One morning in early May, a poetess living in a nondescript town in India’s western state of Gujarat finished her chores and picked up the newspapers.
India was in the throes of a deadly second wave of the coronavirus. Disturbing pictures of India’s holiest river, the Ganges, swollen with bodies of people feared to have died of Covid-19 filled the front pages. There were reports of overflowing cremation grounds, and of patients choking to death because of a lack of oxygen.
Stirred by what she saw and read, Parul Khakhar quickly wrote a poem. She posted the mournful 14-line dirge called Shabvahini Ganga (A hearse called Ganga – the Indian name for river Ganges) on her Facebook page, where she has more than 15,000 followers.
The Gujarati-language poem speaks about the wrath of the virus, leaving a trail of death and devastation in its wake. Khakhar writes about floating corpses, funeral pyres and the crematoria chimneys melting under the load of the burning dead.
Without naming anyone, she writes: “The city burns as he fiddles.” In another line, she exhorts the reader: “Come out and shout and say it loud/The naked King is lame and weak.”
Within hours of her post, all hell broke loose.
The poem, which appeared to criticise 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 it as an attack on the leader. Tens of thousands of harsh missives were also shared on WhatsApp. Some called her a “demoness” and an “anti-national”. Others used misogynistic expletives. Fellow poets and columnists panned it.
But she also received widespread support. “The poem is like an ironic satire. She does not name Mr Modi, but her anguish and anger are palpable,” said Salil Tripathi, a New York-based writer, who translated it to English. “She has used tropes and rhymes to mock the rulers.”
After facing the ire of her critics, Khakhar has maintained a studied silence. When I contacted her on email, she wrote back: “I cannot talk to anyone now. I am grateful for your goodwill.”
She has since locked her Facebook page, but the poem remains. When Gujarati poet Mehul Devkala called her to congratulate her on not taking down the poem, she told him: “Why should I delete it when I have said nothing wrong?”
The 51-year-old poetess from the town of Amreli, some 200km (124 miles) south-west of Gujarat’s main city of Ahmedabad, is new to controversy. “She’s not known to be a political writer. She’s a popular, feel-good poet who writes about nature, love and God. This poem is completely out of character,” said Tripathi.
Married to a bank employee, Khakhar is a stay-at-home mum who tells her friends that she is a “homemaker first, and poet second”. Over the past decade, she has quietly marked her presence in the local literary scene. She has also written folk songs and ghazals, a form of poetry set to music, in her language.
“She is always self-effacing and quiet. A very traditional woman, really,” says Rupa Mehta, a former station head of Doordarshan, India’s state-run news network, who knows the poet well.
Shabvahini Ganga is her 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 whether she was being harassed and how a group of writers could support her right to free speech, Khakhar, sounding calm, told him: “I am facing no pressure or harassment. You do whatever you feel is right.”
Many say Khakhar is not given enough credit for her literary flair and inventiveness. When a tree with flaming orange red flowers was cut near her house, she wrote a moving elegy. In another poem, she dealt with vanaprastha (retiring to the forest), one of Hinduism’s four stages of life.
Last March, she wrote a poem where she spoke about “people losing courage”, and asking “people to stop living with a thick skin and wake up”. “I think it was a very significant poem,” said Mehta.
It is not the first time that local writers and poets appear to have criticised Mr Modi – a Gujarati who ruled the state for more than 12 years before winning power in Delhi in 2014 – for his handling of the pandemic. A leading local literary journal Etad, for example, carried a number of anguished poems on the subject.
Vishnu Pandya, who heads Gujarat Sahitya Akademi, a government-run organisation of litterateurs and poets, said Khakhar is “very good poet”, but her “new poem is not poetry”.
“It is full of abuses and is defamatory. The rhyme is nonsensical. People who are against Mr Modi and BJP have misused the poem for their ends,” he told me. “We have nothing against her. She can write whatever she wants. We are against the misuse of her work by the left liberals and anti-national people.”
More than 160 eminent people in the state have issued a statement against the Akademi’s stand against the poem.
Last week, Khakhar returned with another poem, published in a local journal. This one is more layered, said Tripathi. “She is now critical of her critics, but she is also wary of those who cheer her on.”
One of the lines read:
“The pain will get unbearable, but thou shall not speak/Even if your heart screams, thou shall not speak.”