is a representative selection of poems written in or about India, spanning
the four visits to the country I made between 1986 and 1998. India is,
without wishing to sound flakey or just Californian, my spiritual homeland.
As a Celt, my ancestors trekked from the Subcontinent once upon a time; I
often joke that my first marriage didn't work because of 'racial differences'
but there's a truth to it. She was English: Anglo-Saxon. It was never going
We once had a blazing argument in St. David's Hall, Cardiff, during a
lecture: it revolved around something the speaker said about 'ethnic
cleansing'. All I said was that her country had done exactly the same to Wales these
past 400 years, which she took exception to. Cue, as I said, loud argument.
The speaker looked up at us in confusion and his minders standing each side
of the stage reached inside their jackets to place a hand on what I assumed
was a semi-automatic pistol. She got up and walked out, I smiled benignly.
I suppose I'm on the Dalai Lama's blacklist now. But at least his henchmen
didn't shoot me.
Most of the poems in this book, it seems, are about death. Physical,
psychological, existential - call it what you will. But it's death nonetheless. Sometimes this is blatant,
as in 'I am in Calcutta, Death is on My Mind'. Although there's a remark that
'There is no ending in the black / string of going. ' there obviously is for
the hoards of starving, sick and destitute people - adults, children, babies
(death isn't choosy) - who don't enjoy the benefits of getting in on the
Indian I.T. boom early on. That is, 99.9% of the population.
Add to the list of death's victim's above, animals: 'And on the dead tide
birds palpate / reed grass, being led.'
For those not dead, there are those dying. They're everywhere: street
corners; railway station platforms; out of sight in the countryside. In
'Calcutta Streetscene' I tried to show a verbal photograph if that's possible
of the pavement outside a 5* hotel beside the Maidan. An old guy dressed in
rags is begging, with the well to do walking past him, heads in the monoxide-laden
air, ignorant; unwilling. I stop dead in my tracks because there's one
physical anomaly to him I at first don't believe: his knees bend forwards
instead of the way ours do. The man is a complete wreck, however you look at
it. I give him a few coins after I've aligned my eyes to my brain once more,
and he gives a beaming toothless smile that would have done Tom Cruise proud.
Albeit with better dentistry.
I notice something else about the man now, and almost laugh at what comes
into my mind: 'His tongue / looks healthy.' Yes, I was being ironic.
If you go to the Cinnamon Press web site you can listen to me reading 'Train
Incident, Tamil Nadu.' It's a straight, unembellished account of something I
watched unfold from my train window after we'd stopped in the middle of the
countryside. A mother was carrying a child in her arms; she was desperate and
scared. She stood right in front of me so I could see that the boy's face,
'from / temple to temple, nose to hairline /, had been slashed deeply. In the
poem I assume the train hit him, but now I guess not. He must have been dead,
seeing as how his brain, mashed and matt grey (I've never forgotten the exact
colour: when I see it now, in the street, in a painting, anywhere, I wince)
was dripping from beneath his skull through the slash across his forehead,
and forming a little pool on the baked mud. It was a saucer of mercury, full
of substance though, gloopy and ridged:
On the ground
beneath my open barred
cotton knitting the
stitch of death to the wool.
I've written about this episode several times since then, and I think about
it most days; even now, more than twenty-three years later.
The title poem, 'Monkey', comes from my last trip to India. My honeymoon, a
trip from Delhi down through part of Gujarat and back via Udaipur (gorgeous)
and Agra (a dive). Many of the places we saw in that State were razed in the
earthquake shortly after and I wonder how many of the people we spoke with
died in that disaster?
In a city called Rajkot (another dive - tip: don't eat the ice cream) my wife
had eaten the ice cream (doh!) as recommended in the Sickly Planet guide and was
confined to bed. Our window overlooked a Jain temple, the short space between
us and it spanned with green trees. Even though the sight was beautiful and I
was in a fairly good mood (I'd eaten the ice cream too, but this being my
fourth visit to India, my guts are like titanium now), I was overcome with an
urge to step off the balcony to my death.
Well, it takes all sorts.
It's not like this was the first time, and it certainly wasn't the last.
There were parakeets and a monkey gamboling in the trees, safe as houses, and
I imagined myself tumbling past the poor thing to the marble beneath. It was
so white, sun bleaching it further by the second. Though I wanted to, I
didn't. I probably thought back to that 'mercury pool' and worried about
someone - a woman in rags, hungry - having to watch my brain leaking out. Not
to mention clean up the mess...
into the canopy
perhaps it ends
leaves like green
folding me up
Don't, however, imagine that this collection is all doom and gloom: it isn't.
We learn from what we experience and what we see ('What doesn't kill us makes
us stronger' -though Nietzsche evidently hadn't tried the ice cream in
Rajkot). The trick of the poet is in pulling out the rays of light from the
darkness, and I hope this is what I've been able to do here. I love India, I
especially love its people: they're the kindest, most honest, most
fundamentally socialist people I've met; well, the poor ones. Money corrupts, after all, and
the Indian middle classes are as morally corrupt as the West's any day of the
India changed me: I'm probably only alive now because of the memories I have
of it. I'm especially fond of the weeks I spent in Kashmir, particularly up
in Ladakh living amongst Tibetan Buddhists. Fleeting images - yes, mental
photographs - flick through my mind daily, like a synapsed slide show.
The black, horned
Snow on the
© John Gimblett 2009