four commandments and a caution

    By Sampurna Chattarji


    To be kind you must turn into a tree,
    and live very long. Allow your roots to
    hang down into the air, allow pecking
    and nesting, the tying of prayer strings
    and the dying of paper kites in your branches.
    Allow women to hug you, men to piss on you,
    lovers to carve their initials on your skin.
    You must bear every act of insult, love or injury
    with the same unruffled expression. You must
    have a hollow inside for those who need a place
    to keep their secrets safe. And you must grow
    and grow and grow until you are a book that
    anyone can tear a leaf from and turn into a boat.


    There must not be premeditation.
    You cannot hunt down the proposed
    victims of your act. You cannot unfurl
    a map. There must not be a ‘must’
    behind your act. But there must be
    an act. A thought won’t do. You must
    act, kindly, without premeditation,
    or artifice or hauteur, without the
    consciousness of kindness, you must be
    spacious and natural as a meadow
    hidden behind a high-rise. No asbestos
    sheets must shut out the trespassers on
    your time. Every claimant must be
    a trespasser and you must be guilty of love.


    You must understand kindness.
    Not confuse it with courtesy or charity,
    self-righteousness or vanity. You must
    see kindness for what it is: abstract
    until committed, pure unseeable surge
    of interior light. You must leave it
    naked, not clothe it in your cast-offs
    nor seal it in a box. You must face its
    terrible demands, watch the face it puts on
    in a crowd. You must accept that it is
    mute, and eloquent, and unarmed. Having
    seen its defencelessness in the face of greed
    you must make your body its armour. You
    must not reserve it only for the stranger.
    You must let a gnarled, familiar hand
    take it between her claws and clasp it tight,
    as if squeezing blood, or honey, from a stone.


    You must remember: It is not an art.
    Not performance poetry or stand-up comedy,
    open-mic or rap. It’s a series of can’ts.
    Can’t be hyper-linked, can’t be video-installed,
    curated, exhibited, animated, projected
    or auctioned for brutal sums of cash.
    You can but you mustn’t construct it
    with your consummate incandescent skill.
    You mustn’t turn it into an artefact
    best seen in a certain light in a heat-controlled
    corollary where the priceless things are stored.
    It is priceless, yes, but for all the inflammable
    reasons. Neither edgy nor immoral nor decadent,
    neither amoral nor minimal nor surreal, neither
    modern nor post-modern, neither colonial nor
    post-colonial, neither Marxist nor feminist,
    neither consumerist nor capitalist, all it is … is …
    unlearnable, expressible, impossible, doable, each time
    a different animal, alive and muscular and warm.

    You must beware:

    Kindness may be mistaken for pity, may be rudely
    rebuffed, an old man refusing a stranger’s umbrella
    out of pride. Suspicion: what does she really want?
    Fear: you might pinch the lady’s purse as you help
    her dodge the cars. Prepare: you may be punished.
    There may be tears, extortions, retractions,
    accusations. Who does she think she is? Mother
    Teresa? All the world’s ignominy may be yours.
    How then will you keep the kindness growing?
    You won’t. You’ll break, you’ll stutter, retreat.
    You won’t you must you may you will. You will
    return, with another bowl filled to the brim
    and you will wait for another passer-by to give you
    the grace of receiving, and so, repay your debt.


    Sampurna Chattarji is a writer, editor, translator and teacher with twenty-one publications to her credit. These include Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (HarperCollins 2015, 2020), which she wrote while on residency at the University of Kent, Canterbury; Dirty Love (Penguin 2013), which is her short story collection about Bombay/Mumbai; and Wordygurdyboom! (Puffin Classics 2008), which is her translation of Sukumar Ray’s poetry and prose. Her translation of Joy Goswami’s prose poems After Death Comes Water (Harper Perennial, 2021) has been lauded as a recreation of the Bangla originals in ‘a living voice, as inventive and vivid as the English of Joyce’. Sampurna’s work as an editor includes Future Library (Red Hen Press 2022) an anthology of contemporary Indian writing released in the US. The most recent of her eleven poetry titles is Unmappable Moves, just out from Mumbai-based indie-press Poetrywala. She can be found on Instagram as @ShampooChats.

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