May You Sleep A Million Years, Shiva seems to be an angry narrator directing their frustrations at the Hindu god, Shiva. It isn’t clear whether the poem is narrated by a male or a female voice. Upon my first read-through, I imagined it being read by a female as it had a kind of maternal undertone, but this isn’t indicated either way.
May You Sleep A Million Years, Shiva has lots of references to Shiva’s legacy, IE the god’s appearance and reputation. It could well be considered slightly controversial given the nature of its subject matter. But as Hindus believe in Karma they would assume that Nair would be punished by the universe for her heresy anyway! What is unclear is why the narrator holds so much animosity towards this god. Perhaps there is a clue in the second part of the first stanza with the reference to a child. My theory is that the narrator lost a child and blames Shiva.
Explore May You Sleep A Million Years, Shiva
Form and Tone
May You Sleep A Million Years, Shiva is interesting in so much as it is divided up into five separate sections, or stanzas, but each of these numbered sections appears to be subdivided into two further sections. Each of the stanzas is eight lines long. There is no pattern in line length or amount of syllables used giving the poem an uneven meter. The poem has quite an angry tone. It is full of emotions as the narrator addresses Shiva who is one of Hinduism’se most prominent and important deities.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The first section addresses Shiva directly. The narrator addresses Shiva whilst paying appropriate reverence to the stature of the god. Referring to them as Lord of the universe. But then it also describes the god as being the master of destruction. This is in keeping with the image traditionally associated with Shiva. Although it doesn’t tell the whole story as Shiva’s role is partially to destroy things, but is in actuality more about rebuilding things. Trying to make things better than they were before. Either way, the fact that the narrator is able to confront this god without cowering says a lot about their own courage or perhaps just highlights that they are being fuelled by their anger. As May You Sleep A Million Years, Shiva progresses I think it points to the latter explanation.
Have you ever felt
The bones of your child prod your palm?
Have you ever heard
The piercing wail of hunger?
Here we begin to see a picture develop. We begin to understand just why the narrator isn’t scared by Shiva’s presence. They are clearly quite angry as they begin to question Shiva. Their questions are very specific and seem to pertain to children. I think in many ways this questioning of the god is the narrator’s way of trying to shame them. I think it’s calling into question the “humanity” of the god. Which is somewhat ironic, being gods they aren’t human and therefore wouldn’t have humanity! But maybe it’s the narrator’s way of questioning what they perceive to be a lack of compassion on the part of Shiva.
In this part of May You Sleep A Million Years, Shiva, it would appear that the narrator is referring to how loyal they have been to their god. It is as if they are trying to placate their own position. This is interesting as this makes it seem that they don’t quite have the fiery bluster that they had in the first stanza. Now instead of just pointing the finger, they are trying to justify their own right in order to be able to voice these frustrations. They do this by pointing out how they have always done their duty and by indicating the amount that they have worshipped Shiva.
And yet, my ancestors will return
Ghouls hungry for the crumbs of my guilt.
For they know when I forsake you
I forsake them.
It is interesting that at the start of this section the narrator talks about her ancestors returning. Reincarnation is a big part of the Hinduism. In many ways, Shiva is a deity that represents that. What is particularly powerful is that the narrator refers to their ancestors as ghouls. This is a pretty evocative word to use. The reason the narrator describes them thus is that they feel that their ancestors will turn on them because they themselves have turned their backs on Shiva.
This is the narrator’s way of saying that they are no longer going to worship Shiva. It would appear they have been adorning statues or models of the god with flowers. The narrator claims this is to hide Shiva’s blackness. The use of flowers here might not be a coincidence. In Hinduism, the Lotus flower in particular has a wealth of symbolism attached to it. It represents fertility, beauty, and perhaps most importantly to the context of May You Sleep A Million Years, Shiva it represents rebirth. In many ways then this flower stands almost counters how the narrator feels about Shiva. The narrator associates the god with pain and death.
No lamp will burn as your all seeing eye.
No camphor breath of yours will singe these walls.
Never again will I pretend that you exist.
Your blessings are ashes that stick in my throat.
The first line of this section references Shiva’s third eye, one of his most prominent features. The narrator then continues to describe the god’s breath as being like Camphor. This is a volatile, foul-smelling substance and once again helps to create an image of how the narrator now perceives this god. The reference to ashes pertains to the lines that are drawn on Shiva’s head in ash. This is called the vibhuti.
The reference to a green pond in this stanza is particularly taxing. Why it is green isn’t clear and I can’t seem to find any links to Shiva’s history that would explain its inclusion. Perhaps the pond is green because it stagnant or covered in algae. This would explain why the description “slime-infested” is used in the proceeding line. The narrator continues to describe how one last time they held the thread that bound themselves to Shiva. A thread is probably used to denote the fragile bond between the two. This signifies a relationship that is easily severed.
Let this then be my parting curse:
May you live trapped in your slumber.
And when I am gone, none shall awaken you
No bells shall ever ring for you.
Once again we see a return to the angry tone which we saw at its most intense in the first stanza. That level of intensity is matched here as the narrator unleashes an angry tirade against the god. The narrator almost dismisses the god saying that none shall awaken them. This is a pretty brave move on behalf of the narrator to go up against a powerful god.
About Anita Nair
Anita Nair is a contemporary Indian poet. Although she is Indian and has lived there for most of her life she holds a BA in literature and writes her poems and stories in English. She was working in advertising when she released her first book: a collection of short stories called Satyr of the Subway. This particular work earned her a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has had a lot of successes in her career including winning several awards and releasing a decent quantity of books ranging from short stories to poetry collections.