Nani’s refugee stories change each time she tells them.
“And that’s how we came here,” she says,
“On a dusty stinky train with thousands of others
Can’t even visit the toilet
Leaving all our gold and land in Pakistan.
We were rich! We left behind 20 cows!”
Other times they were dirt poor, owned one cat,
But made their wealth in India.
“Just look at you,” she says. “You are my wealth.
Girl child, going to school and soo smart.
Oh — the things you will do”
Though I am six years old —
I understand that with Nani, details don’t matter
As long as there’s a story to cook.
I sit on a stool by the groaning fridge and listen
As her tales ferment in charcoal heat
Smoking baingan and stirring dal tadka
Till the crackling oil on the tava is blurring my vision —
Blurring borders of realities and countries
As her words
Make time shift backwards.
If I squint hard enough,
Then right above the simmering stove
It is the home
Where 12 bananas cost 2 annas.
Where eight sisters and four cousins wrecked chaos under one strong roof.
Where she was at school when riots began.
Where lathis struck skin splitting new scars
Like borders, each to their side —
Home where she never returned.
Except in memories
That have grown fainter since the diagnosis
She forgets names, faces, groceries, medicines, entire days,
And sometimes grandkids. I am still the golden child — soo smart.
But her silences hang heavier
Like telephone wires with bad network.
I call her up on my birthday now
If my mother reminds me, that is,
I say I have other things to do
Even when I don’t.
The bsnl landline sounds so distant, hazy —
Who is this, Beta?
Are you there?
I can’t hear you.
I am everything she worked for.
I am extra teaching job to get her daughter through college.
I am lost weekends, lost relations, lost voices —
I am soo smart.
I am not doing so well in college.
(“Beta, why are you always writing poems?”)
I am not visiting you as often…
Ma still brings them lunch on Saturdays
Meals often end in arguments
Because my grandfather refuses the clothes Ma buys them
Or obsesses over his gardening
While Nani grows weaker.
I don’t come because I am studying, or out, or between classes, or creating work
To avoid relations that entangle like cobwebs
Trying to escape the dust that seeps through generational cracks.
— Nani, I know that the same numb chaos your mother breathed,
Is breathed by you, and your daughter, and me.
And I cannot disown it.
I am selfish
And scared of the circles time takes
Of finding myself where you are.
Your fingers tremble when you serve dal or wipe table-mats or read the paper
My mother trembles when she types on her laptop or holds a pen or drinks coffee before work
— Sometimes I think I see mine shaking the same way,
Like displacement creates so much dust
That I’m still trying to shake mine off.
Even though I shouldn’t.
But I am still the golden child — all your ambitions, soo smart.
You are always asking to hear my poems.
Maybe not this one.
Vibhuti Gour is a spoken word poet and national level competitive slam poet. She studies English Literature at Ashoka University and is currently spending the semester abroad at Yale University.