by Nandini Dhar

A woman lives under our staircase.
Youngest of three sisters, married at eight,
widowed at ten.  My mother tells me,
she was one of my father’s great-aunts.  One
of the two.  Although neither he nor his sisters
remember her face.

This woman who hones her alphabets on the bricks
of the attic wall.  Erases them off as soon as they
have been written, then writes them again.
Her older sister tries to keep her busy, orders her around—
water these plants, chhoto.  Put these clothes on the lines
to dry.  Slice these fruits.  Do this.  Do that.

Littlest aunt listens, does not talk back.  Rehearses
absence instead: turning herself into a spider,
moves in between the cracks of the floor,
the darknesses of the corners.  Our rooms tremble
with the sound of her weaving her story net.  In between,
her eyes roam the pages of her father’s library.

When she is not reading, weaving, or practising
her penmanship, my mother reads out parts of
Anna Karenina to her, lets her touch the glossy
pages soft as butter.  They argue over who
deserves to be loved more—Anna or Dolly.

In return, great-aunt gossips about her older sister.
The one who was widowed at twelve, forever wanted
to grow up.  Could not look at any woman’s swollen
belly without cursing.  Jealous of the signs of their
coming of age.  Her white sari, paper thin, rustled on her
skin.  In her quest to grow up, the older sister
grew smaller and smaller.  Small enough to be
a tiger-lily in an earthen  vase.  My mother rubbed
the petals in between her fingers—weak and soft,
like baby skin.  The littlest aunt lives on,
making the dust in the walls of our staircase
the apparatus of her tongue.

They laugh together—this woman and my mother.  Like
childhood friends.  She takes my mother’s hands,
leads her through the house.  Points to the family
pictures on the walls of my parents’ room,
the neatly stitched curtains on my door, the row
of spotless china teacups on the kitchen counter:
in every room of this home, the mundane ruin.

To me, my mother has been given this woman’s fingers—
forever inserted in the middle of a page.  Her persistence.
Her grip upon a book.  And, most of all, her capacity
to laugh herself into a ghost.

by Nandini Dhar

Because my grandmother taught her to
my mother puts ilish-bones in everything she cooks—
dal, bottle-gourd, eggplant-onion curry, taro roots.
An ilish, after all, is a sister—
leaves her mark long after one ceases to meet every day.

With every push her ladle gives to these bones,
her village, of which she has no memory,
swells up in her korai.
An ilish, after all, is a jasmine crushed—
a fragrance on skin refuses to fade.

With every ilish-bone she scars her vegetables with,
her village, which was big enough to begin with,
gets bigger and bigger.
An ilish, after all, is a freedom-loving guerilla—
bones sharp as hairpins refusing to break.

Because my grandfather taught her to,
my mother’s teeth snap every ilish-bone into two.
An ilish, after all, is history—
unalterable, but gossiped about every day.

When my mother chews the backbone of an ilish,
taking in every bit of that succulence,
she also chews her father’s voice chronicling
               how when he and his brothers sat down to eat
               in that big enough village, eight ilishes would jump
               up on their plates.  Ready to be eaten.

With every movement of her mouth,
the voice grows bigger: teaching her the art of
using her tongue to undo an atlas redrawn.


Nandini Dhar’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in
Prick of the Spindle, Eclectica, Rufous City Review, PANK,
Pear Noir, Southern Humanities Review, and SOFTBLOW.  
Her work has also been featured in the anthology
The Moment
of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Writing
Dhar grew up in Kolkata, India, and currently teaches postcolonial
literature at Florida International University.

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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 8, Number 2
(Fall 2013)

Copyright © 2013
by Leah Browning, Editor.  

All future rights to material
published in the
Valley Review
are retained
by the individual authors
and artists.
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