Three Poems

The abandoned British Residency in Hyderabad, India. Photo: kKshore Nagarigari
The abandoned British Residency in Hyderabad, India. Photo: Kishore Nagarigari

Author’s note: After my mother’s death, I struggled with the meaning of legacy. Mother Load, the collection from which “Pieces” is extracted, recalls my mother’s voice, her presence as well as her absence, and invokes the rapture alongside the despair. Our narratives are inevitably filtered, reimagined even. So long as they are not lost.

 

Pieces 

I 

In her drawing room
on the Avenue Foch,
a newfound friend serves
my children caviar
on dainty Limoges.
I wonder what your mother
would have made of it.
Live a simple life, she extolled. 

My grandmother came to English late in life. We spoke in dialect – Kutchi, her mother tongue. She reserved Gujarati for her husband; it was more formal, felt more correct. She also wrote her recipes in Gujarati. My mother translated her mother’s chicken curry recipe into English and copied it for me onto an index card when I left home. 

She wore a sari when she drove her peacock-blue Morris Minor to Nairobi City Market for her weekly supply of papaya. She resisted wearing trousers – until biting winds prevailed on one of her visits to us in Canada. 

I never understood why she ate alone. She used to make sure the ayah served my grandfather as she waited in silence in a separate room until he was finished.

She taught my mother the importance of duty and patience. She also arranged for my mother – just past her teenage years – to be married to a man she barely knew. Sukh and dukh – happiness and suffering – were intertwined, she maintained.

After she married, my mother moved to Dar es Salaam, the acacia-fringed, ocean-faced city of her mother’s birth. A place of many minarets, sparkling white, with muezzins all vying with one another in their call to prayer. She knew it from her childhood – it was the first time she caught sight of the sea, and it changed her life.

My grandmother’s father lived above a butcher’s shop on Stanley Street near our mosque. The heat always felt oppressive as we climbed the dark and narrow stairs to his house each week. I used to pinch my nose to block the stench of fresh blood and defeated flesh. He always rewarded me with money for sweets. On Eid, there were envelopes stuffed with shillings, bolts of new fabric for matching dresses, and trays of sugary treats from the neighborhood confectioner. 

My mother remembered on her last Eid. We were in the dungeon of the hospital, wasting away in the half-dark of that fetid underworld. She was noticeably bony in her oversized regulation gown of indeterminate blue. Her hair, normally meticulously dyed, was now shot through with prophetic streaks. There is a time for everything. With her suddenly prominent eye sockets, the shocked shell of her face, she reminded me of a lost little sparrow. I tried disinfecting the floor with white flower oil – pak fah yeow. The smell only multiplied our tears. The road forks at Assisi. Barkat. Blessings fly. She wishes me abundance in a time of scarcity. 

Despite a childhood by the sea, my grandmother never learned how to swim. I always thought she looked like she was floating when she prayed lying face up on her bed surrounded by deepening shadows and smoky agarbatti. I imagine she looked the same when they lowered her into her unmarked plot at the Nairobi cemetery. I was not present to see. Even if I had not been a world away, I would not have been permitted this final farewell. We, women, are barred from burials. We pray from afar for our dead – for our grandmothers and our mothers. 

In a sense, I am spared. I have no daughters who will be forced to mourn me from a distance.

 

II

Earth aches.
You preferred your tea
in bone china.
Tea tastes different
in terra-cotta cups.
Earth is baked and tried.
You can taste
its ridges and layers,
not pebbles, sand,
the detritus of oceans.
Earth is transformed
by fire, like the journey
you have taken to spirit. 

The tea I drink
is made of dust,
not leaves.
It is a metaphor
for a new life.
Dust can never
be a new life unless
you consider
the birth of stars.

Dust can resemble art
when stuffed in glass jars
as ground bones the color
of termite mounds,
as a permanent reminder
that impermanence
is by far the greater truth.

An artist I came across
photographs
dust-filled rooms,
abandoned houses.
In Jangbar –
which is Zanzibar
in Gujarati –
she voyaged
to her ancestors.
They could have
been mine too.
There is no one left
to tell us when. 

Emptiness is not
simply a story of loss.
It intimates life –
the way dust does.
The same dust
that reveals time,
disturbs shadows.

 

III

Where I come from,
we negate dust.
Holy, holy, holy.
We rub the dirt off,
make you clean.
Send you back.
There is no need
to speak words
other than prayers.
Or scatter dust
in sacred places.

We prefer bones.
We bury our dead.
Quickly,
without praise
or ceremonial,
the dead are gone.
Only the living left.
Dirt gathers.
Circles form.
On earth
as it is surely in heaven.
Will you be waiting
one day to welcome me
the way your mother did you?

As if Gretel,
you left two stones
to guide me home.
I found them in the drawer
by your bed reading
like the book of your life.
The one that says
“believe” is white.
The darker rock
flashes “faith.”
I searched
but there was
no cue for happy.
Forgiveness is intricate;
it must have traveled with you,
a fixture in your firmament,
a war in mine.

Everywhere
in this half-life, traces.
It is hard enough knowing
you never finished
what you had to say. 

I hear you calling.
I hear your voice –
in the chorus
of the earth,
the metallic wash
of restless tides,
in the wounds
within words.

Shahilla Shariff’s first poetry collection, Life Lines, was published in 2012 by Proverse Hong Kong. Her work has been featured in various anthologies and journals. A fourth-generation East African, she spent her early childhood in a multigenerational Indian-Muslim household in Dar es Salaam before moving to Canada.

World Literature Today
630 Parrington Oval, Suite 110
Norman, OK 73019-4037
405-325-4531



Updated by World Literature Today: [email protected]