And This Is about Pain Too

how much of the inside is pure slush
the centre more wobbly
than marmalade,
more roiling
than suburban gutters in August rains.
And then later,
a long time later, the quiet -
but for how long?
Is this what they call dum pukht, a slow cunning
Awadhi simmer of hormone and nostalgia
and recycled need,
a deep churning of juices
in the clay innards of a sealed vessel,
plotting mutiny one day
but not yet?



And on days like this nothing else will do.
Nothing but that whisper of breath against the ear.
Breath that’s warm
like the sigh of palmyra trees in Tirunelveli plantations.
that’s crisp
like linen, rice-starched, dhoop-soaked,
in a family cupboard.
to be trusted,
with a thread maybe
of something
your foremothers never knew, or pretended not to—
the spice-mist
of hookah on winter nights
in Isfahan, or raw splatter of Himalayan rain,
or wine baroque with the sun
of al-Andalus.
of outsider, ancestor, friend,
who leaves nothing more than this signature of air
against skin,
reminding you
that there’s nothing respectable about family linen
when cupboard doors close,
reminding you
that this uncensored wilderness of greed is simply -
or not so simply -


Lover Tongue

Perhaps I will tire of your grammar,
find myself yearning
for the rumble of verb or the soft flesh of pure vowel
on those mornings when I stumble over your landscape
of unforgiving nouns.
And it’s possible I will whittle away the very ribcage
in which I once sought sanctuary,
gnaw at the unbending sinew of ancestral norm,
turn sophomoric,
say fuck you,
say cope up,
just to disrupt
your family symmetries your patrician DNA.
Maybe I will simply
want something more
one day
than your bequest of semicolons - something more final,
more silent.
But even if I turn the page before you do,
remember I am as dog-eared,
as you are,
and as much in love.


Wearing High Heels

It was those heels
that I wore
to the Class Eight jam session.
They left red weals on my feet
as I stumbled
across the dusty JB Petit school hall.
But that night
the weedy boys
from the school next door turned into something else - lithe warriors,
medieval, almost epic,
dark, deccan,
bodies supple as bowstrings, gait honed by a wisdom as old as Patanjali
(with just a frisson
of Travolta),
their conversations fluent as streams that burble
by motionless sages
in forest hermitages,
their senses alert
to jungle breath and portents of sky and recondite shifts of womanweather.
I have grown
too tall for heels.
The boys have grown
into bankers
and soft-bellied intellectuals.
But when lights dim
and city drawing-rooms turn vertiginous,
I see them all over again, dark, feral, lean-haunched, shadowy,
shape whittled down
to what really counts -



I’m wearing my mother’s sari, her blood group,
her osteo-arthritic knee.
We’ve voted
for different men, same governments.
In dreams she plays
among trees of rubber and betel palm outside a home in Myanmar
while I scamper down
dark service stairways
in Bombay buildings, sharp
with the smell of urine
and kesar agarbatti
smoking out of the breast pocket
of the seventh-floor madman.
She lusted after Dev Anand, I after Imran Khan.
On television
both still sport
headfuls of black hair.
She treads nimbly
across language.
I vowel every now and then into mouldering inertias.
I come undone with muzak
or a compliment. My mother’s made of sterner stuff.
Sowing the same dream in a different self -
the cussed logic
we both know
behind aeons of parenting.
We talk Buddhism,
Lata Mangeshkar, plot pedicures, late into the night,
and she watches me ancient peasant canny harvester, her eyes bright
with defeat
as I grow stealthily into her body.
Here it is then - the treachery
of middle age, of love.
It gets no closer than this, Mum.


Epigrams for Life after Forty

Between the doorbell
and the death knell
is the tax exemption certificate.
There are fewer capital letters than we supposed.
Other people’s stories will do.
Sticky nougatine green-and-pink stories. Other people’s stories.
Untenanting is more difficult than unbelonging.
The body? The same alignment
of flesh, bone, the scent of soap, yesterday’s headlines, a soupçon of opera.
But there are choices
other than cringing vassal state and walled medieval town.
And there is a language
of aftermath,
a language of ocean and fluttering sail, of fishing villages malabared
by palm, and dreams laced
with arrack and moonlight.
And it can even be enough.


How Some Hindus Find Their Personal Gods
(for AS who wonders about ishta devtas)

It’s about learning to trust
the tug
that draws you to a shadowed alcove undisturbed
by footfall
and butter lamps,
a blue-dark coolness where you find him waiting patiently,
that perfect minor deity—
shy, crumbly,
oven-fresh, just a little
wry, content to play a cameo in everyone’s life but your own.
A god who looks
like he could understand errors in translation, blizzards on the screen, gaps in memory,
lapses in attention,
who might even learn by rote the fury,
the wheeze,
the Pali,
the pidgin,
the gnashing mixer-grinder, the awkward Remington stutter of your heart,
who could make them his own.
After that you can settle for none other.


The City and I
(returning to Bombay after 26 November 2008)

This time we didn’t circle each other, the city and I,
hackles raised, fur bristling.
This time there was space between us
and we weren’t competing.
Space enough and more
for the nose-digging librarian and her stainless steel tiffin box,
for the Little Theatre peon
to read me endless Marathi poems on rainy afternoons,
for the woman on the 7.10 Bhayandar slow with green combs in her hair
to say
and say again
He’s coming to get me He’s coming.
This time
the city surged towards me,
mangy, bruised-eyed, non-vaccinated,
suddenly mine.


Or Take Mrs Salim Shaikh

Who ripples hospitably
out of her halwa-pink blouse
and sari (‘Synthetics are so practical
to wear on trains, na?’). Who invokes the protocol of Indian railways to ask
for your phone number even before
the journey begins. Who unwinds
her life story, well-oiled, without a single split end.
She’s Hindu,
a doctor, like her husband. The Matron warned her
about inter-faith unions,
but she had no doubts,
not even in ’93 when others did.
Her ancestors supplied butter to Queen Victoria,
His grandfather, better still, was court dewan of Kolhapur.
‘I’ve been lucky.’ ‘The gods have been good.’
‘I eat and cook non-veg.’
‘Many of my friends are pure brahmin,’ ‘My sons are circumcised.’
‘My heart is pure.’
‘I practise no religion,
only homeopathy.’
Over lunch she remembers
the day her mother-in-law died in her arms.
‘I bathed her,
and when the body was taken away,
I told my husband
I want to be buried in the kabrastan—
it’s closer to our home than the crematorium.’

Take Mrs Salim Sheikh.
Excerpted with permission from When God Is a Traveller, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Harper-Collins India.