ABOUT THE POEM Karthika Nair’s poem, one of a series spoken by the “voiceless characters” of the Mahabharata, uses a poetic form that has its origins among the troubadours of 12th-century France, the sestina (six six-line stanzas, the last word of each line from the first stanza finding an echo in the following stanzas in strict mathematical order, and a three-line close). Uttaraa is the wife of Abhimanyu, the young warrior slain at the peak of his youth and radiance in the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Her utterance, at once lament and curse, evokes a future in which the cycle of violence will never be broken, since “hate, once seeped into bloodstreams,/ is an abiding love”. It is as if Uttaraa’s disillusioned gaze reaches out into time, registering proleptically the entire history of violence of South Asia. A versatile formalist, Nair here imaginatively works the viewpoint of a minor character in the epic into a vigorous, clashing and corrosive war music.
Uttaraa: I. Life Sentences
by Karthika Nair
The sky will not be sky again. It is dead
skin split open, drained of all music and blood.
Monarchs, ministers, nations, elders, fathers:
it will not be the same, the world you now own.
This I promise. You will never hear day break
into mute lucent song, never taste colour
again. Slivers of our trust will decolour
your waking hours; the screaming eyes of my dead,
all eight million, will plunder sleep; their broken
dreams — aged sixteen, lusty, loud — dance in bloodied
feet at the Council of Kings, dance ownership
of your crown. But, dharma, you state, must father
martyrs to save planets. Why then, Our Father
Who Stays Alive, why bring us new, colourful
balloons — faith, hope, freedom? Why brand us your own,
made in your image? What we are is deadly
disposable spawn, born benign (not bloodless,
imperfectly designed) then programmed to break
enemy battalions, smash unbreakable
armoured discs and self-combust for fatherly
glory. Yes, your dharma is a bloodthirsty
beast, a god decked in the primary colours
of dystopia: rusty, fetid, undead.
Rulers in righteous armour, you will not own
to filicide, nor bare the hands that disowned
your scions in their last hours. I must now break
away from your empire, shed this deadening
white guilt, end all myths on you, Founding Fathers,
and speak, speak, speak till memory brings colour
back to earth’s cheek and she rises, sparing blood
in torrents. But hate, once seeped into bloodstreams,
is an abiding love: its DNA owns —
already — our futures. Revenge will colour
tomorrow in shadows and ancient heartbreak,
the terminal kind, for mothers and fathers.
And I, for all my foresight, will count the dead
again with deadpan voice and bloodstained fingers;
will seek father figures for my sons to own,
ones who teach them to break and discolour life.
Karthika Nair was born in India, lives in Paris, and works as a producer in performing arts. The proximity to dance, in particular, is refracted in much of her poetry, which has been published in several anthologies and journals including Penguin’s 60 Indian Poets, Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, Terre à Ciel, The Literary Review and The Poetry Review.