Author’s note: This trilogy of poems is based on Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man” and looks at the life of an Indian, African, and American in 2012 in contrast to Shakespeare’s man of 1538. Shakespeare’s poem begins the collection followed by the three poems.
The Seven Ages of Man 1538
by William Shakespeare
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
BY MO TEJANI
I. The Nine Ages of an Indian Life 2012
All the world’s an endless pursuit of customs and traditions,
And the billion brown people in it simply followers,
Forever adhering to rituals of caste, gods, fate, and destiny.
Delivered by a squatting mother with midwives or nurses,
The Indian child is surrounded by astrologers studying star alignments
As holy men hum meditative chants and mantras,
To ensure the newborn is blessed with riches, talent, wisdom, and compassion.
In this lifetime, the Indian follows a strict societal regiment of nine stages,
Each preordained with cultural traditions practiced for centuries.
Weighed monthly at NGO stations in rural villages
To ensure growth and nutrition,
The breast-fed baby is patted down
With rags soaked in turmeric when feverish,
And rocked to sleep with ancient Ramayana lullabies
On cloth-made hammocks.
During the second stage, the skipping infant,
Now parroting two or more languages,
Becomes the communities’ child,
Bathed in affection, carried from arm to arm,
Sung to by siblings, parents, and visiting diaspora relatives from distant lands,
Made to believe that life is one huge playground
With laughter and games the only rules,
To forget all about the poverty, beggary, and the filth
That haunts the land all around,
Like an invisible dark demonic spirit,
A gate-crashing guest that will never leave.
By age five, rural boys play games
Like cricket, tree tag, gili danda, and galoli.
The girls, jealous of their brothers’ freedom to roam the streets,
Settle for hopscotch and panchika,
While learning to cook, sew, and clean hut or house.
At the community school with classes in Hindi, Maths, and Tagore,
Students first learn whether they belong to the zamindari or shudra class,
By the unspoken way that teachers handle their homework and reprimands.
Gender, caste, wealth, and poverty, all become rungs of the hidden societal ladder.
In the cities, constantly in transition,
The rungs trade places when least expected,
Causing confusion and cyberspace chaos to the age-old natural order of things.
During the high school and college stage,
Indian city youngsters learn how to lead double lives,
Secretly fondling each other in the frangipani-scented night
Far away from gossiping eyes,
Experimenting with whisky and bhang,
Yet acting as the family’s business translator,
Dancing to Bollywood movies in the villages,
Flirting with Hollywood romance in the cities.
Adulthood comes when life is filled with dreams
Of imagined success stories …
The Indian asks, “Who will I become?”
The first female Indian geophysicist at NASA to fly to Mars?
Or be hired as Bill Gates’ personnel recruiter of Indian IT wizards?
How about being hailed as the next Ravi Shankar or Zakir Hussein at Carnegie Hall?
Maybe a Vijay Benedict stud at some tourist disco in Goa?
Will I rise from rags to riches like Mr. Slum Dog Millionaire or Balram in White Tiger?
Better than slogging for Union Carbide to earn a work visa to America or Europe.
Why not just turn into a mafioso and rake in protection millions at rich folks’ weddings?
Better yet, marry into the TATA or Meghji families and sip cocktails on luxury yachts.
Surely much easier than becoming a shantaram in the Mumbai slums, no?
In the countryside,
As the droughts, floods, and pests rip apart the tiny family plot,
The flight to the city continues unabated
With hopes of decent shelter and easy work,
Before the reality of a cardboard shack and
A rickshawallah’s broken back take over.
Whether Kashmiri, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Assamese, or Pradeshi,
Money obsession surfaces.
Flaunt it if you have it, beg, borrow, or steal it if you don’t.
The trappings of the working world grip the psyche,
As the expected arranged marriage looms in the near future.
Visits to temples, mosques, gurdwaras, ashrams, or local shrines
Are obligatory to atone for the sins
Of back-handed business dealings, ethnic conflict, and civil service scams.
