Eid Mubarak
At sixty-plus
one doesn’t look forward
to festivals –
and further proof
of the inadequacies
of the pocketbook

Preferable by far
is the view
in the rearview mirror

Summertime Ramadan
when fasting was a rite of passage
sweetened by lemonade
chilled with ice
at 2 annas a seer

20-20 eyes on the lookout
for the elusive
Eid moon’s
seductive smile

Henna leaves
ground to a paste
and copiously applied

The bustle in the kitchen
the syrupy sweet dish
and the chicken-pilau

The early morning bathe
the new clothes
with their pleasant factory smell
and cotton wads
soused in attar of roses
in the ear

The calisthenics
of collective prayer
the criss-cross hugs
to a count of three
the coins dispensed
to chanting beggars

The cheerful visits
around the neighbourhood
and naïve delight in company –
the pretty girls prettier
the plain ones less plain

At day’s end
a brazen moon
flaunts a saucy smile
a boy runs through clean air
across fields of fresh grass –

from his joyous heart
as I remember it
let me send you
through heavily polluted air
the heartiest of
greetings this Eid
though admittedly
it’s only
a teetotallers’ carnival
Growing up with strays one learns their ways,
making friends with the dust of hostile streets,
wary behind the nonchalant gaze, quick to turn
the silence of a greeting into warning growls,
ready to turn tail, skitter down dark alleys
and bark, bark, bark
as if Qiyamat had come.

Afternoons, back from Anglophone school,
I whipped off my tie and joined the local pack,
mid-ranking member of a motley crew.
Our leader, just years older,
carried neither knife nor knuckle-duster:
armed with a wicked sense of humour
he could turn anyone into a laughing stock;
we were always in stitches;
neighbourhood mothers looked askance.

One summer hols he turned serious for a lark,
a tin shack estivating between one tenant
and the next became a makeshift mosque,
I gave the call to prayer, God is great, great, great,
a fusion of raga and rock, he led as imam;
the neighbourhood rejoiced in the power
that lies coiled in disciplined devotion.

Hols ended, recipient of a Higher Secondary Certificate,
he got a job in his dead father’s office; after hours
regaled us with workplace jokes and caricatures,
awed us with plans to acquire higher power:
at dead of moonless night in a cemetery, stark
naked, he’d recite backward from scriptures,
and such power would then accrue, he said,
whipping out a dirty hanky and letting it swing,
that if he wished he could make Earth swing like that;
we joined in his laughter, more manic than ever.

He was out of his job soon after, his humour
of no avail, in fact a liability; rummaging
Wanted columns with growing desperation
forgot to laugh, grew morose, glazed eyes refusing
recognition to disciple and detractor alike.
One day he was ambulanced to hospital bleeding
through the throat. He’ll be alright now,
neighbourhood mothers said, he’s losing
the bad blood that made him sick,
but from overheard whispers we knew
he’d tried to kill himself. Thank God,
the whispers said, it was with safety blade,
not cut-throat razor. I began missing my prayers.
The dog catchers came on their periodic rounds,
caught a local stray and left; I dreamt
they were coming to catch me as well.

He came back a different being, put up
with attempts at a cure with good grace
until doctor, utterly out of depth, and family
sighed in mutual sympathy
and wrote him off as a lost case.

The rest of the story is easy to sum up
for nothing else happened in his life
as far as one could tell,
he became the local lunatic,
avoided people’s eyes and vice versa
as if he had a Gorgon’s stare,
grew skeletal in dirty rags, smoked
thrown-away cigarette butts
and in the depth of night
raged with inarticulate guttural roars and
hammered the steps he sat on with a brick
and alternately broke into hideous laughter

while the strays ran around
playing their own game of survival
and demonstrators ran into police bullets
and genocidal wars spread like brush fire
and refugees filled up maps
and independence lit up the sky with fireworks
and varieties of misrule flourished
and slums grew like leaves in spring
and trade and manufacture sped up like falling meteors
and every outfit grew a thousand eyes like Indra
to keep an eye on what was or wasn’t going on
and people scattered like autumn leaves
and periodically dog catchers came round armed
with warrants of arrest or deportation

and everyone forgot about him, my sometime imam,
until one day driving around the old neighbourhood
I spot him at a local shop waiting for someone
to drop a cigarette butt, and too late wish I’d stopped
to buy him a pack. No one has heard of him since
but reading or watching the news I often think of him
as of one who understood the desire for power
and the despair of not having it, and though I’ll not
take his name, fancying a dread taboo on it,
hear again his manic rage and manic laughter
as valid commentary on all there was or is or will be.

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