Disquiet: Autobiography: Canto One Poem by Koyamparambath Satchidanandan

Disquiet: Autobiography: Canto One

I came bursting open a proverb's belly
one afternoon of impending rain,
gasping like the salt that leaves the sea
fighting my exile from the dark eternity
of the dead and of gods
screaming against being hurled into
the loveless light of the living.

It was a difficult delivery,
recalls my mother, the labour was long.
How would she know
I had been hiding in my watery chamber
scared, without letting go of the umbilical cord?

I was a blood-soaked riddle, say the neighbours,
and still had only a single head.
Father says I was damp like a swamp,
with that marshy smell.
And sister tells me I was lean
having squirmed out of a folktale.

A huge question fell loose from the roof
suggesting an inauspicious birth.


The vayamp [1] was tasty.
It was only when mother applied the chenninayakam [2]
to her nipples to stop me suckling
that I gathered there were tastier things on earth.
The kanjiram tree [3] east of our house
was yet to bear fruit.

Lying in the rosewood cradle
smelling of the fear of generations
my ear learnt to distiguish between
a lullaby and God's voice,
my eye, between mother's hair and the night,
my nose, between the boiling paddy's aroma
and that of my sister's arrival,
my tongue , between the word
and the sour taste of tamarind,
my skin, between faher's touch
and the roughness of a blanket.
Mother feared I would turn into a toad
if the neighbours kissed me.
I yearned to go back to water.


Father was a cloud
whose dark back I rode;
mother, a warm white brook
that oozed milk and song.

The parrots knew my hunger;
they told the woods about it.
The woods offered me fruits.
The fish knew my thirst,
they told the rivers.
The rivers flowed into my cradle
and rain fell into my bedroom.

The yakshis [4] came with breasts
that would never dry up.
I wasn't there.
There was only hunger. And thirst.

In sleep I rode to my previous births.
I spread like grass and became
a psalm for the colour green.
I flowered like laburnum and became
a lexicon of yellow.
I knew the ecstasy of water
throbbing on peacock feathers and fish fins,
I turned into a leopard
and learnt the grammar of instinct.


One day I decided to stand up.
And with me stood up the world.
I turned around to answer my name.
The world also turned around.
A child beckoned from the mirror.
Behind him was a shadow.
That shadow grew up with me.
He ate what I ate.
When I slept he kept awake
and peeped into my dreams.
When I first looked into the well
I saw him in its open mouth.
He was there with me in all my births.

I was a letter that had fallen off from a word.
It is still looking for its word.
It tries sitting in each word,
and comes away knowing
no word as its own:
In the dictionary, alone, scared.


Serpents, lead me to the daylight
of the rubies in your burrows.
Jackals, carry me
to the nights of your howls.
Let me enter the world of the dead
on the wings of an owl,
let me touch an angel's wings
riding a rainbow,
let me take off from the back of a swan
and, passing through a lotus stalk
reach the other side of the earth,
let me become a bat, a palai flower,
a well-spring, a conch, a ripe mango.

Just don't force me to be myself.I am content to be others
I can't bear the burden of identity
I can't carry the weight of forms
Enough that I am
the sweetness in the sugarcane,
the breeze that turns
the pipal boughs into clouds,
the raindrops that turn into bells
under the earth.
Enough that I am the birdsong
and the will-o'-the-wisp,
enough that I am
fire, fire, fire.


Then I began walking
crawling out of the damp darkness of rooms
towards the razor's edge of the courtyard,
rising again to the sunshine's gold
playing hide-and-seek,
to the rainbows of the butterflies.

Every leaf invited me into its vein,
every flower into its fragrance and honey.
Grass caressed me with its tiny green fingers,
stones told me of the pains in store,
the first rain baptised me
into nature's religion.

I walked from sweetness to hotness;
salt taught the tongue to spell out words.

Did words come first,
or objects, I can't recall.
Was it the word ‘light' that became light?
I went up and down
the winding stairs of language,
chanted new words like mantras
to tame the world.
From the magic lanterns of words
came djinns who could conjure up anything.
With words they created
mountains, oceans, forests,
deserts, palaces and gardens.
Words were my stallions
to roam the world.
From words rose the sun, the moon,
planets, stars, the roc bird,
talking statues [5], speaking beasts.
Scared of the Sultan's sword,
words told a new tale each day,
earned a new name and shape in each birth
and became bodhisattvas.
Words became mirrors
to reveal the insides,
became keys to open magic caves.

One day a little index finger rode
the camel of a big hand
and wound its way along the sand
in praise of Vighneswara[6].
Along those crooked lines, later,
came suns, horses, flags, prophets.

Which was the real world?
Which is?


I saw fear
in the stagnant pond wrapped in weeds
in the leaf trembling in the moonlight
in the sand receding from the feet
planted in the sea at night,
in the single footprint on the courtyard.

A boy all skin and bones lay raving
at the height of his pneumonia,
a charm around his neck,
between dreams and the monsoon rains.
His mind roamed other worlds,
leaving the flesh to fever.
It was on that day
that it rained blood for the first time
and the four-o'clock flowers grew fangs.

I returned from death
and heard my mother's voice choke
while reciting the Ramayana's aranyakanda.[7]
I heard father,back from the shop
denied the day's ration, speak of war.
Saw a leper with his fingerless hand
reaching for a shoe flower
to offer a dumb goddess.
Heard an old woman, soaked in rain,
pray to the coral tree
to grow more foliage.
Saw the bluish corpse of my playmate
moving its lips to tell me something.

My infancy had come to an end.
A tree with red leaves and black flowers,
heavy with tempting fruits
shone in the sky with a million eyes.
A horned beast with hooves and a trunk
and seven crowns on its seven heads
rose, soaked in slime,
from the deluge in the paddy fields.

(Translated from the Malayalam by the poet )

[1] A bitter herbal preparation administered to new-borns.
[2] A more bitter potion to stop infant's suckling.
[3] Nux vomica tree.
[4] Heavenly maidens
[5] the salabhanjikas of the Vikramaditya tales.
[6] The Lord who removes obstacles. The reference is to the Kerala ritual of initiation into the alphabet, the child's finger writing a verse in praise of Lord Ganesha on the sand strewn on the floor, guided by the teacher's hand.
[7] The canto in the epic dealing with the life of the prince Rama in exile in the woods.

Unnikrishnan E S 27 November 2018

One of the rare long poems of Satchidanandan Sir. Always enjoyed reading and re-reading this poem in original in Malayalam. Delighted to see it in English. Hope poets worldwide can enjoy his poems. Let me quote a few lines.. Father was a cloud whose dark back I rode; mother, a warm white brook that oozed milk and song.

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Koyamparambath Satchidanandan

Koyamparambath Satchidanandan

Pulloot, Thrissur district, Kerala, India
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