Lines composed in the Thar desert, six years after India’s nuclear test
It’s been six years since angels crossed the road at springtime.
Six years ago the Cherwell carried boats of scrolls whose black letters sliced
through ivory sheets. We undid the blue ribbons and the words fell onto our feet,
cutting our flesh. We bled. Our feet caked, shards of T’s and Y’s stuck out as we
ran home in a sapphire meadow knee deep in water, grey spires suffocating as the
wings came down in millions around us.
That night at the ball we crammed strawberries into angels’ mouths but they
would not keep silent. “The desert is so still at night,” they said. “You can hear
the shifting of the sand.”
The juice from the berries dripped from their lips and splashed on our feet,
burning them. “My stinging skin, where is my home, where is my home?” I
asked. The night was fluorescent, your green dress fired cannonballs into the sky.
“It is time to celebrate,” you said, “not to mourn.”
We danced. Fireflies in the desert broke into homes, hovered over sleeping
children, entered bloodstreams, blew up spleens, burned up hearts, singed brains
“The desert rose to the sky,” I said, but you had already forgiven them.
Your mouth covered my eyes, my tears made you spin round and round, your
waist-length hair catching the strobe lights. Your seduction was complete, how
could I resist you? You pleaded, “Love me. Love me,” so I took your hand.
“Dance,” I said. I wished you were dead.
At seven o’clock no sun rose over the valley. The streets were empty as we
dragged our trains home. You stopped for a moment to take up the fabric in
your hands and then—as if you knew I would need something of you—you tore
off the dirty train and stuffed it into my surprised hands.
Six years ago angels crossed the road at springtime in front of me. I stood in an
emerald green dress, alone. They carried you away with them.
The empty street wound round the river’s neck and as I crossed the bridge
on the high street, I saw the boats sail out of view. I threw the green rag after
them. I was free. I was free of you.
I have a memory of you alone in the night,
The rain outside, you screaming to belong,
My people you called them.
I will not accept that, I said, pushing you away,
These are not your people, these are not my people.
You wore your silver angel around your neck
As if it would protect you from hate.
Conquerors and conquered we have been
With such jewels of god hanging by our hearts.
Like the sand in the desert, you had believed
The burning train would never happen again,
That the women on their backs were the victims of barbarians,
Not our people.
“Why do you want to belong?” I had asked you.
Sometimes I feel belonging is like loving a corpse,
History’s endless funerals.
I return without you to Bombay, the city of our birth. Memory is a curse; what
have you done?
I search. I know that carved silver creature must be somewhere. You hadn’t taken it
with you the night of the ball, you had left it on the dresser by the window
overlooking the crab apple tree. I must find that Asho Farohar, I must wear it, I
must remember what happens when I hate, when I hate who we are because I
fear our people are killers.
You could not understand why I do not like mirrors. In the mirror in the green
dress we were the same person; my betrayal—when you decided silently in a
room full of angels to leave me—was to let you go.
I have been looking for you in a hundred cities;
I have been calling your name;
I watch the mountains rise up in Tehran like
Vultures worshipping the sun;
I throw my net into the Arabian Sea and pull up
Skeletons of exiles who searched for land.
Hesitant in prayer, I stand in an ancestral fire temple in Udwada
Repeating softly, humata, hukhta, huvarashta
Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.
You are nowhere to be found.
Don’t my children need to know who you are?
Finally, in Pokhran, in an ancient haveli with
A Hindu shrine that leads off from a courtyard full of peacocks
I sit silently watching for a sign.
The sand moans, the well runs dry, the angels do not come.
They will not come.
India conducted its nuclear tests in Pokhran in the Thar desert in Rajasthan, most recently in 1998.
Indian Zoroastrians wear an Asho Farohar around their necks, symbolizing the soul’s battle between good and evil. They first sought refuge after 800 BCE in Udwada and other sites on the coast of Gujarat.
In Godhra, Gujarat, the Sabarmati Express caught fire in 2002, killing Hindu pilgrims causing some to suspect it was an act of violence by Muslims.
It took almost a decade to finish this poem and now it is in the Beloit Poetry Journal, which I respect so much.Thanks to Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald, editors at the Beloit Journal for all their editorial guidance and support! https://www.bpj.org/contributors/mehta-leeya
Please think about supporting this wonderful publication.
IN THE SPRING 2014 ISSUE
Poems by Alexander Booth, Temple Cone, John F. Deane, Gray Fincke, Alllison Funk, Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., Kevin Heaton, Nate Marshall, Karen McPherson, Leeya Mehta, M. P. Ritger, Jamie Ross, and more. John Rosenwald reviews new books by Nicelle Davis, Brian Komei Dempster, and TJ Jarrett.
About 'The Abduction': In 1998, I was sitting in Queen Elizabeth Hall (close to the River Cherwell, at Oxford University), when I read the headlines in the Times of India about India's nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert. Some years later I visited this part of the Rajasthan desert and began to compose these lines.
If you want to hear more about the poem, I will be uploading a short essay on the Beloit Poet's Forum in May and look forward to comments. Will keep you posted and share the link when it is out.