Alyss Literary Magazine - January, 2017

"The Love You Take"

The Love You Take

Lahore, Easter Sunday, 2016

The love you take
creates entropy after you —
limbs, seared flesh,
the taste of blood lancing through air,
toy shrapnel littering the grassy knoll,
almost like dew.
Later,
we attempt to contain it
in coffins with body parts
covered in bolts of fabric
and arranged neatly in human form.
The love you take is equal
to the infinite depth of the hospital wall
that holds each survivor’s vacant gaze,
to each particle of earth
that blankets scores of new graves,
to every rosary bead prayed upon,
to the abiding reverberation of
our whispered plea: no, no, no, no

 

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Eleven Eleven Magazine - January, 2017

"Brown," "Residue," "Vocabulary of Immigration"

Brown 

My boarding pass told me I was brown, when (in Texas) the black barcode-like border
screamed that I was among the chosen few awarded a second layer of scrutiny.

Back in Punjab, I was wheaty, but my grandmother’s mouth
always stretched in a grimace and she proclaimed me overcooked.

My mother called me sun-kissed, my father invoked the River Ravi,
its alluvial sediment, the plowed sugarcane fields off-shore.

The village women massaged mustard oil into my scalp, fed me slivers of pickled mango,
and said I was like the dollop of honey they spread over my morning paratha.

The nuns at Catholic school, color high in their cheeks, their hands pearly
like their habits, thought of the woods and deserts: oak, willow, sand dunes.

Back then, I was many things, but never as bland as brown.
 


Residue

It is back,
the cancer that cleaved to your breast,
thriving like your babies did at the same fount

What is left
is a concave hollow, a shallow basin where
the doctors scooped and scraped and sewed you up

Hair falls again
in disturbing tufts over your pillow,
clings like stubborn cobwebs to your clothes

This time around,
your habit is to trace that old scar, your hand less
distant from the fierce heartbeat than it was a decade ago

It shocks you
still —  the absence — when you wake up from dreams
of children when they were children yet, of love when it was love yet

It is beautiful
now more than ever before — it stretches like a perennial smile
across your chest — I’ve done this before, I’ve done this before, I’ve done this before
 


Vocabulary of Immigration

In March, suddenly, the fogs lifted from our city
and Mother packed cardigans, blankets,
chenille comforters into trunks with mothballs.
It was Spring,
yet we steeled our defenses for the heat,
and every night we hauled the garden hose into our room,
its coils slithering as it pumped water into the vast metal belly of the cooler,
the moist whirr of whose blades lulled us to sleep.
Jasmines bloomed in gardens,
women wore the buds in their hair, looped them into earrings,  
our neighbors began to pick lemons for pickling,
at the market we ate coal-roasted corn-on-the-cob
and carried home tube roses wrapped in moistened newspapers.
Our spring was just an imposter of summer —
the mangoes still had a green tinge, the flesh unyielding
under the practiced pressure of our fingers,
the perfect barometer for the turn of seasons.
And that was it, really —
no clarion call of bells,
no jacaranda, or flowering dogwood,
no invisible hand commanding the hand of our clocks forward.

 

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Spillway - July, 2016
"A Season of Dreams"

A Season of Dreams

It is a curious malady,
the invasion of one’s dreams. 
I wake up to rain,
to trees turning amber on the sidewalk,
and always, loss percolates
between sleep and wakefulness --
somewhere else just now
the season hadn’t withered, 
there was a field of sunflowers
and a pair of eyes
I have taught myself to look away from.
I try to pluck a few fat stalks of flowers, 
claw my way back to spring, 
build a bridge --
only half-awake still -- 
but it falls through my fingers
like wisps of fog.


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Mothers Always Write - May 2016
"Wordsmith"

Wordsmith

In the morning, we walk towards the Village.
She stares at birds swooping
to the foot of a tree and chases them.
The rude creatures shirk her friendly cries,
“Bird! Bird!” Despair rolls her voice thin.
“Bird,” I say and point to the sky –
is there a salve for illogical disappointment?
She collects rocks from landscaped lawns
and arranges them on the wet grass,
picks up a twig and attempts to wield
it as a piece of chalk against the sidewalk –
the dormancy of this wood chip puzzles her.

As the day retreats, she runs on cobbled streets,
her giggles make passersby pause their conversations
to accommodate hearty laughter, or at least a smile.
We are surrounded by jagged peaks, the sloping
summits close, but not overbearing.
“Mountains,” I say with all the relevant emphases,
but she deliberates and watches them with her father’s eyes.
I am suddenly overcome by a moment of silent prayer –
let her have words, enough words to tell me –
if she is simply resting her distant gaze,
or does she, too, stand in awe of this day,
that sky, those mountains?


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KNOT Literary Magazine - March 2016

"Unrequited," "Monsoons in Lahore," "Plural," "Standstill," and "Microcosm"

Unrequited

There are throngs of us out there, waiting
for the insignificance of a touch, 
or a nod, or our own unbidden, uncontained
trembling, seeing
ourselves as the crevices
in parched land hungering
to be sealed with rain, gulping
air in sustained breaths, a fist forever
unclenching mid-throat, our bodies
yielding, bruising in blue blooms
of despair around knees, thighs, the heels of our feet,
our inner ears unlearning the masterful
act of balancing, lips forming
words without the grace of complete thought, 
eyes roving like a rogue wave before breaking
on that one face, nothing extraordinary about it, 
but that deep caving within our chests --
wanting, wanting, wanting

 

Standstill

Next to her hospice bed,
we hold our private vigils,
the wait implicit in each prayer. 

On the day our wait ends,
there is fog clawing the hilltops.
Inside, someone wheezes the shutters open,
her gardenias are not in bloom, her chappals
rest against the wall, a grave outline
of her toes on the leather.

