Extracted from ‘From Immigrant Diaries’ by Nishi Chawla (Red River, 2019); published with permission.
A Funeral Question
The bearded night when Nina found her only son
dead, like a trapped ibis, with his poem about
feeding masked birds who hallucinate heaven-like
ecstasy, she also found the truth about drug dealers.
Married to a voice of Allah, Nina’s Buddhist
chants got suppressed, embraced a blind new
culture in a new country, new edicts, nary an
electric care nor rage against his cavalier blows.
But Nina’s son was gone now, and her Muslim
husband wept and screamed, he beat his breast
so hard, even the fish turned their heads in their
pond, and rolled over in hallucinatory twists.
Contorted by sorrow, the earth clattered in
unison, madly, sadly shattered, labouring to
withstand human sorrow, every tissue layered
to strike down cultural differences, to rest.
And yet religion intervenes, like a charcoal
top-hated blackfish, swimming
against the tide of its quirky, bloodshot ways,
just as much as the funeral question arose.
The golden age leaves only sad shenanigans,
and ruptured hearts, as the dead son’s remains
got divided between a burial and a cremation,
re-finding, resolving, within a curve throw.
To witness her darkening grief, as the earth
spun open, lurking doubts threw into relief,
her sense of exile, a globe spinning out of
orbit, as religion itself howled. Then howled again.
A Buddhist Dreamer
The flowers have dropped for Tara, the birds
still manage to whisper quiet tweets,
she empties herself, darkness settles in;
She had been so different, mired in the
dualities; she has planted wisdom seeds,
her only son died, diffused, unencumbered.
Tara beams, strains for the one Reality,
she offers a flower now,
how is the mind everything?
She walks across acres of yellow grass,
the blue river winds around her,
the smell of water does not disturb her.
She thinks of a rose garden in his memory,
buys six yellow climber roses,
there is a glazed look about them.
They climb and climb higher,
they re-enter her womb, until
a yellow rose sticks out, refreshed.
Tara has become a plant now,
a yellow something is still there,
she smiles often.
To Die In His Own Country
Yasser starts breathing hard, his breath quickens,
his pulse races, and the artificial oxygen disconnects
quietly, as he thinks of walking back, tree by tree,
street by street, ocean by ocean, country by country,
into the tremor of his own soul lava. Released.
Yasser’s memory slips, into cutout pasteboards
of the all brick single-family house near the railroad
being laid out in the guts of the sugarcane fields where
he kissed a sweet fifteen-year-old with breasts the size
of large, lushly ripe pomegranates. They start bleeding,
and he starts to eat them all over again, bit by bit.
Standing by the bathroom door ajar, Yasser invokes
its silences, so loud they bubble over from a leaking
bathtub that has been there for over forty years, rusted
and expanded by his dearly held thoughts, clutching
the clarion call of dying inside there, as the water poured
over, brimming, seething, engulfing him, part by body part.
The trams still crawl, as electric blades wildly collide,
Yasser’s father sometimes surfaces as the police officer,
in his fading dreams, shabbily clad in his khaki uniform,
kissing his Christian mother, who cooks in predictable
fashion, lamb kaftas and kibeh, and always forgets to
add fried vermicelli noodles to his rice pilaf. He so loves
them, until he cannot bear the faded taste any longer.
Yasser pants and huffs, feels the gun in the holster,
until his father’s memory blows him up. Then he runs
so fast, he calls them terrible names, drowning himself
in debt when he left his wife, she so yearned not to leave,
saddled in self-doubt, he keeps asking himself now, why,
why, why, and hates himself so, he feels sadly crushed,
mashed in the infinite desire to die back home, now gone.
A Sense of Belonging
My uncle lives in a different kind of Manhattan; he
insists on watching only Bollywood movies, speaks
only Hindi and a bit of broken Bhojpuri, is romantically
obsessed with chole-poori, and acts like a slow
domesticated cat at the sight of stuffed Indian paranthas.
My uncle surrounds himself with his Hindu Gods,
in a self-determined kind of backward fetish, waking
up to Om Namah Shivaya! He sabotages business
meetings with refrains of Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna!
He also has about 300 Ganeshas stuck to his bare walls.
My uncle despises white Americans; he calls them
bloody barbarians. He speaks with loathing about how
the British plundered India; vehemently vows that he
would never trust a white guy; toils over his dislike of
‘this diseased culture’, ‘a rotten society that corrupts all.’
He neither drinks alcohol nor diet coke; a strict vegetarian
by decree, he never eats out. To his few friends, he seems
to have dropped from another planet; he has survived well
in the world of investment banking. He makes millions, and
flies to India every year to give them to the poor there.
My uncle snickers at the idea of Broadway shows, though
he has never seen one; he will occasionally sponsor a desi
drama, though he is afraid of seeing one himself. He pokes
fun of America as a melting pot. He hates the whites for
treating blacks and browns and Latinos so shabbily.
My uncle continues to live in Manhattan. He says he will
die in his twelve hundred square feet Chelsea apartment,
but never go anywhere else; he has assumed boundaries.
My uncle’s life is so insular, it is an aphoristic lie.
My uncle spells an aphoristic truth about belonging.
Eating With His Fingers
If you travel with him to where he was
Born to savour the blood running in his
Fingers, you will know how to scoop
Out curry in the palm of your hands,
Mix it with rice, stuff it in your mouth
And earn the joy of your nerve endings.
He curbs his loneliness with such relay
Messages, heals himself in a strange city,
Where he has lived full four decades,
With bursts of vexed lines on his brows
To show how little he cares for where he
Lives, with forks and knives and spoons.
He longs to go back to his roots, be himself,
Bare hands, release his digestive juices, just
That primal ease of connecting, the clumsy
Clutter of vegetable biryani unhindered gone
Down with child wonder, on china plates that
Blink, make a face, and rule him out as native.
But his enzymes are mindful, travel in calm
Natural wonder, like the blue and pink flowers
Thirsting outside his townhouse windows, like
The coconut curry that smells and tastes so
Satvik, unsettling artifice, or the horror of being
Uniquely formal, adopt dining etiquette, hollowed.
He hates it so, does not belong anywhere in formal
Office dinners, the custom of no customs, but
To feel himself enclosed, removed from all things
Familiar, forces himself to wash his hands before
And after he eats, more aware, engaged and yet
Disengaged with rules, slaughtered thoughts.
Nishi Chawla is an academician and writer. She has six collections of poetry, eight plays, one mime, and two novels, to her credit. Nishi Chawla holds a Ph.D. in English from the George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA. She has also done a two-year post-doctoral study at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. After teaching for nearly twenty years as a tenured professor of English at Delhi University, India, she had migrated with her family to a suburb of Washington D.C. She had taught at the University of Maryland from 1999 until 2014. She is now on the faculty of Thomas Edison State University, New Jersey, USA. Nishi Chawla's plays get staged both in the USA and in India.