Surely, faithful reverence and prashad for the gods
Will forgive these moral digressions,
As inevitable steps for surviving the world’s largest, most bureaucratic democracy.
The marriage stage begins with seven circles around a fire,
Along with massive debt for the families involved.
Followed by battling the hordes to get to work on time,
With the wife’s lunch tiffin in hand.
Returning home at dusk
To power outages, chokidar scams, and TV soap operas.
As children are born and begin to grow up,
Fear hovers like a menacing vulture,
With parents fretting over kidnappings, terrorist bombs, and street dakhus
As their babus and betis walk to the nearest school each morning.
Maybe it is time to join a political party
To bring about lasting change to this growing madness?
Who to choose … BJP fanatics, or Sonya’s crooks,
Or flee to cousins in the socialist state of Kerala?
Better still, why not join the well-off brother in Fiji or sister in Thailand,
Who swear that businesses thrive there with far fewer cut throats.
In the middle-age stage, family values triumph over gutsy life-moves abroad,
As the Indian’s parents, aging and ailing,
Dote on grandchildren with stories of how life used to be
When Birbal, the magician, roamed the grounds of the Taj Mahal,
And King Ashok ruled the land.
Thus, the Indian turns again to the gods of fortune,
Seeking solace from the ancestral spirits for his lot in life.
Marriage vows are renewed and prayers given to Vishnu,
For the wife’s aloo gobi curries, coconut oil foot rubs, and
Continued snuggles in the dark of night.
The old-age stage comes with new age problems
Of a generation gone berserk.
The son marries out of caste, and
The daughter refuses tens of arranged suitors,
Preferring to dedicate her life to the poor in rural villages far away.
Distraught and dazzled with confusion,
The Indian resorts to the scriptures to find sannyas,
Shedding possessions and meditating night and day
In search of moksha and inner peace.
In the final stage of life,
When yearly visits from children and grandkids mean much less,
The loyal servant standing at the Indian’s bedside
Is his only true companion.
Cajoling the aging sahib into Ayurvedic massages
To reduce the pain of arthritic joints.
The one who will ensure his master’s every single wish
Will be performed on the burning shmashana ghats,
Before the ashes are spread onto the holy Ganga Jumna River,
A never-ending ritual with centuries of tradition
That will ensure the continuity of the cycle of birth-death-rebirth
For the people of this sacred land in the ages yet to come.
NGO: a non-profit charity group (lit. non-governmental organization);
gili danda: a popular Indian game played with two sticks, one short, one long, similar to baseball rules;
galoli: a game of marbles with lots of variations;
panchhika: Hindi version of the game “jacks” played with stones;
zamindari: the landowner class;
shudra: the lowest class in ancient India;
Balram: the protagonist in Aravind Agiga’s book White Tiger, which won the 2008 Booker Prize;
Shantaram: the name of a bestseller novel by Gregory David Roberts about a convict who escapes from an Australian jail and hides from justice by working for the poor in the slums of Bombay;
rickshawallah: driver of a rickshaw, a big tricycle with a passenger carrier in the back;
gurdwaras: a Sikh temple;
prashad: food or gifts left at altars of Indian gods and goddesses;
chowkidar: Hindi for “night-watchman”;
babus and betis: Hindi for “sons” and “daughters”;
dakhus: Hindi for “crooks” or “criminals”;
BJP: acronym for Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu political party;
Sonya: refers to Sonya Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who now heads the Indian National Congress, one of the major political parties in India
aloo gobi: Hindi for “potatoes and cauliflower”;
sannyasa: the last and final renunciation stage of life in Hindu belief;
moksha: the concept of freedom from the cycle of rebirth;
sahib: Hindi for “master”;
shamshana ghats: cremation sites by the riverside in many holy places in India
II. The Six Ages of an African Life 2012
All the world’s an endless slog,
And all the colored men, women, and children simply slaves.
