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Nandini Dhar




Fishbone: Ilish

Mid-Day Meal


A woman lives under our staircase.
Youngest of three sisters, married at eight,
widowed at ten. My mother tells me, 
she was one of my father's great-aunts. One
of the two. Although neither he nor his sisters
remember her face. 

This woman who hones her alphabets on the bricks
of the attic wall. Erases them off as soon as they
have been written, then writes them again. 
Her older sister tries to keep her busy, orders her around-- 
water these plants, chhoto. Put these clothes on the lines 
to dry. Slice these fruits. Do this. Do that.

Littlest aunt listens, does not talk back. Rehearses
absence instead: turning herself into a spider,
moves in between the cracks of the floor, 
the darkness of the corners. Our rooms tremble
with the sound weaving her story net. In between,
her eyes roam the pages of her father's library. 

When she is not reading, weaving or practicing 
her penmanship, my mother reads out parts of 
Anna Karenina to her, lets her touch the glossy 
pages soft as butter. They argue over who 
deserves to be loved more-- Anna or Dolly.

In return, great-aunt gossips about her older sister.
The one who widowed at twelve, forever wanted 
to grow up. Could not look at any woman's swollen
belly without cursing. Jealous of the signs of their 
coming of age. Her white sari, paper thin, rustled on her 
skin. In her quest to grow up, the older sister 
grew smaller and smaller. Small enough to be
a tiger-lily in an earthen  vase. My mother rubbed 
the petals in between her fingers-- weak and soft,
like baby skin. The littlest aunt lives on, 
making the dust in the walls of our staircase 
the apparatus of her tongue.

They laugh together-- this woman and my mother. Like
childhood friends. She takes my mother's hands, 
leads her through the house. Points to the family
pictures on the walls of my parents' room, 
the neatly stitched curtains on my door, the row
of spotless china teacups on the kitchen counter:
in every room of this home, the mundane ruin. 

To me, my mother has given this woman's fingers ---
forever inserted in the middle of a page. Her persistence. 
Her grip upon a book. And, most of all, her capacity
to laugh herself into a ghost. 


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(After Owen Sheers)

Summer. The sun oozes sweat, spits the droplets from its lip 
onto the coconut leaves. I drag my mother's old tin trunk 
through the staircase into my room. In the living room,
my mother lies on her back, her bones hard against 
the cement floor. Her afternoon of respite. Her skin soaking
up the cold. A piece of pickled lemon in between her fingers
in the left-hand, she reads Anna Karenina, sitting up once
in a while to turn the pages.
                                             I lift the lid to birth the woman my mother once was.
Must have been: not my mother yet. Letters from my father, 
old newspapers, clippings of a world claiming the impossible, 
composition books, brittle pages, blue ink alphabets, books bound
 in teal faux leather. Notes on the margins. 

The ceiling fan switched off, my fingers excavate 
what my mother once authored:
passages from Wuthering Heights translated, in between her college essays.
Never completed. Notes for a thesis on Madhushudan Dutta. That too, only in fragments. A notebook full of abandoned poems.

  When she sees I have discovered what she had banished
to the attic for all these years, my mother removes her sari 
and shows me the scar that runs through her belly. A road,
zigzag. Running through paddy fields. Tells me, the time
when it accrued to her, she did not know how the word spelt--
scissor, seizure or caesar.
Didn't need to.  In the tongue she wrote her letters to the daughter not yet born,
it all looked the same.

        When I tell her, poems do not have expiry dates, and she should 
finish them all--  my mother turns her back to me. Without
ceasing to caress her scar, says,
These doctors recorded you right on me,
Her maternity etched right on skin, she is different from her mother. 
As I will be from her. And nothing but her own death would ever 
change it any way. As for those poems, they have long lost their relevance.

She dips her fingers into the pickle jar, 
goes back to the Karenins, conformed in her cocoon.
Leaving me to make meaning out of my guilt of ever being born.     

