poetry picks

If April is the cruellest month, here are five poems to take you back home

The second in a monthly series of selected poetry on different themes.

Home

by Vinita Agarwal

Homes have no walls
no rooms, no furniture, no thresholds
Nothing through which you might enter
and nothing from which you might want to exit
Because homes are not houses
Homes are built in the eyes
Erected by naked, hungry hearts
In skies, in dew drops, lichen, mosses,
Sometimes on parched, parted lips
Sometimes inside the darkening irises of your eyes
Homes are tender assembles of empty air
Sorted by the linear breaths you lend to me;
Built for unborn little feet to run
And for smiles to sun themselves on broad porticos
My home is in the centre of your palms
Sunk in the wells of your destiny
That you carry like a liquid in your eyes
Or like an abode in your hand, my very own delta
Between the nine mounds of the universe


Aftermath of a departure

by Vidya Panicker

When you left, you took with you
my wardrobe

That, and the kitchen, and the vegetable garden
and the gods in the room

Yesterday, I tripped on my saree
and ripped the edges of it. The 6 folds of cloth
tucked on my abdomen beneath the underskirt
came off and I stuffed it back in a hurry,
making it bulge out the rest of the day
Tie the skirt tight, tighter, I heard you say

I tried frying okras the way you did
It left a burning taste in my mouth, the taste
that reminded me of the year we went to Ooty
and had corn cob roasted on hot coal
You squeezed lemon on it to remove the bitterness of cinders,
a trick that might or might not work on my okras

I still take a bath first thing in the morning,
but the gods are always awake before me
I light the match stick
and extend my hands to the wick soaked in sesame oil,
The fan is turned off, the windows closed,
and I take care not to breathe
yet, somewhere on the way, the flame dies

And then there are the dents, two of them
on our plush sofa. One where you sat, peeling potatoes,
watching mega-serials of bad women scheming against good ones,
and the other where I did, fiddling with my laptop
Now I sit on the hump between the two dents
hoping that eventually the gaps would fill

These days, after I cook my lunch, burned or not
I leave a handful of rice on the backyard verandah
for the crows that are waiting to pounce on it;
all but one, who watches me astutely from the lowest branch
of the mango tree that you planted the year I was born.

And I know that is you,
watching out for me, telling me you are near.


House

by Sumana Roy

My love,
my love is my forehead
on which you scatter grains
for pigeons every morning.
My smile is a courtyard,
my reclining shadow a cowshed,
my scalp the moon-skin’s song,
my throat an old mossy well,
my hands a windmill that crush scented air,
my ears the mauve flower
that begins to hear with the day,
my legs, my legs a canal
that bring the flow of anklets your way,
my mouth a betel leaf you fold and chew for taste,
my eyes a post box you steal letters from,
and my eyebrows – my eyebrows
a ladder you climb to pluck sleep

I was your house without a roof.

The birds saw me
shaping my nails every evening.
They dropped thin moons
on my lake-like nails.
You called them woks
and fried my smiles in them.
They smelled good – the smiles,
as they shrivelled
in scalding oil.
I wanted to smile
but was scared to show you
the one spare smile
I’d saved in the cow’s udder.

My nails were flags that I put out
to flutter and scratch the wind.
My bindi was a cowdung cake
slapped against your back.
I dried in the sun,
your finger marks stabbed and wrinkled
and grew old with me.

Sunlight was superstition.
I’d wither and weather
if you touched me
in the light, you said.
So darkness.
Its grassy smell,
its guilty moistness,
its uncertain sagging skin,
its tropical climate,
its humid love,
its sticky inconsequentiality.
Darkness.
You hid me in it,
like a dog does his bone.

My body became your family.
My shadow, changing
to the mood of your tongue,
your mohalla.
You spat betel leaf juice on my walls.
I bled.
And as the evening wrung the sky of light,
darkness seeped into my hinges.
Doors and windows.
Mouth and burrow.
You lit a kerosene lamp at my feet.
Fire grew to smoke,
water bubbled to a murmur,
tapped my lid,
I burst open.
The wick burned all night.
It sucked oil,
it smoked,
it smudged new glass.
It grew thin.
I was a log of wood.
I was kitchen.
I was clay oven.
I was coal.
I was roti –
dough pressed between your fingers
and flattened to smoothness.
I was roti,
breakfast and dinner,
I was roti,
swelling up with heat,
I was roti,
caught between your teeth.

I was so many other things besides:
Cup and plate, jug and glass, lock and key,
all pairs that hold a house in embrace.

My clay body,
drying with the wind,
melting in the rain;
you plastered clay on clay,
every day,
until only outside was my all,
and my inside was only a bamboo,
an axis around which men
left behind tattoos of their slaps.
All men are, in the end, only masons.

