A slice of ripe mango
dipped in honey, a dash of cinnamon
on the terrace a starless summer evening
backs warmed by the afternoon heat trapped in the walls
jasmines spill from the creeper
the night queen invites lovers
to drown in her thick nectar
he says your breast are like mangoes
don’t give me that
have been hearing this since the Sangam poets
he draws in his cigarette and breathes out
eyes on me
the breath of mint lozenges and tobacco smoke
do what breast-like mangoes don’t.
(Varunan is the Tamil god of the oceans)
A Tanka for Magpie Tales
Uncrease my crumpled heart.
What’s the process for that?
You are a shop-floor man
you work with action plans
now sweetheart have you one for me?
a night at the bar, hand stealing up the thighs
that I purse together:
oh don’t stop. please.
Known me how many years now?
a sip as the tincture of seduction
bobs down your Adam’ s apple
you look at the woman in a black gown
don’t I know this pattern?
I’ll play my game
my eyes wander to the man at the balcony
shirt like the caparison on a horse’s back –
Goa print, unbuttoned : breeze unruffles the hair.
I feel your fingers behind my ears
finding the nerves that want me to doff my robe
all in public view.
I give a damn.
We wrote a letter to God
a strip of paper from school book torn carefully
(God shouldn’t think we are shabby no?)
with pencil haltingly wrote
I never wrote missives independently
three of us
our heads crowded over the paper
wrote we love you
because God Is Love
we never knew we could ask for things
we never had anything to ask
we rolled the strip
as we had seen deft hands roll bidis
we forcefully put away that image
smoking is sin. only bad men smoke bidis.
and buried the roll under the rain tree
in the sprawling school garden beyond the chapel
such a big place in the heart of the city
all missionary money my uncle said
– disapprovingly as I read it now –
then I went shy when anything relating to me drew attention
I erased myself and wanted to talk only to God
wore clothes that I thought would make me disappear
wore pale greens and sat in the garden.
We carved on the tree trunk
with the razor I stole from my father’s shaving kit
sustaining cut marks that bled
and burned : a cross like the one we found in chapel
I visited the chapel every day, knelt on the cool floor
carried home souvenir bible, plastic cross
that set my grandmother sleepless.
I lay in my bed and looked out of the window
picturing God with flowing beard come down
wasn’t sure if he flew or dropped a rope ladder
like my heroes in Tamil films
my brother asked there are two of them is it?
Jesus and your God? Related?
Father son like Appa and me?
Don’t question anything, child. just have faith
said Sister Marie Punida. I focused.
God with flowing beard
(closed the door of my room so that no one interrupted)
flying down (I had made up my mind on that)
digging near the tree, eyes calm as a lake
narrowed into clearer pools as he read my letter
and left a message.
Next day during the break
we dug and found the paper gone, ha we knew that
dug deeper and the soft twig
we used for digging struck something hard
gentle prodding and then a rusted key
look Saint Peter’s key.
I blinked. read your bible first.
I had tears of frustration. I took long to read
my writings were loops and scrawls.
A line from the letter
if God had cared to leave I would have read
slowly tracing my fingers on the paper.
Leaving a message whose meaning
I had to read from a small book
with tiny letters made my world fall.
God was kinder to those who could read
make meaning fast.
(This tanka has been inspired by a Tamil film song.)
He wears his hat at all times
the fancy straw one
worn in rice fields of Burma,
this man who comes to weed my garden says
I am part Burmese part Chinese
I look closely at his features:
he is a stocky man,
eyes that smile and caress
a man from my Madurai
nestled deep in Tamil Nadu.
He knows what runs in my mind,
he takes me to his house
pulls out an old album,
shy silverfish hide behind photos
yellowed and blurred.
He shows a photo
my grandfather, he says
standing with a few men
on a dug up mound.
He built the Burma road
during the world war
marrying China and India
gorges and river valleys.
He and the men from his village
alongside Chinese laborers
built every road that took soldiers
to fight the Japanese
who moved up from the Andaman seas.
He then shows me a China
chipped and cracked:
it somehow seems odd
in the hands of this man from Madurai
in his Madras house –
a proof to the story
that wed Myanmar and Madurai?
I didn’t care for a gooseberry
my cousins did
they fought for the berries
that pimpled the two trees
in my grandmother’s yard
they scampered up mango trees
but for these jade berries
it was always a long stick
with a hook tied at its end
small hands strained as they lifted the stick
small bodies swayed as they aimed for berries
the hook on a cluster
a small tug
rain of berries
s c a t t e r e d a l l o v e r
in the gutter, on the compost heap
they impatiently washed the berries
and bit into them
shuddering goose pimpling
at the sourness
ate till their tummies ached
each had her own threshold
how many gooseberries can you eat to become sick?
