Copyright ©2016 by Srinivas Mandavilli
Visiting Nazira, Assam
My father summons the barber each month—
one of those things that disrupt my world.
I do not know the barber’s name.
He comes and goes without a word.
I am smothered in a white cloth. He gently
works around my ears, the back of my neck.
With the haircut done, there are strict instructions:
Don’t touch anybody. Don’t touch the furniture.
Once the impurity of being touched has been
washed off, I can again join my family.
Murmuring prayers under a mosquito net,
I am cocooned in mother’s shadow, safe
from nights alive with the strum of insect life.
In a dream, I chase dragonflies with arms out,
as if I too have molted.
for my grandmother
In the first light of the last day of summer,
crackling coconut husks heat my bath water.
Foaming batter in ferment hangs
on the thick black lips of a stone mortar. You exist,
Ratnamma, only in the shadows of the kitchen,
spreading the dosa in the sputter and sizzle
of oil on a griddle, as if anointing
the broad black forehead of a deity.
A steel percolator drips incessantly and there are
stacks of banana leaves, wet mounds of grated coconuts.
The pile of aubergines, drumsticks, coriander
await sambar that gurgles,
and the scent of tamarind is in the air.
Today the cumin and mustard seeds hide.
I grab the same scarred griddle, black as the sky
where you pointed to Saptarishi,
each star a mythical sage.
I labor to spread the dough in concentric circles
with a heavy ladle, moving slowly
as if waiting for instructions. Then my hands
spreading red pepper and onion on a roasted crepe,
pulling water for my bath from a deep well
with a coiled jute rope.
I leave this season of foment and chaff,
ruminate amongst those dusty streets that ran
with a clarity like longitudes and latitudes.
Those were such perfectly sliced mangoes,
perched like canoes at the end of summer,
its heat chastened by the shade of neem trees.
Yours is my sweetest meal.
Every sadness is swallowed by the night.
Hindu Temple in Middletown, Connecticut
Devotees snake into the sanctum,
bare feet shuffling against the cold stone floor.
Lost in incense smoke, their hands hold meager
offerings of wilted flowers and broken coconuts.
Then the relentless chanting and incantations in
Sanskrit, a language nobody understands;
perhaps it sends a code to lift hands,
strike the bell, perform circumambulations and
surrender, prostrate under Vishnu’s benevolent gaze.
His black stone face is effulgent,
yet a secret beneath sandalwood paste and jewelry.
He must wonder about this house,
far from the seven verdant hills of Tirupathi,
even farther from the Ocean of Eternity,
having arrived this far in a shipping container,
an immigrant Himself, like his devotees.
There is too much sunlight for such a Saturday.
She saunters off into the less-traveled Helen’s Way,
bounds into the sun-drenched straw-colored winter grass,
and her opaque eyes catch just a gleam of sun.
Following her cue, I ignore and walk past the dog park.
She canters over the well-worn wooden walkway,
sniffs her way into the open fields, not heeding
my Fetch!—later returning to put her graying muzzle
into my cold hands.
What could she know about old age
when unemployed days run into each other
and she curls up like my little secret,
until I return home?
After, I think I hear the clink of collar tags,
feel the warmth of her luminous black coat.
I sweep the floors of all the fur
and put the food bowl away.
I erase her footprints, discard damaged tennis balls.
Now I walk through those pines, looking forward
to where she moves, forever dark, a shadow.
She is everywhere, death nowhere.
Even Nataraja’s face in the foyer appears less stoic.
A Pathologist Drives Home
I study cells in microscopic fields:
armies of Kublai Khan, canny
mendicant travelers, defying easy classification,
like the ones that felled my grandmother
when I scooped her up, light as a sparrow
from the floor, hoped that Rama might
descend as another avatar to vanquish
asuras. Insatiable and pleomorphic, wearing
fuschsia and magenta war paint, they line up
at ramparts, holding up abnormal mitoses.
Driving home in the night, path lit
by a modicum of knowledge and some assumptions,
I see the winding road become a strand
of unwound double helix—
who is to tell what is pernicious and what is benign?
I focus on the moon—a nucleus tonight.
The windshield becomes a lens, finds the moon hung
between two traffic lights, like the third eye of Shiva;
it climbs to decorate the night’s forehead.
I catch my reflection in the glass,
at the mercy of the moon that watches
dispassionately, as tremulous
stars dissolve like unreliable organelles.
A young man’s liver lies in a tub of ice. I examine
its gross geography, the mahogany nodularity, barrels
of truncated vessels and bilious corridors.
In the numinous gaze of the lens
there are columns of lipid-laden liver cells.
Some of the truth lies beyond the microscopic field
when the liver will be stitched to the cupola
of a diaphragm.
The black mouth of my pencil hovers,
rendering the diagnosis,
knowing mostly where to go. I wonder too
about the young man on the gurney,
who lies like Prometheus.
On the way home the highway scythes everything,
leaving behind curled up coils of streets that sleep.
The hospital stands in its grey cloak with opaque eyes
as if it were Vishnu in troubled repose.
In the distance, ambulances continue to wail.
Night of the Blood Moon
My grandmother told me stories of Rama Chandra
on a terrace during summer nights,
and the moon watched us like an owl.
I can see the empty early morning sky,
suddenly resplendent like her saree unfurled.
I tell grandmother’s stories to my daughter,
mythical tales of the moon,
stroking her back
sing that it is a bird and could be netted to stay,
that it was born out of churning oceans,
a minor God riding his chariot,
tonight is an angry moth penetrating the opacity,
a corpuscle carrying all the oxygen for this night.
I point to it, a quiet evanescent hole in the sky
past the skylight—
sweet red flesh of a peach. I say
it had the skin of a bone yesterday, a sesamoid,
mere suffix to the mighty Rama.
She calls to ask if I see the Blood Moon.
I say I cannot see anything through the tall pines,
will need to visit her world of open spaces.
I see her stand by windowpanes,
her body between continents,
solar systems, universes.
The moon is not an eye, it is her face—
white as the ivory tusk of Ganesha.
She becomes a crescent, a necessary hook
the night hangs on.