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.
|Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape|