DURING THE PANDEMIC in India, photojournalist HIMANSHU VYAS often found himself in lockdown wandering the empty streets of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Here he presents his meditations during that time, in a form of the Japanese haibun, where block prose loosens and cascades into poetry…
Fluent streets. As if drawn in the dream of a calligrapher. At precise intervals, lane after lane keeps branching out from those streets to enter a mohalla1 and meet through a trellis of alleys that line ancient haveli’s2 – all painted ochre.
like a fountain of right angles, spray out. The streets
sunny and crisp; the lanes moist
with centuries of shade.
For a summer cloud looking down
one is walking on a colossal chess
to shifting pitches of silences and spaces.
The roads run to a rhythm of pillars
that slow down
to an andante of arches.
Stacked over the bass of shops, houses
continue like a chorus
that converges to high pitched ornate cupolas
and this lyric leaps up to a crescendo
of temple shikhara3; that enchanting point
where ochre ends and
More than the eyes, the architecture here has something to do with the ears.
It plays on,
refrain of the city.
but like a mantra.
Jaipur in lockdown
far from being a city curated for the casual eye
is a visual chant.
What is more repetitive than emptiness?
Where can one go in an empty city?
Turn after turn no one appears.
The only one you meet
is your own act of turning if the street turns.
And when suddenly emptied
of a million men and women and
the samsaara4 they orchestrate
these time-full turns of Jaipur were alive
with palanquins of unseen queens, superimposed
over bullock carts laden with April’s harvest,
merging into a pellucid procession
of painted elephants.
Crossroads become palimpsest
of parchment paper albums – agape
with limpid images
layered in the city’s memory.
Her delicate mind fluttered wild or
froze, bruised every time
an ambulance shrieked past
In Pink City, history seems remote
but only as remote as one’s next thought.
There’s hardly a city on this planet which has been laid out like a game. And that too a game of chance – Chaupad5. The game is shaped like an embroidered cross of cloth. It has percolated to modern man as Ludo. Chaupad can be seen spread between Lord Shiva6 and his consort Parvati in traditional paintings. The genesis of the epic war of Mahabharata7 lay in a game of Chaupad. In Jaipur, the three city squares, each of which radiates four streets in four directions and lie one after another on seemingly endless streets, are known as Chaupads. One can enter the old city and these Chaupads only through massive arched gateways meant for royal elephants and shaped like the yawn of a toothless shark.
The moment you enter city gates or
step out of your home, you have
into an arm of the Chaupad.
It’s played with cowrie shells
but given the sprawling dimensions
of these Chaupads,
every resident walking its tracks
a tiny cowrie.
Time, as always, is the dice.
The second wave of covid-19 virus and the resultant lockdown hid the city’s busy cowries into their homes. Too frightened to walk out into a Chaupad and be a part of the game of chance any more. Yet their gaze kept promenading the streets from the safety of their houses.
framed by the ornate windows
and frescoed fenestellas, turned
the pandemic streets into
a portrait gallery.
But these curious portraits
towards anyone scaling the street
to start an inversion…
till the visitor became the subject
even if it was a cow or
a wind blown mask or a
One saw the city forget its body quickening to life.
That hawker at 5 am
milkman at 6
then the four differently pitched sabziwallas8
declaring the contents of their carts
in sing-song phonemes of devanagari9.
on their morning round
checking out decades of designated places
for yesterday’s vegetables or breads
beneath lamp posts or base of a peepal10 tree.
And with the arc of the Sun
one heard the sound
of a thin stream of water hitting the floor… thrice,
must be Rathore aunty
the neighbour in her high balcony
offering libation to one in east
also on his morning round.
the madrigal11 sung by millions
ever since it was written in 1727
into one sombre note of Dhrupad12,
a mantra13 hummed by the navel,
city – blooming lotus
became a beej14 again.
Birds seem to notice the lull and know all the happenings in the human world. By the second day of lockdown, pigeons were confidently promenading the streets. Streets, where on any routine day, blown incessantly by vehicles and footsteps, even a particle of dust can hope to settle peacefully on charcoal only after midnight.
The curfew began in April.
One walked in from the western arch
Chandpole – the gate of the moon
and found an undulating blueish carpet
pecking on wheat, millet and corn strewn
outside the shuttered shops of merchants
of grains and spices.
And even if one’s eyes and ears are closed
this stretch of Chandpole market
one could always breathe and know.
For throughout its ways
of aroma of a myriad spices
hang mid air
between the shops – rows and rows,
which now were closed for days.
As one ambles on
a wave of cinnamon shifts
and a breeze of clove comes in …
the tang of red chilli rolls
into sweetest scent of jaggery
a flash of asafoetida…
enough to ferry a mind
into India’s spicy history.
And visions of ships loaded with spices and
would wink and vanish
as you inhale
right there, on this steamy street.
