The Family Saga Poem by Ayyappa Paniker

The Family Saga

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How unpleasant are those names, and yet
their bitter strength is splendid, splendid
too the human love that lighted the seven wicks
every nightfall. Wasn't it they that reared them all?
Laachi had planted the pomegranate of desire
in the south-eastern corner where it grew splendid;
and Uppali had a mantara in the north-east side.
Thus they grew, the pomegranate and the mantara,
fresh creepers always winding up the branches,
and fresh flowers blossoming on the creepers.
Flowers, even while withering in the dusk
or going off to eternity, guarded their pollen,
and were disinclined to sever connections. They
turned into fruit and ripened and grew sweet;
thus grew the pomegranate and the mantara
as the dusk turned into darkness, darkness into day,
day into darkness again, and again came the day -
seven wicks into five, five into three, and then one,
and again one into three into five into seven.
Black clouds fostered and fondled by summer
shed their tears, the shores of the lagoons
swayed, while there stood the brave one,
his mind unperturbed by the thunder-storm,
his feet unswerving in the wild roaring billows,
his hands unwearied; the brave one stood there
invoking with magic chants the lord of grains,
who would shower plenty on the virgin land,
rousing her and filling her with grain and gold.
His orders became dams and dykes, his thoughts
manifested as a thousand farmhands; with brushwood
and brambles they erected the dykes, the lagoons
drew back and yielded the fertile land, saying,
as the sea once said to a Rama long ago:
O Kesava, may your hands be fruitful, be fruitful;
Immortal thoughts are indeed the glory of the earth;
make you this earth rich with grain and fruit!
O Kesava, may your hands be fruitful!

The month of the Virgin passed, and the dewy sweetness
of Libra arrived, as earthen dykes arose, and lifting
the watery skirt, the lagoon told the farmhand Kunjan:
Go now, and whisper into your master's ears,
and tell him, the land is ready to receive the seed;
the sowing must be done with a full harvest in view.
The Pleiades festival of lights, and the Betelgeuse
festival of song and dance passed by; rich manure
flowed down from the hills; hundreds of workers
in country-boats; the spell of monsoon brought
the season of replanting the seedlings. No one
seems to have noticed how in two days' time
the seeds had sprouted, how two and three and four
leaves unfurled, how the flowers got fertilised
and turned yellowish. While the eyes kept a busy watch,
the emeralds of Capricorn arrived, promising pots of plenty;
the sprouted seeds blossomed and ripened to harvest.
The measuring baskets overflowed; half-filled bellies
got overfilled; the festival of harvest sang
of fullness at the new year!

The tale of a family with promises
yet to be fulfilled lengthens in many ways,
Recall now the splendour that crossed
the seas, the country and the city
made fragrant by a full moon in spring,
the light-hearted jokes and little acts of goodness;
recall the royal houses, the ministerial abodes,
paved with courage of diplomacy or
simple cleverness, the leadership of universities,
the life at the embassies; recall also
another figure, a figure that is cut up
like shadows into fragments in broken dream or sleep,
like a pledge unredeemed, like a sobbing whisper,
like a wisp of moist memory that makes you restless,
like the scent of a flower moaning through the breeze:
O Kesava, did your hands disappear
into an autumnal night of the dark moon?
On the pomegranate, the eight-petalled flower
blossomed abruptly, fell off its stalk into grief.
How many springs have come and gone, and yet'
they do return with fresh flowers;
how many flowers wither away, and yet
the gardens return to life; recall the mother
who rocked you in her lap and told stories
to entertain you and sang lullabies,
and fed you on the elixir of her breasts.
Recall again the promises, old times
that were brought home for confinement,
with the future yet to be born, families
that came together only to part, candle flames
that burn in the blaze of parting; the tale
of a family with many a pledge unredeemed yet
lengthens in many ways, many ways...

