Spiritus Mundi

By Jeet Thayil

I was born in the Christian South
of a subcontinent mad for religion.
Warriors and zealots tried to rule it.
A minor disciple carried his doubt
like a torch to temple and shrine.
I longed for vision and couldn’t tell it.

The cities I grew up in were landlocked.
One, a capital, buff with architecture,
the other lost for months in monsoon.
One was old, one poor; both were hot.
The heat vaporized thought and order,
drained the will, obliterated reason.

I settled, 20 and morose, in a town
built by a patricidal emperor
whose fratricidal son imprisoned him,
for eight years, with a view of the tomb
he built for his wife, to remember her.
I was over conscious of my rhyme,

and of the houses, three, inside my head.
In the streets, death, in saffron or green,
rode a cycle rickshaw slung
with megaphones. On the kitchen step
a chili plant grew dusty in the wind.
In that climate nothing survived the sun

or a pickaxe, not even a stone dome
that withstood 400 years of voices
raised in prayer or argument. The train
pulled in each day at an empty platform
where a tea stall that served passers-
by became a famous fire shrine.

I made a change: I traveled west
in time to see a century end
and begin. I don’t recall the summer
of 2001. Did it exist?
There would have been sun and rain.
I was there, I don’t remember

a time before autumn of that year.
Now 45, my hair gone sparse,
I’m a poet of small buildings:
the brownstone, the townhouse, the cold water
walkup, the tenement of two or three floors.
I cherish the short ones still standing.

I recognize each cornice and sill,
the sky’s familiar cast, the window
I spend my day walking to and from,
as if I were a baffled Moghul in his cell.
I call the days by their Hindu
names and myself by my Christian one.

The Atlantic’s stately breakers mine
the shore for kelp, mussels, bits of glass.
They move in measured iambs, tidy
as the towns that rise from sign to neon sign.
Night rubs its feet. A mouse deer starts across
the grass. The sky drains to a distant eddy.

Badshah, I say to no one there.
I hear a koel in the call of a barn owl.
All things combine and recombine,
the sky streams in ribbons of color.
I’m my father and my son grown old.
Everything that lives, lives on.


Copyright © Jeet Thayil