There were cowries on my skin,
half slit open. One eyed cowries
as if in a permanent wink.
I was a pagoda of fireflies,
I glowed in the light.
No one noticed me burn.

I was perfect, you said.
Only I had no hair on my head.

Yet you brought flowers for me
to wear in my hair.
For flowers made your dream woman –
a farmer’s wife.
Yellow mustard flowers,
sharp to the nose, ambitious,
a future granary;
Sthalapadma, lotuses of the land,
lotuses without sharp spouts;
You climbed trees for me,
from there you told me stories of the sea.
You saw what I couldn’t see –
you saw water, I saw distance.
For space was an alphabet
you hadn’t cared to learn.
You hung marigolds from walls.
I didn’t care for ceilings.
You didn’t want height.
Hair was false height, you said.
You were looking for depth.
You dug for wells.
You dug for ponds.
You wanted fish.
You wanted rod.

I was only a house.
How could I move?
I waited, I watched.

You held it like a curse.
You held it like a rope.
You held it like water.
You held it like hope.

The nose! The nose?
And the nose is all you missed?
You said you were looking for oars,
for sail, for mast, for air;
The nose is a ship?

The nose ring’s only a loop
that brings the cows home.
We had none, not cows,
not fragments of footprints
to sew on to our new history.
Why ships then? Why homecoming?
Why the quiet doodles of nose rings?
Why bird-bites on wood-carvings?
Why half-circles of summer foam?

Nose ring was a world with a pinch,
you said; it was the world’s boundary.
Life’s frame – round with a leak,
allowing death a peek.
You treated it, at first, like a fishing hook,
You wanted me to bite,
Then you wanted it to bite me.

You thought it was a waistband
you’d tie around your world,
You thought it was a snake
that would bite its own tail.

I was only a house.

You punctured my earlobes with it.
Buttermilk accusations ran like pus.
You gathered folds of skin with it.
The nose ring became pincers.
You sewed my blouse ends with it.
The nose ring became a door latch.
You pushed our fingers inside it.
The nose ring became our love’s wallet.

It became all you wanted it to be.
But you wanted more.

You were a man.
I was only a house.

And so you brought stone,
You brought hammer,
You’d tired of roundness, you said.
You hit it hard, you hit it strong,
The circle fumbled, then crawled,
It wanted its shape back.
You hit it hard again.
It became snail,
It became earthworm,
And then a match stick that wouldn’t light.

Even anthill bricks are round,
You sometimes say,
And earrings and bangles,
And necklace and rings,
Only roundness suits a woman,
Men wouldn’t have it any other way.

The world is a woman, and so the moon,
The plough is a woman, and so are stories.
You rolled the nose ring on my skin,
It became wheels and crushed me.
It became a ball at your feet.
You were a man,
Your feet found joy in roundness.

And I still wanted you.
What good is a house without snores?

All you wanted was my left,
My room and a wall –
The nose ring was a clothesline
You wanted to hang babies from.
But you loved its purdah the best:
Such neat divisions, you said,
A mucus-dark andar mahal,
locked from inside with a half-bitten key;
the man’s world, like land,
hanging, sloth-like, for all to see …

A nose ring was a mirror
that held the future of faith,
A nose ring was a summer day,
only a winter comforting thought.
You said such things and pierced my skin,
A nail on my wall, a crumbling chandelier within …

You are a man.
I’m only a house.


The immigrant experience

by Chandramohan S

The immigrant word in a poem
sounds like “Prufrock”,
To be conspicuous
Like fly in the buttermilk.

The immigrant word in a poem
Is accompanied with a footnote
like a GPS tag on the ankles of the poem.

The immigrant word in a poem
Is the paper boat on the
High tide of strife-
Washed ashore like the corpse of a toddler.

The immigrant word in a poem
Is locked up in solitary confinement
In the prison of syntax.

The immigrant word in a poem
is a dysfunctional mating call
Tethered to a stable of phonetics.

The immigrant word in a poem
Is in the dock
For outraging the modesty of a poetic form.

The immigrant word in a poem
Is the feeling of alienation midst
phrases conniving a quorum
To purge the “other immigrant words”
Into the interstices of the swastika.


Address

by Mani Rao

Every evening the trees inhale birds
Swirling back home like a warm shawl
But I still wait for my perch in your arms
I would peg so lightly the sheets of your night flights
We would travel in one mind your old lands my new skies
And every morning you would breathe me fly


This selection is curated by Rohini Kejriwal. She also curates The Alipore Post, a daily newsletter stemming from a love of​ art, poetry, music, and all things beautiful.

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