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(after Rita Dove and A. Van Jordan)

Before I could picture myself differently, I thought if. What if she, the babu-bari girl, and I, the maid-servant's daughter, changed places? If I didn't have a quarrel to settle with the pink-gold and the rickety blue winning over Sulekha Ink royal blue every time, would I have loved the sun little bit more? If I had loved the sun a little bit more, would my ma have stayed in bed an hour two hours three hours after the church clock struck four? If only I had a father taller, cleaner, smelling more of shaving cream paper and ink and less of stale liquor  bidi  and  turpentine ; if his shirts were ironed stiff ; if his hands curled against ma's, first day every month, delivering what was ours, before it was swept away by twisted catastrophes that seem to befall my father every month every day every hour, would I wake up in the crease of my mother's arms? Would I know (how) to crave for the warmth of the human skin as I do this blanket? This too-- this blanket-- torn at the edges-- holes in places, wasn't mine. As wasn't this pillow-cover   this bed sheet these curtains. Even that dress I wore, had adorned limbs other than mine. Yes, this skin I call mine-- brown as the shades of the leaves dancing on barks of mango-trees, knew the taste of slipping into things shaped by others' touch – fingers other than mine    skins white as fever-ridden lips. If only it wasn't so. If only I could be the first-- and why just the first. Why not the only one? The fingers which spread out the rupee bills, graceful as a pigeon's fan ; the bones that slip inside the crispness of new stitches, fragrance of fabrics yet unused, and I would swing my skirt, let the scarves fly-- the colors intact ; unwashed. Proud as a peacock's tail. But if and only if ; an if is lonely if not followed by an alas. Alas, I know too much; our neighbor, Rina Mashi, sews buttons on clothes in a tailor's shop down the road. There are other girls and women in her workshop: some, like Rina, sew buttons and hems. Others who cut shapes out of yards and yards of rectangularness. There must be others, who   somewhere    someplace   spin and weave threads and yarns into textile smoothness. Although I don't know any of them. There is not a single piece of cloth in this world that can boast of a virgin crispness in adorning a body: a dress, a scarf, a shirt, or anything else; passing through too many hands before it becomes mine or hers or anyone else's. A dress isn't anything that should give me a peacock's pride : my pride these fingers of mine   adorn my hand like a pigeon's fan  which I use to make old things new   the same different ; as I did with everything my mother brought in from other people's homes-- handouts, cast-offs, chances for others to show their generosity.



This dress, in purple flowers and white, was hers-- once. When my ma got it for me, the flowers had faded a bit, the hems were coming off, the right armpit was torn. Yet, the cloth was crisp around the hem. I followed Rina Mashi to her workshop, hung around the edges of the room-- loud with the roar of the sewing machines, heavy with the smell of human work, pungent like turpentine. They let me, because I did not make any sound cleaned up the fabric scraps   collected thrown away spools of threads broken sequins. They let me --- because I was broomstick thin  my hands small. Was doing what my size dictated-- the domestic maid's rickety girl claiming what would be thrown off anyway. Yet, when I left, I had two plastic bags-- full. These scraps of fabric-- in colors of flowers-- all printed. These threads that sang in rainbow tunes, these broken sequins of use to no one but me, would soon become what I desired them to be : appliques, little stars, flowers, birds and nameless designs that would cover the fadedness and tears in these cast-off things my mother brings. These fingers that I can shape as pigeon's fans or peacock's tail, would make this old purple flowered dress into one covered in stars-- a piece of the sky shaped and mended by me, mine --- Saraswati's own hands. 


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Fishbone: Ilish

Because my grandmother taught her to 
my mother puts ilish-bones in everything she cooks--
dal, bottle-gourd, eggplant-onion curry, taro roots.
An ilish, after all, is a sister--
leaves her mark long after one ceases to meet every day.

With every push her ladle gives to these bones,
her village, of which she has no memory of,
swells up in her korai. 
An ilish, after all,  is a jasmine crushed---
a fragrance on skin refuses to fade.