Delivered in adobe huts, some with AIDS, TB, or malnutrition,
As squatting midwives, village elders, and masked shamans,
Dance to ancestral spirits to bless the baby’s arrival,
With deerskin drums, kola nuts, and mother’s breast milk
To ensure a long survival.
In a single lifetime, the African ekes through in six ages,
Praying to the gods for having survived each one,
Since all the ages are marked by man-made disasters of
Pestilence, famine, tribalism, and ethnic wars
Propelled by Mzungu colonialism and
Post-colonial economic imperialism, local and foreign.
Whether bawling through male and female circumcision,
Or suckling a nipple on a rickety bus,
The child learns quickly that life’s first age is a journey of survival,
Where crops and roots need harvesting in the hot sun,
Maize needs pounding with mortar and pestle, and
Meat needs hunting before it is fire-roasted for the evening meal.
The dawn walk to primary school is a long six-mile journey,
On a hot tarmac road where snakes slither in the heat.
Uniformed but barefoot,
The child learns to read and write by rote on black slates,
From a teacher who sings songs about Allah or
A golden-haired god called Jesu, and
Reads stories of kings and queens by Shaka Spear,
Whose Queen Victoria, with stolen jewels in her crown,
Once ruled many parts of this continent.
When massacres ravage the country,
Where tribes slaughter each other with machetes, and
Rivers turn red with blood, and
Rapes become a daily occurrence, and
Schools are burnt to cinders or closed indefinitely,
The teenager flees into a sprawling refugee camp,
Where black people live in white tents and
White people drive black tinted SUVs.
The school age now left behind, the teen learns surviving,
By escaping child soldier traffickers and grinding poverty,
Through looting chickens and guns while on the run to nowhere.
Later, like hundreds of unemployed in the city,
The adult sells fruit, clothes, or drugs on the street.
Money, fame, and fancy cars are now the sugar plums
Dancing in the African’s head in this dream age…
Of crooning like Fela and his Afrobeat rhythms for world audiences,
Or sprinting like long-distance runner Dibaba to Olympic golds,
Maybe even working one’s way up
In a foreign NGO to become another Kofi,
Or a government minister with a big white car full of red-lipstick ladies.
Easiest is to join the soldiers in army fatigues who plunder at will.
Surely, much easier than turning into political activists like Ngugi and Soyinka,
To live out life in exile in the West by writing books on the motherland.
Yet, all such dreams disappear into swirling clouds of dust,
As more U.N. peacekeeping jeeps roll through the streets.
Desperate, distressed, and disillusioned with life, and
Sick of the infinite greed of the Big Man and his cronies,
The African writhes in urban depression,
With no Mandela-like saviors in sight.
Fearful of not having enough food for the growing children, and
Convinced the only way out of this living hell is to head to Mzunguland,
The escape age is marked by boats full of illegal migrants
Crossing the Sea of Sardinia to lands of gold and honey.
O Allah, Jesu, Assase, Imana, Ogun, and Juok,
Dear gods, land me on the European shores undetected and safe,
That I may wash dishes, clean toilets, or run scams
For euros to send home to the wife, kids, and aging parents.
But the boat is full or long gone, and the bribe price too high anyway.
Looking for coping mechanisms to avoid loneliness and despair,
The African sings oral poetry and performs ritual dances by the roaring fire,
So the grandchildren might learn the history of their people and of what once was,
Before retreating to the mountains to gaze at psychedelic African dawns and sunsets,
To smell the morning dew of lush savannah grass and fresh scents of leopard spores,
Using the beauty of Africa to rekindle the power of the dormant inner spirit within.
Energized anew, the African returns to the village for life’s final age,
Only to find it deserted—the school, teacher, and students have disappeared and
All the white people in black SUVs have moved on to another refugee camp.
With broken back and missing teeth, the old figure limps to an adobe hut,
Hoping that it stands on the sacred ground of ancestral spirits
That will take this withered body up to the God of glorious hope and mercy.
