Photo: Ashley Elena
Five poems excerpted from Terrarium by Urvashi Bahuguna with permission from The (Great) Indian Poetry CollectiveDonate Now
Last Ride Before The Monsoon
Mandovi Backwaters, Goa
Spires appear between trees,
then in a rush — whole churches
white on the riverfront.
When we return by moon,
candles ablaze — a million ants
scaling the cross.
We count churches like daughters —
Santa Monica, Basilica Nossa Senhora do Monte,
Aldona, Brittona: Our Lady of the Rock.
Laterite bulwarks curl the boundaries like lace
on a mantilla veil. Someone has placed champas
on water-washed parapets — yellow yolks facing sky.
Civilization gives way to mangroves and terns atop
wooden poles. In the shallow, the boat kicks up schools
of fish in leaping arcs like the opening of folding fans.
We watch the surface for the eyes
of a gator, we lower our hands
into lilting waves raised by the hull.
In a sky ample with bats, the sun ebbs back
into the river until it rests —
a halting orb in a darkening pool.
A procession of widows sweeps to river height at low tide
to caution — it is time for the boats to go home.
We turn the motor off and set adrift like a padma lotus.
The sounds are duplicitous in their numbers,
to tell the call of a Brahminy kite
from an Indian cormorant, one must sift
through skyborne cries for losses
unnamed in almanacs. Listening
to the weeping on the water,
some piece of us is lost too.
And for being unknown, it slips
silver-tailed below the still boat.
Waiting For Movement
The laburnum is late
with its lightening yolk.
An abundance of mulberries
A bird call, round & refined,
emanates from the forest.
This day holds its stillness
I set out to invent explanation —
for a rotting fruit to solve.
The only event
Somewhere, a heron
has been perching for hours,
waiting for the stillness
to give way,
for the surface to tremble
with a tadpole or insect to eat.
Evening prayers at the mosque
travel over the light
leaving the tops
At seven, the church bell radiates
through the houses in the village,
pausing between each toll
a vehicle in the distance.
Seeking a Well-Spoken Gallery Assistant
When I first moved to the city, I said
the word fragment with a wide-eyed aye.
My classmates cringed & corrected:
not fray like hem coming apart but fraa
like a small-town exhaled from the mouth.
I shake my head bird-like when grandmother
says bis-kut. What is kut, dadi? Its kit like
please leave the hill-talk in the hill-town.
When a visitor to the gallery asks: what is
the half-finished bridge over the Kochi river
supposed to be, will I be able to say
Kalashnikov without tripping? When a crane
frames the highway, will I be able to say
Ferris wheel without someone wanting
to get off the ride? When I get the job
and go home my teeth polished like silver
my every word a penny I will hear: avois,
how fancy: fa like a fat prized hen, cy
like wash that damn mouth out with sea.
Bombay Trains and Bombay Boys
In this city, boys alight from trains like
birds – seamlessly from stillness to speed.
This is their inheritance: to be creatures
of flight. They peddle earth
between friends and sell jasmine
in the ladies special at 7.07 pm. When
they are men, they will ride in the general
compartments and swing their bodies
from the sides. But for now, they are boys,
and they can sit with the women.
Mount Mary Steps, Bandra
The first day I moved into the apartment
on Church Steps, the flood came — without
a mop I soaked up the water in rags,
wrung it out in the sink & repeated.
You said I shouldn’t live this way. But I did.
I have been working on an inventory
of phrases I did not use with you.
I study contours on my days off —
crescents fade where you stayed
for a moon cycle. I held the body
as it waned like you held my head
over the steaming kettle when I had
the flu. I give away
your clothes in a hurry. Somewhere in Bandra,
there is a man hunched in your shirt.
Not even from a distance
could I mistake him for you.
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