With every ilish-bone she scars her vegetables with,
her village, which was big enough to begin with,
gets bigger and bigger. 
An ilish, after all, is a freedom-loving  guerilla--
bones sharp as hairpins refusing to break.

Because my grandfather taught her to,
my mother's teeth snap every ilish-bone into two.
An ilish, after all, is history--
unalterable, but gossiped about every day.

When my mother chews the backbone of an ilish, 
taking in every bit of that succulence, 
she also chews her father's voice chronicling 
                         how when he and his brothers sat down to eat
                         in that big enough village, eight ilishes would jump 
                         up on their plates. Ready to be eaten. 

With every movement of her mouth,
the voice grows bigger: teaching her the art of
using her tongue to undo an atlas redrawn. 

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Mid-Day Meal

[With a view to boost universalization of Primary Education (class I-V) by improving enrolment, attendance, retention and learning levels of children, especially those belonging to disadvantaged sections and to improve nutritional status of students of primary stage, the Cooked Mid-Day-Meal Programme was started in West Bengal in 1100 schools of six districts from January, 2003.]

I go to the wrong school--- 
never enough teachers never enough chalk 
never enough blackboard never enough paper
or even enough benches to sit on. We huddle together,
three grades in a single room. Shouting over each
others' lessons-- Shah Jahan's Taj Mahal overlapping 
the shape of the earth overlapping some poem. 
And that's how, although I'm in class five,  

I've made friends with a class four girl--
she bites her nails, chews the shards
as if they are candies. At the least, 
to her, they must be molten molasse.
Yet, they are what they are – pieces 
of her own body made unfamiliar
by her tongue. I understand. We talk about 
babu bari girls—the ones our mothers hug, feed,
bathe and scold.

For her, I put in words the time when Tumpa, at
whose house my mother works, and I, sat down 
to eat. Together. Because, it was Tumpa's birthday. 
This new friend, silly girl, asks, “what's that?”
I shush her-- for, I do not know. I don't have one.
                         And, I keep telling her, how maima changed places 
with my ma. Almost. And loaded my plate
with rice, dal, achar, fish and chicken meat. Only
that one time. And, how I had foregone washing
my hand with soap afterwards. How I kept smelling
it hours after – onions, garlic, fish, chicken and mustard oil
 mingled into my skin. I hold my hand up
under nail-chewing girl's nose : hoping
my palm lines would re member how it felt to dig

into so much.

We line up to eat thrice a week-- midday meal
that's the name of it. A name that fills the cheek
and good thing that is. For what is served cannot fill
our tummies squeaking like baby shoes : 
rice thick enough to kill a grown man on the head.
Dal thin as turmeric sprayed water. The grains,
even if they were there once, hidden inside,
have been ladled to fill the cook's rice-plate.
But, we are not to worry. What has been lost 
in the shape of grains, has been refilled by worms 
clinging to the rice grains as if they are someone's

last pieces of land. 

We dig holes in the rice, draw birds and airplanes
on the banana-leaf plate, our fingertips dipped in dal.
Whatever we make gets erased with every slurp of our lips.
She puts fingerful of rice in her mouth--
“Ei, take another piece of fish. Do you need more sauce?”
I gulp down my own mouthful. Reciprocate. “Here is a piece 
of mutton for you. Dip it in the sauce before teething in.” 
And that's what we do three times every week-- talk up food
that do not exist. Then, the bell rings. 
We stop eating, scoop up our banana-leaf plates, lift them 
off the floor, fold them in between our palms, toss them 
into the dustbin before we wash our hands. From between
the folded leaves and our pals,. Drops of dal drip on to 
the ground-- the color of cat vomit. 

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Nandini Dhar's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, Eclectica, Rufous City Review, PANK, Pear Noir, Southern Humanities Review and SOFTBLOW. Her work has also been featured in the anthology The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Writing. A Pushcart nominee, Nandini grew up in Kolkata, India. She has just completed her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at University of Texas at Austin, and teaches postcolonial literature at University of Texas at San Antonio. 

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