The sun is bleak today. 
We cover the windows.

 

Microcosm

It’s a loop, really, 
the cotton candy man walking the perimeter
of the square, 
the induced glee on parents’ faces,
the manic way in which they wave
to their children rising round and round
in primary-colored airplanes,
high notes of a string instrument
playing the same 30-second melody on repeat,
the disenchanted voice on the loudspeaker
Welcomepilots fastenyourseatbelts
andkeepyourarms insidetheairplane
.
The cotton candy man walking the perimeter
of the square,
the parents, looking different and the same,
their white grins, their flailing hands,
camera clicks, 
that garbled announcement delivered too fast
without tonal variation.
The children, different and the same, 
with sun hats and backpacks and hair
whipping with the wind.
I watch them with the curiosity of an anthropologist --
what are these creatures, how are they so happy, 
is their happiness real if it has a boundary?
Until someone pulls on my arm,
“Mommy, let’s go.” She has a bag of kettle corn
clutched under one arm.
And I dissolve into the many faces around me --
it’s a fluid journey from observer to participant,
my lips stretch across my jaw, 
my child goes in circles on a yellow airplane, 
and in a frenzy I call her name over and over,
my voice rising above the centrifugal wind, 
beckoning her with a hand in the air, a springy bounce in my feet, 
the camera clicking away.
Just like that -- I am one of them.

 

Plural

I kneel in prayer, my ask is simple --
satisfaction of serial singularity:
singular love and singular health
and singular mortgage on a singular house
and singular luck and singular triumph
and singular peace in this singular world
and, and, and

 

Monsoons in Lahore

After I left Lahore, all I wanted to do was go back. I missed the people, my father’s surreptitious singing, my mother’s crow calls to the sabzi-wallah, the sound of bed linens rustling as my sisters moved in their sleep, but mostly, my body constricted with an ache for the monsoons. Rain in California, when it comes, is so temperate and courteous like Americans who smile at everyone on the street. It patters on the asphalt that always looks like it was poured yesterday and slides right off. In Lahore, the monsoons were stereotypically Punjabi. My father would shake his head at the beastly rains ripping through his bougainvillea and sigh, “Chor machaye shor,” this burglar makes a noise. The earthy wind whipped across our faces as rain fell in thick massive droplets over tin roofs and cement terraces. My sisters and I ran upstairs to greet the rain. Sometimes we even sang in the rain. Our mother went looking for us in the rain after she noticed the unscheduled silence. We grinned at each other with blue lips and chattering teeth, raising our eyebrows – a pact to dance in the rain again as soon as we could get Mama out of the house.

All year, water receded from the River Ravi, fishermen fretted, couples walked farther along the riverbank to find a canoe for their moonlit wedding sail. And then the monsoons descended, tearing across Punjab. Cities tolerated the rain stolidly – once or twice, we heard about a motorcyclist driving right into an open manhole and dying, but for the most part, we simply saw vehicles filling with water and breaking down in the middle of Mall Road, nothing serious. Ravi swelled with surging waters once again. A dam in some remote village crumbled. Scores of farms and families washed away. Safe, but shaken in Lahore, neighborhood aunties gathered around hawkers and their donkey-carts at the Sunday bazaar. They lamented the use of adulterated material in the construction of the doomed dam – it was all over the papers – and broke apart ginger root in their hands to examine it from the inside. Days later, bloated babies were unearthed from the mud, mosquitoes started breeding in the standing water, and the poor began to die all over again, lined up outside government hospitals, their blood infested with dengue or malaria or Hep C – too many poisons for a poor man in this country. Builders and politicians made pledges toward the flood relief effort, curling their bureaucratic mustaches, rubbing their fat bellies, choking stacks of rupees in their congested leather wallets, and sipping bottled water from long-stemmed glasses at charity benefits for victims of the flood with their prim wives who no longer loved them.

Still, I missed those rains, the full-throated thunder, the insensitive winds, and the clarity of the morning after – a few raindrops shedding from freshly picked jasmine, earthworms slithering on the garage floor, ghee sputtering in a wok on the stove, Mama making samosas because an abrasive draught had whistled through the iron window panes all night, and we needed fried comfort food to quell our restive spirits. She fished them out with a slotted spoon and placed them on newspapers to dry. The grease seeped into the headlines to occlude the number of corpses discovered by rescue workers.

 

Driftwood Press - January 2016
"Not Salt and Pepper Kind of People"


Not Salt and Pepper Kind of People

Like a prayer, 
I bring my hands to my face now -- 
these fingertips could be my mother’s,
gliding over my cheeks on a school day
with Ponds cold cream thick on her palms
and underneath
the perennial scent of garlic and ginger.

“We are not salt and pepper kind of people,”
my mother would say.

My own fingers
smell even fuller from the fenugreek
I grate between them, crushing
the dried leaves to powder.
I rub my nails with steel wool,
soak my hands in lemon water, 
use creams with essential oils --
wild rose, mulled wine, cocoa butter --
to curtain the aromas of my mother’s kitchen, 
and now mine.

But after a time, 
my skin sheds all fancy trims.


