Three Poems: Spring in Beijing's business district, Mosque (c. 700), Xian and Monsoon Nocturn

01 September 2013

ABOUT THE POEMS One of the more restless and wide-ranging sensibilities in contemporary Indian poetry appears on these pages this month in two incarnations. The first is the traveller, leaving verse footprints upon secular and sacred landscapes in China. The second, in 'monsoon nocturn', is the singer of the dirge that mourns and memorialises the passing away of a loved one, in this case the poet’s mother. Showing us this figure more voice than body, meditating upon “the squirming/shimmer of creation” and leaving behind an argument reverberating in the world, the poet manages to interweave cosmic time with generational time, the mysterious luck and patterning not just of life but of lineage. In Sarukkai Chabria’s vision the unusual verb “grains”, flitting like a weaver’s shuttle between rain, light, and time, suggests both the interplay of the world’s elements and dimensions with one another and the marks of human presence rippling across other bodies, other minds.

Spring in Beijing’s business district

Acres of glittering glass

towers tell the global tale

of power and anonymity.

On clean pavements, specificity:

slender magnolia trees

endowed with the ageless

asymmetry of spring efflorescence

stand bare but for buds

in pink and white. Nothing stirs.

Here primordial familiarity doesn’t

reinforce the power

of possible transcendence but

reverses it. Nature turns synthetic

and scentless; the heart relates

to man-made monstrosities.

Mosque (c. 700), Xian

Lacquered in late afternoon light

the ancient mosque constellates

as a sacred chameleon sourced

from mingled memory: toorki/

chini. The old desert dreams

of water surface as turquoise

tiles; the surge of the Dragon

sheens its winged roof of glaze.

Here peace emanates

through the proportions

of courtyards, clipped shrubs,

stippled carp in stone basins, fallen

light and carved calligraphy

in lapis lazuli: Allah hu akbar

The muezzin’s call is inflected

in Mandarin. Here the hunting heart

quells its hungers: the unfamiliar

is welcomed home through beauty.

monsoon nocturn

i.m. saroja kamakshi


neti, neti:

not this, not that either—

is an inadequate

definition of the primal

being she said, the squirming

shimmer of creation

adrift in the cosmos

can’t be contained thus

nor the refulgence


so abolish

oppositions, negate

negations, she said,

instead affirm, expand

the concept of the first

cause, come on, conceive

neti, neti

as: not only this, not only that either –

a single word

can birth universes

don’t you see?


was her unyielding


her singularity)


i walk alone

through puddles of sky


rain grains light

as tumbling sparkle

as light grains time

as a bath of polished slide, as

dawn’s rain-shot sheen, as

tube-lit shine on soused shadows

around us:

around us

the gift of graininess

grants presence

to the falling and

textures the ineffable

i remember her

through a gap

in rain

in snapshots

of time diffused

by grains of memory, by

the slow burnish

of living

that whets


but the implacable

rules of radiance

demand their price:

for burnish,

sparkle, polish,

sheen and shine

to emerge

and light

our being

grains of our substance

must first be scoured

and lost

Priya Sarukkai Chabria is a poet, writer and translator. She has written four books, the latest being Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions (2013). She is currently translating the ninth-century Tamil mystic Aandaal’s songs with poet Ravi Shankar, and is at

Keywords: china Indian English writing Travel memory mosque modern Indian poetry