The Historians of Redundant Moments
A harmonium abandoned
in the middle of an empty factory cafeteria.
Two cats on the ill-kept lawn, fighting
while the crow learns to build a nest on the walls
of the forsaken wedding banquet-hall: a city
is what the cartographer is after. Whereas,
the homes are left undrawn, un-illuminated,
yet illustrated again and again. Hand-sewn
curtains, a blouse without buttons, the unwashed
dishes, unused wedding gifts: a home
is a city. A memory-box of the foreign, the forgotten: a
grandmother wakes up and finds several little
girls inside her sari pleats. A mother breaks her
name into two, hides them inside pickle bottles. Here,
in this room, right behind the pumpkin vines, two
little girls are folded over and over again. Transform.
Mutate: two nesting dolls. The tips of a wound: an
incision right on the skin. More than one skin. Here,
under the shadows of the porch light, a mother
teaches her twin daughters to spell their names: backwards.
And, take this idea as far as you want. These are
(not) anybody’s little girls. In the stillness of the window
panes, they find their secret alleys. In the cracks
of the mattresses, the dead ends. The broken
bricks of the sidewalks. Until this becomes a game–
who can locate the glint of the sickle
in the tininess of the spoon. Who can excavate
in the pile of unwashed dishes the grammar
of the rally chants. Neither of them thought of
taking count of the ghosts: even as children
they knew. They knew in every blood oath a woman
creates with her body, there is a ghost. And
another. And another. Their owl-print socked feet
still dangling above the ground, they learnt:
restraint is the biggest asset for anyone
dreaming to be the cartographer of homes.
From my end of the bed, I dream of steam engines. Coal, smoke, iron: the color of night. The slow friction of what came before the pull of electricity. The whistle, the sound of metal against metal. I try to put that sound into the seven notes I know. And what else is there other than the thud of the neighbor-boy’s soccer ball banging on to the tv screen. Not yet four in the evening, the women still dreaming of men who appear only in newspaper stories, pillows in between their thighs and my sister decides to bring him in. Play soccer right in the living room. The broken tv set, glass shards on the floor and our mother slapping my sister again and again: cleaning her like a piece of doormat.
The neighbor-boy flees, and sister would not lower her eyes and our mother would not cease slapping until she does so. A steam engine has no music of its own, only recorded soundtrack. Stock music, like stock characters. These are words that I have learnt from my sister. We are nine, and, I am picking up the glass fragments from the floor: the blue specks on the plastic fishtail, the shapes inside a kaleidoscope. And all that counting of sheep; my sister would not lower her eyes and mother would not stop hitting. Familiar theaters of a home. Only no one pays for its tickets. The glow of a hundred watt lightbulb, my own palms around it. Blisters: to compete with her sister’s bruises. Nothing says sisterhood better than wounds.
Watt is always preceded by James. And James Watt invented steam-engine. There is a difference between invention and discovery. These are facts gleaned from history textbooks. James Watt is a sahib. Sahibs are white, and we have not yet seen them except on Soviet Union.
In my dreams, Watt the James is tea brown: a lot like my sister. My sister invents, does not discover: curse-words, games, rhymes. And she is is becoming a book: her limbs and legs the covers, her skeleton the spine and her bones the pages. There is nothing wrong with that. The question is, what kind of book my sister is. From my ide of the bed – sister sleeping with her cheeks on the palm, the old madhubani print sheet covering half of her bruised face – is the kind that’s dense. Full of small small writings. No pictures.
Again, it’s morning– dew on the tips of basil leaves, the first train’s siren, frogs croaking inside the bus, the skin warts and marble eyes. The sun is a wicked sorcerer who summons my mother to work into that ghost house in that neighborhood where everything glows like the radiance of sun. Here, in this neighborhood, everything is breaking. The cement culvert, the elementary schoolhouse, the withered trees, the machines inside the jute mills, the men who ran those machines. And families. Brittle as terracotta toys. Men with cameras record the details: how we are breaking apart, and when. We do not love them. Nor do we hate the pictures they take of us. Nothing will change: the broken doors of the public toilets, the scalding redolence of urine in my hair. Stench does not transport through camera lens.In those ghost homes where my mother steps in everyday, everything remodels. Fathers metamorphose into army-generals, practice marching inside dioramas without any prompting: wood, glass, aerial views. Children are lace-frail porcelain dolls: portable pieces on nightstands. Rats turn into flour-dust: the white of the cake batter women bake during long afternoons because they have nothing else to do. And mothers dig their own alleyways inside recipe books. In some cases, they press themselves into hibiscus petals inside their husbands’ notebooks. Housewives with their pea-sized faiths, lentil-sized brains: well-ordered spoons inside a glass-encased closet. My mother wipes them clean. Makes them shine: like a mirror. As she shines the plates and cups. Under her wet rag, these table-tops are white. Like bones sucked of the marrow. Everyday. Inside the cracks of her fingernails: slime.In between her palmlines, sores: water borne. Here, in this room, windowless, I, aged seven,measure rice grains: alone. Before leaving for school. On days there is something to measure, that is. There isn’t any learning from my mother— how much ghee to put in the flour. Or, how to strain my fingers to knead the dough– softer than an old woman’s belly. For, there wasn’t any ghee anywhere in the house to begin with. Luchi was something one heard about in the grandmothers’ tales– when the king finally bestowed upon the lad the princess and half of his own kingdom. I hate those tales that’s why. What’s the use of learning about succulence one never gets to taste anyway?
Nandini Dhar is the author of the chapbook Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations (Two of Cups Press, 2014). Co-editor of the online journal, Elsewhere she hails from Kolkata and divides her time between her hometown and Miami, Florida. Her poems have been published or forthcoming at Natural Bridge, PANK, Whiskey Island and elsewhere.