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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.