Diplomatic Baggage and other poems

Diplomatic Baggage and other poems

Six poems by Goa-based poet Manohar Shetty from his new collection, Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017)

Diplomatic Baggage

Something so sensuous as she
Rinses those greasy dishes, her
Glass bangles jingling like
Xmas bells, and the old porter
At that crazy station, his
Muscles ripple like the Atlantic.
And, oh honey, they’re so innocent
Yet so wise in their war paint—glossy
Rouge, even Duet Yourself
Nailpolish and bracelets of jasmine
As they pose cool as models
For those late night gentlemen.

And look how robust they are
(Those bright red turbans!)
In the wake of their cattle in
The burning fields; and yes, it was
Such a rare honour, that audience
With Her Majesty the Maharani
And no, she’s not squint-eyed
But a visionary. And we can only
Gasp as they trek miles uphill
To propitiate that eternal ice lingam;
It’s so transcending when
Millions cleanse their sins
At that sacred confluence.
Those street kids playing acrobats—
Aren’t they an amazement?
Check out that dimpled urchin—just
Like a crab, but so raw and tender.
And we can learn so much on

Love and bonding when the old
Widow pulls her crippled son on
That ingenious contraption;
And those omniscient eyes don’t
Blink as I answer her silent tears—
Just a few cents back home
But they go a long way here.

Her Dilemma

The constellations are only names to me
And I know that love is not arranged
After a quiet dinner in a dim hotel
With a stranger. But there, on plain paper,
In my grandfather’s neat hand, my horoscope
Stares up at me—the celestial bond examined
By parents of doctors and engineers
Fantailed by foreign degrees

Long as their Brahmin names—
Their height, gait and complexion, all screened
For a superior position on the vacant sheets—
While a stringent bank balance accumulates
For the grand celebration, and fancy plates,
Knives and forks brought from a trip abroad.
So much well meant love and labour,
And my mind giddy with change.

You, your warm presence like a fog;
Your few gifts span the room—
A ring too small that bruises my finger,
A silver bangle I wear to please you
And a tied pile of letters you wrote each
Second day during a long absence—
Carefully hidden away or casually explained.
All this grafted on me like a new skin
Without discarding the old layer.

Now the days close in like barriers.
The first rains thrum on the panes,
Tremble and drop from the taut wires.
The sea blurs beyond the window and all
That remains is a gull fighting the wind.
I sit here counting the days, coiling my will
To face them, their shocked histrionics
The penalty for loving, your strained love
Reward for the years of obedience. 


The waves are a right ragged gossip column
Scribbling frothy nothings on the beach.
The hooded tide regurgitates
Bedraggled bouquets and garlands.

In the anonymity of rocks the young
Lovers feel free to neck, their hearts
Out of breath. They’re not blessed by
The stars and are no match for their clan.

Together on a prenuptial mattress
In a cheap lodge, the castoffs
Take a vow with nicked fingertips.
At dawn he eyes the oil tanker

Blaring in from the horizon.
It’s all hands on deck for him.
She scrubs the galleys and kitchens.
Years later they stoke their own

Riches in those burning wells
In a desert kingdom with the tallest
Edifice in the world and gasoline
Incandescent in its blood.

They return to a garlanded welcome.
In the village that has exiled them
They’ve built a new mansion,
A kindergarten and a public garden.

The front pew in the Church of Our
Lady of the Immaculate Conception
And that prime spot in the temple
Celebrations are reserved for them.


He doesn’t stroke a white cat in his lap
But at his lofty gates smudge-faced
Pit bulls snarl like boxers
In a bloodied ring; his armoured
Jeep with an uncanny double
Is chaperoned by booming outriders.

His sentries wear safari suits, smart
Salutes and gleaming boots; his bulletproof
Vest inflates his chest, his veined
Neck under severe stress as it
Swivels from left to right
In his soundless limousine.

A revolver is strapped to his armpit.
(It’s rumoured he’s dumped a few
Eyewitnesses and snitches
In nameless graves.) He donates
Cash, cabarets and crates
Of booze to police and political

Parties. He loves action DVDs.
His neighbours wave at him
Brightly as he glides back home
With his coy mistress masked
By butterfly dark glasses, a teddy
Bear dancing at his windscreen.

At social gatherings they
Offer him choice tidbits, sweaty
Handshakes and the best seat.
They smile and smile at him
As he makes funny faces at babies
And shadow-boxes with the kids.

The Magician’s Last Bow

You’ve seen the tricks of my trade:
From the simple white rabbit
Plucked from a hat, the snipped ribbon
Unrolled back whole again to water
Poured into a glass deeper
Than a well and the usual macaw
Transformed into a dove.
That was my first routine followed
By my trim lady sawn into half,
Reborn whole to blow you a kiss
And the man locked into a closet
Resurrected amongst you in the crowd.
Now you know him to be a twin
And all the other tricks made perfect
After honing my skills to beat the blink
Of an eye, to make you believe in
Fleeting miracles—that was my mission.
Accomplished when you left, your feet
Afloat, your head light as a balloon.

Magic was a figment of my childhood.
It’s only work and practice made perfect.
Now I have nothing left, nothing as
Enthralling as making a train
Vanish or for me to rise unchained
From a drowned cage or to levitate
(The transparent twine lost in the lights).
I’m a magician, not a druid or wizard.
I do not bend a spoon with my
Magnetic will. If for a moment
You fell under my spell and believed
In make-believe, I will consider my life
Well spent and privileged. But allow me,
My faithful patrons, my friends
My last act before I leave your
Presence. Watch closely now
For the end of all my illusions.
Look, with a snap of my wrist,
A flap of this black shroud
And a cloud of smoke

I no longer exist.

The Old Scholar

My pupils contend I’m in denial
Of the newfangled, that I harbour
A chip on my shoulder—I defer
To that subtle electronic
Allusion, but in my defence
I reiterate those serial
Windows and secondhand
Encyclicals leave me
Cold or have passed me by
Like rain in another latitude.
I regret there are no manuscripts left
Handwritten with asterisked
Annotations or with barely legible
Scribblings in the margins that have
Invoked my careful exegesis.
I affirm that the aperçus on
Personal histories and the doodle
On the page to mark a pregnant
Pause are now sadly missing.
I note with regret the paradigm
Tilt to cold diskettes
From memorably musty
Notebooks or letters with franked
Postmarks from distant lands
Signed with that distinctive flourish
Of elegant serifs in royal blue ink.
I recall the frisson of discovery
Of those crumbling but lucid
Illustrations on a doomed future
Peopled by machines and automatons
Whose veracity my distinguished
Colleagues would often dispute.
I cannot invoke again that
Singular pleasure in perusing
A set of papers delicate as parchment
With that one awry alphabet
On a typewriter—now extinct
As the dinosaur—that stamped forever
Its hallowed genesis, its undisputed
Provenance. I bow sadly to my young
Charges and their instant knowledge
Borrowed with a simple click
Of a button from a universe
So ably charted and empirically
Established by my peers
And their prophetic wisdom. 

(Excerpted from Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017) by Manohar Shetty, with permission from Speaking Tiger Books)

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