5 New Delhi love songs: Why Dilli inspires me to write poetry

Where else in the world do smoke and dust distort the setting sun in such interesting ways?

 |  6-minute read |   03-01-2018
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What about Delhi inspires me to write poetry? Well, I am interested in the people and images that surround me. So to be fair and honest, I’d probably find inspiration for poetry somewhere else if I didn’t live here.

But there is something undeniably compelling about this city — it has so much gravity. Like London, New York and Beijing, Delhi is the centre around which the imaginations of so many people orbit — people all over North India dream of this place, of course, but so do people in Nairobi, Kabul… and London and New York. Coming from a city — Portland, Oregon — that imagines its best self to be New York City’s sixth borough, a sort of west coast Brooklyn, it is interesting to live in a place that does not care about how it is seen by, or relates to, other places.

dust_010318031829.jpgWhere else in the world do smoke and dust distort the setting sun in such interesting ways? Photo: Reuters

Delhi is a good inspiration for poetry for other reasons. For one, it’s a place of sensory extremes. Where else in the world do smoke and dust distort the setting sun in such interesting ways? Walk outside and listen for a moment. Do you hear birdsong, horn blasts, the call to prayer?

Have you seen hail in May, the day after you felt tarmac go soft under the weight of torrential heat? For poets who work with images, access to this kind of sensory palette is wonderful, because, in addition to being evocative in their own (literal) right, these intense, everyday images can also work on a symbolic level to conjure up other powerful feelings and ideas.

warmth_010318031857.jpgExtraordinarily segregated. Photo: Reuters

Of course, in spite of the fact that so many different kinds of people, from so many different places, come here and end up living so close together, in many ways Delhi is an extraordinarily segregated city. This segregation contributes to many of the larger social problems we face. It can also limit us in the arts. For example, it is rare that poets writing in English get together with poets writing in Hindi. And it is rarer still to see people of different classes meeting to discuss ideas except those related to the terms on which we will exchange labour or goods.

All of us are poorer for these communal, class and gender divisions and inequalities, and it is not the job of artists and intellectuals alone to solve these problems. But over and over we’ve seen — from the Bhakti poets to the little magazine movement in Bombay to the library and literacy movement in Kerala — that good art and thinking can come from efforts to see and reach across the things that divide us.

new-delhi-love-songs_010318033556.jpgNew Delhi Love Songs; Michael Creighton; Speaking Tiger Books

For me, these limitations and possibilities are part of what makes Delhi such a difficult and wonderful place to write in.

New Delhi Love Song

  • Smog and dust mix with the air in New Delhi.
  • I buy jasmine for her hair in New Delhi.
  • People come from everywhere to this city;
  • all are welcomed with a stare in New Delhi.
  • The finest things in life don’t come without danger —
  • eat the street food, if you dare, in New Delhi.
  • We push in line and fight all day for each rupee.
  • Who can say what’s really fair in New Delhi?
  • There is nothing you can’t find in our markets —
  • socks and dreams sell by the pair in New Delhi.
  • So many families on the street through the winter;
  • sometimes good men forget to care in New Delhi.
  • Friends ask, Michael, why’d you leave your own country?
  • I found jasmine for her here, in New Delhi.

On the Badarpur Border

  • We take the Violet Line as far south
  • as it will carry us and start walking
  • into the borderlands. You tell me
  • you are looking for a language
  • with which to speak of this place
  • and others like it, but I have little to offer:
  • I’m not even sure what state we are in now,
  • and when you ask, I can tell you neither
  • the name nor the source of the dark pool
  • that rests there between worn bricks
  • and hard ground; it hasn’t rained for days,
  • so I suspect it is fed by one of the small drains
  • that run through the jumble of shacks
  • that line this road, but we’re not close
  • enough to smell it, so I can’t be sure.
  • There are mysteries in this land
  • between city and sprawl
  • that would take much digging
  • to uncover: the origin of the cluster
  • of well-built flats we passed through
  • just now, or how much of the green
  • and brown hillside near the railway tracks
  • is trash and how much is soil —
  • whether we should name it ‘landfill’
  • or ‘landscape’. Of course, there are things
  • I’m more confident of: I’d call that oxcart,
  • an ‘oxcart’, and that auto, an ‘auto’,
  • and from their lean and smiles,
  • I’d call the pair of straight-backed men
  • that just pedalled past us, ‘friends’.
  • In the end, so much depends on us:
  • we’d agree that the rows of new and used
  • bicycle wheels hanging outside that shop
  • are ‘cycle wheels’, but while they remind me
  • of a cycle mechanic I once loved in Portland,
  • for you they will conjure something different,
  • and perhaps even more beautiful.
  • I don’t ask you about the fine dust
  • that floats all around us, but to me
  • it tastes like grief and home,
  • and as for the smoke that hangs
  • between us now, it is a ritual,
  • but what I don’t tell you is that for me,
  • it is also a prayer, like the point in the Mass
  • where the priest says,
  • Pray, my brothers and sisters,
  • that our sacrifice may be acceptable.

