Disaster Area

Susanne Chowdhury

1. Flying in

Nothing but the curl of my toes keeps this thing
Airborne, or it would slip to meet its wispy shadow
Edging below across deserted villages, encroaching desert.
How long is a piece of string? Or a cat’s life?
I must put my affairs in order before the next haul.
The pilot selects auto, sits back and lights a cigarette.
Exhausted, I fall asleep, and sleeping, fall.

2. On the face of it

Shops shuttered, few about, bursts of birdsong obtrude
In muted streets. On the face of it a starving town
Looks like an English Sunday. I had to be told
That this was not rest but running down. Then I saw
The absences, of youngest and oldest, of those
Who stayed by quenched cooking-fires, of those
Who walked from the wasted countryside in hope of food,
And finding none, turned back, thinner for the exercise.

3. Buying grain

There is still a little trading. On the pavement
Someone set up with his bag of grain. A customer
Examines a scoop, discards a stone,
Lets it patter through her hand, still as rain.
To pay that price she must have sold a treasure.
She spreads her cloth. A hole needs staunching
With a rag. He measures carefully and pours.
It worries me, what if that rag rucks and grain
Spills on the journey home? Could she not borrow
Something whole when each spilt handful
Might have bought an hour’s life? Perhaps she’d say
That, anyway, so little food is little more than none.

4. Hooch

The French mechanic’s local wife is a dab hand
At the distillery. She shows me her apparatus
And how it’s done: well-water drawn with muddy rope,
Dates (the last consignment from the North
Till who knows when), for strength and sweetness.
Gravely, we sit on gravelled space inside the fence
And sip. It’s good, smooth and slippery to the throat.
They reckon cycling to the border when it gets bad
Will take three days or so, living off the bush.
We’ll get out tomorrow. We walk back through patches
Of yellow-flowering groundnut, fields of young maize,
Hiding the bottle, hiding our laughter,
Ambling demurely past the police.

5. Strategic Meeting

We meet to discuss possibilities, relative advantages
Of river and road, how long it takes from here to there,
How many bridges need repair, which roads are mined,
Which safe from bandits or guerrilla bands, fordability
Of rivers swollen by recent rains. We go on to tonnages
And petrol consumption, insurance, drivers’ wages.
Meanwhile, perhaps an airlift, for speed?
But one would need three Hercules a day to feed
The population of the town, not to speak of those
Who would come from the countryside once the news
Got round, and the strip wouldn’t take it. In any case,
Without a ceasefire, the whole thing is moonshine.
We talk and talk, break up to beat the curfew.

6. Tomorrow

We sit on packed bags, grounded by rain.
Across the empty compound they shelter
Under streaming eaves with no bags to pack.
Our time and theirs runs off the glistening
Laterite outcrops, thickens in redbrown puddles.
We wait to go, back to our lives, our loves,
Our hard houses.