Jesu: African name for Jesus Christ;
Shaka Spear: African pronunciation of Shakespeare;
SUVs: acronym for four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles;
Fela: famous Nigerian musician;
Dibaba: family name of two Ethiopian sisters renowned for their Olympic and world championship success in long-distance running;
Kofi: Kofi Annan, Ghanaian UN Secretary General, 1997–2006;
Ngugi: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenyan exile activist and writer nominated for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature;
Soyinka: Wole Soyinka, Nigerian exile activist and writer; first African winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded 1986;
Mzungu: white man;
Mzunguland: white man’s lands;
Assase, Imana, Ogun and Juok: traditional gods of various African tribes;
III. The Nine Ages of an American Life 2012
All the world’s an endless game,
And all the men, women, and children simply gamers.
Delivered with ultra sounds, caesarians, and epidurals,
Their entrance is videotaped and instantly uploaded onto
iPads, Picassa, and Facebook for all the world to see.
The American plays nine games in one lifetime.
In some instances, before the first game even begins,
Mozart is streaming out of iPods or surround-sound stereos
To induce IQ improvement and better sleep patterns
Of the fetus inside the mother’s womb.
Upon arrival on terra firma and propelled into Game 1,
The infant begins nursing, burping, teething and wailing,
As the Mozart mother reads “how to raise baby” books,
Searches for power-folding strollers, or enters baby beauty contests.
To combat post-partum depression and lactating nipples,
She resorts to Prozac, TurboFire workouts, and breast pumps.
The next game played is “Spin the Toddler,”
Using Sesame Street characters, lego castles,
Leapfrog laptops, and Dora the Explorer videos.
iPhone clicks capture the first walk, first word, and first whim.
Piped-in music signals bedtime,
Set in sync with ceiling stars pulsating above the child’s crib.
On the other side of town, beyond the burbs,
Food-stamp parents fight with ghetto rats, crack pushers, and street gangs,
Their children lulled to sleep by gun fire and police sirens.
At nursery school (now called Pre-K),
While coping with separation anxiety,
The child learns motor skills, gender differences, and
The power of tantrums and emotional cruelty.
For more well-to-do parents,
Game 3 proceeds with pre-school tutors or piano lessons,
While single mothers with dead-beat exes
Skip this game to pay the slumlord’s rent.
Next, the child moves through elementary school,
Confronting bullying, school yard pranks, minority bashing, and ADD.
After Little League practice, school play rehearsals, or tech clubs,
The coddled child gamer returns home to teenage babysitters or nannies
Who replace quality face time with mom and dad,
Since both are working late hours to pay the bills and
To save up for looming college tuition costs.
Middle and high school years bring on new complex challenges.
Prom queens, cheerleaders, pill pushers, pregnant teens,
Gangstas, geeks, and jocks all vie for attention,
In the midst of mass campus shootings, Internet porn, and ROTC gooks.
Meanwhile career counselors demand primary focus on
SATs, AP courses, or ‘special needs’ classes.
The key to winning Game 5 is to live a double life
Undetected by parents, teachers, and the community
Until the escape or ejection from the family home finally arrives.
High school dropouts pound the pavement for cash to live on,
Playing state lotteries, slot machines, or peddling drugs,
Aware that get-rich-quick schemes are the real jackpots of success.
If jail time is imminent, joining the army is always a bailout option.
For newbie freshmen, university brings four years of freedom.
In Game 6, the college student must learn how to juggle time
Between frat parties, sex on ecstasy binges,
Free pitcher sports nights, Occupy Wall Street protests,
Make-up summer courses, and work-study hours,
All the while coping with ‘What’s my major?’ dilemmas,
GPA obsession, Facebook slurs, and job fairs.
The world of work in Game 7 comes as a reality thunderbolt,
As the young adult now lives paycheck to paycheck,
Making student loan and car payments with plastic, and
Paying Uncle Sam income taxes through electronic withdrawals.
