Your Fallen Profession

We saw you as we entered the dining hall:

sitting awkwardly, the only lady

wedged between rows of men.

Head covered in a sari of bright brocade,

made up cheaply, lips painted

gaudy red, you ate with both hands

in clumsy silence.  Your chaperone,

an older woman, coarse and jaded,

looked up slyly now and then.

When we passed, we smelled

the embarrassing mixture

of loud scent and sweat.

You were the "stellar attraction"

of an old-style poetry contest

organized that evening

by the Cultural Union of our college.

I regarded you with amazement:

dressed in shabby finery,

wolfing mouthfuls of rice in haste.

Surely, your profession had fallen on evil days.


Your companion and opponent on stage,

unctuous, obese, middle-aged,

red-mouthed from chewing

too much tobacco and betel nut,

had called himself

"Sovereign Monarch of Poets."

Both sides were suitably accompanied

by back-up musicians on harmonium and tabla.

Finally, in the last row on stage

sat the hangers-on, doing nothing,

but clapping, in rhythm, for encouragement.


With the spotlight on your face

you began the contest.

In your high-pitched, nasal drawl,

one palm to your left ear,

the other pointing diagonally

to the roof overhead, you invoked

the blessings of the All-Merciful;

then, sang a verse

questioning the fidelity of men.

The Sovereign of Poets

smacked his lips, knowingly

winked at the audience,

and launched a strain

on the irresistible beauty

of women, not to mention

the gestures to your person

that were not too decent.

Jarring music, the over-zealous

clapping of your comrades,

your own sighs, so clearly contrived,

more lewd gesticulations

from your counterpoet,

drew disapproving mutters

from this upper-class audience.

At last, in a desperate attempt

you blew a kiss at us men.

"His Highness" guffawed approvingly,

threw a marigold at your face.

Disgusted, our Principal walked out

followed by half the audience.


I don't doubt that you were paid your fees,

but I wonder if the artist in you rebelled

at your humiliation and our contempt.

That night did you go back to your den

to entertain doddering gentlemen, gone to seed,

languishing in hazy memories of bygone days?

Would the occasional wealthy profligate

with the coveted hundred-rupee notes obviate

even this decorous pretence?


You departed into the darkness

in a taxi paid for by the college

carrying in it your painted face

and a tradition of which,

though in another language,

I am heir.


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  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape