Shunaka: Blood Count

Karthika Naïr

Shyama, Sister, why
the need for dazed allegiance
to men? We’re canis
lupus first, familiaris
can come later – if it must.

Assurance befits
our kind more than reverence.
Remember, even
Indra – yes, him, lord of rain
and lightning, tsar of heaven –

could not command fore-
mother Sarama, divine
bitch, the dawn-goddess,
the fleet-one, Speech herself – she
that spins words into living

Earth and fades the night
with the glister of her tread.
Yes, Sister, Indra
had to yield, repent and beg
till Sarama agreed, stepped

in, saved his sphere, seat
and skin: those gods, ornery
buggers, would have carved
lush, new planets from his scalp,
had their holy cows (their sweet,

charmed milk, above all )
stayed missing. You know, the time
heaven’s herd AWOLed?
All snatched by Panis, dark cave-
dwellers the gods named demons

and consigned beneath
the ground? Seers and minstrels ( both
godly and bovine)
hymned the great rescue and her
role – vital, valiant – therein

again and again:
in books five, one, three and four
of the Rig Veda,
in the Atharva, and more.
Later, of course, the bipeds

would try their darnedest
to brand her traitor, faintheart,
Indra’s upstart pet;
would try to unspool legend.
But we know. We – mountains, trees,

birds and beasts, time, tide,
and the morning breeze – know she
obtained milk and food
for humans, brought light to earth
and truth to the mortal mind.

( Wear your name in fine
pride, Shyama: you share it with
Sarama’s firstborn,
the four-eyed, pied sentinel
on the stairway to heaven.)

Sister, we have lived,
loved, died here, since long before
this land became man’s
domain. We take no masters.
We claim no terrain. But men

kill and kill again,
scorch the rivers, rape the earth
and deluge jungles
with death, all to prove manhood.
The blaze that gorged Khandava?

Gorged snake and lion,
oak and sparrow, chital, pine,
chinar, gharial?
Strangled air and loam and stream?
It was gallant Arjuna.

His coronation
gift to the elder brother:
yes, Yuddhishtira –
the essence, they say, of all
that’s just and right – who allowed

a forest of lives
to bonfire into birthright;
the king Cousin Shwan
adores – why, I bet he’d trail
the bloke to the ends of hell,

the stupid, trusting
mutt! Can’t he see they don’t spare
even their fellow
beings, booby-trapping souls
through tortuous, wretched spans

in spiked-iron castes?
Imprint his birth on a man,
call it unchanging
(god’s own decree), manacle
his will, his brain in belief –

such a masterly
legerdemain! Grandpa Shwan
(so much cannier
than our cousin) often howled
of Ekalavya, matchless

archer – yet low-born
tribal – whom Drona, guru
to prospective kings,
first rejected as outcast,
despite the lad’s striking skill.

Then, Grandpa would bay
(his pitch rising) of the day
Drona – with his horde
of princely pupils – espied
Ekalavya in action

(And Grandpa’s own role
in this sighting still distressed
his heart and larynx:
a dumb witness has control
on squat – least of all the lore.)

Drona, though impressed
by the boy’s grit and brilliance,
was mostly aghast:
Arjuna, his favourite,
had to remain unrivalled.

Besides, how could he –
royal preceptor, himself
a loyal Brahmin –
permit low-caste whelps to win?
So he claimed a teacher’s fee.

The thumb of his right
hand – an archer’s golden arm –
Drona would demand
of the lad: a gruesome price,
sealed in Eka’s gore and flesh,

in his buried dream.
I have little more to say
of this strange species
you would serve, whom you esteem
worthy allies for our kind.

Except this: beware
of their wars and victories,
how friends may become
captives or janissaries.
Fetters are not always felt,

nor seen. Dear Sister,
do not bear their sky, it holds
blood – the blood of kin.
Do not share their bread, it reeks
lifeless earth: the final sin.

A Double-Income Family
Pyre