Fakir

by Cornelia Rohde

In the snaking gullies
of Nizamuddin,
a cochineal-robed fakir
moves softly on bare feet,
winding his way
through pungent smells
of moradabadi biryani,
dahi butter chicken,
stalls of sweets: kheer in earthen bowls,
virulent orange squiggles of imarti,
hawkers of jasmine garlands,
rainbow bangles,
ubiquitous paan wallahs.

Body hung with holy beads,
hair twisted wild,
holding a staff wound
with many colored ribbons,
strings of prayers
tied to his wrists,
his eyes present and distant,
still and volcanic;
a wandering ascetic
whose only demand
is to draw near to God.

I find his iridescent spirit
in yearning gawwals
sung at Dargah. 
I hold their longing
close within me.

Hair of Crocus

by Cornelia Rohde

Lay a saffron stigma on your tongue.
Watch it bleed deep golden, the glow of Cleopatra’s
skin after diffusing pinches of it in her love-bath.
At Nero’s orgiastic bashes, cakes lewdly squirted
bursts of yellow when squeezed by bawdy guests,

and Pliny the Elder suggested ‘hair of crocus’
in wine to cure a hangover. It is a paradox,
that a thin red thread can provoke snorts
of raunchy laughter, yet too much of it
make the liver shrivel, or cause a costly Saffron War.

I want to drink it as pure, radiant ruby tea,
while I look out over a mantle of purple blooms
at Persian fields unfolding in the morning sun.
I will have reveries of amorous Krishna in his golden dhoti,
stealing robes of gopis while they bathe, and conjure up his home,

where I saw a blazing sea of sunflowers turn their faces
to the light, and meadows of shining marigolds
raised for offerings to the gods.
In that land I will be gifted saffron rice again,
and journey with its blessing.

Hunting a Tiger Without a Gun

by Cornelia Rohde

The jungle splits open.
Two hundred kilos of steel
shoots out snarling.
My knees grip
the hide of the elephant.
His scream slices the air.
Fearful of fangs and claws
hurtling at his heart,
he swings sideways.
I fight for balance on his back,
grasp at strands of his hair,
blood thundering in my ears.
He surges back,
tusks set to gore.
He lunges forward bellowing.
The tiger menaces, rumbles,
melts in retreat.
My teeth unlock.
My breath explodes.

Indian Miniatures

by Cornelia Rohde

Sheeshpal lifts both hands
off the wheel of his flying taxi,
presses palms in prayer,
inclines his head to Lord Shiva
splendid in garlands, stone
statue in a roadside shrine
flashing neon lights.
I beg his god to spare me.

A lime green parrot coasts
into a gulmohar tree.
Chatty socialites
titter, “Isn’t he so cuuuute?”
suck pink gin fizzes,
munch croissants in Khan Market.
In Lakshmi’s garden,
two emerald hummingbirds
sip red shaving brush blossoms.

VIP cars sweep
past security blockades,
where I queue with Ghazal devotees
in rumpled Ludiana woolens. We
file past endless checkpoints
to savor classical love songs,
sip chai in clay cups
under floodlit royal palms
next to Humayan’s library
made of warm rose sandstone.

Strands of seed pearls round my neck,
I wear yards of swishing silk.
I’m stuck in traffic
with my window open
to breathe cool Spring air.
A stump of arm thrusts at me,
its dangling nipple
a half filled flesh balloon.

Ira’s hand flashes
a lavish ruby jewel.
She confides she bought it
with her horoscope’s advice
to cure her skin rash problems.
Large rubies are so ugly,”
her well-bred voice intones,
that’s why Mummy told me
To encircle it with diamonds
.”

In Connaught Circle,
a Vodaphone salesman
interrupts my request
to glare darkly at his colleague,
snaps a rebuke, accented by
his wagging head:
It is very logic problem
you are having
,”
smoothly swivels back to me
to carry on with business,
like all of Delhi’s millions.