The Prince of Wales was coming.
The streets were swept,
laundry water gushed down thirsty gutters,
clay pots filled with stars
of anise and cinnamon bark
to bake under desert sun, asleep and waiting.
The men wrapped dripping cotton
around their blistered necks;
they stood stacked on rocking ladders
to count each brushstroke,
curling around the namaz through the night air,
each calligraphic hand holding
the expectative weight
We counted our new bangles
and plaited our hair tight with coconut oil,
though no one would ever see it
beneath our veils.
Together we painted the town pink,
the color of horses’ hoof steps
pattering like rain, and we touched
our fingertips into the drying arabesques,
accidentally leaving ourselves
in whorls and ridges
on the walls of history.
When he arrived he did not extol our beauties;
it was as if this is how it had always been,
like we had always known our casual royalty,
like he had seen such splendors
already before this.
How could he know that we labored so
to welcome him?
O, my pink city,
when they peel back your paint,
may they find you the same–
the color of remembered centuries, of Hindi,
of rosy deep-throated ghazals;
may you never change your walls for another man.
Men carry white shrouded parcels,
six feet long and hefted shoulder-high–
so close that I can see
the sunken-socket valleys in the fabric,
cheekbones rising, forehead sloping.
We are inches from death.
I get lost in the wood piled high to be burned,
splintering off; instinctively I try to count the rings,
cut short for firewooding, split.
The pandit lights the match,
the incense swirls, hours crumble
into ash beneath him.
The skull cracks and
the soul drifts dancing upward
with bells and smoky years
of singing to nephews, rice pots boiling,
scrubbing sunrise from his collarbone,
of his wife’s penciled Hindi
back-of-receipt grocery lists,
the thickest tree-ring on his heart.
And before it is gone, it is silent
but I hear every second of it;
Here, we are inches from life
On My Sister’s Rooftop
We are an hour-old family, making dinner,
throwing flat full moons into sizzling pans
and spinning them cooked.
Maryam is much better at it than I am,
her chapattis perfectly round, though she does this
all one-handed, somehow keeping her sari wrapped above her head
to frame her face with modesty. We don’t talk much;
the four Hinglish common words
we’ve gathered between us sit scattered across the counter
like a puzzle abandoned.
Suddenly she leaves the stove.
“Come,” she tells me, hazel eyes shining.
I follow, up flights and flights
until we reach the cool concrete roof.
She spreads a threadbare prayer mat,
and we bow.
The call to prayer swells above the night
through swinging cotton clotheslines,
my forehead sweat-slick from the heat of the kitchen.
My breath catches,
tracing its way through the braided city of pink,
with clattering streets, yells of pick-up cricket,
and I wonder for the millionth time who I am
and how I got here and what I know of holy.
Her palm catches mine;
I feel the grit of wheat flour
settle into my life lines like mehendi,
“You,” she says, “Me,” I answer,
And the singular word: “Behen.”
Khursheeda’s eyes are like cat’s tails,
curling around the nearest pieces of the world
and holding them there, hostage.
Today, per the usual, she is scheming
how to avoid getting married,
though she is already engaged, and has been
since her eleventh grade science exam,
since they jeweled her feet with toe rings
and scrubbed her face with lemon juice
to make her skin lighter;
ever since they began to remove her from herself.
She asks me to tell her about a boy I’ve loved
and I tell her I don’t think that’s ever happened.
“Then tell me about a boy you wish you’d loved.”
And I tell her it’s not that easy to put into words;
it’s hard to pin it down, the phantasmagoric almost–
before contexts shifted, before airplanes,
before doubt achingly grew like wisdom teeth,
before he meant the right amount of ambiguity
for me to be able to leave.
I open my mouth but nothing comes out.
“See,” she says with tired eyes,
the only time I have heard her whisper.
“I do not have an ounce of that.
I do not turn to emeralds when I think his name.”
The TTK Hot Cafe
The calendar reads “Margazhi,”
a month that exists in only certain places.
Vignesh heaps tomato rice onto a metal plate,
and I stare at myself,
hollow-cheeked and bare-faced,
backward in the spoon reflection.
Men lumber in for cigarettes,
nod, and lean against plastic lawn furniture
two feet from the highway
before the rain. Stalls like this come
and go in suitcases.
The every-Monday-at-4pm-chai man
takes three ginger biscuits wrapped
in The Deccan Chronicle;
he sips his tea scalding,
always gazing somewhere above the calendar
like he is remembering a lost daughter
who exists in only certain places
and today he begins to sing
as if his throat is lined with copper,
low ringing first, then filling each corner
of the peeling linoleum room.
He smiles at me as I leave.
I will miss this, like maple syrup,
most of all.
Inventory of Joy
glory be for mango juice
and postage stamps; for banana chips.
for the man who shakes my hand every time I see him on the street.
for dangle-foot train cars and tuberose petals,
and the Nancy Drew books peeking dog-eared
out of my students’ knapsacks;
for five-a-day duas, lime parakeet birds,
cartons of strawberries, tin-foil balloons,
and mountains on mountains of promises,
offered and kept, always kept.
for dusty Hindi radio, Rani Maa,
that the toddler sucks from her fingers,
for bucket baths and the sway of the rain,
and surely, if there is a Heaven on Earth, it is here,
it is here, it is here.