Art by Neha Khaitan
Slum Roots at Cuffe Parade, Mumbai
Each year we extend, foot-by-crawling-foot,
While their skyscrapers prod the clouds
Our tarpaulin roofs expand onto what they must call the beach
Not the kind of coast they could powerwalk on
Just enough sand for our nets to rest
Between bouts of catching their dinners
Which they will pick at along with dwarfed carrots
Baby potatoes, diced mushrooms
And all things small.
Roots and branches know to grow together
In an intuitive harmony; each nucleus is aware
The branches can only rise as high
As the roots are wide. The roots inhale from
The soil, and pass along assorted nutrients
Through air-conditioned Otis columns
Of piped music and automated doors-are-closing
While those branches make green, reaching for the sun
Sprouting flower and fruit.
Sometimes a creeper will wind its way
Along that concrete trunk, and as long as
It is obliging, with quiescent leaves and a joke
Of a spine, it may make its way to the first branch
And wrap itself around a subsidiary
Or a daughter. They’ll hire then, the exterminator
From amongst our neighbours and sell the daughter
A visa to lands where skyscrapers sprout without
These upstart roots.
They say we blot their sea, blot their pavements
We say they block the sun, block the moon.
But the stars in their radial generosity
Glint above us all, and we drink this hope by the pint
So we may sleep; we cannot afford to imagine
That in the worlds those stars are the suns of,
Another skyscraper might be
Blocking out another sky.
Madam of 3-B, Krishna Kunj
There is an unswept corner in all our homes
A shifting memorial constructed from skin flakes,
Grime, split ends or biscuit crumbs
Never desecrated by phenyl or vacuum cleaners
A footnote helpfully warning us that
Our rangolis are drawn with the soot of their burnt fingers
And the acid of waiting stomachs.
My particular hunted walks in at 8 every morning
Hair hastily coiled together, saree tucked high
Into her waist; the swish of cloth around ankles
Is a luxury reserved for us madams.
She has twelve years and four children over me
But calls me ‘didi’, a skewed promotion –
Credit cards and heels mutating into seniority.
She knows subversion though; sometimes as she sings
Her catalogue of complaints against drunken husbands
Ungrateful sons, rebellious daughters, or worse –
Rebellious daughters-in-law – in that avalanche
Of the cruel, the petty, the immoral and the vicious,
She leaves out one name: mine.
She knows I hear it. She looks up from her scrubbing.
I bustle then in exaggerated urgency
The laundry needs folding right away, and
I’m expecting a call so keep an eye on the milk, and
Has the dal come to its third boil? But her measured
Bucolic tongue holds me prisoner, her pallu turns lasso
My bangles mutate into golden handcuffs
That will only be unlocked by her lighthearted shrug.
She wears the scars of our histories like birthmarks
Half-aware, half-ignoring the zero-cancellation policy
She’s inherited, even as she dusts and rearranges
Smiling portraits that assert my pedigree
And I know I’m yet another sequel in this chain
That must continue because it is too inconvenient
to break. I offer her leftover cake.
She drops my largesse into a disposable box
So her children may distribute it later
And asks if there’s egg in it (there is)
Then massages my temples, rebuffing a crawling headache
Working her way to my flushed forehead
Pinching my eyebrows, her fingers softened
And hardened, by soap and water, soap and women.
Just as the hypnosis of her kneading washes over me,
I see the memento: a knot of hair swirling jauntily
Over a corner peppered with dust
I exhale and unsee. After all, I reason,
Those soft hands now at my neck,
It’s not the first time I’ve looked
And then looked away.
Pervin Saket is the author of the novel ‘Urmila’ and of a collection of poetry ‘A Tinge of Turmeric’. Her novel has been adapted for the stage, featuring classical Indian dance forms of Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Odissi. Her work has been featured in ‘The Indian Quarterly’, ‘The Joao-Roque Literary Journal’, ‘Paris Lit Up’, ‘Borderless Journal’, ‘The Madras Courier’, ‘Cold Noon’, ‘Breaking the Bow’ and others. She is co-founder of the annual Dum Pukht Writers’ Workshop held at Pondicherry, India.