This Whole Foods smells of rot.
A lady holds half a jackfruit like a baby,
Pushes her fingers deep into the damp decay.
We call jackfruit chacka back home (although who’s we?
I suppose we, the people who saw those green husks burst in the heat,
Browning, stinking, mosquitos humming around fleshy carcasses, or
We, the people who ate them, five for ₹1000, dinner for three generations
And a stray cat.) Chacka: an ugly word, one that squelches on the tongue.
Chacka: out of place here, land of turmeric lattes and $8.99 rotten jackfruit.
The lady rubs her fingers together. Sniffs, scrunches her nose, frowns.
Once, a little girl in fishtail braids bared her braces at me on the swings.
Once, a lady, blue like lowfat milk, touched my waist while we stood in line.
She said excuse me, excuse me, I’m being terribly rude, but I only want one thing—
She reached through me, and, like it was waiting for her touch, my body became clay.
“The Kathakali Man is the most beautiful of men. Because his body is his soul. His only instrument.
He has magic in him, this man within the painted mask and swirling skirts.”
— Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
I meet him again today, the Kathakali Man, like I meet myself in a mirror.
He’s smiling, as always, on a jar of mango jam in Target’s “International” aisle.
Back home, the Kathakali dance-mask hangs over the mantel. Green face.
Red eyes. My parents’ tribute to place they still call home, his ancient spinning
filled my nightmares. The Kathakali Man dances out the stories of my ancestors:
Krishna’s death, Draupadi’s rape. Tales of tales told through taut hands, tapping feet.
Now, on the jar, the Kathakali Man is still—his limbs frozen in an incomplete twirl.
Patel Brothers’ Mango Jam, he says. Bursting with the flavor of India!
The fricative “f” reverberates: Ff-flavor. Inside me, the Kathakali Man spins
and spins. Here, the Kathakali Man grins and grins. Green face. Red eyes.
The stories of my ancestors. The nightmares of my childhood. Infused, now,
with Authentic Regional Flavor. What do you imagine tasting when you look at me?
1.5 Sonnets of Notes from My Workshop
What you like:
Line breaks on words like “ancestors,” “mother tongue,” “fatherland”
Mango trees and monsoon rains and silk saris fluttering in the wind
Malayalam words, as long as they are italicized and glossed with asterisks
So your eyes don’t skim through them as though they are part of the poem
Loose-limbed girls leaning through netted windows, sipping chai, watching
The rain (You really, really love the rain. You like any body of water, actually,
As long as it’s a metaphor. You like any story, as long as it’s an allegory.
What you don’t like:
When I write about food ruder than bright green mangoes, things that burp
In my mouth, and about bodies, especially if they’re fat or dark or old or ill or —
When a river is not a journey, when a tattoo does not translate to Sanskrit,
When I buy my chai lattes at Starbucks, too lazy for the fragrant pot to froth.
When I write about sex that’s not sad and love that’s not lost and whiteness
As whiteness, stark agains our darkness. When India is no ghost, America no
Prize. When the ocean is not made of tears. When the fact of me is not a tragedy.
Thanks for your feedback! Here is my revision: “A poem about my mother tongue”:
I want to put a fist in my mouth and reach down, deep down, past lungs and ribs
And tonsils. I want to thread out my intestines. To taste them, wet and leaking
Against my tongue. I want to slash wings of loose skin at my armpits, hack at the fat
That spills, gelatinous, over my hips. I want to hollow my stomach. I want to evacuate.
When you reach for me in the dark, I rise like heat, intuitive. Before I get on top, I ask,
Each time, for permission. Say you’re mine, you hum on my lips, until I fall away. But
How do you not know? While you snore, I whisper: I was never yours. Ruder than a mango.