Time is spacious indeed, my love,
let us give up the weeping habit.
From what great depths emerge
even our gentlest smiles!
Don't we see, as we sit together
on the seashore, don't we see
the moon disc slowly unfold
and turn into the purple of
mango leaves and then into white,
tickling the sea into wakefulness,
and a thousand peacocks dance
with spread wings over the billows
rising from the depths? Don't we see
the innocence in the eyes of
guideless children disappear
as they get up and stretch
their hands and legs and emerge
into a shyness that petitions love
through a lotus leaf, and burst into
a Shakuntala, her accusing finger
pointed at the king, and then at the end
dissolve into a serenity, entrusting
the son with the father under the Kashyapa
shade. Bereaved are we all, separated
for long are the earth and heaven,
melting and rolling under the heat
of a grief, caused by an old separation;
melting and rolling and flowing are
these stringed stars and rivers and evenings -
all are bereaved and in isolation for ever,
in the heart of the jungle the granite rocks
melt, and in their springs there drip
the nights that rock the ocean; they too
are bereaved. Once during the night
I walked among the underworlds,
and there I saw, seated at a table,
one recording the history of man;
birth, birth = death, the birth of death,
and death meant the death of birth.
He too was slowly dying ...
So shall we end this lamentation.
Spacious indeed is Time, and my beloved,
this weeping habit we have to give up.

Tales that please must be told;
That's what human life is for,
If the poet's tongue matches in length
the ears of those that listen,
it will not bore; the tellers and
hearers will be of one string.
The tale of the bud on the temple tree,
rocked to sleep by the beatings
of bats' wings is not exactly a new one.
The clock with its eyes on the midday sun
striking eight, which startled
the village girl, is an absurd tale.
At the crossroads the hussy spits out
her betel roll, stretching her tongue:
unable to retell her tale of abuse,
the puranas have remained eighteen till now,
There is hunchback Janaki in the neighbourhood;
her hump was straightened by Kittan, but
it was Raman's name that was dragged into it;
his manners do not reveal it, though,
Where that hunchback neighbour is gone
is not quite known, nor do we know
how she got her bow-style ear-rings,
Raman perhaps knows it, but how can
we ask him, for he too is eager
to find out who really bit off his earlobes.
Many such tales fester in my village,
but they won't be very pleasing to you;
they will fill your ears with discomfort.

Once I was walking on the bank of backwaters,
my eyes ploughing the rice-fields, and I saw
and heard around endless tragedies, with a few
light comedies thrown in, all turning into
farces and riddles. The eyes were drawn in,
the ears rolled up; lengthening nights
stretched themselves over the rivers.
``Sweet rose, fold yourself; you are not
meant to bloom in this sultry daylight;
your scent and honey shouldn't be wasted
on this dry sand''; whose lament is that?
How did this song some to be heard
here on this earth where river sand
is spread over thick layers of mud?
The elders stand - tall palm trees of old
with wrinkled leaves and broken ribs;
their long penance has come to an end.
Time-fostered beetles and insects and vermin
have taken their place to gnaw at the leaf
and spine and trunk and roots and all.
Over the mud flows the river,
over the river flows darkness,
above the darkness are the blue heavens;
all is dark, all; but there is light
even in this darkness; dark is itself light;
to assert that is the task of man.
As a child I had one great sorrow;
it was that my village had no hill in it;
but now that sorrow is gone, for I see
hills of wickedness all around,
I see the social man is the source
of all power, and not the individual,
I see the bridge across the river of sin
built by the Panchayat. Gone is my grief;
holy and divine is the glory of man!

Sing to the glory of man, O
sing to the glory of man!
To the neighbourhood girl
whose belly is empty
he gives a full belly;
sing to the glory of man, O
sing to the glory of man!
Picking up the songbird
shot down in game,
the woodsman comes singing
of anger and grief and compassion.
Sing to the glory of man, O
sing to the glory of man
who pierces that woodsman
with another arrow.
Liberty, equality,
co-operation, fraternity;
truths are indeed of many kinds;
so sing to the glory of man, O
sing to the glory of man,
who roasts and fries
a generous spirit
and serves it for dinner.

Ayyappa Paniker

Ayyappa Paniker

Kavalam, Kerala, India
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