Karthika Naïr







Karthika Nair talks to Global Poetry System:



Zero degrees: between boundaries*


I met them first in a land where borders

get blurred; where day rises before night’s end

and water morphs into high, brumal walls.

A warrior and a monk, two beings –

flanked by shadows that grow and roam at will –

cross-legged in thought, carving with four hands


arabesques on force, loss, fear – close at hand

– and some big runes – selfhood, death –  that border

waking hours, and shape dreams against my will.

Their words whirl in unison to the ends

of still skies, etch a tale of life being

pruned to papers; of puny men who wall


up futures, then watch unmoved as the walls

and roofs of egos tumble: sleight of hand;

nuke name, nation, calling – the very being

– then revel, leave the body on the border

of reality… the words trail              jerk/ end/

lost in this past,  unsure of where they will


be sent next. The shadows step in, strong-willed,

free; spin stretch swallow space and bounce off walls.

Warrior and Monk rise and mirror, end

to end, their shadows who recede and hand

the stage over; drift to the near border

and then vanish like mythical beings.


I leave thoughts on belonging, on being

and the zeroth law that I willfully

signed, and watch them – one compact, bordering

short; the other pale and spare – vault streaked walls

of culture and kinetic codes. Lock hands

embrace dodge thrust. The duet/duel ends


before I read which is which, if one’s end

spells start elsewhere. Threat and trust were being

swirled in synchronized moves till just a hand

was seen, a smudge. Then Warrior’s great will

and body juddered to a sudden crash; walled

by a stillness that steals through any border.


Monk departs, a worn being in his hands,

crooning of a day when borders and walls

will cease; midst white shells of spent words, I end.


*Inspired by the 2005 duet by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Akram Khan



Meridians I


Half-past three in Vellayani: they are waking

the gods, one by one, with conch shells that blow off warm

quilts of hush, rose-water baths and sandalwood scrubs

for sludge from the hesternal pleas of devotees

and a half-open lotus for each pair of feet

while day awaits in damp muslin by the temple

doorway, dripping light – and early, unformed blessings

that cupped paternal hands collect with the same hope

you must have held the parchment etching my future

thirty-five harvests back; then carry down a mile

of winding belief (morning rustling underfoot),

tiptoeing home to lay them along a headboard

whence they trickle on the snowdrift of a pillow,

and seep through folds of igneous, agnostic dreams.





Is it day where you are, or does the moon

loiter overhead, watching you like I

used to, tracing with an unsteady breath

those eyes, sleeping brows, the arc of a smile?

Do your hands still stray unbidden at night,

angling to fold my beat within your heart?


It is an odd, wakeful creature, my heart,

tossing gravelly queries at the moon –

as though to smash the murky pane of night

and retrieve a name, a latitude I

seek: the exact location of your smile.

Delhi, Dhaka, I cite under my breath,


Bangkok, Beijing, or up north where the breath

scars the air still, white (like absence a heart):

Vostok, Yukon? Legends that made us smile

once, and contrail maps under a half-moon.

You had checked airline schedules while I

counted cash and clean socks that muggy night.


Your last letter said they woke you at night:

strands of memory that cut off a breath;

roving thoughts you cannot call to heel. I

find those in the mail, addressed to my heart,

dropped by the same russet-tinted moon

wearing faded love bites and a smug smile.


Free from nations and rules, that tramp can smile:

no trolled borders lie between her and night!

Not celestial travellers like the moon,

you and I fill up forms, plead, hold our breath;

cling to vagrant hope that an unknown heart

will relent, sign, scrawl ten digits. Then I,


decked in new, numbered dignity, yes! I

could indulge this tropism towards your smile;

rush across to you, blood back to the heart.

Swathed as one in the ample down of night,

we’d learn anew to synchronise the breath

of desire, and shut out the strident moon.


Till then, though, there is just the moon as I

carve with hushed breath the template of a smile,

sword to end the siege of night on my heart.





It still feels new, this moment metronoming my days.

Fuzzy-edged, it stretches like a twilight shadow,

while sore eyes adrift on a trolley lift in a haze.


Liveried attendants on wheels speck the weaving space,

blue-green with steel legs and burdens – yes, them I greet, though

it still feels new. This moment metronoming my days


returns for the thirtieth time; I wake sliced by blunt rays

hurled from a murky sky whose clouds clog my throat and slow

sore eyes adrift on a trolley sifting through a haze,


seeking feet, hands, a human voice, someone in this maze

of steel widgets and sterile breaths to tell me they know

it must feel new, this moment metronoming my days.


