Chitra Gopalakrishnan presents ‘Earth Truths Unearthed’

Two poems

Eco-phenomenology is a bridge between the natural world and our own, one we have forgotten, almost irretrievably it seems. But we forget the earth at our own peril. As someone who has worked in the field of environment for over two decades, I wish my poems to be those of remembering—remembering the earth. In the first one, I deal with a community that has lost its roots to unplanned urbanisation, lost its connection to vital natural resource vetiver or khus as they call it. One that bound their existence together and defined home for them. But now their home is empty and a soulless one. In the second poem, I explore the theme of rising temperatures and humidity through the life of a metal frame worker. He is told it is the wet bulb effect but no one cares to do anything to make his life liveable. As I see it, our futures are diminishing.

The scent of vetiver in my soul

Sparkles over the heart of orange blossoms
Lingers over the moist dewiness of water lilies

These lines on a cologne cover 
Seduce me, shiver me awake

Into rousing sleeping remembrances of vetiver
By inhaling its ghost smells and emotions 

Into making myself absent from the now
By recalling its scent that bears for me the meaning of fragrance, of home 

Of me in Uttar Pradesh’s searing Sitapur 
One that was subaltern, its people and history unseen

Of me in my dry and dusty village of Biswan
Where the days began and ended with khus or vetiver as you say 
Of me on the wondrous banks of river Gomti 
A shoreline that never thinned the perfume of vetiver

Of me taking in the smell of vetiver into my soul
In its element, a mix of sweet and smoky, subtle and sacred
Other Recalls 
Flash pictures of my child frolics on wicked afternoons
Of me cocooned in vetiver’s green clumps 

Of my swallowing khus khushboo
Of me, my every breath, suffused by the scent of khus 

Of my being filled with its pulse
The warm, woody thrum of its roots, its under life  

Of me 
And of all others around me held together by khus 

Of khus roots dazzle vividly
Of it being the spirit of sherbets, desserts, medicines, perfumes and bathwater

Of it serving as fillings for our dolls and baskets 
Of it invading our bazaars where buyers thronged from within and outside

Of its use on our wall mats and roof thatches
Of their being drenched daily to cool our burning noons

Of its function as hedges in our farmers’ fields
Of its being flattened out of its conceit for our home boundaries

Are that I want to walk with my old life
Follow it from behind 

See it in all its parts
The grunge and the glorious 

Smell the raindrops that quench its parched soil
But mostly its vetiver

Yet know I can never; the grass plants are no more 
Multi-storied buildings have flattened their habitats 

A Requiem 
For vetiver
For a whole way of life gone

For the long lost chitters of beetles and spiders within their clumps 
For the silenced trills of hovering lapwings 

For the people of Sitapur for whom vetiver can now be had only in bottles
For a community that has lost interest in its roots

For my people in Biswan who live without their lifeline
For me and my co-travellers, for us, who have their elan vital

Wet bulb temperatures

Fold the bulb of a thermometer within a wet cloth 
Note the temperature
It will tell you the lowest temperature 
Air can be cooled through evaporation
Educated people around me say
This is called the wet bulb temperature

They say the bulb is me
The wet cloth is my sweating skin
And my temperature will show 
How cool I can hope to get by sweating
But all I know is high temperatures and humidity 
Make me live in a fireball

Let me explain: I drive screws on to steel rods
I make five hundred such frames
Each day over twelve hours
These serve as skeletons for homes
The construction site, my work place, blazes
And the metal frames burn my fingers 

In March, this year, my city Chennai
Was a fiery thirty-eight degrees Celsius
Four degrees hotter than normal
And its air was filled to brim with moisture
So my sweat stayed back with me
And my heat safety valve failed

When heat and humidity team up  
To raise wet-bulb temperatures beyond thirty-two degrees Celsius
Physical work is dangerous, the educated warn us 
Blood vessels will enlarge, stop its flow to the brain
And kill one in six hours
But our employers didn’t care

We worked through the month, lost many co-workers
To coma, heart attacks, strokes 
They are not caused by us, our employers argue
We know better: of how hot is too hot
Though we may not fully understand wet bulb temperatures
You must know about all this too for it will touch you as well

Chitra Gopalakrishnan is a New Delhi-based journalist and a social development communications consultant who uses her ardour for writing to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, prose and poetry and marginalia and manuscript.