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Fire and Tears: A Meditation

Vahni Capildeo

The world is on fire. News of fires comes flying from poet and non-poet friends alike: not fires of scandal, but a tornado of fire in the US, the estimated death or displacement of perhaps three billion animals in Australia’s bush fires, and a landmark tree standing on Lady Chancellor Hill in Trinidad where my friend and I used to walk, still the shape of itself, but largely charcoal. John Kinsella, at an online event at the University of Warwick (November 2020), spoke of his hands-on work creating and maintaining firebreaks, and planting trees. Introducing the poetry readings and symposium for Plumwood Mountain journal’s ‘Writing in the Pause’ issue, Jonathan Skinner noted it could be called ‘Writing in the Fire’. Skinner’s introduction takes up this theme, pointing to the sameness as well as difference of the fires of ecological and sociopolitical violence. He quotes James Baldwin: ‘Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’

According to people with a good internet connection, amiable faces, and eyesight that tolerates Zoom, we are integrated, or bricked up into, our houses as never before, while the pandemic flares around us. The officehouse is a place of relative safety and comfort. It burns only as a hearth, a comfortable gathering-place… unless fire is hurled at it, unfairly. I shall return to this notion, which is acquiring the status of truth by virtue of repetition. First, a little more on fire.

Fire was integrated into my childhood house in the Americas as the Hindu god, Agni. When blue gas flared under the iron griddle, sometimes my mother or father would speak a Sanskrit formula, or at least Agni’s name. A miniature roti, if roti was on the menu (it wasn’t every day), was offered to him. Years later I saw a woman priest similarly invoke the Orisha god Shango when lighting incense. Fire was a sharp friend you learnt to handle. As I was small enough, sometimes I was tasked with crawling into the oven and lighting the gas. My earliest memories involve soaking earthenware lamps in water, preparing cotton wicks, and lighting rows of them, one from another, flame to flame, sometimes 300, for the Hindu New Year. When my father was cremated in an open-air pyre, a piece of white camphor was placed under his tongue. My brother lit it with a long bamboo torch: the final filial act of care. This disposal may seem cruel, but in Hinduism the body after death is like a soiled garment no longer needed. One of the presiding priests cited other Sanskrit names for fire, differentiating between the purifier and the destroyer.

I see fire, even destruction by fire, through the eyes of a child of a culture of fire. Burning can be integrated into the house, part of our domestic and spiritual ecology. The supreme yogi, Lord Shiva, famously turned distractions to ash with the concentrated heat of his third eye.

One week this winter, a close-reading group in Edinburgh looked at the Gospel of Matthew and the parable of the ten wise and foolish bridesmaids, or virgins. All ten took lamps, but only five took oil. They all fell asleep, and the bridegroom arrived at midnight. The foolish ones failed to borrow oil from the wise ones; they had to go shopping, making them late for the feast. When

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