Nandini Dhar's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Muse India,
Kritya, Mascara Literary Review, Off the Coast, Pratilipi, tinfoildresses, First
Literary Review, Poetry Quarterly, Stonetelling, Up the Staircase, Hawaii
Review, Prick of the Spindle, lingerpost, Palooka, Inkscrawl, Chanterelle's
Notebook, Cartographer: A Literary Review, Cabinet des Fees, Penwood Review,
Wilderness House Literary Review, Melusine and Asia Writes. A Pushcart
nominee, Nandini grew up in Kolkata, India, and received an M.A. in
Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Calcutta and another
in Comparative Literature from the University of Oregon. Currently, she
is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature at University of Texas.
To Say Without Uttering, 1959
(After Lesley Wheeler)
[Their only passion was memory; a longing for a land where the green was greener, the rice whiter, the fish bigger than boats; where the rivers' names sang like Megh Mallar on a rainy day --The Circle of Reason, Amitav Ghosh]
Nothing in a cow was a complete waste.Even the shit brought money
My mother patted cow-crap into cakes
So did many other women in the tenement
They fought over the cow's throw-away
just as they fought over places
in the water-lines.
Her hair threaded with graypulled into a bunMa's fingers oozed with mudmixed cow-shit in the afternoonthe jowls of a chub-fruit sun chortling at the cakes she plastered on the walls of our houseHer lips movednot always in rhythm with her fingertips.
Who ever thought that I, the daughter
of the nayeb of Rajbahadur Pratap Chandra,
would be kneading cow-shit into ghnute
like a low-down dule or a bagdi woman?
I, Malatibala, every afternoon,
become the ghnute-kuruni dasi.
No oil in my hair, not a piece
of gold anywhere in my bone-cracked frame.
The stench of cow-shit follows me into bed every night
no number of baths washes it away
Ma's accents, syllabic stresses and caste-pride
the only memories of a bottle broken in two.
I refused to let her touch my hairor skin :
she knew what I was trying to say without uttering
None of the girls in red floral print frocks, from whose fathers' libraries
I borrowed War and Peace and Gora, knew my mother sold ghnute
for that alone, we ate, even on the last day of the month.
Wishing more colors on my hair-ribbons,
I told them storieshow back therewe owned acres and acres
of rice-fields mansionponds full of fish with wings
Shut up, Parul. You Bangals!
If that's what you left behind
why don't you go back
I laughed, along with them. Memories were barbed-wire fences
The more I climbed their heightsthe more I skinned my palms
Some things are real--
I did have a family tree whose roots had been dug up,
the leaves torn, branches broken and charred.
When I say rice-fields, I mean a burning village etherized on a scorched atlas skin falling off flesh, smoke, excrement and ash.
Scenes shown in reels again and again:
no amount of imitation will cool off the flames--
make it safe for me to walk over.
I listen to their memoriesreeking with details no cartographer could mark for me When the memories became myth the leaves forgot where they fell.
Neither the green rice-stalks nor the wings of the fish can hide the charred
A myth was like a glass-bottle triplications couldn't make it rust.
Neither me nor my ma broke the bottle--
but, in the evenings, we both tried to sweepthe shards off the porch: in our home,
History is never too far away.
Ma collected the shapeliest of them all. Hid them right behind her comb, mirror
and sindoor-poton the mantelpiece. I threw mine away.
These scraps, which forced skins to open like doors, were powerless against storms
These half-tongues, all these brittle words were memories
abstract as official seals and fading signatures: on these, nothing could grow.
[Postscript: The Bengali word ghnute means a patty-cake made out of cow dung, which is often used as fuel throughout South Asia. Ghnute kuruni dasi is a stock figure in much of the Bengali folklore, signifying a poor woman surviving on making and selling cow dung cakes. The word nayeb signified an important staff of the zamindar or the feudal landlord, who generally acted as the representative or the public face of the zamindari.]
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