And when the scented smoke rises,
what does it bring to you?
I call back a moment by a grave in a township by the sea
where they prayed to a different god,
where I first found the agarbatti.
With a painted hand she holds them into a kerosene fire
then blows the flame into a dull orange glow.
In a corner by a picture, by a finger-painted Om,
she fills the room with its perfect scent, and makes a temple of her new home.
He strikes a match, and starts to sing.
A raga fills and lifts itself into the air
to mate with a fragrance that waits silently there.
She covers her head and bows in prayer. Behind her it burns.
She turns. She turns. She folds the corner of her mat.
She blows a blessing on her baby's face and lifts him, laughing,
to the flower-filled air.
She wraps herself in white and turns
from the heavy fragrance that will haunt her forever,
as ashes fall softly to the floor.
We light the incense to meditate.
We light the incense and say, He is Great.
We light it to mourn and to celebrate.
We share it with the ones we love,
and with the ones we hate.
(written after Ayodhya)
I wrote this poem after the tragedy of Ayodhya - the destruction
of the Babri mosque, the riots and communal violence that followed.
Raju, my dhobi (laundryman) was from Ayodhya. He told me
that his hometown had been a place where Hindus and Muslims
lived together peacefully. When he fixed his daughter's
wedding plans, he went, as is the Indian custom, first
to the elders to get their blessings. The first person he went to
was Chacha, the eldest of them all. 'Chacha' is an Urdu word
for 'uncle', more specifically: father's younger brother.
Generally speaking, only Muslims have Chachas.
But Raju is a Hindu, and he has one.
Raju and I sat there that evening in Bahrain, surrounded
by fresh crisp linen, wondering how it was that such things
as division and hatred come to be.
And so to the poem, again, which wonders this too.
My associations with those fragrances are quite specific:
Amber is meditative. I first found it at Pondicherry,
a place for seekers. Sandalwood is sacred. Musk is
sensual and heady, much as our music can be. Jasmine
is pure and innocent. Frankincense is sometimes all
that lingers when the men take away a body for burial
or cremation. None of these fragrances belong exclusively
to Hindus or Muslims or any other form of spirituality.
But the smoke disappears into the air, the ashes are swept aside,
and so we hardly notice how much we share.