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Muzzle Magazine - September 2015
"Thieves"

Thieves

I was seeing my father in my dreams over and over and we were both crying. Last night, his chin crumpled. Mine did, too. My throat was parched, and I rested my head on his shoulder, the linen of his tunic smooth under my cheek. We could hear each other without moving our lips. I thought, why did I steal this time from us, living on the perimeter of your existence, out of the shadow of things your hands have touched, I must pull you back like you reigned in those strings of disappointment after losing kites in battles in the sky -- is it ever too late? And he thought, mybabymybabymybabymybaby. I thought, please don’t die, look after yourself, let us heal ourselves, let me have some time now, it’s all I ever wanted all those years ago -- a few good hours, you, present, you, listening, you, talking, you, there. Why did you let me walk away? And he thought, mybabymybabymybabymybaby. I thought, could we start again from now, let’s go to the Old City, I will sit on the bonnet of the car, we will have Baba’s Street Kebabs, talk about misrepresentations of love over steaming skewers and cool rings of salted onion. And he thought, mybabymybabymybabymybaby. Teach me another life lesson, something pragmatic, not just a quote for an audience. Mybabymybabymybabymybaby. No. Listen. Stay. Listen. Please. Mybabymybabymybabymybaby. Do you see me? Do you see how far I am now? Meet me back where we diverged, where I broke free. Mybabymybabymybabymybaby. Listen. Listen. Wait. Mybabymybabymybabymybaby. Just answer me this. Do you forgive me? Are you proud of me? Mybabymybabymybabymybaby.

 

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Spillway (print) - July 2015
"Almonds" (Nominated for the Pushcart Prize)


Almonds

Today, we use almonds instead of prayer beads
for the nearly dead -- 
each time we read Surah Yasin, 
we drop a raw almond into a bone china bowl,
keeping count of supplications, of breaths.
Sunlight blades onto her sickbed,
creates a buttery second skin on her arm,
glints across the oxygen tank.
The room ripples with contained grief,
sighs, sniffles, the silent weight of appeals,
please god please god please god please...
Time feels clammy, slipping through our upturned palms
like the smooth skin of almonds,
but the nuts anchor us to this day
and nest inside the bowl with a blunt sound --
it lances through us like a warning.
What will happen to this small hillock of almonds,
a disturbance across the room’s landscape --
will they turn to powder between teeth,
or languish in a mason jar like ashes? 


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The Squaw Valley Review (print) - June 2015
"Cooked Until Golden Brown"


Cooked Until Golden Brown

Cheerleaders with self-assured skin
and gossip have invaded the pool

I am a strange woman in their midst, fully
clothed, skirting the Valley’s afternoon sun

My grandmother taught me to categorically shun
the intrusive heat of native and foreign seasons

You take after your father’s family
Use an umbrella, always read under the old banyan

Get down from the rooftop! Your skin is like
caramelized onions, you want to cook it more?

I sit with my swimsuit-clad toddler,
her feet lapping up the cool water, my back 

contracting with a fever
that amplifies and prickles along my spine

I speak in monosyllables to my child, peppering
the echoes of Nani’s admonitions, 

her wellspring of instruction -
No one will marry you if you turn into Kiwi

Brown Shoe Polish, drink more milk,
use a whitening cream, both chai and betel juice

will stain you from the inside out
She was mad, I think, but move to this corner

shielded by a tree’s silhouette,
Nani’s syrupy voice, the warmth of the day 

leaking out of my pores, and I stay here anyway,
despite my daughter’s mewling, sun-kissed calls

 

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Spry Literary Magazine - June 2015
"Brown-Skinned Paranoia"


Brown-Skinned Paranoia

I.
On the phone with my mother, I use euphemisms
for suicide bombings back home -- 
tragedies, I call them, or cruelties.
She is not allowed to say the word terrorism.
“I have an Arab name, 
you never know who’s listening,” I say. 
“You mean talking to your mother
about the place that bore you isn’t safe?” 

II.
I wake up flighty,
the metal clang of the heater vent
sounding like gunfire, 
the front door falling in, 
footfalls, someone come to take me away.
Outside the kitchen window at this hour,
a dense cloud over the city, 
the neighborhood chimneys smoking, 
lights dampened in the distance like muffled cries.

III.
Flying out of Texas, six months along, 
I am pulled for a random screening
so routine now, I take my position without instruction,
feet planted on the mat, legs apart, arms stretched.
The woman, efficient, thorough, 
asks me to lower the waistband of my pants.
I look at her impatient hands, the latex gloves limp
on her fingers seem to say, I’m just doing my job.
I will my skin to harden, disbelief bleeding into shame,
feel my daughter’s kicks, an anger rising inside us both. 
I comply and do not say,
“Surely you don’t think I am pregnant with a bomb.”

IV.
On the phone again, the fear still changes flavor, 
licks along the instinct of motherhood.
“I cannot come back,” I say in a mire of what-ifs.
What-if she contracts dengue or hepatitis,
what-if she dies because there are no real doctors there,
what-if someone snatches her from me,
what-if we get caught in a tragedy,
become the aftermath of a cruelty?
“Your people are not monsters,” my mother screams,
patience extinguished like a first-world scandal.
I say nothing. I say nothing.


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Sugar Mule - April 2015
"132"


132

note:On 16 December 2014, 9 members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan conducted a terrorist attack on the Army Public School in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. They entered the school and opened fire on school staff and children, killing 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren, ranging between eight and eighteen years of age (Wikipedia).


The fruit trees in the playground are not dead.
They breathe through naked branches
this season of frost and mourning.

The school returned belongings —
canvas backpacks laden with books,
fountain pens, geometry sets,
homework notes for some date in the future,
perhaps a lunch box never opened, 
uneaten sandwiches stale now,
an apple still glossy, but smelling sickly sweet,
on the cusp of ripeness and rot.

Their mothers are not dead,
but may as well be,
their disbelief crowns bereavement —
they only went to school.
That morning must be no different
in collective memory — starch pressed uniforms, 
breakfast, clumps of fog in the air, dry tendrils of winter, 
the friction of tires across asphalt, children waving goodbye.

