a poem to redress desensitisation

Hey poetry pals!

I hope you and all those close to you are well.

This week’s poem from Tishani Doshi is confronting, so please don’t read it if you’d prefer not to. (tw: violence, extremism)

It is about the sectarian murder of Qasim Qureshi, a meat trader in Delhi. The man who killed him was a Hindu extremist, who later boasted on camera, ‘They killed cows, so I killed them’. The murder was filmed and uploaded to YouTube: in it, bystanders can be heard asking for Qasim to be given water. His attacker replies that ‘he has no right to drink water, he killed a cow’.

The background to this state of affairs is that in some states across India, the ruling government (the BJP) has banned the slaughter of cows, since cows are sacred in Hinduism. This has led to a spate of sectarian violence against Muslims and meat traders. In this poem, Doshi imagines the future response to the recording of such violence, before taking us back to the past – of the man who committed the murder, and of the man who was murdered. You might want to read it a few times.

They Killed Cows. I Killed Them., by Tishani Doshi

In the future we might all be vegetarian,
and this life will seem barbaric the way
a corset was or eugenics. We might look
at this man being secretly recorded, bragging,
They killed cows, I killed them, and wonder,
where was his mother? She might have spoken
of his childhood, how it was poor but decent,
how like that blue god’s mother she too gaped
into her son’s wide gob and saw the universe
once. Or she might have told the story of how
he was led astray by a band of men in uniforms.
Not brownshirts but pleated brownshorts
in which they practiced ideological calisthenics.
How she’s been standing at the crater’s edge
saying, Here, kitty kitty kitty, ever since.

Because this man, her son in the undershirt,
dear cadre, cow vigilante, he’s no gladiolus.
He sighs. Even his mustache is pusillanimous.
Maybe he was a Romeo in school. Maybe
he wields this stick to reclaim what he misses
most about his body, or maybe it’s always been
his dream to squeeze the messy limbs of this country
into a svelte operatic shriek. The camera gives us
a glimpse of his chin dumpling. He will go to jail
a thousand times without passing go, without
stopping to plant a tree or collect clean underwear.
He admits it was wrong to allow his boys to record
the killing. Jai Shri Ram. Silly to leave evidence
behind, even though they always go free,
even though the young lads enjoy it so.

And Qasim? The man they killed,
the green meadow of his life come to this,
didn’t his mother also once confuse the dirt
in his mouth for a galaxy? Didn’t he believe
a dying man had the right to ask for water?
In the future when people complain about how Gandhi
should have made a comeback, when comparisons
are drawn between YouTube and the Upanishads,
will they notice the bystanders in the frame,
their shabby shoes shuffling like lapwings
around the bloody censored blur of Qasim’s body?
Will they speak of the difficulty of watching him
thrash around for an invisible rope to steady
him home, the difficulty of us watching them
watching him being killed?

Or is that an illusion too? The way a magician
might swirl his cape to reveal his assistant
is really a robot. No damage done here, folks!
The way we enter the rooms of our past
like gunshots to say, Surprise, I’m still here.
No point carrying blossoms in your pocket
instead of a meat sandwich. Because even if
you did not walk the earth exultantly, even if
you avoided disposable plates and mourned
every glacier and strung a lattice of pearls
to the giant monument of love, there might still
come a day when you are hauling refrigerators
on a truck, or taking the children to a fair,
and when death arrives you must let him
strap you to a telephone pole, you must look
into his ten-headed face, and say,  Flay, brother, flay.

◊◊◊

In this poem, Doshi moves from a place of shocking violence to one of equally shocking tenderness. She imagines the murderer as a young child; she imagines his mother looking into his mouth to see the universe, in the same way that Krishna’s mother looked into his mouth (this is a well-known Hindu myth). She imagines the transformation of this adored child into the murderer of the video,  at the hands of ‘a band of men in … pleated brownshorts’ – a reference to the RSS, the Hindu extremist group linked to the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. What is striking is her parallel treatment of the man who was murdered: ‘didn’t his mother also once confuse the dirt / in his mouth for a galaxy?’. In this poem, both men are lifted from the violence of the attack back to their childhoods; we are forced to ask what went so wrong in the space in between.

The poem also places particular focus on the recording of the attack, which might itself constitute a separate act of violence. What is the appropriate way of documenting such brutality? Is it a YouTube video? Is it a poem? Both the bystanders of the video and we bystanders of poem are implicated in the violence – for our failure to intervene, for our silence. The poem ends with the possibility that the video is, like a magic trick, ‘an illusion too’: it exposes the desensitization that is so much a part of our modern recorded age, before disrupting that disengagement by taking us to the moment of our own deaths. The final moment, in which ‘you must’ look calmly to Death (figured as the ten-headed demon of Hindu myth, Ravana) and even give the orders for your own end, is unexpectedly terrifying. The camera’s eye, which before was looking at the attack against Qasim, now points directly at your face and places you in his place.

There’s a lot more in this poem that we can’t discuss here, but if you’re interested in hearing some more about it you can check out this link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/play/153246.

Love from,

Tanvi

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