And slowly one can’t tell
if the guttural cooing of pigeons
is a fragrance or
the aroma of asafoetida
Lockdown is not something new to those who live in Rajasthan15. Not that there have been regular pandemics in its past. But Rajasthan, even as you read this, has a small town on the far edge of the Thar desert entirely devoid of humans. Its wooden cartwheels lie inclined in dusty courtyards, step-wells thirst for visitors, rows of mud huts and traditional sandstone houses wave carved windows that are ajar for almost two centuries now. It’s a town whose inhabitants abandoned it overnight without a trace. Perhaps due to scarcity of water but the local legends have it that the clan of virtuous Paliwal brahmins16 left the town to save the honour of one of their girls from a lecherous minister. Left the town they once gave life to way back in the thirteenth century!
But could they ‘leave?’
If one stares at a glass of tea or a star for long and suddenly closes one’s eyes neither the glass nor the star goes away. Even something as fleeting as a firefly is fossilized by the mind. And clearer than an urban eye, every act and whisper of our human script is visible in a city’s brick.
What if a spectacle of a million people
their gestures and voices and
city bus conductors vying to take
everyone to Amber17 fort and
horns and clip-clop
of horse carts…
flooding the city like a symphony
Is it easy to un-see them the next morning?
Can one un-hear
Beethoven’s violin concerto
as soon as the conductor has bowed?
How does one un-hear the beckoning vegetable vendor?
Yesterday, she was sitting here,
near the stairs of the temple.
For us, a yesterday is a neighbouring day;
is three generations who sat there.
How does one un-smell the garlands
of jasmine and marigolds
heaped by vendors on moist jute
till a dawn ago?
It’s the second week of lockdown but
the marigold air is still fragrant
or was one meeting
the memory of that fragrance?
But then, who can tell the difference
between a fragrance and
If the grandeur of the Pink City deserted by lockdown kept tossing apparitions of its regal past and royal ladies peeking from 953 windows of Hawa Mahal18, its humane spaces dreamed and dazzled with tomatoes of that old vendor… a sample of bangles left dangling by a nail or a few defective keys where once, before the lockdown, masters of locks – the key makers – would wisely sit.
did one ‘hear’
the giant brass bell
overlooking the Chaupad – ring!
Though covered with a cloth
for a year now
to restrain the devotees from touching it
lest the virus would make it toll.
It hung heavy
a lump in the city’s larynx
a note unsung – gets heavier.
But in stray rains
the empty Chaupad reverberates
as every single drop
gently drums its charcoal.
No hasty feet or
umbrellas, tarpaulins or awnings anywhere
only a tinkle
of millions of watery bells.
And then the cloth clings to the brass bell.
And its shape becomes its sound.
The dust storms of June
made it swing to and fro
and for once
the untouched bell knows
joy of swinging
Police vehicles made rounds, requesting everyone to stay indoors and sirens of ambulances ran through the city… if these were threads, the city would have been tied a thousand times over in red. While the streets offered fear and death, and if not themselves, their news entered every home through the myriad means of modern communication.
Still, life knows ways of showing up.
As lockdown progressed, perhaps people realized that the world is not just their front doors leading to the main road, leading to an office or a shop or a million places to go.
Sky is also ‘world’.
that not just the hubbub but
the blue emptiness above every terrace
is also samsaara.
So while the cartographer’s Jaipur was empty
the child’s Jaipur was full.
Full of kites.
Hundreds of them rose,
met, looped, dived
and frolicked in safe skies.
Their taut thread their hearts tread and
people found a ‘street’ to move ‘out’.
To the eyes of a soaring kite, this city is shaped as a breezy square formed by nine great kites.
Their numbers swelled by the evening.
And at nights
when the stroboscopic beacons
cast psychedelia on walls of kitchens
people just had to look up
and find a faraway paper lantern
nearing their darkening sky.
like a fish
from beneath the surface of holy Ganges
to gaze at the lamps
released by women
on the quiet of its ripples.
a hundred rounds of ambulance
even if one lantern
was sailing in the sky,
a dot, windswept
but large enough for gaze
of one whole city
APRIL 2022 Himanshu Vyas MONK
1. Mohalla – a residential neighbourhood
2. Haveli – a traditional mansion, often for joint families, reflecting historical architecture
3. Shikhar – carved spires
4. Samsaara – literally, the World, also the socio-psychological situations resulting from desires and actions
5. Chaupad – an ancient game played with dice and cowrie shells
6. Shiva – the ascetic God of time and dissolution who forms the trinity with Brahma and Vishnu
7. Mahabharata – the longest epic poem known
8. Sabziwalla – mostly door to door vegetable vendors
9. Devanagari – an Indian abugida based on ancient Brahmi script
10. Peepal – the holy ficus tree
11. Madrigal – a medieval lyric poem set to polyphonic musical form
12. Dhrupad – the oldest genre of Indian music, sung or played with meditative emphasis on single notes
13. Mantra – a numinous syllable/word/sentence having energetic sound patterns
14. Beej – a monosyllabic mantra. Literally, a seed
15. Rajasthan – India’s largest state, famous for forts and palaces. Jaipur is its capital
16. Brahmins – those who, as per ancient texts, must live in austerities and practise priestly, academic or pastoral professions
17. Amber – the hill fort at Jaipur, built in AD1592
18. Hawa Mahal – the massive crown shaped historic palace in Jaipur built in 1799 that has 953 windows
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