A dead man’s wife is a widow,
a child of dead parents is an orphan. 
But in the aftermath, there is no noun for the parents —
even language cannot cradle such grief.


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Santa Clara Review (print) - February 2015
"Bilingual Speech Therapy" and "Permanent Residency"


Bilingual Speech Therapy

Her speech is coarse at 33 months --
it crackles against my ears
like the textured shell of walnuts
breaking between molars
Or thick, garbled like sweet
rice pudding, dotted pistachios
on its surface.
Often it disintegrates into cries -- 
her face smolders, defiance
hardens her screams, her lips, her chin,
like the congealed film of milkfat on chai
that clings to china, to the roof of the mouth.

“Is OK a word?” 
I ask.
“Do songs count?”
I learn that they don’t.

“One language” is the consensus, 
the preliminary prescription. 
I do not ask if I must stop looking
at her in Urdu --
those monsoons, that august fort, 
the rolling belly of the Indus
always gather behind my withering glance.
I hold inside the name I call her,
the cloying scent of ripe mangoes, 
the taste of honeyed paratha, 
the sound of lassi lapping against
the curve of a jug  -- Mithi Mai -- Miss Sugar,
it tastes sweeter in the native tongue.


Permanent Residency

My mother sings a voicemail
into the air -- 
her song reaches me hours later,
her hard-boiled Urdu becoming pliant
in the low register of her voice. 
By now, the sun in its perennial journey,
has dwindled from her sight
and appeared outside my window, 
the tulips on the sill greet its powdery warmth --
her sky and mine, so different from each other.

They tell me the tomb in my old neighborhood
of a little-known saint was razed --
townhomes stand there now.
I don’t learn the fate of ardent prayers
in many textures -- yarn, pieces of cloth, twine --
tied to a weary flagstaff at the threshold.
Years ago, like nascent hope, those strings fluttered
in the fragrant breeze of early evening,
swayed in the shadow of a lemon tree --
gone, too.

My father doesn’t dwell on nostalgia --
instead, he says something about cholesterol
and hypertension, 
about the body diminishing with age,
we talk as though there is no ocean parting us, 
and yet the distance invokes itself in innocent ways --
he sits at his breakfast table
while I prepare his granddaughter for bed,
we exist in different days of the week
for twelve hours each day.

They tell me Amma Daani has died --
the old woman who went from house to house,
massaging almond oil into the scalp of children,
kneading their limbs, tut-tutting over how little they ate, 
and then cutting fat wedges of mangoes for each child.
She died peacefully, they tell me,
her sons were with her, 
she was not alone,
but no child she had cared for
could make it to the funeral.


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Blue Lyra Review - February 2015
"Chronology of Evil Eye"


Chronology of Evil Eye

When I was seven days old, 
my hair was shaven. Mother held the woolly strands,
her palms cupped in prayer under the kitchen faucet,
and let them be carried to the city’s innards.
A butcher was summoned to our house
and he slaughtered a goat for my long life.
The meat she distributed among neighbors,
and the hide she gave to the gypsies
who lived in bamboo huts at the end of the street -
they sold it for a few rupees, a meal or two.

For two more girl-babies who emerged
from the same womb, this ritual was replicated.
“No brother?” strange women said to the three of us.
“Such darling angels, such burden. Those eyes! That hair!”
Mother circled two eggs around our eyes
and broke them on a stone in the garden,
the yolks - twin suns over rock - congealed in the heat.
She touched seven red chilies to our heads
and charred them in the flame of an oil lamp,
plumes of roasted-pepper smoke gave our noses an itch.

Every fortnight, Mother
told us to put fistfuls of lentils in steel bowls,
pour milk into pails,
rice, flour, and sugar into buckets.
This bounty our hands prepared
she delivered to the neighborhood gypsies
and three beggar families that slept
under the awning of a condemned building.
In return, they gave her wild mint leaves,
hand-woven hemp baskets, and blessings.

When my brother was seven days old, 
his hair was shaven. Mother saved the shorn wisps
and his shriveled umbilical cord stump
in the folds of a cotton handkerchief.
The butcher slaughtered two goats for his long life.
When he was forty-one days old,
she drove to the Ravi, shook the cloth’s contents
into the river, and looked up at the sky,
“A brother to three girls, choice-prey of evil eye,
save my son, save him, save him, save him.”


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Sprout: Issue 38 - December 2014
"Mapping Our Way"


Mapping Our Way

I revisit the summer you grew your hair out,
you stopped playing with your tea set,
a distance started to exist behind your eyes,
your mouth became taut, your lips merged
like two braided ribbons.
“Grim,” our mother called it.
“Sullen,” I corrected her.

You sat next to me
on the shaded marble steps of the school chapel,
an ice-cold glass bottle of Coca-Cola by your side,
your legs swinging, your eyes plucking across
a Harry Potter book. Occasionally, your eyebrow
rose insolently in the thick summer heat
and pre-monsoon humidity that felt like tasteless
honey in my throat, “Well? Do you want a sip?”

Some days, I berate myself for not trying harder
to break through the perimeter of your grief
and merge it with mine -- a Venn diagram of feelings,
discrete and imbricated --
we could have parsed them out like math problems.
And some days I call it healing, the way we engulfed
ourselves in our own choice of silence -
yours defiant, mine pliant.

Often, I choose to remember us on the day
of our high summer picnic to the farmhouse,
the meal of saag in a blackened pot over coals,
the depressions of our sneakers in the ploughed earth,
the whir of the motor, the groan of the tube-well,
the cold water washing over us -- my face must have
collapsed into the same startled look as yours.

But later, when we were floating
within the robust enclosure of the well,
you held on to my hand for a good while
so the water wouldn’t carry you too far.

