Saturday, April 28, 2018

For Asifa. 

I wish I had never heard her name. 

Maybe, in a better world
I would have, anyway. 
Maybe, then, it would have been breathed
in awe, in wonder, in pride-

The odds are against it, though. 
I rather think-
she would've grown up ordinary-
an indifferent education,if any,
jobs that paid for the gas
and energy saving electric bulbs,
and because this better world
is still the same world
maybe a husband to cook meals for
and children's noses to wipe snot from
and the occasional quiet moment
of looking up at the stars
and thinking
what if

an ordinary life
the best odds offered
to any of us-

- I wish I hadn't seen her eyes
brighter than anything in that photograph,
even her purple kurta with the yellow flowers-

I wish I had never heard her name.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Today, everything in the world feels like
a reproof
Two mynahs sit motionless on a wall
Two pigeons hop on the grass
Two squirrels chase each other across a roof
A pair of moths wander into my kitchen.

I dreamt of you last night.

There's a universe in which
we are allowed a different ending,
where our hands meet for a brief, sweet minute
palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss
where I watch you watching me
where my tongue comes unstuck
to say,
give me my sin again.

Friday, April 28, 2017

How My Mother Showed Her Love

How my mother showed her love

Well, mostly, she didn't.
I mean, she didn't bake me a cake
for my birthday with pretty pink and white
frosting, and candles stuck on top
like all the other girls got
(she didn't know how to, and
in any case, we didn't have an oven)
She didn't polish my school shoes
Or make sure my homework was done.
If my uniform wasn't ironed,
she said, well, you should have kept it
with the clothes for the dhobi
why didn't you,
and let me go to school with a crumpled shirt.

She didn't kiss me goodnight.
I don't recall a hug until that day
when I put my arms around her
one day in the kitchen,
just like that, I said,
when she asked me what
I thought I was doing
that was when I was
fifteen, and spent most of my days
hiding from her
and the world
so I guess the surprise was warranted
My mother never hugged me she said
in later years, when I would force-hug her
and complain about how she never
initiated contact

tell me the truth I said once
I'm adopted aren't I?
she got this-expression- on her face,
snorted, and said, don't you have
anything else to do
Later I found a diary
where she'd scrawled-
in the manner of one crossing off
an item on a to-do list-
Delivered baby girl 4.20 pm
or maybe it was to make it real to her
that the red puny crying thing
with a bush of hair
was, in fact, hers.

When I was six
competitive motherhood caused her enough anxiety
that she told my father
I don't think she reads enough
though by that time I was reading
the entire Gospel of Matthew King James Version aloud
without messing the thees and thines,
curling my tongue around the words
Verily I say unto thee

So my father trusted the Indian Postal Service
to deliver to me a package of books- ten books!-TEN-
a glorious number-an unimaginably large number-
it took three months to arrive-
I remember the green paper packaging tearing under the scissors
I took to it- no, my mother, wasn't the kind
who stopped her child from wielding sharp instruments-

And when I was nine, she would
borrow books for me from the library
books that I had no real right yet to read
because I was only a child
but my mother didn't particularly care
because it kept me quiet and occupied
on the evenings when she wanted
to do nothing more than curl up
with a book herself
in our tiny flat that had two rooms
and no tv then, just an old radio,
a peace would reign till it was time
for me to eat whatever it was she had made-
bhindi, usually, because that was the only thing
I would eat
and I think back now on how tired she must have got
eating the same thing every day-

Once when I was so ill that I needed to be admitted
in a hospital with a needle shoved in my arm
she left me with a family friend
because she had to go to work that day
and nobody would give her a day off
to be with her sick child
when she came back that day
she put her hand on my brow and said
are you okay
and I said yes
and she said okay
and then sat in the chair next to me
and pulled out a book to read
while I pretended to talk to the faces in the white ceiling

another time I woke up in the morning
with my throat hurting and my face puffed up
and she laughed and said, you look like a frog
and then, as an afterthought, we better go to the doctor