My hand, decked with lifelines, reaches a papery face –

mine: a far planet, arid, though streams spurt rust and flow.

Then sore eyes adrift on a trolley peer past the haze


of thiopentane and pain to snag a surgeon’s cool gaze;

he rakes my chest, and proclaims to a nurse, “It will snow.”

Yes, it stays new, this moment metronoming my days,

when sore eyes adrift on a trolley lift in a haze.



Plain speaking: serenade of a stalker


Thirty-three years, two months and seven whirls

of the Earth on ageing toes: I have wooed

her smile through cities, seasons, the spread of

ink beneath those eyes – with all the longing

of an insomniac for sleep’s exiled

embrace. Seldom have I let that face bolt


from my gaze. No stakes, locks or windows

with bars could block my path; they should have told

her right at the start: I am what you’d call

the persistent sort. But refined too, I

was sent to the right schools: switch off the stars

before spearing a throat with throbbing tongue;


leave blood-roses by the pillow, after –

or a choker, five ruby welts set in

purple filigree for a slender neck.

Follow firm the old strictures of courtship,

timely reminders, even when apart:

a blank call at breakfast, sweet nothings sent


up blushing veins while at the grocer’s …

an errant heartbeat at noon – an echo

of me in the mirror? Yes, souvenirs

of desire to tell her I’m never far.

Yet my suit lies spurned afresh: she is riled,

and the litany of love’s failings long.


I never knock, nor say when I will come.

My constancy robbed her of the suitors

from her youth, my shadow of space to grow.

Thirty-three years, two months and seven whirls

of the Earth on ageing toes: proof of rare

passion, yes, I see you nod. All reduced


to restraining orders, and a black curse

on my head. Starched witches in blue hunt me

with pellets and poison darts; once, they,

with lead-clad kinsmen, strapped me in a hull,

strobed me to smithereens like a mad dog.

But love lingers in pieces, as I do.


The moon may forsake its night oft and on,

but not I my prize: shards are better still

to enter each pore, swim in her waters

and court her thoughts. If possession be nine-

tenths of the law, I rule her breath, blazon

my colours ’cross the frontiers of her skin.


Yet I wait, and wait again, for all my

reign, in the hope of recognition in

a smile, and unclenched eyes to make me whole.


NB: The above five poems are from my collection Bearings (HarperCollins India, 2009)



Habits: Resistance


I didn’t mean to I swear I didn’t mean to

write or call or recollect but out there prowls night

a dapper demented night satin slippers cloak

visor the works wielding sparking pain and a moon

a flammable moon in gloved hands set to ignite

belly marrow muscle pharynx scorch synapses

in a right cortex then snipe snipe with blithe intent

membranes on the nape of a neck for target practice

and plant thistles between ribs strafing the refrain

Quizas Quizas Quizas all along to vanish

survivors language longing learning the ground

underfoot thought will try and flee to you sane you


Six thousand miles south to a mound a metronomed

mound bedclothes and hand-woven dreams voice wrapped around

my absent chest hands flexed to draw and transfuse free

breath and will from four superconductive fingers

to lungs waterboarded by fire phlegm blood and fear

old fear hard to defuse and thumb stroke-stroke-stroking

a path away from safety into training camps

for shell-shocked conscriptees one where honourable

discharge is never an option and deserters

detained as long as the sun twelve billion years

of dapper demented night in satin slippers

with no more your voice nor fingers for sanity


There are days when I hate you for the endless battle

mine not yours that you sustain by reviving breath

I could hate you already for such a tomorrow

where you might not be to bookend this being.















Karthika Naïr is the author of a poetry collection, Bearings (HarperCollins India, 2009).
She was born in India, lives in Paris, and works as a producer in performing arts. This proximity to performing arts, and to dance, in particular, is refracted in much of her poetry, which has been published in several anthologies and journals including Asymptote, Indian LiteratureCaravan India, Mediterranean Poetry, Terre à Ciel, Penguin’s 60 Indian Poets and the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian PoetsThe Literary Review and The Poetry Review. Her poems have been translated into French and Italian.


Naïr co-scripted British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan’s piece, Desh – which won the 2012 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production. Young Zubaan (India) and Editions Hélium (France) will soon be bringing out The Boy, the Bees and Bonbibi, one of the stories she wrote for Desh, as a children’s book illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet. She is currently working on her next collection, an account of the Mahabharata war in 18 voices.

Articles similaires