The builder showed
around the house, the backyard
she visualized a garden.
Her eyes rose
the stone wall to the crown
of banyan trees skirting
the property next door.
When she came to know what lay
on the other side,
the pearl loosened
from clasp as the chest
heaved from smoke,
contrary to the belief the body is all water.
When he said: your child looks like my dead son, she held
hers in the hollow of the chest.
The milk seeped through the lilac mulmul kurta.
He said that was a good death
— as if the loss is a fruit, tender with the taste of earth—
a good yield of Banganapalli.
There could be rotten ones, secretions pooled in cavities.
He carried a small body
and then the next
outside the village,
shoulder ripped by pain, a part of brain telling:
a cage of warm bones
now dead wood,
noisy, defying the lashing flames
like little boys who dart out of a mother’s attention.
She kneaded mashed yam after rubbing her finger crevices with oil.
Rolling balls with spikes of chili,
her eyes watchful as sweat beaded the upper lip.
He thought he could travel
beyond seas, build
a home, grow a maple tree, tend azaleas.
He did not notice she cracked like summer earth,
skin clogged with garlic flakes, the mango sucked dry,
pith scooped by pyre.
His home with sunroom was soon rendered a graveyard.
As if fumigation can wipe away
years of Samsara—
an ochre scarf around his nose,
he stretches under the springs
of the sofa
Nothing has changed – he need not
live in a cave
contorting the limbs
in an attitude of surrender
Everything is changed too:
he eats a bowl of nothing at forenoon,
at sunset slices in quarters
peeling away the skin to watch the fruit
Not knowing how to celebrate or mourn
weakens the scalp of thoughts:
assign patterns, draw maps,
break time into chants
the morning light wash
mossy tree bark, the bird cries
in looping urgency
mistaking radiance for heat
The dimple of yellow enfolds
the false daisy in the backyard
when she asks:
at what point did you stop looking?
The clutter chokes as she offers coffee. Her hands shake:
flowers in the rain from the previous night, the soft petal face.
She pauses on giving the cup, dips her fingers in the salt jar,
sprinkles textures from her mottled skin on cooked okra. When
knuckles clink on porcelain, the materiality of his waiting ends.
It is known he must not wear a tailored garment: robed
in self-imposed seclusion, not a stitch on the body. Breathing
deep he moves across the small space, picking one rice grain
after another for the silverfish burrowed in the old book crusted
in time and dust, seed and sod, breath and saliva.
She holds against him for wanting all she desires. That is a sting,
the razor snips his curls, the silver mined in dense forest—
white horses on a moonless night. There is no space for two.
She cooks, slices moonstones of baby radish
in the tamarind broth of muddy thoughts as he takes the path.
He recants forms, the shape and texture of her throat once
translucent as a lotus stem, an old woman’s pouch now. When
she lifts her feet to cross the threshold, he turns away to burrow
in the pastel core of silence, looking intently at the emptiness
as the air decants with the freedom of uncoupling.
Home is the place I can think from— carapace of dust
from milling crowd outside the window.
The street lights go off one after another, the ring of mist
diffuses like the dispersal of a cloud of bees.
I sit in this tight circle eying how far others throw their nets:
some come back to stuff dirt of the earth in their mouths,
most uprooted listen to the tree fall in the distant forest
in a soft thud of grief as they hold their warm mug of coffee
and look out at the snow-covered driveway. How do I hold
her in tenderness— one way of tending a life is to stand in a queue
at the shop as beans get roasted. It takes time to prepare
a tumbler of frothy coffee— a lifetime if it is the final gulp.
You in your chair overlooking the deck and I in my terrace where
the hibiscus shrub is eaten by mealybugs, hold the cup of absence.
You ask, can music do that – curl the tongue around the stitch of ache –
when the note touches the ceiling of the hospital room as you take
your walk and the night sky rotting green burns at edges with city lights.
You wear black, rest like fractured old wood on the migraine flare
that flames your body. I gather your feet to trace the rings of age, sluices
of calcium whorled in volcanic blooms. I cannot peel away your dreams:
they march one after another down the jungle path to snake across my feet.
You and I pack grief in Samsonite, as I haul the suitcase into the car
I cannot say what weighs more – all that you carry or that you leave behind.
