Nandini Dhar hails from Kolkata, India. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Potomac Review, PANK, Los Angeles Review, Permafrost and Southern Humanities Review. Her work has also been featured in the anthology The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Writing. She teaches postcolonial literature at Florida International University, and co-edits the online journal Elsewhere.
Meeting The Juju-Lady
When my sister Tombur's first tooth fell out, we collected it inside a mason jar. Tombur wanted her teeth to be sharp, said she needed them to scissor effortlessly through paper. Our maid, Lakshmi Mashi, who muttered while pushing a slug-trail of water across the mosaic floor, had told her to throw her first tooth in a rat's hole. The rats would use it to build a house with: when her new tooth grew in, it would be as sharp as the rats'.
It was raining, the afternoon smelt like soggy tea leaves rotting in the kitchen sink, and we snuck out of the house. Although we were specifically prohibited, we walked into the taro bush behind our house, marking territory with our footprints on mud. We did not find the rat's hole. What we found instead was an old woman crouching under the toadstool. Scratching her skin, scaly as the back of a fish. Her tongue, broken and harmless as a fork. Must have been sharp once. Now, completely useless.
Tombur, who was surreptitiously compiling an encyclopedia of ghosts, aliens and superheroes, knew immediately. That this was not a witch. But the juju-lady our grandma had warned us about. From whose gunny sack bag poured forth sobs of stolen children. We slipped our fingers under her, lifted her up. Could not find her sack. But the accidental touch of our fingertips made her shed the skin of her face.
Juju-lady did not scream. Did not say anything. Tore grasses, with her fingers shaking. Put mud inside her mouth, using both her hands.
Tombur lifted her up, promised to stitch her back into shape, once we have made another house for ourselves. Just the three of us – me, Tombur and the juju-lady. No fathers yelling orders. No mothers banging their heads on walls. No grandmothers shedding tears. No ransacked piggy banks. No flying pots and pans chasing each other.
We walked backwards, through the path our footprints had made before. What was forgotten was Tombur's loose tooth in the bottle. We had left it behind in the taro bush. Without ever quite realizing it, we had relied on the stubborn memory of glass.
Words That Do Not Describe My Mother
(after Barbara Jane Reyes)
ma loving haughty cantankerous khandarni pretty patient sarbangshoha allegory hysteria-prone caregiver bharatmata impatient broken indissoluble all-enduring goddess eternal groveling calm feisty divine saint wicked debi narrow-minded witch generous daini mother selfish blemishless self-sacrificing sinful righteous impious ethereal vile celestial irreverent wayward immaculate intuitive devious dolorous happy compassionate smiling victim affectionate hardhearted effusive indifferent unfortunate distressed volatile distressing afflicted wretched militant fearful courageous pitiable endearing wretched aggressive passive malevolent hostile spiritual bitter quiet garrulous sweet ma mother bharatmata
Your mother hit her head on the wall of our kitchen and you and I watched from the doorway. Yesterday it was my mother's turn. Our mothers, who are sisters, take turns dismantling the house and sewing it back together again. You and I roamed the alleyways of the atlas they drew with their curse-words and tears. This was before you came back home from school with the knowledge that women were prone to hysteria. Before you began to fold your own bitterness into immaculate paper cranes. You watched, leaning on the door to the room, your limbs indistinguishable from the palisade. Your mother's fingers, now tearing her own hair, uttering the usual predictive impossibilities: why didn't I kill you at birth, little demoness. In a minute or two, she would get up, begin to wrap your skinny torso in frills and bows. White lacy bows. Green satin bows. Bows stiff around the edges. Bows with Mickey Mouse faces in the middle. We both knew our mothers were painstakingly braiding emptiness inside. Your mother happened to name that emptiness my daughter. And the bows allowed her to give that emptiness a marble glaze. But you were already refusing to be a scotch-taped daughter on the wall. And failing. Ordered to memorize out loud the multiplication tables all through the night. I wanted to warn you. That our mothers, who had grown up on Vidyasagar's morality tales, sprinkled hot mustard oils on erring daughters' eyes. Girls who stopped memorizing lessons. Girls who could not say no to drooping eyelids. Someone had shoved me into my mother's metal sewing box. I heard your voice repeating the three times tables again and again. The holler in measured rhythms, the window glasses shattering one by one, covering your hair like a monsoon day silver drizzle. And you who could do three things at once : scotch-taped on the wall, truncated and inert, five fingers anchored inside an arithmetic book, the other five, shredding the bows into one hundred and one pieces, threads unspooling at your feet. The house was quiet except for the sound of our fathers snoring, the rustle of our mothers' fingers on satin and lace, sitting in the living room sewing bows on our frocks. We both dreamt of building a colony of bows, ivory gates. You and I would sit on stools in perfectly black polished red mary janes, legs dangling, selling one rupee tickets to cow-faced tourists with green snot and indigo skin.
A neighborhood of aunts and older sisters: insightful enough to throw away Lakshmi's basket – the vermilion stained coins and cowries, the immaculately curved vermilion box. Yet embalmed enough to keep looking for the perfectly round silver-rimmed hand mirror and a rounder face. And they keep looking. The night falls, and our aunts and sisters, dressed as Antigone, leave their homes to look. In the alcoves of the gravestones in the old cemetery, in the crevices of the roots of the banyan trees. Inside their homes, they look underneath the beds, in the cracks of the furniture, inside the holes in the walls.
My sister and I are too young to join their quests. We roam the length of the terrace making up new words for words we've banned – bride,benarasi, stove and sindoor. Girls who become brides disappear. And those who don't, come back from their husbands' homes as jackfruit trees. As did our youngest aunt.
On the night of our aunt's wedding, my sister had gathered all the children around and told stories: how the kerosene stove named after the masses would explode inside her kitchen exactly a month after her wedding. Our mother had slapped my sister on the cheek, dragged her into the attic and locked her up. She missed the wedding feast. But she was right – our aunt did die. When the news reached us, sister smashed every mirror in our house into little pieces.