At Forty,


our Jatti, palace wrestler of Mysore,

teacher at the gym, has the grey
eyes of a cat, a yellow moustache,
and a whorl of tabby hair
on his chest.

No shirts under his military pea-coat
except on special days, when he wears
ribbons, medals and stripes–his father's
from World War One.

Someone at the palace is said to have said
one day, "Jatti, the Wrestler, our teacher at the gym,
is now in top form, our state's very best,"
and so they trim

his hair, give him all-body shaves to bring out
the fury of his yellow moustache.
Eggs and meat for breakfast, massages
of iguana fat,

till he glows in the dark, a lit medallion
figure. No sex, they whisper, for even
a look at your wife or that rumoured Muslim mistress
will drain

your power, loosen you grip. They weigh him,
measure his chest, his belly, his thigh,
and they pat his treasure. One April day,
they take him out

in a procession of purple turbans,
urchins, and burnished brass, the raucous
palace band on hire, from clocktower
to market square

to the white ropes of the red arena
in the Town Hall, where he is thrown
round after round, rolled over, jeered at
by rowdies

and sat upon by a nobody from nowhere,
a black hulk with a vulgar tiger's name
strutting in pink satin shorts. Jatti,
the Wrestler,

our teacher at the gym, walks away,
shaking off a swarm of eyes and hands, walks fast
and slow, in white trunks and bare feet,
through backstreet mats

of drying grain, straight to the gym,
to the red earth pit where he'd sparred
all year. Neck-deep he buries his body
in familiar ground,

only his bloodshot eyes moving in his head
and sometimes his short-haired scalp,
tabby-grey; his moustache unwaxed, turned down,
caked with mud.

Five disciples, we fumble and exercise
under a dusty bulb with dumb-bells
and parallel bars, over and over,
all eyes,

not knowing where to look
or when to leave, till he suddenly
shakes his body free, showers at full blast
under the corner tap,

and gently booms, "I've to go home, boys,"
like every day, and leaves, never
to come back, but to become
a sulphurous foreman

in a matchstick factory, well-known
for the fury of his yellow moustache,
once Jatti, wrestler, our teacher
at the gym.


A.K. Ramanujan, The Collected Poems of A.K. Ramanujan, Oxford University Press, 2008.