The floor breathed and sweated depending on the season and our disposition. In summer coolness wrapped the soles, the pores of the skin opened in receptivity as we walked around the house. During monsoon the moisture spread like a wild dream, climbing the walls and molding papers and clothes. The durries and floor mats were aired and sunned, or else they oozed when you placed your feet on them. Moisture was harder to manage, like a well-kept secret it remained trapped under the cement for months after the skies cleared, and surfaced like memories breaking through the membrane of time.
No cement, just bricks and lime plastered with layers of mud, my mother said of her parent’s house which if still standing will be nearly a hundred years old. That cannot be, I knew she was trying to emphasize the will of her father that held the structure up. He bought the house he had rented into, saving up to buy it took nearly a lifetime and by then his three daughters were adults, ready to be married, and his four sons were gawky adolescents.
My father remembers the house as a young son-in-law. Radiant and bursting with people, he told me; down the courtyards voices rang of visitors from every part of Madras, from Madurai and Mayavaram. The kitchen was open round the clock, round the year – coffee brewed with milk from the cow brought to the doorstep, and meal ready by 8.30 a.m. My grandfather who was a lawyer ate as early as that, after which he wore his coat over his cotton shirt and starched veshti, twisted a turban from angavastram, and wore these for a ride in the Pallavan bus to the High court in Mint.
My aunts and uncles dispersed all over India, visited Madras during the summer holidays. My mother married my father a banker from Madras and was available for her aging parents all through the year. Besides her, there were two unmarried uncles, one of them schizophrenic and violent in his behavior; the other could not get himself to face the world, he raged how he had never got his due. He never sat to speak to anyone, and no one knew what he wanted from them or life. My mother was his angel, but angels cannot always help, at best they can be calming and accepting.
Very different from that of my father’s, my enduring memory is of the house falling silent and getting leaner, and of people severely ill and dying. My grandmother died of cancer after a painful battle. After the rest of the family left, my mother and I witnessed my grandfather’s grief, it was like watching a dark movie week after week. Devastated he spent a large part of the day staring at the wall. I kept away from him, walked in the periphery of the house – spent hours on the gooseberry tree, scrambled up the tiled roof, dawdled along the walls. With sorrow collecting like a stone at the pit of my stomach, I went to him one day, stood beside him, and looked at the wall. When it made sense to me at last – his major occupation of the day – the dark wet blanket that clamped me down lifted, flew away like a feather. On the wall was the framed photo of my grandmother. Vel photo studio in Luz Corner had done a clean job of an old photo where my grandfather sat on a chair and she stood beside him. She was alone in this photo, on the far left an ornate table one sees in old Tamil movies had been added with a vase of flowers. I was learning to paint and my grip over perspective was weak, but in a minute I knew there was something wrong with that vase whose open mouth I could see from where I stood eight feet away and five feet below the picture. My mind was engaged in questioning the purpose for this addition in the photo: my grandmother instead of assuming the gravity of the dead, looked like an actress in a musty studio.
When my uncle in a rage emptied a bucked of cold water on my grandfather’s head, this behavior milder when compared to what followed in the next few days, my mother arranged for an ambulance from Kilpauk hospital and coaxed her brother to open the door of the room where he had locked himself. She stood outside the ward as he was administered electric shock and after a couple of hours brought him home as if after tooth extraction. My mother had this capacity to make everything appear normal even when it wasn’t.
At about the same time, the house began hollowing out, it shed plaster – chunks of them. They were getting old – both her father and her house. Cracks bisected diagonally a wall in the storeroom; timber room, part of the study upstairs, wooden steps leading to the terrace were advised not to be used, and they became nesting places for scorpions. Saferoom remained safe with its iron vault which was for the most part empty but for my grandfather’s silver plate. The vault was weighed in rupees and sold as scrap when the house fell after my grandfather died. The money that came from selling the land and the strong wooden doors were shared between my mother and her siblings. My uncle’s share was put away in a bank and used for his medicines and stay as a life-long resident in a home. My mother used her share to re-lay the floor in our house, the cement floor was replaced with mosaic tiles. Houses are not meant to speak and care must be taken to keep them mute.