Thursday Poem

“To each Begum is to be delivered as follows:
one special dancing-girl of the dancing-girls of Sultan Ibrahim,
with one gold plate full of jewels – ruby and pearl,
cornelian and diamond, emerald and turquoise,
topaz and cat’s-eye and two small mother-o-pearl trays full of ashrafis.”
………………………………………………. –Babur, royal letter

Dancing Girl

I was born with a gift but now I have become one.

Kabul is cold.
Hardly the place to be dancing with naked feet.

The women I live amongst understand nothing
Of the craft I was bred for.

I would be lying if I said I no longer miss home,
Though I try not to dream of my years in the south.

The few friends I had died on our way here.

When those geese flew past the fortress turrets last night
I knew what I had guessed often before:

That all flight was impossible.

The stern ridges we crossed to get here,
Stare back at me now like the walls of a tomb.

They speak a tongue I am only beginning to learn.

When the Emperor’s men came for us,
I knew our world had ended.

The commander-in-chief had me first,
Then the other soldiers who came to fetch me.

I gave myself with rehearsed compliance.
This ensured it would be over quickly.

I was neither broken nor enraged.
I am used to this sort of thing.

When we were taken from our homes
I pitied myself,

But feel sorrier now for the woman I serve –

Poor, closeted wretch,

Always so full of her busy, curtained self,
With never a glimpse of a simple way out.

Let her believe I beat this living earth with joy-stung feet,
Simply to please her.

That I endure this restive thrumming in the veins,
This dilemma in the muscles, this ache in the nerves,

I leap like a flame then fall like a hunted deer;

That I bind the deadly five before I befriend them,
Rejoice in the four,

I slice the fourteen into gleaming smithereens of time,

I scatter, I glean, then swirl,

And make peace in a glance with the hostile north,
The hallowed east, the lost gardens of the south,

And the ageing west;

That I twist and whirl, I careen and caper,

I admonish a meddlesome god,
Then stare him in the eye,

Only to enliven her listless afternoons.

Let her believe these lissome shoulders ripple,

These elbows lengthen into floating stems,

These fingers blossom into moonstruck lotuses,

At her command.

She has seen too little of either joy or servitude,
To guess what makes me move like this.

I dance because a demon commands me to –

Though I have known, at times, a steady swirling

That opened my ears to rumours in the blood
Of one greater than him I dance for –

But enough of this, I have been summoned.
There is the doorway and this arch,

A cold stone floor in an adjacent hall,
And no time now, for reflection.

There is this stubborn compulsion to move,
This ancient reticence in the muscles,

This fear, this lust and this primeval trembling
At the thought of the demon I serve.

A wreath of wild flowers to tie into my hair,
A cold wind from the mountains,

My string of brass bells,
The quivering of a drumskin,

The hall, the floor, the dance.

by Anand Thakore
from: Mughal Sequence
publisher: Poetrywala, Mumbai, 2012