Dreams of Hollywood-style love, marriage, and ‘happily ever after’
Get sidelined by house mortgages, 401Ks, and HMO contributions.
To fend off ego and turf wars at the office, the adult gamer must
Kiss corporate ass to move up the career ladder.
As the years pass, Big Bank Bailout and Save the Planet protests
Get replaced by the buzz of new ethnic restaurant and art gallery openings,
Or the nabbing of front row tickets to a Lakers game or U2 concert.
For those not in college and unemployed, the options are clearer,
Play the streets for bookies or pimp drugs and sex.
By the Middle-Age game, the white-collar American,
Feeling like a caged prisoner,
Is now surrounded by two demanding kids, 60-hour work weeks,
Day care scandals, pension fund crises, stress disorders, and divorce.
And so begins the lust for sexy toys or new joys,
That will bring back the ‘feel good’ inside…
Perhaps a shiny new red Porsche or a 47-inch LCD TV, or
A new wardrobe, or liposuction, or a hidden tattoo,
Maybe even a passionate love affair during out-of-town business trips.
Those people that never taste this Apple Pie dream get to skip
This game, doing jail time as parasites of the state, family, or patron.
When the game of Geriatrics—the ninth and final game—creeps up,
The old timer is dabbling in Viagra, vegan diets, and power walks.
Senior citizen and Medicaid discounts, bingo nights, pool aerobics, and
Early Bird Specials at the local diner keep the game going.
Then comes the fearful yearning for more time with the grandchildren
Before Mr. Alzheimer becomes a sporadic guest at family gatherings,
Or before the nursing home maiden appears with a wheelchair.
The AARP generation, feeling lost and abandoned,
Fears most chronic pain and the return to the dirty diapers of infancy,
Aware that Dr. Kevorkian’s drug is still not a legal prescription.
TurboFire: a cardio exercise program;
burbs: slang for suburbs;
ADD: Attention Deficit Disorder, a developmental disorder characterized by hyperactivity;
Little League: community-based baseball and softball organization for children;
AP: Advanced Placement courses for seniors in high school used for college credit;
GPA: grade point average, a type of grading system;
pounding the pavement: to walk the streets looking for a job;
SATs: Scholastic Assessment Test, a college admissions exam;
ROTC: Reserve Officers Training Corps, a program for high school seniors and college students that recruits them into the armed forces, with lures of free college tuition and merit scholarships;
401K: a retirement savings fund;
HMO: health maintenance organization, a health care plan;
Medicaid: a U.S. government-sponsored program providing subsidized health care services for senior citizens over the age of 65;
AARP: American Association of Retired Persons, a U.S. special interest and lobbying group;
Dr. Kevorkian: an American physician who helped terminally-ill patients commit suicide;
Date posted: December 19, 2012
Date updated: December 20, 2012 (typos)
© Mohezin Tejani 2012
Mohezin Tejani has published two volumes of his travel memoirs that have prestigious awards in the US and Asia. He is a global nomad who has lived and worked in humanitarian aid in five continents of our planet. Having taught world literature in various countries as well, he is also a veteran at Writers Festivals on the Asia circuit including presentations at Bali, Byron Bay and Melbourne and Singapore Writers Festivals. He has also conducted extensive books readings and creative writing workshops while on two month-long book tours of Australia and Thailand.
This trilogy of prose poems is part of a collection of poems/essays and letters titled “Dispatches from a Global Troubadour” coming out in 2013.
He currently resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand and is working on the third volume of his memoir trilogy.
Mo Tejeni contributes regularly to Simerg. We invite our readers to read the following pieces by him:
1. Mohezin Tejani’s Thank You Letter to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan – “A Man of Multiple Visions”
2. A Nature Poem
3. Exploring Belgium: The Modern and the Medieval
4. “New Hampshire Twilight” and “Iguazu”
5. Ute Visions
6. Inca Gods
7. A Letter to Charles Darwin from Galapagos
9. Childhood Games
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