 

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Poydras Review - December 2014
"Lahore, Summer 1993"


Lahore, Summer 1993

Back then

the flurry of exchanging phone numbers on the last day of  school
in the cool, airy verandas of the Convent,
the promises to call, get together, share homework notes,
the frantic goodbyes and goodlucks for three whole months

the indefatigable demands for the street seller’s corn,
roasted, plump and golden yellow still in its husk,
buried deep inside hot brackish sand of a wooden wheelbarrow,
and the pliancy of those pearly kernels in the hands of schoolchildren 

those long days that started with a damp smell and parched air,
the cooler - a fan with a water tank - dry after spinning all night,
beckoning the garden hose to its cavernous metal belly, and
the abrasive call of the sabzi-wallah, onions! tomatoes! potatoes!

the thrill of insularity, the ritual of creating a cave
in a corner where the floor remained cool, away from the sun,
with quilts and blankets arranged on toppled cane furniture, and
inside, books arranged in neat rows alongside a plate of sliced mangoes

the arrival of cousins and grandmother,
the children clutching small bags of salted jamun,
their fingertips, tongues, lips stained purple with the juice,
and Nani unearthing a small bundle of money from a hidden pocket

the pleasure of new textbooks, fountain pens, glass inkpots
mastering the meticulous art of creating dust jackets out of khaki paper,
displaying superior penmanship in the creation of each label -
name: noorulain noor, class: 4B, subject: social studies

that never-ending summer, the barefoot dances in monsoon rain,
the yearning to be austere once more, uniform, sash, school bag,
to while away the last period under the drone of ceiling fans,
heavy-limbed, droopy-eyed, the pen slipping from a slack grip

Back then

blithe laughter, which twenty years hence, has metamorphosed,
become guarded, restrained; the season, too, liberally forgotten,
and in the crevasses of memory transformed somehow -
ephemeral, magical, miraculous


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Tethered by Letters - December 2014
"Dissonance" - Fall Poetry Contest Winner


Dissonance

Five times a day, the muezzin’s
sonorous call emerged from minarets
of the neighborhood mosque while pigeons
roosted in the half-moon of its dome,
he summoned supplicants with those words

those words
I breathed through clamped teeth                                           
to find solace in devotion,
a contraction scissoring through me
the nurse’s sandpaper hands,
her gravelly voice, “It’s supposed to hurt”

“It’s supposed to hurt,”
my mother whispered, an anchor
of reassurance, her hand on her brother’s arm,
face clinical, but eyes leaping
between residues of the accident -
his mangled leg, his languid tears

languid tears
the house heaved with
when they lifted my grandmother,
a son holding each leg of the charpoy,
and again, as the procession began -
a sea of white skullcaps, a jangle of prayer beads

a jangle of prayer beads
drowned out by the shouts of two boys on a Sunday
morning in the courtyard of All Saints Church,
Peshawar, and a shower of ball-bearings bearing their flesh
demonstrated the cost of worship, interrupted:
127 dead, 250 injured in the wake of those words

those words
I recite on bleak days still, Allah-u-Akbar,
folding them inward now, swallowing
the music, the meaning of each syllable,
a habitual remedy for my wayward faith,
a practice of humility, an offering of grace


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Blue Bonnet Review - November 2014
"How Mother Was" and "Inertia"


How Mother Was

It strikes me now
how small she’s always been –
not even five feet tall, but the touch of her presence
everywhere, in everything –
curled up with her thick volumes of Urdu classics,
a lidless Piano ballpoint pen, a yellow legal pad,
and reams of A4-size recycled newsprint
in unobtrusive corners of the house,
loose sheets of half-finished songs strewn around her.

She felt bigger, with her slightly nasal, sonorous humming
as she sounded out the weight of a verse.
Or the way she looked squarely at me
with her beady black eyes, and said simply, artlessly,
“Go upstairs!” A customary dismissal of her headstrong first-born,  
three laden discordant syllables.

Or the way she breezed into my room most afternoons
in her starched cotton kurta,
her hair piled in a perfect spiral,
and jumped on my bed, startling me with a tickle fight.
My cacophonous howls of laughter and complaint,
a buoyant melody rolling off her tongue, and her intent look,
dense and ripe and miraculous, like in that contained ripple,
she witnessed me fluidly within the vortex of time,
traversing its current, its vertiginous downdraft.


Inertia

Obviously, there are divergences,
same as the ones we nursed when we started out
in that town of low-ceilinged apartment homes,
where the train’s acrimonious, self-important call,
incongruous with the summer breeze,
jolted us through the open windows
long after our threshold was in shadows
and had trembled to announce the arrival
of our downstairs neighbor,
a day laborer and a masterful guitarist.
Those nights,
with your body resolutely turned away from me,
I waited for the front door to shiver in its frame,
for the man below us to pluck the strings of his guitar,
sing a song I did not understand
but knew to be sad, a melody with the rhythm of
lyrical, muffled sobs.
It always started with a formulaic outburst -
throwing your dinner across the table and
stomping off, out the door,
down the stairs, leaving the ramshackle kitchen
in a frenzied seizure. Hours later,
engulfed by the silence of civility or a truce,
I would dissolve in the seams of a stranger’s music.

How did we survive so much discontent
and bring it here with us to this new
well-insulated house?
Latent, yet its flames crackle and lick
at our heels as we, out of habit, 
still unravel in low voices, wheeze out accusations
with our rage-heavy, steel-cold, bone-tired breaths. 
New strangers in this neighborhood, too - 
little girls playing with their dog,
their mother calling from a window,
someone working with tools in their garage, 
the steady drone of a machine intruding
on the radio song blaring in a balcony.
Our fights bring that old lonesome
taste to my tongue,
but no one sings their despair here
or plays it on the guitar,
we only have the consolation of space - 
in the kitchen, I drop a skillet, a colander, 
some silverware into the sink like loose change, 
kick the cherry-wood cabinets, scrape my nails
across burnt pasta sauce in the cradle of a pot,
out of sight, you watch a mob drama, 
and I let the water run to drown out all sound.