I knew what sex was before she told me-
her voice dry and business like,
a bit impatient, as though she had something else to do,
and she probably did,
but she taught me new words
vagina and penis
I had no idea until then, even though I'd already had
an (admittedly) theoretical understanding of what an orgasm was
it involved lots of kissing and perhaps shoving into walls
her hair spread over the pillow, his hands grabbing her hips-his mouth on her breasts-
but- penis and vagina- that felt- simpler
and also- boring?- surely, she was-wrong-

When I was almost sixteen I told her
I wanted to wax my legs and hands
I was already, then, beginning to feel
unfeminine (unfuckable)
the rules were changing so fast around me
like one day my hips suddenly had curves
but my breasts remained flat
and I didn't know much,
but I knew that hair on legs
was considered
not acceptable
-so- waxing-
my mother laughed incredulously-
she'd never waxed any part of herself-
where, she said, did you get this idea
and then, more sharply,
You look fine-
but of course, I knew the truth already-
I didn't look fine (fuckable)-
but that was that-
I had to try and convince myself
that smartness was a (fuckable) quality-
that worked as well as you'd imagine
in the years just after Aishwarya Rai
had won Miss World
and Pamela Anderson was still
Somebody Hot

On the day I started my tenth class board exams
she asked, as we walked to school,
did you study
as though it had suddenly occurred to her
that this might have some relevance
yes, I lied
and she nodded

I don't think she ever knew when I was
lying to her
I don't think she ever expected it-
she never
laid a trap
to find me out-
She'd never, in all the time I'd known her-lied
even when it would have been better for her to-

but she had one of those faces
that showed every emotion,
requiring no translation-
like the time she'd gotten a fancy hair style-
her lovely,long hair, shortened to just over her shoulders-
and my aunt walked into a roomful of people
gathered for a wedding and said-loudly-
What have you done with your hair-
my mother went crimson from embarassment-
the colour of her rich magenta sari-

My mother let me choose my own clothes
from when I was eight:
when a cousin asked about it, she said, vaguely,
It's easier that way.

When I was seventeen, she let me buy
the most expensive pair of shoes
anybody in my family had ever owned.

When I was fifteen I told her I was going for a movie
with my friends.
Okay, she said, but be back by eight.
When I came back at 8.15, she said,
what did we buy you that watch for.

Is that what you're wearing she'd ask
Just as I had one foot out the door,
and then go back to whatever she was doing.

When I was nine, an older friend picked up a book
I was reading and quoted
Bess goes on a blind date- she stopped-
looked at me, and then at my mother-
and asked- do you know what a blind date is-
Sure, I said, Bess doesn't know whom she's going to meet-
My mother said, oh, that's all, ok.
And then perhaps remembering
that she was supposed to set the rules-
Are you sure you should be reading this?
I shrugged, it isn't one of the good ones anyway,
the mystery isn't that good-

These days -some days- she tells me
I never looked after you properly
Like all the others did
I should have-

And I ask, half joking, half scared
I turned out ok, didn't I?
Yes, mostly, she says,
with half a smile.
So I put my arms around her,
because it doesn't occur to her
that we're having a Moment,
and after a half minute she says, hopefully,
is this enough?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

August, ending.

