Songs Of A Coward

One of the few, unexpected joys of living in Bangalore are its well stocked second hand book stores. One modest street has three of them. And as befits such a thing, all of them are small and crammed from floor to ceiling with books. I personally favour Blossoms Book Store because its tight shelving and narrow aisles remind me most of the tiny back room of the house where I’d spend summers reading as a child.

On the first floor, at the far corner is the poetry section. This is my first call when I visit the store. One, because hardly anyone reads poetry anymore and therefore is usually empty. Second, because the books are piled up with no sense of order – old with new, classics with avantgarde, rare editions with Paulo Coelho (?!) – rummaging through them yields unexpected delights.

So it was on a chilly December evening, I found myself in that corner, looking at the cover of Perumal Murugan’s book of poetry, Songs Of A Coward. The cover, a deep violent red with splotches of blue, brown as is thrown at the wall in Jackson Pollock-esque anger. A reminder of the circumstances in which this collection was written.

Post the publication of One Part Woman which caused much controversy, Murugan went into exile and announced his ‘death’ as a writer. It was during this time that he wrote this collection. As translator, Aniruddhan Vasudevan notes, “We clearly hear the journaling voice in these poems; they record private emotions, acute vulnerability and a constant sense of cautiously moving around a space to see how hospitable, inhabitable and welcoming it might be—or not.”

Murugan’s poetry, like his prose, is sparse and stark. And given the circumstances in which these were written, even more so than usual. One feels the pain, isolation and confusion in his voice. One feels his indignation. Ultimately at the end of the book, one feels for him in a way that words can’t describe.

Like Vasudevan, I like some poems more than others, but that is probably because reading poetry is largely about one’s frame of mind. Some poems imprint more than others because one’s mind was ready to receive it at that particular place and point in time.

The first poem in the collection, for instance. Titled Thousands and Thousands,

I enter the body
of a guinea pig poisoned to death
As if waking suddenly
from a dream
it looks terrified
at the vastness around

It runs amok in panic
and burrows a hole
under a wide bank

As it digs out sand from the hole
wind and light fall on its skin
It shudders, shrinks
and burrows in quickly

Thousands and thousands of pathways
Thousands and thousands of dead ends

Holed up somewhere
no one can find
Where am I right now?

There is so much depth of distraught and confusion in this, that the first time I read it, I had to pause and re-read.

The beautiful irony of this poem, The Atheist,

With the fervour and relish
of hurling
the worst insult at me
someone said
‘You are an atheist’
God knows
I said

The pain of having friends and loved ones forsake you.


Eternal confusion
Occasional clarity

Like a sliver of a moon
breaking free of cloud cover
here’s some clarity I found today:
hands that forsake
never were
hands that held

Perhaps my favourite in this book is this poem. The anguish and pain of this period in his life is so palpable that it sat with me, like a heavy branch that stoops lower and lower, but never touching the ground.


Enough enough
You have given enough, enough
Enough enough
You have taken enough, enough
Enough Enough
Leave what is left
Leave a little
Leave me be
Leave Leave
Just let me go
Enough Enough
It is all enough
Po dhum Po dhum
E nough E nough
E nough
Po dhum Po dhum
Go Go
Po Po
dhum dhum dhum
dhum dhum dhum