poetry

Indus, 3180 km
- Akhil Katyal

"We'd push them off a peak, then they'd push us off a peak, but nothing significant happened."
-- speaking of Siachen, Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, retired Pakistani General

I

In Hyderabad
(no, the other one in Sindh, Pakistan)

Umair, after strolling aimlessly in the Giddu Park,
walks down the banks
of the Indus

and lowers his feet into the water
and finds, half lodged in sand

a fruit, small and dark,
like a custard apple

under the water
interfering with sunshine.

Curious – he had had nothing to do all day,
the school had closed for the summer –
he dips his hands into the river
and pulls at it.

II

In Siachen
(no, not in Pakistan,
not in any country, but in snow
where borders fall through crevasses)

in the glacier whose name means 'abundance of roses'

Vijay, after the daily training,
the evening ice-wind still whipping his face,
walks back to the camp

a file of soldiers long behind him

unthinking, he reaches for his back-pack,
for a photograph that he had stolen from her desk

in which he and Reema
then only twenty-two
pretend casualness against the fake bluish-white backdrop
of the photo-studio in Bareilly

it was a few months since they had met, and
their eyes are only roses

this photograph, Vijay reaches for, stealing memory from snow,
finding it difficult to breathe
memory stealing oxygen from air

and as if
under the weight of this breathing
– the backdrop in the photo studio
was snow-capped mountains –
of all this past coming like frost
and settling around him, he remembered another friend

long since gone back to the plains

who one day,
when the air was ice,
had held him close and
told how he now finds little things difficult

''the doctors,'' he said, ''call it cerebral edema,
there is no oxygen here

– Vijay, at that point,
found his eyes so blue that he wanted to give
all his share for him to breathe –

all this staying here,
this air, causes damage to the brain,
that is what they said.
I will carry the mountains
back to the plains as a kind of inability.''

In those first few days, he had not fully understood but
he knew from those words, which came slow
and measured

''People have to speak slowly to me now,''
he had said, ''like when they give their phone numbers,
I take time, I have to think, 'zero – what is zero?'"

and with this, as if something had struck

Vijay felt the load of his usual back-pack
heavier than ever before

tearing down his shoulders

no war is ever light but none
was heavier than this
none more futile than this – 'what is zero,' he had asked –
none more parched than this

why are the battles of the people of the plains
always fought in the mountains?

now, he felt the bluish-white all around him

– the colour of burning sulphur is bluish-white, the colour of hell is burning sulphur –

and, all passion now,
he began to unload his equipment
and throw it into the deep crevasse which
the soldiers' file was slowly edging

first the pick-axe, then some ammunition shells,
lightening the war, one by one

the soldiers behind him saw
and began to approach quickly, to keep him from this,
from harm, to hold him and explain
again

he threw three cans of extra-protein biscuits,
one fuel container

and when he made
his bag empty of almost all things

save Reema and him, rose-like, in the studio in Bareilly

he threw at last – the glacier received it as parcel –
as the light began to fade,
like a custard apple,
small and dark,
one grenade.

(for Nauman Ahmed)

Akhil Katyal is a writer based in Delhi where he also teaches literature at St Stephen's College. His poems and articles have been published in The Houston Literary Review, The UCity Review, The Minetta Review, The Litterateur, The Times of India, The Himal Magazine, Pratilipi: A Bilingual Quarterly, Open Democracy, Muse India, among others. His poetry collection is forthcoming with Westland Publishers.