Maybe August is the time for endings. Some of the worst things in my life have happened in August. No, that’s untrue- they just feel like they happened in August.  Endings tend to have a similar quality:  a slowness that’s not the same as a bleak, cold, February. Then your blood seems like it will never be warm again, sluggish through your veins, now, it just feels like it’s gone underground. It’s not the lethargy of a hot, humid, summer, with the sun merciless on your face, turning your skin from brown to burnt, when you can’t make the effort to even reach out to that cool glass of lemonade that your Mom has placed on your table. No, this is the hushed, sticky quality of the air before the rain suddenly falls in a sheet, and you’re drenched head to toe; your umbrella dripping uselessly onto your shoes, as the “road” underneath turns to a muddy river in two minutes flat. What just happened, you ask, even as you sigh and think “August”.
Afterward, you try to pick it apart: loop the past on scratchy rewind, like those tapes you played over and over until they became skippy, static bursts between the snatches of familiar love song. Where is it, you think, that moment, the turning point when it all started coming undone. You’re looking for the sign, the dark cloud in the distance, the flash of lightning- but sometimes all you’re left with is the clear sky and the thickening air.
One morning I wake up to find a baby lizard has crawled into the folds of my fading blue bean bag plonked on the balcony. It had been unexpectedly cold the previous night and the little tyke had probably sought out the warmth of the faux blue leather. I flap my hands at the mottled dark green intruder: unsurprisingly, it moves not an inch. I’m giving you ten minutes while I brew the tea, I tell it solemnly: after that, you’re out.  When I step out again, my hands slowly warmed by my steaming mug of tea, it’s gone. I feel both smug and guilty; like I’ve won a battle and lost a more important war; like I’ve missed the forest for the trees, like I have once again, failed to read the signs.
How are you feeling, N asks me. “Okay”, I say - she accepts it for what it is: a barefaced lie. We are, neither of us, strangers to this; when all the stuff inside is so tangled that the only possible answer is- “Okay”. 
There’s a dissonance that leaves me tongue tied; the inexplicable chasm between what I know I should feel, and what I do feel; akin to letting yourself in with the key and finding yourself in a stranger’s house. This is familiar territory, I remind myself. You’ve been here before, you know how this goes. Endings are not an undiscovered land. And yet. I look up The 5 Steps again; try to see what I’ve missed. Everything, it looks like; no progression, no gradual climb down- I’m just here. But there must be, I think, increasingly desperate for something, anything that feels familiar.  But no, this is the funhouse mirror version of myself, everything in its place and just that bit distorted, rendered unrecognizable.
I imagine what a therapist would ask me: how are you sleeping, are you eating regularly, do you shower, do you make the bed, do you change your clothes, do you exercise? Answer: Well, yes, yes, yes, yes, no, but I never did, it’s not unusual.  I still hate work the usual amount, not more or less. You should date, D tells me, I’m not saying marriage, babe, just, dating. I tell her a long and involved story about how I have the cow next door to keep me company. This is not a euphemism: my neighbours keep a cow, a huge white-and-brown speckled beast. It moos at odd times and reminds me that life goes on; that August, in fact, can be great for some species: plentiful green grass, the air ripe with smells; pleasant, if slightly unpredictable weather, cool nights.
I lie in bed and listen to the night sounds- the creak of the fan, the occasional drunken song from two streets away, a faint honking from a truck, some kind of chirping insect. A moth wanders in, flirts with the dazzling white light and then wanders out. It’s not hard to fall asleep on these days, when my thoughts seem to have no particular direction. When I wake up, I don’t remember my dreams.
Fact: time moves forward.
Fact: August seems to last forever.
It’s sticky-cool, lumbering, everything muted, life travelling to you from a faraway planet, immediate but also a couple of million light years behind, already over before it even began.
How are you feeling, I used to ask, inside-inside; and now I ask myself- how are you feeling, inside-inside.

Like August, I answer, like an ending.   

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


There's this bit
between when you've
your meal, the tastes
still fresh in your mouth
your synapses still fried
from sensation
hot, sweet, salt,sour, cold
that bit where you know
you're done
but you aren't
because something in you
is still hungry:
that bit when you want
to gorge on everything
that looks like anything
that will fill you up. 

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Dreaming Season

He's beautiful,
his dark skin gleaming,
his green eyes, and forked tongue.
My dress sticks to my back, and the
scorched earth grass prickles
beneath my feet, the sky an endless blue.
He twines around me, a cold band
where our skins touch.
Out on the ridge, a bush burns.


I clutch him to my chest,
my own, body of my body,
flesh of my flesh:
wrinkled skin smoothing out
grey hair turning brown
there's a word for this
I think, but it dances on the
I never wanted this I think
but it's here
now what now what
is the word
I know it


In the not quite light
I pick my way across the litter
to the shop
with a tattered yellow paper menu
tacked to the wall
come with me she says
and grabs my hand
I don't know who you are
I stammer
don't you she asks
her teeth gleaming
in the grey light
as she leads me on
Her friends stare
from across the table
It's not what you think
I say
I'm sorry I'm not
She holds my hand
I'll be back I say
I need some tea
I'll leave my bag here
is that ok
sure she says
and turns away
her lips are red
like the flowers on her dress
the boy selling the tea
says five rupees
but I have no coins
that's okay he says
there's time to pay
when I walk back
she's gone,
they're gone,
so is my bag
with everything I am
in it.