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3 poems by Pritika Rao

Art by Shashikant Dhotre


Squatting as if she's going to draw a kolam,

She rams the coconut on the corrugated stone

And I clutch my head in reflex

'Amma,' I mutter

'Hmm?' she replies, nonchalantly,

As if that wasn't a thinly veiled threat

She stands up, her hair wrapped in a cotton towel

Appa, sitting quietly in the hall

lowers his newspaper that was open wide like a shield

'Va pa,' he coos, 

'Auspicious' he adds, 

pointing to the coconut in Amma's hands

'Nothing of the sort,' she retorts

'I'm making chutney' and saunters off to the kitchen

The house is exactly as I left it

Old music cassettes toppled over in the wooden shelf

The smell of sandalwood and tulsi

The cool stone floor

The sound of water dripping into a plastic bucket

The sickeningly orangey brown of the walls

Like scraped skin

Thatha and Paati's ominous portraits glaring at me

Always aggravating the tension in the living room

I hear Amma chopping chillies

As I run through all the things I want to say

All the explanations I want to offer

I venture tentatively into the kitchen -

her territory

'I couldn't come, Amma'

She dunks the chillies into the mixer

and twists the knob, filling the room with deafening whirring

My stomach turns

'But, I had to work'

The whirring gets louder and sharper

'But I...'

She scrapes the insides of the mixer noisily with a steel spoon 

There is powder on her neck, 

as if someone was carelessly playing Holi with it

She pours oil into a scarred tava

'I sent money for the surgery and besides, Akka was here'

The mustard seeds crackle as she scoffs

'He was sick - you couldn't come..'

Her eyes dance like the open flame of the gas stove

'...But now - you may get sick and you've come running home'

She throws the tempered ingredients 

with the mush of coconut and chilli

They hiss in protest

I say nothing

And make my way to the dining room for breakfast.

One-sided conversations

I overhead Amma talking with Paati

Who lives alone back in the village

A one-woman army, 

Unfazed by the havoc a tiny virus can wreak on the world

“All ok, ah?”

“Reduce the TV volume, Amma, I cannot hear you.”

“Did the milkman come?”

“Yellow button”


“It is shaped like a pill, not the arrow”

“Ah, who plucked the flowers?”

“But that is outrageous”

“Did you ask Shyam?” “But don’t stand too close..”

“That’s what the papers say. But you...”

“Veena says that he has a job, but that’s not what Kala told me”

“I don’t know, Amma


“Anyway, you are ok, ah?”

“Yes, I’m adding extra turmeric in everything, don’t worry.”

“Yes, garlic, hmm..”

“We are fine, Amma, don’t worry about us. You...”

“Yes, yes…”

“Ah, ok, ok, enjoy the serial”

“Really, ah? What a cheap man”

Kadavale. I haven’t seen these episodes.”

“Don’t forget to take your medicine.”

“Call me tomorrow.”

“Okay, Amma.”

“Ah, okay, take care.”

“Bye, ma

“It’s not disconnected.”

“Ah, bye”

She sighs heavily and I see her eyes glossy and full

like a river behind a dam.

The things we keep

we had nothing 

to look forward to

so we traced our steps


to an old forgotten chest of drawers

sitting stoically in the corner of my parents' bedroom

it all comes tumbling out

a sheaf of photographs

some stuck together so determinedly

that pulling them apart ruins them

memories preserved

yet marred

discard, she says.

an old telephone book

with faded names 

and forgotten numbers

obsolete, she declares.

a bottle of expired perfume

'Appa gave this to me when you were born'

'So sweet,' I say

The scent is tangy, pungent, stale

throw the perfume, keep the bottle, she instructs.

a box of letters that my mother 

conceals under her sari pallu

we uncover stray coins from foreign countries

never throw money, she states firmly

an old alarm clock 

batteries, wires and loose ends

playing cards - not enough to make a full deck 

and a set of toothbrush, mini toothpaste and a bar of soap

she throws the whole lot and a cloud of dust rises

like she's brewing a spell

i can smell the nostalgia

a thick musty aroma 

that tickles my senses 

Amma sneezes

I'll get a broom, she says

And stands up 

The letters go with her

I keep sifting through the memories 


A broken bead bracelet

A tattered copy of the Thirukkural

melted American chocolates

broken shells that smell like Mahabalipuram

"Where is Amma", I wonder, after a while

I catch her standing in the doorway, 

facing the back porch

"What are you doing, ma?"

Appa appears a few steps ahead of me in the corridor

My heart warms at the thought of them reminiscing

of a simpler, romantic time

She hurriedly tucks the papers between the band of her sari in-skirt

"Nothing, pa - I came to fetch a broom," she says.

Appa turns and looks at me, innocently

I stand frozen

Like a photograph caught between two others.

Pritika Rao is an economics researcher and freelance writer based in Bangalore, India. She enjoys freshly brewed filter coffee, pots of spicy biryani and the underrated delightfulness of train journeys. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Check out Shashikant Dhotre's work here.


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