By Michelle Cahill
The road leads us away from the temple of Pārvatī,
from the iris of the spotted hawk, red and gold satin,
the smoke of burning dhoop and coconut offerings.
Away from bells touched by the fingers of pilgrims.
As we wind across the range down steep hairpin bends,
we are losing our mukti, already forgetting what we have left;
the deva loka. The red dirt crumbling beneath our sandals
was the undoing of nāmarūpa, a reminder of Shiva’s hip
thrust in tribhanga against the gravity of this place.
Beyond us, the peaks of Trisul, Kamet and Nanda Devi,
the Gharwal Himalayas, binding like a white turban
wave after wave of denuded hills and barren ramparts.
Blood-coloured as a lotus, the sun descends, setting
alight the candles of juniper, sal and bhojpatra,
the sky’s oxides, the dust of Dehradun.
Each bend in the road is a new discovery, an act of faith.
We glue our gaze to what lies ahead: a crossing of cattle,
donkeys weary from the day’s toil, goats feeding on riverine scrub,
children playing cricket, the maids and gopis of some myth
or chanda collecting fuel and water, the road workers,
constructionists and wielders, dressed in thongs and scarves,
carrying their hoes, spades, sieves.
Soon we’ll be back in the town with its car horns, its tinkle
of cycles and rickshaws, its smells of oilcake and cardamom.
We’ll return to the house as vendors close their stalls,
as monkeys loping from a telegraph wire cast shadows
as a street-sweeper burns his rubbish for warmth.
Laksmī under Oath
I left my footprints on the threshold
of ancient temples, pointing
inwards, like the flow of fortune.
In 200 BC, well-intentioned seers
fashioned me, etched in bronze
on lintels, the gateways to the city.
The land was barren, a salt marsh
where Indra slayed a three-headed fiend,
pole stars drifting, and rivers forked.
How my parasitic limbs ached,
my breast cut off, its vestiges leaking
milk. I was spared of Vedic hymns,
a self-sovereign. The villagers
offered testimony in ricecakes, garlands,
jhoti. Untouchables defiled me.
Brahmin beggars stalked me, carping
for centuries. From that sensual debut
I was glitter in the ocean’s foam.
Here are my breasts, and here
are my twenty acrylic nails, my spinal
brace, my club feet and pressure sores.
All this lotus mania! Crouching in Ganges
mud takes its toll. Even poets are stalking me.
I am dripping in gold, they can’t resist.
Close-up, the room is full of strangers,
shaking, coughing, as I sign the affidavit
(in my red half-slip) and swallow a pill.
Vishnu, I am not bipolar, I am post-op,
with a restylane flush, on a spending spree,
unfolding in you, as the moon would.
What was it like to be dead? Not crucified or entombed,
whichever way you turned, your head sliced from your body
by Shiva’s sword, while Parvati detoxed in a scented spa.
To be shaped from sandalwood by the hands of a goddess,
to invite the gesture of a mudrā, to be remodelled auspiciously
by a north-facing elephant, a svástika, a seal of the ancient Indus.
Lord of the ganas, a woman’s dangerous moods returned your life,
improbable and half-remembered. You are not the father’s phallus.
You guard the granaries, the terracotta tablets and inscriptions
of those cremated and uncremated. The heroes in temple carvings,
comic books, television dramas, and gold-foil Tanjore paintings
were recorded by you for Vyasa, the sage. What tectonic affair,
what orogeny hurtled you into the present? I wonder by what
Gangetic detour you arrived—Beas, Yamuna, Bhramaputra?
Perhaps your chakra is subterranean and your mantra a trinity.
Aum precedes afterlife: in one incarnation you are three worlds.
Your appellations translate appearance undecayed: a single tusk,
the fecundity of a potbelly and the feminine noun for wisdom.
I dreamed you came riding past my house on a skateboard.
Christ chose a donkey. But you, a spiritual pest inspector, arrived
to clean out the cobwebs, to expose the heart’s furtive parasites.
There were rodents and menaces of all kinds I needed to subdue.
It was not by judgement, or prophecy, nor the visions of Ezekiel.
I had no wish to restore the dry bones— all I wanted was release.
You bridge the living gap between Brahmins and Sudhras.
Congress pitched you, a symbol of protest against colonial rule—
god of everyman, everywoman, all sects. In the pantheon
of deities your rise is phenomenal. Ganpati, you’re a celebrity
dancing in stone, wood or plaster. Acolyte or principal divinity,
you are a god of transitions, passages, doorways, merchants.
Once at Chathurti, I saw you on a bright red pandal adorned
with vermillion, kumkum and modakas. Bhangra and hip-hop
played as you sunk beneath silt to where the river touches earth.
Michelle Cahill is an Australian poet and writer of Goan-Anglo Indian heritage. Her short story collection Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo, 2016), won the NSW Premier's Literary Award for New Writing and was shortlisted in the Steele Rudd Queensland Literary Awards. Her honours include the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award, the Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize and the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Prize shortlist, among others. Her poetry has been critically acclaimed, ‘The End of Dreams,’ in her publication The Herring Lass, (Arc, 2016) was highly commended for the prestigious Forward Prize, and shortlisted in the Helen Anne Bell Poetry Prize.
These poems were first published in Vishvarupa, UWAP, second edition, 2019