Obviously, there are divergences, 
naked as loud noises, honest as healing wounds - 
we claw through them
with more rancor each time, 
but for the most part, we, being in motion,
stay in motion.


***********************************************

Broad! - August 2014
"The Place Where No Words Live"


The Place Where No Words Live

For Jahanara (in sickness)

I always knew you would live up to your name
my baby, Jahanara,
who makes the world more beautiful,
sometimes in instants as tiny as a raindrop,
sometimes in those as big as a leap of faith
there is no distance between the rhythmic
lub­dub of my heart
and the cyclic beep of yours
that I hear on hospital monitors
I
feel you kicking inside my belly
on lonely afternoons;
see that wrinkle between your eyes,
your mouth wide open,
taking your first gulp of air;
hold you in my arms and whisper in your ear
shhhhh...shhhhh...shhhhh, quiet now, darling, mama's here;
live the months I have known you––
first when you were growing in me
and now in this world––
all in one infinite moment
you are with me in a place
where no words live;
we see each other
and feel the weight of a thousand years––
for you and me,
this world is neither our beginning
nor our end

 

***********************************************

Clapboard House - July 2014
"Dreamscape" and "The Cartographer"


Dreamscape

I dream of prodigal glee
that comes with doing something forbidden
under the pretense of a household chore.
A plastic bucket filled with water, 
toppled with a fierce kick - 
and the kick - so vivid now after twenty years,
the impact of my small foot,
the thrust of the knee, the instinctive step
backwards,
a palpable thud, spillage
on the concrete floor of the garage,
that satisfying rush.

I dream of hours spent watching
small tributaries branch away from me,
iridescent in the light of the sun
until the shadow of the peepul tree
starts to congeal the puddles
into asphalt-grey sleet,
viscous, denser,
the water morphs,
creates tiny fissures in the
topography of the garage floor
and swallows come back to roost
fidget in their nest beside the skylight,
the thin twigs and moss of their home
grinding against the glass. 

In my dream, that sound
is like a stray russet leaf
dragging across the window pane,
or a throaty whisper moist against my ear,
or a fingernail scratching against fabric,
gentle, deliberate.
I hear this murmur,
an almost involuntary hiss escaping
thick lips pursed together, secretive
and salacious at once, redolent
of the beginnings of a summer windstorm -
it’s only the stupid swallows, I tell myself,
only the stupid swallows.

 

The Cartographer

The river I wanted to touch
and the fisherman on its bank—
distant,
foggy as a December night
when your breath thickens and forms
white puffs from a tightened throat.
A fort not far from its shores,
on the stone floors of which
I read Yeats and dreamed
of cohesive endings, of kinship,
of struggle and triumph.
Narrow alleys with food vendors and gutters
and four-walled tombs
of anonymous saints,
where worshippers tied pieces of yarn
to poles erected in unobtrusive corners—
such power in unfulfilled prayers.
A house in the mediocre part of town,
with terracotta pots in the front yard
and jasmine plants in bloom—
the house that holds
my childhood, old loves, incomplete tragedies.
 
Sitting in a car that smells new
and always a little foreign,
I draw these maps
on the back on my hand,
on paper napkins,
on receipts of this year's Christmas shopping.
The house, the plants, the fort, the tombs, the river,
and I scramble the order each time—
a perverse pleasure inherent
in the entropy of this act,
even on gossamer sheets of paper
and the robust skin of my hand,
bearing a semblance to the evolution
of the cartographer—
scattered, disarrayed,
a labyrinth of chaos,
and loss in the ink of a ballpoint pen.

***********************************************

Blue Lake Review - June 2014
"Nostalgia"


Nostalgia 

2011

It's the kitchen I ache for:
The purple October-dawn sky
fractured
by a sanguine smear;
the glass-top table gleaming
in the uncertain light
reflecting a laden face,
a pair of stooped shoulders,
a belly still loose from having you in it;
the petals of a monstrous orchid
on the window-sill, drooping,
the long stem bent over
like the flex in the spine
of an old woman;
your head in the crook of my arm,
your body like the warm weight
of an herb-infused heat-pack,
your eyes glinting,
onyx orbs closing languidly;
the smell of toasted bread
with a dollop of butter
and freshly ground black pepper,
a broken pod of cardamom
swimming in the thick layer of milk-fat
on the surface of my chai,
the taste of warm chocolate
melting along the edges of a tea-biscuit;
sleep stealing over your swaddled body,
an enraptured stillness except the clink of china,
and the sky rolling itself thinner and thinner,
paler and paler.

2008

It's the kitchen I ache for:
The hope and trepidation
of an inexperienced cook
thick in the air like the smell of onions
caramelizing in a cast-iron pan;
the hesitancy of each knife stroke
chopping parsley, basil, cilantro,
slicing the tip of a wayward finger;
the defeat of a burned dinner,
and the mounting distress for a fight,
looming like a flood warning
in the valley during heavy downpours;
the ecstasy of a perfectly cooked meal,
vindication in the symmetry and imperfections
of homemade bread,
in perfectly roasted chicken
with a touch of garlic and rosemary;
the failures and triumphs
of the early seasons of love
in the company of a two-decade-old gas oven,
a lazy ceiling fan ricketing on waning afternoons,
a wall stained with culinary mishaps - pasta sauce,
sputtering oil, scorched cheese,
a thrift-store, threadbare mat on the floor,
hiding the rip in the linoleum,
offering comfort to tenacious feet.

