Monthly Archives: May 2014

The contours of her sari

Dusk, Pacific OceanThis essay by Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker, on being unmothered, has brought me to my brink this morning, It is Mother’s Day in America. That ultimate of Hallmark Holidays, something I scoffed at more than celebrated in my cynicism—shouldn’t every day be Mother’s Day, I’d ask—until recent years when my own daughters co-opted my help in doing something for their mother.

My own mother seldom got a phone call from me on this day. Aai had brought up me and my sisters in an India before the modern age when the American Hallmark Holidays had spread throughout the world. Then she had lost me to America two decades ago, save for increasingly infrequent visits. Until that dreaded phone call over two years ago. I barely made it to her hospital bedside as Agni took her. She had merely been trying to do her two favorite things, have a cup of tea and watch cricket. I wrote those words, shared those two posts, in the immediate grief, and a few other things in private. Her passing brought me closer still to my older sister Vaijoo, who had become almost like a mother to Aai in her final days.

Last year, Vaijoo had a serious encounter with the emperor of all maladies, when she had metastatic breast cancer. I happened to be in India, fortunately(?), and was able to be with her children while she underwent weeks of intense barrage from chemicals and radiation, which seems to have knocked the cancer out of her system, fingers crossed. I imagine her son and daughter are celebrating this Mother’s Day with a greater sense of relief this year, and my own cynicism towards this holiday has softened.

My wife Kaberi lost her mother almost four years ago. Another dread phone call in the anguished night of our diasporic lives. An unmothering that came before my own mother passed. These are the years when intimations of mortality, of the fragility of life (and our aging bodies), seem to be everywhere, sharpening the joys of celebrating life more than ever.

Ruth Margalit’s essay, the first thing I read this morning, reminded me of my own mother, especially with these words at the end:

Like a last rain, my mother left behind an earthy scent that lingered long after she was gone. Like a last rain, for a fleeting moment, everything she touched seemed to glow.

Here’s a poem I wrote when the grief was still raw, but haven’t shared with too many people yet. As one of the many unmothered, allow me to share it on this Mother’s Day. Peace.

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The contours of her sari
(7 February 2012, in Mumbai)

The contours of her sari
were burned in her flesh
leaving behind but a small
patch of bare skin,
smooth, pale, familiar.
She must have nestled me
against that smooth bare skin
after birthing me into this world,
out of that very same belly.
That first touch of skin,
I don’t quite remember.

I do remember later, often,
rushing into her arms, seeking
comfort, commiseration, joy
after some injury or victory,
wrapping my little arms
around her open waist
burying my face into,
inhaling the scent of,
falling asleep against,
that familiar home-stretch
of smooth bare skin
left uncovered, on purpose
by the contours of her sari.

Naked primates we are born
seeking contact with bare skin.
Yet as “civilized” humans
we cover up, routinely,
our largest sense organ,
out of modesty, or seduction,
making that touch of skin
even rarer, more precious.
It was the one part of her
skin, other than on her
face and arms, that was
always available to me,
that smooth-skinned midriff,
left bare on purpose
by even the most demure
of Indian women, un/wrapped
by the contours of her sari.

Later still, in my adolescence
that bare midriff skin drifted away
to more-than-arm’s-length,
for we weren’t a touchy-feely
hugging kind of family.
I would steal glances, drawn in
by the allure of bare smooth belly
and the promises hidden
behind the folds of the saris
of the mysterious women
all around me, out of reach.
Once familiar source of comfort
now turned object of fantasy.
Keeping me forever in orbit
around that smooth patch of skin
left uncovered, on purpose,
by the contours of the sari.

Most of her skin has burned
and peeled off, they said,
as I flew back from
a more distant orbit,
remembering, yet trying not
to think of that smooth skin.
My bleary eyes wide open
unable to bear the sight
of the rest of her body,
kept zeroing in, drawn
magnetically, to a square
foot of skin on her belly
left untouched, still smooth,
still uncovered, just as I
remembered. The fire
having raged all around it,
even scorching face, arms,
fingers, had left that belly
untouched, as if on purpose.

Now that is all I want
to remember, that bare
smooth, pale, familiar
patch of skin I first touched
ages ago, but they haunt me:
the contours of her sari
burned into her flesh.