Poetic garbage

I haven’t ever been to Mumbai, but these poems make me feel like I’m right there. Here are some terrific poems that capture the way one poet sees the problem of waste in his city.

Arun Kolatkar from Kala Ghoda Poems. Mumbai: Pras #38 (2004)

“Song of Rubbish”


as vineyard wenches crush them underfoot,

aspire to greater glory,


after more penance,

and a period of silence and seclusion

in a dark cellar.



as a potter treads it, hopes to rise again,

find a new purpose


and sit,

cheek to cheek, on a pretty maiden’s shoulder,

after being tested in fire.


We too

have our own tryst with destiny, and feel

the birth-pangs of a new



but prepare for a long period of exile

in the wilderness of a landfill




“A Note on the Reproductive Cycle of Rubbish”

It may not look like much.

But watch out

when rubbish meets rubbish


in the back of a truck,

and more rubbish

in a whole caravan of trucks,

and then some more

in a vast landfill site

where it matures.


Rubbish ovulates

only once

in its lifetime,


releasing pheromones

during the period

of its fertility.


Driven wild by the scent,

speculators in rut

arrive on the scene in droves,


their chequebooks hanging out,

and slug it out

among themselves.


Rubbish waits.


And copulates with the winner.




A footloose coconut frond,

a dropout,

bored with life at the top,


with nothing to do up there

except twiddle

its three hundred fingers


all day long and through the night,

or tickle the moon

now and then,


and looking for something

a little more interesting and/or

useful to do,


has befriended

and attached itself

to Our Lady of Dead Flowers,


the sad-eyed feminine half

of the municipal street-cleaning team

in this part of town.


it’s learning new tricks

in her hand,

at her bidding,


and is having

altogether a great time

in the bargain.


She, in turn,

finds it more lively,more fun,

and just as–if not more–effective,


with its longer reach and wider sweep,

than the regular broomstick,

the fan-tail type, that comes with the job,


which she finds much too stiff and unbending,

though it’s preferred by her partner,

the man she works in tandem with.


It’s a joy to see the coconut frond

clown around, jump and dance

like a performing bear, a green one.


It runs ahead of her,

crossing and recrossing her path,

clearing the road before her;


it circles around her,

vaults over her from side to side,

stops when she stops;


it lunges and takes sideswipes

at errant scraps of paper,

chases the riffraff of dry leaves off the road.


When most art critics are still in bed,

wleeping off

the effects of last night’s free drinks,


with the cache of cashew nuts

they squirrelled away

still in their pockets,


a fresh new series of installations

goes on display

in front of the Jehangir Art Gallery


–still sleeping with its mouth

open, as usual–

with no fanfare, and unseen by any


save a few discerning crows and a kitten,

in the form of modest piles of rubbish

all along the kerb


at regular intervals of about

fifteen paces perhaps,

and consisting of dry leaves, scraps of paper,


prawn shells, onion skins, potato peels,

castoff condoms, dead flowers

–mostly gulmohur and copper-pod.


The installations might as well have been

titled “Homage to Bombay, one”,

“Homage to Bombay, two” and so on,


since a good bit of the city stands

on sweepings such as these.

All of Colaba, for example, or Khetwadi.



The exhibition is open

for no more than about half an hour

every morning.


By the time the last pile of rubbish

has been lovingly put together,

the first one is ready for the trolley.


Which is the whole point, really.

To celebrate

the essential impermanence of all art.



Euclid would’ve loved it

–that rickety looking rattletrap,

That garbage trolley.


The honey cart,

that looks like a theorem picked

clean of proof,


has all the starkness

and simplicity of a child’s drawing

done in black crayon.


It’s a wrought-iron tray

that cradles two wicker bins the size

of laundry baskets


held in place by two

equilateral triangles on either side.

it stays close to the ground


and trundles along

as it moves like rolling thunder

on two iron wheels with naked rims


when pushed like a pram,

and has the decency to shudder

at the noise it makes;


dreaming the while of the softer,

more hoof-friendly roads of Mayhew’s London,

for which it must’ve been designed.


I won’t be surprised

if that tireless fossil belongs

to the very first


generation of trolleys

that came to these shores way back

in 1872 or some such date,


with the noble mission

of cleaning this city.

A difficult enough job


at the best of times,

made well-nigh impossible

by the fact


that more and more of Bombay

keeps mushrooming

on land wrested from the sea,


the malarial swamps,

salt marshes

and creeks that surround it,


and reclaimed by sweepings,

such as this trolley collects

day after day;


with the result, that

the more you clean Bombay

the more Bombay there is to clean.



When it is full

nearly to the brim,

she climbs to the top


and begins to dance

within the narrow compass

of the wicker bin


like a Meera before her Lord

a Meera

with a broomstick for a lute;


shifting her weight

from one foot to the other,

she turns around herself


by slow degrees

giving her toes

enough time


to genuflect and offer


to all the cardinal points


to each of

the thirty-two compass points,

in turn.


Her free arm, raised

in the air,

is a flamingo in flight.



Bearing down

on the load of rubbish,

treading it down


to compact it

and make room for more,

with skilled feet


she tramples it

like a vineyard wench

in a tub of grapes.


As they sink deeper

into themselves,

eggshells and dead flowers,


dry leaves and melon rinds,

breadcrumbs and condoms,

chicken bones and potato peels


start giving of their essence,

exude the wine

of worthlessness, express


an attar of thankfulness

that floods

the cracks on her heels,


licks the soles

and arches of her feet,




and rises

between her toes.


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