, freshly

ground pepper and chilli powder. Pukish,
the nine-year-old looks away, hoping his sleeping
parents won’t hear the seller.

Then in his reverie, the war comic slides lazily
down to the lurching floor. The battle in
Commando No.2915: King Tiger,

moves to a barren, smoking grassland. A turret
sweeps into view over a rugged hump. In its
crosshairs—the exposed rear of an Allied tank.


This shell-shaped translucence
leaving a silvery trail, the story we carry.

This feast of green, spurning gravity,
the acrobatic tremble heedless of danger.

Do we not see the jealousy of the vine:
growth quashed by the slowest of living?

Out of nowhere, a startling insight,
a hummingbird, its beak painted in sunlight.

What remains in this sanctum
of the present: an ooze of leftover memory,

the fractured whorls of a mollusc.


Under the heavy jack tree,
a paleness in the earth, an unmarked remembrance.

Grandfather, look within me
from your sanctum in the perspiring sod. You see

I am a hundred versions of myself:
monks in prayer—remembering you, bowing like

a rain-hit lotus.


Bathed in this light, I think of the many ways
it plays us.

In these deep woods, choosing
many forms: flitting as a butterfly, darting like a stag,
crawling on all fours, climbing high branches,

reflecting like a sage, angling as a tree’s roots,
pulsing like veins, swinging like a dancer.
If I cracked open, you would see light there too.

If this light be in us, why do we keep returning
to why we can’t see each other?


The caterpillar,
a ho-hum line of rowing paddles, an armada’s progress.

No, a steam whistle that marks the genie’s escape,
a pugnacious spurt of coal smoke.

Sunlight’s a speeding train, a coruscating line of beads,
such a turn of phrase at the tunnel’s end.

Watch from afar this fleeting disembodiment,
clap for the stunning overture of speed.

Remove oneself the farthest, to the landscape of
questions, gain the hermit’s advantage.

What if one kept one’s ears to the rails:
would we hear a summer’s day, its slow minutes

clanging in the distance, or would we count
the days left to reach home?

***

Note: The poem features in First Contact, Soni Somarajan’s book of poetry published by Red River in September 2020.