Sujata Bhatt


for my brother

The bird was fat-brown limp feathers,
half-deflated limp dull brown
and seemed to be sweating
all the time. And Nachiketa carried
it around in a floppy straw hat
fluttering orange ribbons with his mother’s sunny
rice-paddy green silk scarf inside,
nestling the sticky claws
and half-coma-shut eyes.
Yes, Nachiketa, five years old and frowning,
held the straw hat nest all day, walked
through the house from balcony
to balcony, upstairs and down
from terrace to garden and back again.

Did you know that long ago Nachiketa visited
great Yamaraj?* Yes, long ago
Nachiketa travelled through jaundiced grass
past choleraed cows, past black-lunged horses
standing before leprosied trees.
And great Yamaraj was not home.
So Nachiketa waited. Hungry. Nachiketa
sat on the dark doorstep in sunless heat.
Nachiketa waited for three days.

Then, Yama arrived delighted
with Nachiketa’s patience,
and Yama arrived ashamed
to have been an absent host.
And so of course there were three boons
to be granted, three wishes to be had.
Take your three wishes and please leave,
this is no place for curious children,
no place for the alive and Karma unfufilled.
But Nachiketa stood still.
Not wanting but asking.
Not wanting a thing but asking all.
And great Yamaraj relented
saying, oh all right, all right I’ll tell you.

The first time Nachiketa returned
from the house of Yama, his skin was yellow
and he slept in an incubator for a month.
The second time Nachiketa returned
from the house of Yama,
he found the bird wheezing and croaking
by the dirt road.
The eighth time Nachiketa visited the house of Yama
I followed, cursing every god, every being
every spirit that could possibly exist.
I followed cursing until Nachiketa returned
safe again.

Each time Yamaraj gives Nachiketa
a different fact, fresh secrets…
But what did he feed Nachiketa?
And what did Nachiketa drink
with great Yamaraj?
Sometimes I dream Yama’s hand
brushing against Nachi’s shirt
when he reached for a plate of something.

I walk about bored, I walk about
wishing I had such secrets - 
While Nachiketa sits in the garden
by the sunflowers
with the straw hat in his lap.
He sings all afternoon
while the bird wheezes back
and he continues singing
even when the bird does not move. 

*Yamaraj: the god of death