1995

It's the kitchen I ache for:
The cool epoxy floor, mopped
with diluted Dettol, the artificially-sweet
scent, a hint of pine and spirits,
lingering in the air;
the round walnut table,
chipped and unsteady,
littered with pencil shavings,
geometry sets, dirty lunch-pails, 
note-books, ink-pots, fountain pens;
the chatter of three little girls
over chopped cucumber salad,
mint chutney, chicken karahi, and
ballooned chapaatis exhaling steam
upon landing on cool earthenware plates;
my mother's sonorous humming
lost in the loud crackle of the old freezer,
lost in the plumes of flour rising from her dough,
lost in the clatter of dishes soaking in the stone basin;
rain falling along the sloping tin roof,
prattling like glass marbles,
a spray of monsoon entering through the screen door,
misting walls, making wooden cabinets swell,
and all the while spicy potato fritters
turning golden-brown in an age-blackened wok,
cognizant of the good weather.

***********************************************

Apeiron Review - May 2014
"Father," "The Other Woman" and "Dispossession"


Father 

“Sever my name from yours, then,” you said,
your voice thick like lassi sloshing against steel,
your hands in usual repose but for the fountain
pen clasped between thumb and index finger, 
whipping through air, measured, sinusoidal.

God knows what coalesced inside me - 
perhaps the malleable pride I inherited
from you that we have both, at times,
limbered or coaxed or obliged
to become armor as well as weapon.

But I remember your eyes, the same waxy brown
of ploughed soil as mine, our only threat
of betrayal, our only leverage on each other - 
they never could lose the warmth of golden
harvest fields we had walked across

together in those old days, our footfalls
leaving impressions in the cane patch, 
yours always deeper than mine, 
and mine missing for furlongs at a stretch
when I took care to tread on the furrows you made.

I wonder if a tired farmhand going home
for supper saw our winding trail and thought
that the child vanished among the crops
while the father meandered forth towards
the dipping sun, the hobnobbing village.

 

The Other Woman 

First, I heard my mother
crying in the bathroom.

Like a survivor of any disaster, 
I recall that it was a perfectly ordinary July night,
starry, humid, dogs barked, cicadas sang, 
the neighborhood watchman sent a screeching whistle-call
as he circled the block on his bicycle.
I stood on the warm epoxy floor
and looked into the slat of light
between the door and its splintered frame,
while the painted window glass of that room
diffused the moonbeams,
swathed all objects and my skin
in a curious deathly blue. 

She wept like she lived - 
fiercely, bountifully.  
Maybe there was too little air
for both of us - 
she drank it in large liquid gulps,
wailed through thinned white lips, contracted mouth, 
placed her hand on her heart, 
flat palm, heaving chest, pressing, pressing, 
to no avail, no comfort to be had.

How long I must have labored with my breath,
harboring it for ages,
and then exhaling a storm, wishful and fearful
of being discovered. 

Maybe we are both still there, 
my mother disintegrating in the bathroom
of her married home, 
and I, an accidental spectator of her grief.

 

Dispossession

For J, with love

The south-facing window of your mother’s house
opens to a view of your grave.
At dawn, after kneeling towards Mecca,
she dons her black polyester-blend burka
and steps into the narrow sepia-swathed street.
At the threshold of the cemetery,
she buys day-old rose garlands at a discount
from the street-side florist, 
slips off her leather chappals, 
tip-toes to you, kisses the epitaph, 
hangs a garland on each edge of the headstone.

Once home, she sits on the window-seat for hours,
prayer beads slipping through her fingers, 
colliding with each other, her eyes never leaving those roses
strung tightly together, wilting in the sun.
I think of one rainy season of our childhood in that house -
a fort made out of overturned rattan chairs,
the blackboard in one corner, our names on it,
our hands covered with chalk dust feeling like sandpaper,
and your mother sitting underneath the muted skylight,
shelled pomegranate seeds slipping through her fingers,
landing dully in a chipped ceramic bowl. 

She must have sprinkled powdery black salt on them,
filled two glasses with milk, spread a dollop
of butter on two steaming chapaatis
and added a layer of sliced hard-boiled eggs,
laid the feast on a plastic tray
with painted pink roses on the border,
and brought it to us to devour. 
We must have accepted this bounty with glee, 
gobbled it all up, gone back
to our make-believe lives inside the enclave
of toppled chairs.

But I can only remember those small clusters
of glossy red seeds escaping her fingers,
and the gnawing feeling of fine white sand on mine.

 

***********************************************

aaduna - April 2014
"Holiday House," "Atonement" and "Weatherman"

Holiday House 

She traced circles on her palm as she told
us the stories of her youth and the fold
in the fabric of history that broke
a nation, birthed two, and many a folk-
tale of love and triumph, battle and loss,
and back to the time she walked across
an intangible border in the land,
the signature of a powerful hand.
The gas heater blazed on those winter eves,
in its labored warmth we watched her weave
long narratives of happiness and grief,
with a side of peanuts and hunter beef.
Her heavy velvet quilt smelled of mothballs
and rosewater. Her plush pashmina shawls
rested thickly folded on her oak bureau -
she tapped it with her nails, a staccato
rhythm, rising and waning with her stories.
The room with its oily glow, and the breeze
stealing through the bamboo shutters, hissing,
running through our cold fingers, carrying
the rich scent of jasmines and wood polish,
gliding over us, and the wainscoting
that creaked in chorus when she stopped speaking,
told us that she had left something unsaid -
was it about life? Was it about death?

