Poems by Afsar Mohammad and Vidya Shankar

Name Calling

Usman, Uushhhhhmaan….

Uuuussshhhh…maan… !

1

The sky is hanging

Like your cloud-colored goatee.

Trying hard to hide your body

In a dirty pajama

You scared all the children

Away from the river.

A body like a wound

Peeks from your torn shirt.

You’re the one street dog

Doggedly haunted by a ball.

I remember the evenings

You would run to my mother

Complaining to her that

I was with the naughty kids

Who never stopped teasing you.

I also remember

With just one cup of tea

All those burning oceans inside you

Would cool down abruptly.

2

Now I don’t see much difference between you and me.

We are the same.

Except I don’t have tears in my eyes.

Mother’s not here to share my stories.

Usman, times never change,

Only the roles change.

Several years past your death

I realize

You’re a wound as tall as a human body.

3

I’m the wound now

And when I go to sleep

The wounds open their huge doors

And amidst the wounds

I still tease you,

Heckling you: “Ushhhhhmaan….”

Afsar teaches in the department of South Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. He writes in Telugu and English. Currently working on the translations of the Telugu poems into English. He has also published a monograph with the Oxford University Press, USA with a title “The Festival of Pirs: Popular Islam and Shared Devtion in South India.”

 

(This is not a reverse poem that can be read both ways. There is only one way to read this: from the bottom up.)

 

Know this tree to know Truth.

The Supreme Bliss, the joy that Life is!

The zenith of Ananda, the pure and absolute!

To reach the roots―

Till we have escalated beyond our minds

Mounting the trunk,

And rise up, one footing after another, 

from the leaves and fruits and the branches,

As we move on

Let our breath and awareness be our equipment

And scale the tree, progressively.

So, let’s take off those rationalised spectacles,

And claim the tree!

Or ascend all the way to the roots

To descend and live among the leaves and fruits,

The choice being ours, in what we choose to think—

Upward or downward,

Our thoughts streaming along its trunk,

Pleasures and deflections, its leaves and fruits,

Emotions, its branches, spreading at the bottom,

Its roots evolving at the top,

with a paradoxical upward growth—

For, this is the imperishable tree

spectacles of illusion,

wearing those constraining intellect-coated

It seems that we can’t climb this tree

 

THE TOPSY-TURVY TREE

 

Vidya Shankar is an Indian poet, writer, editor, English teacher, and a “book” in the Human Library. The recipient of literary awards and recognitions, she uses the power of her words to sensitise her readers about environmental issues, mental health, and the need to break the shackles of an outdated society. Vidya is the author of two poetry books, The Flautist of Brindaranyam (in collaboration with her photographer husband, Shankar Ramakrishnan), and The Rise of Yogamaya (an effort to create awareness about mental health.) She finds meaning to her life through yoga and mandalas.

The Weight of Survival Promises – Danielle Wong

 

Content Warning: This piece is about a mother attempting to overcome childhood trauma.

 

She sat on the floor in the bathroom, door closed, lights off, arms wrapped around her knees. Not a sound she made as tears fell to the floor. She knew she didn’t have much time. Someone would need her soon to help with homework, to bandage a wound, to make dinner or lunch or breakfast. There was always someone, always something. At least, she could keep her promise to herself. No one would know. No one would ever suspect. She could barely remember when she made that promise, but she knew why she lived this life of secrecy.

            “So, you claim—” Even his voice wouldn’t loosen its hold on her memory. She needed help. She confided in her doctor who sent her to another who used the word “claim”. That was all the trigger she needed to remember her promise to herself. That was all she needed to punish herself for being fool enough to think she could let go of old promises.

            The entrails of the promise ate her, squeezed her heart, her lungs, her stomach, sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneously. She knew she had to let it go; she had to destroy this matryoshka promise of hers.

            “You don’t show any signs.” She was equally proud of and angry with herself for having achieved such a spectacular veil. She had learned well how to hide, how to cover up all side effects of the promise. Unfortunately, she had learned too well. The lack of stereotypical behaviours that usually accompany the promise voided her credibility whenever she let slip statements that should have started to set her free.

            “It couldn’t have been that bad.” How often had she heard this when she sought help? Those words punched her in the stomach each time, sent her head reeling into walls. She questioned her sanity, especially when she decided to agree with them, a decision that could only reinforce the quest to keep the promise.

            “You’re always happy.” Ah, no amount of makeup could achieve this mask that she wore for most of her life. If she could keep smiling and laughing, maybe she could focus on the here and now, maybe she could continue to suppress the promise no matter how hard and how often it boiled.

            When did the promise take hold of her? She sat on the bathroom floor and tried to think back. She thought and thought. And then it came to her.

            Elementary school. Beginning of December. She couldn’t hold it in anymore. “Always tell an adult when you need help.” She had gone to three adults that day: her teacher, the vice principal, and the principal. She asked for help the only way she knew how: she spoke a simple statement of fact.

            “Such an odd thing to say.”

            “What a wild imagination.”

            “You’re so funny.”

            With each reaction, panic struck. Were they deaf? Did they not understand the meaning of her words?

            She walked away that day, head down, a deportment that stayed with her from that day onward. It was this day the promise had been passed on to her.

            She had seen every emotion that came from keeping the promise for years on end in her mother’s eyes, in every one of her wrinkles. It was her mother who had passed on the promise to her, not out of maliciousness, but out of sheer love and protection. The promise was the only way to survive their environment.

            You see, her mother had once been a free-flying asteroid in the universe. As a young asteroid, she zoomed through a part of the universe she would later come to regret. She was sucked deep into a black hole that she could not escape. All she could do was push pieces of herself to the edge and hope they would escape the black hole, dream they would float happily back through the universe for the rest of their days.

            Unfortunately, one of her siblings was sucked deeper into the black hole, never to be seen again. Her other sibling made it to the edge and pulled her along. They would find a way to escape and float free as their mother had dreamed. Even that sibling, however, never made it far, living directly on the edge between freedom and the promise that tied them to the black hole.

            She seemed the luckiest of all. It seemed she had made it to freedom; but the promise, that promise tethered her to the black hole, even though there now was some distance.

            She sat on the bathroom floor, tears drying up in the newly found sunlight. She may have been born in the black hole, but she had made it to its outskirts; her own children, the ones who would be calling on her any minute now, floated far outside in a free universe. This was the ultimate proof of the matryoshka promise finally breaking.

 

Danielle Wong is the author of the poetry collection, Bubble Fusion, that portrays life with an autistic child. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Montreal WritesTipton PoetryPendemic, Pine Cone Review, Chronicling the Days (Guernica Editions), Resistance (University of Regina Press), among others. Visit her at daniellewong.ca.