It is still early.
I linger in bed,
reading poetry in translation.
The children are asleep.
A Hindi poet writes of his grandmother’s laddus,
their rich, orange moisture beads
leaking into his mouth,
the lingering after-taste of it,
a permanent reminder
of the small town he had left
As the household wakes into the day,
still lingers in the bed I have abandoned.
What walks into my kitchen with me
is the taste of laddus,
small globes leaking another language.
It is 1966
(after Agha Shahid Ali’s A Lost memory of Delhi)
I am not born.
My father knocks on the door of a house
I have never seen.
There at the door, stands
my mother, slender,
a sprig of jasmine in her hair.
I take a taxi to the park
where they are sitting on a bench,
a foot apart from each other,
he with his face resolutely averted,
she with her eyes on the poorly tended flowers.
It’s the beginning, I know, of that great quarrel.
My mother no longer a new bride,
the edge of her sari already a grieving afterthought.
She doesn’t see me.
She sees only the crumble of her years.
I am to hold forever the grating harshness of it all.
I walk up, older, already, than them both,
tell them I am their only daughter—
and will they please please look at each other
the way they had the day he had knocked on the door
and she had let him in,
jasmine in her hair.
My mother looks at the flowers, the crumble of her years.
My father, away, from us both.
Learn From Me How to Make Pickles
And since he is a Bombay man with an avakkai heart,
mother-in-law stands on creaking knees and says,
the hope still alive in her eyes,
“Do you want me to teach you how to make them?
Mango pickles of various sorts: avakkai, maagai …
Let me show you how to pluck the mangoes
before they fall in summer,
the shapes and sizes in which to slice them,
and just how to subdue them –
in what spicy, salty, oil-pools.
It isn’t hard.
Woman, you who sit at your desk all day long
and read and write. I have caught you often
staring out the window.
Learn from me how to make pickles,
and sashay, without a stumble, into my son’s heart.
Wrap your fingers around kitchen-knives, not pens.
Books aren’t bad, I know,
and there’s nothing the matter with pretty views,
but they are nowhere close to pickles
when it comes to certain things. I should know.
I have lived on this earth longer than you
and have three grown children all raised on pickles.
But first things first: the chili should always be a bright Guntur red.”
Everything Drowns, Except This Poem
I am standing in a country I know like my skin.
The rain is falling slim and sweet,
on crisp butterfly wings,
on the singing minds of people,
and since there are windows
left carelessly open,
the rain is falling in a gentle slant on books,
on the words inside them.
I am standing in a country of many-hued umbrellas.
In it, not one word,
not one poem,
is allowed to drown.
I am standing in a country I once knew like my skin.
The rain is falling like knives,
snapping the wings of butterflies,
and the singing minds of people.
The rain is falling like hard slaps on books,
until no words remain,
except the ones, wet and angry,
which have sought shelter inside this poem.
I am standing in a country of broken umbrellas,
where everything drowns,
except this poem, wet and angry,
that insists on living.