 

Atonement
(Nominated for the Pushcart Prize)

I carefully curved you in an arc,
your eyes and the wrinkle between them,
bathed you in India ink and rolled you thin,
sewed you into patterns, into poems.
Now, I dream of using the tip of my blunt needle
and my pinpricked thumb
to release you from this prison of my creation,
and let you diffuse away like jasmine scent
carried by our old city’s heavy-handed breezes.

Maybe I would find you then
on an indistinguishable road of this metropolis,
see you from afar and recognize
your eyes and the wrinkle between them,
the one I sewed and kissed and loved. But
in the clamor of people and their voices,
will you hear me when I call your name?
I could just as easily lose you
in foreign faces on foreign shores
if I unstitch each stitch
in rough canvases of old and new poems,
without form, without borders, without even origins.
I have nested too long in this land of polite distance
where I found you, at last.

I have forgotten
the city where mule carts roam the streets
and horse-drawn carriages swerve amidst cars,
the smells of recycled oil, street food,
the sight of naked children in monsoon rain,
old lessons and sweltering summers –
all lost in my penance of piecing you together
stitch by stitch.

Perhaps atonement lies in searching
for a way that takes me back
to the city in which we were born but not acquainted,
to pigeon cages and henna-covered virgin hands,
to you in your youth without the wrinkle
between your eyes,
to me in my youth without the grief
I have penned.

Now, I begin to unthread each word,
cut loose each suture,
so you can find your way home –
but remember
our childhoods we left behind
in the city of Ravi, of jasmines, of monsoons.
I will make my way back,
defenseless on air currents or in a stoic ocean liner,
traversing my fears over thousands of miles.

And then I will find you again
where I was meant to find you the first time – years ago –
amidst the pale pungency of smells and sights that we will relearn,
among native faces and rutted roads and littered rivers,
a chance meeting between two poets.

 

Weatherman

“And which way does the wind blow,”
I ask him.
He carefully tears a sheet from his book,
and blows it away in slices –
one end of the page in his mouth,
his fingers changing its landscape,
his breath giving it wings.
Words, like tiny insects,
slanting and beetle-black,
dance in the air,
kiss the billowing grass,
descend into the valley.

They don’t even make a sound.

He plucks a verse
from my hair.
An incoherent line
ripples on it
like a dismembered ant.
“Downward, it seems,” he lets go.
It flies behind its comrades
as if to prove a point.


***********************************************

The Bangalore Review - February 2014
"Wading into the Ocean"


Wading into the Ocean

we are on our travels with
the remains of conversations we almost had,
promises cracked through the middle,
wrapped in the cloth that blinds us

there are so many realities of us,
a decade full of crests and troughs,
a steady progression of waves and bodies,
flesh loosening,
aging,
the crow’s feet around my eyes,
the subtle lethargy in my breasts,
my youth come and gone
like a song that disappears
as a car with the radio blaring
passes us by on the open road,
and you look new still

let’s take a diverging walk now –
some furlongs on foot
and you will meet a small gap in the asphalt,
we can fall through it and come out on the other side –
one lurch and a blink,
and we will cross oceans and icebergs
to be reborn –
ourselves again in the native land,
our eyes feasting on cotton crops and sugar cane and
tilled fields

you say nothing –
it’s just as well,
here, on our journey,
language has no power
and we haven’t crossed over yet
two thousand ears of corn…
two thousand ears
scattered in the ocean
their tympanic membranes
vibrating still,
and voices taking shape,
murmuring like ghosts convalescing on waves
this ocean, this night, with you
is a formidable place –
we are on our travels still,
we are on our travels


***********************************************

ARDOR Literary Magazine - February 2014
"Smoke" and "My Story was in that City"


Smoke

 the stone floor is cold  
 
a shiver ripples my legs -
alone in the window
at this hour
that's neither morning nor night,
but suspended in the middle,
dangling like a lie between lovers
 
the city below is yawning,
its wide mouth open,
headlights beginning to snake through freeways,
storefronts lighting up,
a dog barks nearby,
smoke billows from the chimney across the street
 
does someone stand in that window, too,
are we, together, in a strange marriage,
have our contemplations of this moment
served as vows of sanctity,
do they see the gaping hungry mouth of the city, hear the dog,
see the smoke in my chimney,
do they wonder
if there is someone with cold feet
on the other side

 

My Story was in that City   

that city told my story
when there was no story to be told  

I loved the perfumed city
of jasmines and street food, 
a canal that ran like an erection
through it, 
a river that was drying up, 
but lovers still rented canoes
to sail in the moonlight, 
and others took grandiose walks
through Mughal structures
offering many a hidden dome
for nameless things  

its humid monsoons
when they finally came, 
their tail-end washing over me
on a hot cement rooftop, 
soaking through the miseries of many, 
little boys danced in the rain, 
men jumped into the canal
with their shalwars making huge balloons, 
floating, floating, floating  

its harsh winter, 
dry like an old shriveled hand, 
cracked in places, the skin broken, 
but redemption waited for it
in hordes of oranges
sold from door to door
by poor farmers, 
the color of spring splashed into homes
blazing orange already
with flames of gas heaters  

its heat
that caused warm sweat to trickle
down my back
in an embarrassing, tickling stream, 
that made everything hard-edged, 
angular, even people, 
like they had been cooked down
to their bare core, and their faces
could no longer hide
any manner of sin  

its summer nights
possessed some kind of magic
when something wonderful happened - 
the city awoke, 
it became a living, breathing thing
with its innards lit up, as though
it had swallowed a million fireflies
and these winged things
flew in its writhing belly, 
jasmines bloomed, their scent
impregnating the air, their mouths open
in garlands, waiting
for a lover’s kiss  

I do not know what changed
the city or my story