delhi-_cs-_010318032533.jpgHome to dust, smoke and spring. Photo: Charu Sankaran/DailyO

Escaping Chirag Dilli

  • Four boys grip the wooden sides
  • of the three-wheeled cycle-cart,
  • pushing it through the August heat.
  • A fifth sits in front, steering,
  • his legs too short
  • to reach the rusty pedals.
  • Already listing under its load
  • of water jugs and cans,
  • the cart lurches
  • when its front wheel catches
  • on a crack in the road.
  • As the others yelp and groan
  • against the weight,
  • the small one hurls himself
  • onto the handle bars
  • just in time to right the leaning load.
  • The older boys slap his back
  • and suck wet air, while he
  • raises his shaking right hand,
  • flies it in an arc above his head
  • like the cricket star he has seen
  • on the TV at the local milk stand.
  • Later, while the sinking sun
  • throws its last light over the long lip of the earth,
  • he will relive this moment
  • as he flies a two-rupee kite
  • made of thin paper and sticks.
  • With gentle tugs and pulls,
  • he will ease it through the sluggish damp
  • that clings to Chirag Dilli’s ragged roofline
  • like a sweat-sodden shirt,
  • then higher, until it joins
  • the dozens of other scraps of colour
  • that have escaped to stir
  • in stronger air.

smog-cycle_010318032745.jpgCycles and stars. Photo: Reuters

To Bhagwan Kumar on the Occasion of His Daughter’s Wedding

  • In the years that follow,
  • who will remember
  • the grimy walls,
  • the flimsy plates,
  • or the sweat-stained shirts of the men
  • serving golgappe and chaat?
  • Even the strong smell of urine that crowded
  • the guests at the tables nearest
  • the toilets will fade,
  • leaving a score or so of the groom’s men
  • dancing outside the wedding hall
  • to Bollywood tunes played by a full brass band.
  • The groom will arrive on a white horse,
  • a fat garland of 10-rupee notes
  • strung round his neck,
  • fireworks hanging above him in the sky
  • like burst pomegranates.
  • And you will be there, taking his hand
  • and leading him into the photo:
  • he and your daughter,
  • flanked on one side by his parents,
  • on the other by your wife
  • and by you, in your brand new suit,
  • chin lifted, back straight,
  • showing no sign of your smile.


Jantar Mantar Observatory, Delhi

  • It has been nearly three hundred years
  • since Maharaja Jai Singh II
  • built this colossal collection of arcs and lines —
  • this impossible children’s toy —
  • to measure the present
  • and reckon the future
  • through careful observation
  • of starlight and shadow
  • on stone. Just outside,
  • a coconut-milk seller sits
  • on a wool blanket laid over
  • brown grass and dust.
  • To his left is a pile of green coconuts,
  • to his right, a long blade
  • and a bundle of drinking straws.
  • Above, lodged in the contours
  • of a massive tree,
  • are the remains of incense
  • from his morning prayers,
  • a tiny portrait of Lord Hanuman,
  • and several bright orange marigolds.
  • Today, I see the coconutwala’s tiny son
  • climb onto his father’s shoulders.
  • As his hands explore thick black hair,
  • he holds his face still,
  • less than an inch from his father’s head,
  • just as I did when I was his age,
  • just as I imagine Jai Singh did,
  • as he looked for signs of his future
  • in tiny white flakes
  • and in the smell
  • of soap and oil and age.

(Poems excerpted from New Delhi Love Songs, with permission from Speaking Tiger Books.)

Also read: Why India needs a poetry library for posterity


Michael Creighton Michael Creighton @mocreighton

Delhi poet, library movement activist, teacher, cycle commuter.

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