Four Poems by Aruni Kashyap


February 2001

You said you didn’t like your
mother, and that’s why you were here.
I saw your bandaged wrists but didn’t
tell you about my brother. Instead we
explored the large government hospital: the
smelly maternity ward where women bleated
bringing life to the earth, crowded corridors
of the psychiatry ward where men stood scratching crotches,
women leaning against walls with blank expressions,
many others who laughed endlessly by just staring at each other,
waiting to fight like crows. We do not belong here,
we told ourselves. We pressed our palms
against our noses, navigating through the
watery corridors, reading maps formed by puddled waters,
stains of unknown medical waste cleaned
once a day. In another ward, another seventeen year old
stood with his face on the pillow, unable to move after a
soldier had broken his spinal cord; once a day, his mother moved away
when his father pulled down his pants, spread his cheeks,
wipe off whatever his useless body had considered useless;

once a day we would walk up and down, looking at
huge rats feeding on discharges of the human body eager
to become soil, just like you and I tried
go back to soil, but only ended
with a pump
slid through my throat to bring out the sleeping pills,
and you with bandages. One afternoon,

on the top floor
where the broken benches were stashed
like chicken feathers at a butcher’s shop, the floor
that overlooked the city I loved, the floor from where I
couldn’t see the river I loved, you opened the bandages on your
wrists and showed me the drying criss-crossed wounds
like river routes on an atlas; you opened your zip,
and said, it is hard, stoke it bro; I ran,
because I didn’t want
another brother.


An hour before we break up, we make love
in my apartment with
the blinds pulled up, windows open,
Al-Jazeera playing. While kissing,
it was difficult to even guess
the things we would hurl at each other like whiplashes.
A news anchor talks about Boko Haram; on my iPad,
#BringBackTheGirls trend. I don’t know
that in the ensuing months,
the poetry, the protest marches, the
people killed in the name of protecting cows,
will bring us together on the streets of scorching Delhi
with angry students, professors, and artists.
That we will discover new things about each other--
the level of cruelty a lover can inflict on another,
how we still mattered to each other
like antibiotics during an infection. Later,

a light rain dampens the afternoon;
fine drops of water fall on our naked backs as we weep with
faces pressed on the same pillow. I want you to stop
saying you-don’t-have-to-do-this. I want you to
have some self-respect, be strong, be an adult but all I do
is just move my hand over
your spinal cord, rub off the droplets like chalk on a blackboard.
I am surprised at how much effort it takes. I am surprised
how we are still in each other's arms despite
uttering those two cursed words.


The man who told us to plant water spinach
to stop the river came from far away. He wore
brown leather shoes, checked shirts, torn blue jeans,
and no hat in the breezy summer of the river island.

The sound of bell metal, devotional songs,
welcomed him. Women admired the blue veins
on his neck, gifted him cotton gamusas, hoping
he would pluck orchids for them,

but he was just interested in the river, in planting
water spinach. Old women who had lost their gold
and husbands in floods, children orphaned by waves,
and Muslims who had to throw their loved ones

into the river since there was no place to bury the dead,
embraced him as one of their own, started loving him more
than those men who carried guns, stopped
the production of local liquor, punished roadside Romeos

by making them hold their ears in public.
That’s what the gun loving moralists didn’t like :
why was he interested in stopping the river? Why
did he plant water spinach? They

didn’t believe that he wasn’t an Indian spy. One
morning, they tied his hands, carried him
away from the shrinking island he loved
so much that when they shoved him

he changed into an emerald turtle and paddled
into the unreachable tips of the river.
The women searched long for him. For months
there was no news. His wife fed rice to the crows.

Years later, a river orphan
met a large old wise turtle with torn jeans
wrapped around its body. When they catch me,
chop my limbs before I am killed, the turtle said.

Let the village feast on me. Plant
my arms and legs in four different
corners of the island, and I will protect it
by covering it in the form of water spinach.


From Ranjit Singh’s diary,
October 1962

It didn’t feel like a defeat until we marched down
the foothills, at the gates of the City of Love,
where a castle surrounded by fire at the edge of the city,
protected the princess thousands of
years ago. The fire will be crossed only by the man
who would marry her. It didn’t feel like a retreat

though we had cringed like earthworms
exposed to sunlight, like a snail that twitches
under a drizzle of salt, a catfish that
is stunned by a blow on its head. It
didn’t feel like that because we were
mechanically marching downhill, without
boots, with wounds on our knees, our toes,
frostbitten thumbs numb, heels cracked like
the chests of fields after a long drought.
It didn’t hit me until we saw the people
with bags of clothes, crying
children, tense faces of men, red eyes
of women. Ahead,

the city unspooled like our souls:
buildings on fire, schools converted into
refugee camps, thousands of patients from
the halfway house staggering about. We
didn’t want to show our faces to our families,
these people who made sweaters for us, women
who took off their ornaments for war funds.

We abandoned our uniforms, pulled
our hair, laughed uncontrollably, merged
with the madhouse patients,
asked passersby : what is the function
of washermen in a country of nudes? We

are ginger vendors,
and yet we need to know


the North Star,
and the routes of sailors.

Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. He is the author of the novel The House With a Thousand Stories (Viking, 2013). He has also translated from Assamese and introduced celebrated Indian writer Indira Goswami's last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, for Zubaan Books (2013). He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. He won the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship for Creative Writing to the University of Edinburgh in 2009. His short stories, poems and essays have appeared or forthcoming in The Oxford Anthology of Writings from Northeast, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, The Guardian UK, the Hindu, Evergreen Review, Karthika Review, Juked, and others.