One morning in early May, a poet living in some town in the Indian state of Gujarat, in western India, finished her chores and picked up the papers.
India was in the throes of a deadly second wave of coronavirus. Disturbing images of India’s holiest river, the Ganges, swollen with bodies of people fearful of having died from Covid-19 have made headlines. There have been reports of overflowing cremation grounds and patients choking from lack of oxygen.
Moved by what she saw and read, Parul Khakhar quickly wrote a poem. She posted the 14-line funeral song called Shabvahini Ganga (A hearse called Ganga – the Indian name for the Ganges) on her Facebook page, where she has over 15,000 subscribers.
The poem in the Gujarati language speaks of the wrath of the virus, leaving a trail of death and devastation in its wake. Khakhar writes about the floating corpses, the funeral pyres and the chimneys of the crematoria melting under the burden of the burning dead.
Without naming anyone, she writes: “The city is burning while he fiddles”. In another line, she urges the reader, “Come out, shout and say it loud / The naked king is lame and weak. “
A few hours after its publication, all hell broke loose.
The poem, which appeared to criticize Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for inaction, quickly went viral. In no time, it was translated into half a dozen languages, including English.
Khakhar was viciously trolled and abused by supporters of Mr. Modi who took him as an attack on the leader. Tens of thousands of harsh missives were also shared on WhatsApp. Some have called her a “demon” and “anti-national”. Others used misogynistic swear words. The other poets and chroniclers have gone through it.
But she also received wide support. “The poem is like an ironic satire. She doesn’t name Mr. Modi, but her anguish and anger are palpable,” said Salil Tripathi, a New York-based writer, who translated it into English. “She used tropes and rhymes to mock the rulers.”
After facing the wrath of his detractors, Khakhar maintained a studied silence. When I contacted her by email, she replied, “I can’t speak to anyone now. I appreciate your goodwill.”
She has since locked her Facebook page, but the poem remains. When the Gujarati poet Mehul Devkala called her to congratulate her for not removing the poem, she said to him: “Why should I delete it when I haven’t said anything bad?
The 51-year-old poet from the town of Amreli, some 200 km (124 miles) southwest of Gujarat’s main city, Ahmedabad, is new to the controversy. “She is not known to be a political writer. She is a feel-good folk poet who writes about nature, love and God. This poem is completely out of character,” Tripathi said.
Married to a bank employee, Khakhar is a stay-at-home mom who tells her friends that she is “first a housewife, then a poet.” Over the past decade, she has quietly marked her presence on the local literary scene. She also wrote folk songs and the ghazals, a form of poetry set to music, in its language.
“She’s always self-effacing and silent. A very traditional woman, really,” said Rupa Mehta, former director of Doordarshan, India’s public news network, who knows the poet well.
Shabvahini Ganga is his first openly political poem. “She writes simple poetry. But she has always been a great communicator,” says poet and writer Manishi Jani.
When Jani called her recently to find out if she was being harassed and how a group of writers could support her right to free speech, Khakhar, appearing calm, told her, “I do not face any pressure or harassment. . right.”
Many say that Khakhar is not sufficiently recognized for her literary flair and inventiveness. When a blazing orange-red flowering tree was cut down near her house, she wrote a moving elegy. In another poem, she dealt with vanaprastha (retreating into the forest), one of the four stages in the life of Hinduism.
Last March, she wrote a poem in which she spoke of “people who lose heart”, and asks “people to stop living with thick skin and to wake up”. “I think it was a very important poem,” Mehta said.
This is not the first time that local writers and poets seem to criticize Mr. Modi – a Gujarati who ruled the state for more than 12 years before taking power in Delhi in 2014 – for his handling of the pandemic . A major local literary newspaper Etad, for example, has published a number of angsty poems on the subject.
Vishnu Pandya, who heads Gujarat Sahitya Akademi, a government organization of writers and poets, said Khakhar was “a very good poet”, but his “new poem was not poetry”.
“It’s full of abuse and it’s defamatory. The rhyme is absurd. The people who are against Mr. Modi and the BJP have abused the poem for their purposes,” he told me. “We have nothing against her. She can write whatever she wants. We are against the misuse of her work by left-wing liberals and anti-nationals.”
More than 160 prominent people in the state issued a statement against the Akademi’s stance against the poem.
Last week Khakhar returned with another poem, published in a local newspaper. This one is more layered, Tripathi said. “She is now critical of her detractors, but she is also wary of those who encourage her.”
One of the lines read:
“The pain will become unbearable, but you will not speak / Even if your heart cries out, you will not speak.”