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Nandini Dhar

St. Anne's Girl's High School, Gopalpor, 1986

How To Infect Girls with Obedience


A Week of Solidarity, Interrupted

St. Anne's Girls' High School, Gopalpur, 1986

An exercise in photocopying: a kind of
white. Yet, never dazzling. To incarnate

a carbon-copy, is to count both the precise
number of desks and the benches to go

with them. Not a cemetery, not a monastery:
something in between. A reincarnation

of an atlas etched on stone – in another time,
another city, another village. To incarnate

a carbon-copy, is to make a precise list
of the books to be read. A schedule, a grandfather

clock by the hallway, a globe in every
room-- don't touch without your teacher's

permission. To incarnate a carbon-copy
is to collect between fingers a kind

of stockinette-discipline. When a little
girl here breathes, she breathes in tune: to

the sound of the floors being mopped. To
incarnate a carbon-copy is to plait

little girl hairs in white nylon ribbons: tight,
in rows. Neat: flower-beds in the garden

of a bureacrat's bungalow. When a little girl
screams, she screams in rhythm: to the smell

of other little girls rolled into perfect rotis –
round, flat, without edges. To incarnate a carbon-

copy is to prune through the same scales,
same songs. Walls brittle, blisters: the color

of the girls being ironed into identical moulds
of Cadbury candies. To incarnate a carbon-copy

is to reincarnate: the red-laden krishnachuras
in the courtyard. The janitor-lady fights with the durwan.

Curse-words drown muted little-girl
voices, repeating multiplication tables.

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How To Infect Girls With Obedience 

White frocks neatly starched and pleated, white veil
down her spine, straight-backed, Sister Carmelina could tell
if a girl  was good or bad by listening to her voice recite
The Solitary Reaper. The girls stood straight. Hands down
by their sides, shoulders erect. A bored army, colored toenails
hidden inside sensible Mary Janes – memorizing a language
that has travelled  far and might allow them to do so too. Too young
to know of the shaved head behind the Sister's veil, they stared
at the cowlicks on the nape of her neck, and wondered: curly or straight.
A white plastic vase on her table, a bunch of white rose,
Sister Carmelina could also predict if a girl had a candy hidden
inside her mouth by looking at her fingernails. And Tina did: that girl,
with devil-eyes with too many questions. Who renamed herself
Umrao Jan. Refused to say good morning, to stand up straight. And,
thus make her body curveless, in deference. As other girls did. Advanced,
too, for her age. Only twelve,and Mills and Boons inside her
desk. When the nuns recommend nothing more than Blyton,
Stratemayer,and an occasional Alcott. Maybe. That too, abridged.Carefully
censured,made fit for children's use. But,our Tina,with a knack
to discover things concealed, crawled beneath the teacher's desk. In
the black of her eyes, questions: what color were Sister Carmelina's
panties?Did she wear them at all?Or was she like our mothers
who never wore  bloomers underneath their saris? That darkness
in the folds  of the Sister's gown, the smell  of Ponds' Talcolm
in the creases of their thighs, those bruises  near her knees: did Jesus 
beat his wives too?Just like our fathers did? Two fingers pressing
on her ear and that was it.Tina never could reach upto that space
that the knickers adorn. A day spent standing facing the wall--- away
from the other girls and their chatter.
Lest she was contagious in spreading rebellion.

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Navy blue pleated skirt, knee-length white socks, shirt
buttoned all the way up to the top, she greeted

every teacher good morning, as she walked past them
in the hallway. Never impolite, rarely lifted up her voice,

read all by herself in a corner of the schoolyard,
all alone. Yet this face, that no one loved, nor hated,

had known the pleasures of failing exams, at least
thirteen times. Never in a row. Quiet ones are also

the dangerous ones--sneaky and sly. You never know
what they are cooking up. And what for. Mother Superior

confided to Sister Carmelita. Of course, she wasn't talking
about her. This girl, never impolite. Rarely lifted up

her voice, read all by herself in a corner of the schoolyard,
all alone. She hung her head, repeated once again:

I can't say woman and wolf
I don't know why my tongue never gets it right

On the bathroom wall, she wrote, in black ink, in letters
as big as the palms of her hand oman olf

It was beside her they sent Tina. The class-slut. Who called
herself Umrao Jaan. To sit, to read, to memorize ---
she was to infect the latter with her indistinguishable acquiescence.


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A Week of Solidarity, Interrupted

Amrita presses her mouth to the homeroom
window, points out to the narrow asphalt road
outside : the slate limbs of the krishnachura tree.
Next to her, Tina is clutching sunshine

in between her fingers – recovering what she
can of the sound of the daylight, sweeping
the dust-particles along, as it enters this classroom.
Their friendship, seven days old. And, there is history

to it: traceable, trackable.

Monday: furtive glances. How quiet
is the cloud of dust rising from the footsteps
of alleyway cricket. Mosquitoes stuck
in the spider-webs in the windowsill. Little
brown speck on Sister Carmelita's
white habit. Little smile, little guilt.

Tuesday: Tina passes Amrita a lipstick : inside
her lunch-box. Amrita pushes it back. Her
need for things that are not written words, had
always been minimal.

Wednesday: Amrita writes curse-words
in the margins of her math textbook. Gandu bokachoda
banchot. In her neat cursive script: orderly,
rows of ants in search of anything sugarly. Silently,
Tina reminds herself, these words exist. But stops: at
their edges.

Thursday: Amrita scribbles angry poems
in the back-covers of her geography book. Tina copies
them down in her journal, her fingers' dainty labyrinths
on a flower-rimmed rose-pink page. Amrita rolls her
eyes-- Girls! And this pink silliness. Outside,
in the courtyard across the street, a woman thwacks
her head on a  moss-ridden wall. Here, in this

sequestration of girls, Tina bends her head
to touch the un-tasted cities of a map-- the tip
of her pencil a translated knife. Amrita knows,
without speaking or asking: the world is round.

Lunch hour, tiffin : they tear apart the covers
from each and every Bible in the library
without any prior consultation. Abridged
and King Jame's. The librarian, only half-awake.

Between chasing off the fly at the tip of her nose
and stockinette stitches. A winter gift for her grandson,
who hasn't arrived yet. A little too old she is
to keep stock of each and every girl,
or their clandestine renunciations of school.

Friday: in
between Tina's fingers, torn pages. Correct folds,
correct patterns: a paper-boat. Amrita struggles
to pry each fold loose. Inside: I hate you. A
second. A second of tasting death
in the mouth, a second of homesickness. A
vision of a girl feeding her own hair
to fire: if only. If only I was as lineal as Tina.
It was then that Amrita had lost
the assurance of a palm on another palm, the reflection
of two girls inside a mirror: staring
together at the world. Overtaken
by an unarticulated,
but well-formed knowledge: the nor’wester
would come and it would come for her
alone – riding the pages of books yet unknown. Tina,
meanwhile, would be busy inside, filing
her nails-- her own archive of ten silver-hued half-moons.

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Nandini Dhar is the author of the chapbook Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations (Two of Cups Press, 2015). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review, Grist, Tusculum Review, West Branch, New South and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of the journal Elsewhere. Nandini hails from Kolkata, India, and divides her time between her hometown and Miami, Florida, where she works as an Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University. 


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