In the bazaar
a light glows over a heap of gooseberries
I pick one
bite into my first berry
the juice on my teeth
I taste my grandmother’s house
the tang brings a rash of memories.
It is very hot, a slab of heat presses the city
even the birds that sing all afternoon from the casuarina tree
remain silent . he calls and says
they do not cook salads here
I go to the garden
dig the earth, the heat pouring
sweat down my armpits. take an onion peel it
cut it eat it. or a cucumber
what about tomatoes
tomatoes too. you are not helpful
I have to ask you everything
you’re like them – not cooking salads?
basal has grown all over
roots joining hands
and laughing at me
dusting my dress with seeds
walking on me to the farthest corners of the garden
where snails have licked the barks with their tongues
he hasn’t slept for three years
I recount the story of a world war II soldier
who didn’t sleep a lifetime
a night’s vigil did that to him
at least you have a reason for losing sleep
a tick of anger
then muscles fall wry to sadness
I prefer almond to mango trees
like the bitterness of its unripe fruit
the leathery skin pickled in jars
that my grandmother bought at Agra
let the leaves remain my gardener said
the red ones turn brown and brittle
this is the lizard snake zone
safest because I hear them
then see them, their beady eyes like his
bananas are for constipation
he announces as he peels one
buy a dozen of them
they rot in the heat. he looks through the window
vapour rising from the damp soil
sun works on the moisture
he has found a pen and a piece of paper
tell me if I have spelt it right
the sprinkler spurts out diamonds
each stream thin ribbons of rainbow
he has soiled his clothes, looking away he asks
what is your name
I keep forgetting these days
do not ask me to have bath
I won’t get up from today
the enormity of the decision freezes him
the bland soup with mashed carrots and potatoes
that he drinks gives him an orange whisker
like a cat
I touch his face with so much love
the water that I have poured in my garden
keeps the earth cool –
microclimate in this city of desert.
(I went to Philosophy Talk, listened to ‘Faces, Feelings And Lies’ by Paul Ekman. I noted down words like deception, displeasure, humiliation, framework, random, behavior, repress, threat, punishment, emotion, lies, anger, detect, identity, recognition, experience, and my clinch word was micro expression – but not as psychologists use it clinically. I didn’t write a poem immediately, and when I got around to I didn’t use any of the words as I realized they could not be exorcised of their psycho pathological connotation. Instead I have used the image of a garden, have juxtaposed the microclimate that the narrator creates by tending this garden with the micro expressions of a troubled person she cares for. All the words that I had noted, in various avatars, came to abide in the narrative of trauma and suffering, tending and caring.)
The neem tree at the corner of the garden lays out a florescent carpet, the smell of the flower reaches me in my room every time the April breeze tosses them. My room is painted an electric blue, from my table beside the window I cannot see the sky, the arches of coconut fronds keeps me floating in a green cave of light.
I pull the box from under the table, a coarsely carved wooden box with dust settled in the grooves. I open it and look at the letters neatly folded and tied with a cheap satin ribbon that goes back to twenty years, frayed and faded at the edges. I undo the knot and open the letters, I expect my throat to knot with the memory of the walk on the warm beach and the quiet streets as I held his hands. But the seat in the garden of my house warm in the afternoon heat carrying the scent of lemon leaves comes in my mind’s eye, and in the frame are my parents the trusting people who walked with me and have shored away all my memorabilia, each one important, letting me make my pick after they are gone, which one I want to stay with.
I can picture them in my room in the coolness of the bluey afternoon sifting through my books, my papers, photographs; sorting them and keeping them in sari boxes and wooden boxes. They would have handled it carefully, the shattered pieces of glasses of my life that I painfully gathered and put away in the corners of my room to be forgotten and abandoned. They want me to take them, hold them and put them away after making peace, and that is why I am back home.
I followed the path, cows and sheep on the pasture. I entered the village
and was welcomed by friendly dogs and hens. The woman sweeping her porch
stopped and stared at me and the old man reposing in the shade of the
banyan tree smiled at me. I nodded at them, didn’t stop to talk; the road
opened to paddy fields. I walked on the clumps of soil readied for the next
cycle of cultivation, glad I was finally on the move looking at the trees and
fields and not at the blue floss of clouds on my computer screen.