from Novena to St. X — a poem in 9 cycles

It rains.

The jute fields fill with frogs giving thanks,
a din as loud and fervent
as wealthy Bengalis arguing
for some other brand of communism
in a Calcutta tea room,
cups clattering,
glasses misting as they bend to suck from saucer.
Other frogs sound their pleasure like guitar strings
plucked with such intensity they break.

Inside the cloister the sisters gather.
Outside, the last drunks eat their boiled eggs
over their last teaglasses of arrack
and as the prayed incantations
are drawn up by pitch-pipe drone,
toss insults and garbage
over the convent wall.
The wall has sickle and hammer graffiti
and the hand of the Congress party.
One holds, the others are held.
A metaphor for walls?

The nuns sing.

Their accents are varied.
What is the sound of rape in another language?
This is one reason some escape to this place.
Some are still midflight.
Brown birds in rough brown wool they now repair,
resting on this branch of labour
and the liturgy of the hours.
Their ears attend to the silence,
hear sanctuary.

The psalm is of sheep.

They remember their goats
in Coorg and Bastar
and understand with complete clarity.
The nuns pray for themselves,
for the busload of students
who ask their blessings for exams,
for the childless man, the sonless wife.
They understand husbandry,
grow cabbages by a carp pond.
The wall encloses pasture
for the most valuable thing they own,
a stud bull who comes to the prioress like a dog,
massive, steaming in the rain.

Ashram they call home,
work that is prayer that is work.

This is not easy.
It is like a bed of stone,
like their beds.

They pray for the obscene drunks,
for the muck-toed farmer turning his bullocks
in the slow suck of the flooded paddy field.
They pray for rain in the burning south
where their sisters ration water
even for tea, a southern leaf
from high blue hills with precipice-forests
wrapped in mist, bound
in filaments of stone-edged highway.

Their own tea is from well above the raincloud.
Darjeeling sits there,
halfway up the Himalayan sky,
and clicks her teeth in the fog.
Near enough to be heard over the fish ponds
with their milling rohu and climbing perch,
their glass surfaces now rain-hammered
into beaten copper at sunrise.

Eyes like the eyes of a slave
resting on the breath of her mistress,
to you I lift my eyes.

This is sung.
Then the boys and girls file out
in a hush of uncomprehending gratitude,
to the bus, to all the tests that lie ahead.

The sisters’ devotion is complete.

When the bell rings,
they eat breakfast.

In the quiet,
memory consumes them.