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Poem: Mother’s Voice

Image courtesy of National Geographic.

‘Mother’s Voice’ is a Scholastic Art and Writing Awards 2018 Gold Medal winner and nationally recognized poem written on heritage, heartache and embracing your history, inspired by my journey as the daughter of immigrants and a first generation Indian American.

mother’s voice

her back has a permanent downward dip to it and her voice hitches on the new sounds
she doesn’t know how to give voice to
she’s bent over fields of mustard plant and sugarcane and straining to right herself
skin burnished by sun and wind
kaleidoscopic green eyes that are at once frigid – a glacial wonder with auroral hues – but with warmth buried underneath the surface

rose red fingertips stroking my hands
and she spreads her sun-baked hands to frame the stars and dares me to dream

yet when I speak,
a pidgin-like amalgamation of mandarin and hindi spills out of my mouth
yellow, acidic bile drips from my lips
as I am forced to apologize for the words my family gifted me

one day I’m tainted and I tell her, ‘I sought absolution in the curve of your smile’
as I crave her smile
tears coursing down my face in crisscrossing, salty sweet rivulets

turns her nose to the sky
sinks down breathlessly, the white cotton skirt of her dress spread out like wilted petals
when she returns to me
all I can think of is
blind stargazers – lilies who make their homes in the mud and astronomers within the shuttered planetarium windows
perfect, but not for me, not for me
don’t let me be the one to break her

heat flowers across my scalp and pools in my abdomen and
her face is thrown into sharp relief by the lamp and I momentarily blanche as she screws up her eyes in concentration and traces the letters in the space hovering between us
elegant mandarin in her soft, lilting voice; it’s rejected

later I’m
running my fingers through
the bundles of fireworm orange threads on the edges of her dupatta, which cling to my blisters
I’m harder, firmer – my voice is monsoon clouds, thick with emotion wanting to pour out
it’s not the benign delicacy I’m told it should be
now it’s my weapon, wrenched out of my chest and ringing out in quells and crescendos

and it’s because
she – my mother – flushes a deep, torrid red when they squint at her
skin silky and fragile with the outlines of bones I did not know existed and peppered with freckles accumulated so slowly I never noticed until now

I’m free now, unashamed
laughter straining and bubbling out from me in parts that come alive after disuse
the girl in me that’s six licking the ice cream running down my wrist, gleeful and carefree

and it’s because
she built me a mountain
just so I could walk across the dirt
but this time I help lift her up to the sun-drenched peaks, icecaps receding as beams of light form a crown at its crest
snow turning to shimmering slush
she’s my hurricane now, raging and destructive, but also my salvation, bullets of rain beating down and ending the drought

you’re listening as I tell you this
orange-peel curls and copper ringlets bouncing around your face as your fingers dance around the nape of my neck, braiding my hair into dusky plaits
glass diyas are casting pink and blue hued auras on your face and your irises reflect the tinted light
I’m never going to sleep tonight

there are
flakes of silver
dusted over a diamond-sliced kaju barfi
she presses into my palm

“so where are you from?” you ask
thick, viscous honey bursts into my mouth
“I’m from my mother.”

I’m twining a thread of her cotton dress between my fingers
smudging black kajol into stormclouds around her eyes
brushing a sunset-red tikka onto her forehead sticky with sweat
clasping her atta-packed hands

my native tongue takes flight and hunger stirs in my underbelly
silence is my adversary

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