Five Poems: The Secret, Brahmin Girls, Only Shy, The Neglected Wife and Birds and Neighbours

01 June 2012

ABOUT THE POEM One of the earliest, but least well-known, great Indian poets in English, Joseph Furtado (1872-1945) is now all but forgotten even in his native Goa. No edition of his poems is currently in print. This is a shame, because this self-professed “Goan fiddler”, who added cashew trees and tamarinds to the cornfields of English verse, could produce a beautifully weighted verbal music both melancholy and effervescent by turns. Furtado’s poetic subjects include landscape (“Land of palm and mango-tree/ Dear as life art thou to me.” he writes in one poem) and love, in which matter his speakers reveal a warmingly ecumenical taste (in one poem, the speaker professes a love for a mullah’s daughter; in another, he dreams of a lady who sits by his feet “And reads out stories/ Of Vedic glories”). But as poems like ‘The Secret’ reveal, the natural world was for Furtado heavy with human mysteries and silences; and his verse can be feminist, too, as when he sees women not just as objects of male desire but desiring subjects, in ‘The Neglected Wife’. Is the refrain of Furtado’s ‘Only Shy’ a pun on shayri, as Furtado suggests by his subtitle ‘An Urdu Song’? We shall never know for sure, but the best-known photograph of Furtado shows him late in life with a white beard even longer than Tagore’s—and as a creator of limpid verse effects he was in the same class.

The Secret

Every year you blossom, tamarind,

And the sunbirds seek you as of old;

Every day gay children, tamarind,

Come to romp around you as of old;

And, lo, every hour of the day

All these years I’ve waited, tamarind –

Silence! silence to the last, I pray;

It was all so fated, tamarind.

Pride consumes him, said they, tamarind,

And no pity had they, tamarind;

You the secret keep now, tamarind,

Keep it till all secrets are made known,

For I go to sleep now, tamarind,

Till o’er all the trumpet’s blown.

Brahmin Girls

I’ve seen the East, I’ve seen the West,

And truth it bids me this declare –

Of all the girls the Brahmin girls

Are fairest of the fair:

The Brahmin girls, the Brahmin girls,

The Brahmin girls so fair,

Upon their nose the ring of pearls

And jasmine in their hair.

No more your Lauras, Kates or Jeans,

Your eyes of blue and locks of gold;

Mohini sweet, a girl as sweet

I never shall behold:

Mohini sweet, Mohini neat,

So maddening to behold,

With kinning chinning round her feet

And fas fis of the fold.

I met a girl at Nasik fair,

A Brahmin girl of beauty rare;

She smiled so sweet when I did greet

And bade me not despair;

But said all rude – confound the prude

She’ll drive me to despair –

“Ere you I wed go shave your head

Except a tuft of hair.”

Only Shy

(An Urdu song)

You ask me how I am

But I make no reply;

You think me impolite –

I’m only shy.

You take my hand in yours

And tears come to mine eye;

You call me timid dove –

I’m only shy.

You raise your eyes to mine

But I look down and cry;

You fear I do not love –

I’m only shy.

The Neglected Wife

(A Goa Song)

Three years this day – nor more nor less –

Though married I have been,

I know not yet what marriage means,

And now I’m past eighteen;

And this young age creates a rage

Of such desires, upon my breast

This end of saree will not rest.

My husband he to Bombay went

Now three years but a day:

He writes so seldom, never writes

When home return he may,

While all declare I’m young and fair;

But what is beauty, youth to me

Deprived of love and liberty?

On Sundays, when to church I go,

For love, not God, I yearn;

The young men there they smile to me

And I their smiles return.

May God forgive the life I live,

But when I think upon my lot

I can’t suppress the sinful thought.

I went last week to a wedding feast;

The youth I danced beside

And danced with too he danced and said

“I would you were my bride!”

I felt so glad, I felt so sad,

But felt too shy to make reply

And tear on tear came to mine eye.

This morning I confessed in hopes

Some comfort I might win:

A fool was I! – the cold old priest

Sees naught besides my sin.

I feel so sad, I feel so bad,

May God upon me pity take –

I feel my heart is like to break.

Birds and Neighbours

When I was young and went all day

Bird-nesting, oft would the neighbours say,

“These birds will be his ruin.”

’Tis not with age my hair is gray,

And well might birds now turn and say,

“’Tis all his neighbours’ doin’.”