Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Poem: Refugees

Refugees, circa 926 - International Publication Prize, in the Atlanta Review, Dec 2017
(This poem is one of a series of three poems.)

Refugees, circa 926

The boat is too small for so many
and only the twin babies sleep,
drunk on milk and swaddled tight
rocking against their mother
as the men row hard into familiar waters
of the Gulf of Hormuz for the last time,
the starlight on the receding mountains
dimming fast until what is left
of this new moon night is the abiding
light from their holy fire, fed carefully
by their priest with sticks of sandalwood
pulled from deep in his white robes, as he looks east
into the black Arabian sea.

All the joy and blood that had come before already turning to myth,
he counts how many generations it takes to go
from conqueror to refugee.

Gold bangles ring out as the baby girls are given
to their grandmother, then great grandmother,
and passed back to their mother, seventeen,
back erect, hair like molten copper
fawn brown eyes flecked with green,
hiding tiger, quick to anger,
as quick to forgive the every day abuses girls
seem not to know they carry.

The father, twenty-five, son of a farmer
named after his father’s father, and he his,
the same names reaching back into old Persian towns
winding up a river into orchards,
where they planned this winter voyage,
had four boats in sight ahead,
and six behind him,
but now they are hidden by night
as they row with speed, the wind still,
the vessels arrows through the air.

So, when tired eyes stir with the new dawn
and the babies tug with little hands to drink,
steam from their breath against her chest,
their mother lifts her head as the men cry “Land!”
she does not expect rose petal beach, like silk shivering before her.

She pulls herself to her knees to look
at this land at the waters edge that shifts and stirs
as if it is made of wings disturbed by the coming of her people
only to gasp, as flocks of long limbed flamingos
rise up into the sky and scatter,
revealing a sanctuary of white beach.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Editorial Project: Plume Poetry's folio of Contemporary Indian Poets

Here's an excerpt from my editorial: "This photograph captures what I want to say in this introduction. As polymorphic interlocutors, we have to be polyglots listening to myriad tongues within our shores and outside, always curious about the world."
Read some wonderful poems in Plume's folio of contemporary Indian poets: 

Photo: Courtesy Santosh Verma

Friday, October 27, 2017

Personal essay: Close to the end

This personal essay was published in District Lines 4, 2017, by Politics and Prose Bookstore. Permission received to post it here, as November approaches, and this piece really belongs in the fall.

I do not know when she will leave us. Before we came back to her house this morning the resident at Sibley Hospital in Washington said death was imminent, but I’ve seen her like this many times before, curled up like a snail in her bed, knees to her chest, eyes tightly shut, pretending to sleep, her poodle guarding her.

I leave her upstairs to rest and go down to the kitchen with its French doors that look out onto the enclosed stone yard. It is the last days of June. It is ninety degrees outside and the ginger cat is under the patio table in the shade, listening to the birds, too hot to pursue them. He lasts five minutes in the heat and comes up the steps, luxuriating in his heft, all Emperor. I let him in and give him a bowl of defrosted shrimp from Whole Foods. I know that’s the sort of thing she does, feeding the animals treats. She sneaks the dog jam sandwiches with extra butter. Those she loves are anointed in butter. Her daughter stocks the top shelf of the refrigerator door with slabs of Irish Kerrygold. Before we moved in together, my now husband spent a week with her between rental apartments. The first morning he came down to a big greasy breakfast, “Oh, you don’t have to make me breakfast,” he said to her. She said, “It’s not for you darling, it’s for my poodle.”

When I hear her footfalls above me I go to the stairs to make sure she is all right. I try not to bother her. Now the dementia is getting worse, she wants family near her constantly and I am just a close friend. Her daughter, who she lives with, is her favorite but she is away on a much-needed vacation in Africa. Her grandson is visiting from California and has taken her daughter’s place.

She grew up in Minnesota and spent most of her adult life in the Bay area. She turned ninety last November, and my husband adapted one of her favorite songs, ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ – he sang, “she left California for this glorified swamp.” She can’t remember we were there. I met her in 2004, my first Thanksgiving in Washington. I had arrived from Mumbai, where I grew up. She’s a friend of my husband’s family but we are all a bunch of strays here and we’ve ended up spending recent Christmas holidays together. I do not like to take too many liberties with her. Too helpful and she gets angry. Or maybe it is better that I am not family, for she is mostly civil with me when I keep a distance. With family it is hard to set boundaries and fights can be vicious.

She is standing at the top of the stairs, leaning over the banister. She says, “I want to cut off the blood.” She yells for scissors. Her grandson brings them upstairs but I ask him to wait since she is pointing to her stomach. For a moment I think she is attached to the memory of when she gave birth in her hometown of San Francisco and they had to cut the umbilical cord that tied her to her babies. How silly I am. She just wants to cut off her diaper.

I change her diaper as she stands beside her bed. Then I slide her gown off her shoulders so I can put her in a fresh pair of pajamas. Her mastectomy took one breast, the other looks out of place, puzzled to still be there. Her ninety-year old body could be made of stone, it has no supple contours, and everything is set and hard, unbendable. Metal-like. She must weigh eighty pounds at best and her body is gnarled, but there is nothing to look away from. Old bodies should not be judged. They are. That’s all.

I want her to know that she still has dignity even though I am helping her change. She is a proud woman. She was a beauty, Miss Minneapolis, exquisitely dressed, with intelligent blue eyes that could see through all bullshit. She hates help. She is nasty to gardeners and housekeepers. She’s said in the past, on hands and knees, scrubbing her floors, “I come from a long line of Irish washer women.” So imagine her now, movie star looks, Chanel suit, eighty-eight years old, yes, that’s right, scrubbing her floors.

Some time ago, when the gardener was over she complained about him to my husband who mimics her well, “I asked the man, once he finished with that noisy thing of his, very sweetly I said to him, sir, sir, look at all these tiny leaves that are still on the ground, don’t you want to rake those up? Do you know what this person told me? He told me that he didn’t have a rake.  Not even in his truck. So I told him: you’re no gardener, you’re just a mower and a blower.”

As I change her, the dog wraps his black body between her legs and growls softly at me. He is nervous I may harm her. I say to her, “It’s for me. You’re letting me help you for me, because it’s nice to feel needed.” This softens her in a way I haven’t seen before. Her gratitude is sweet and she stops fighting, agreeing to sip her water. This is a big deal. She likes vodka. She likes white wine. She used to say, “Darling, no one ever drank water or exercised where I come from.”

When the dog sees how happy she is he licks my legs. I do not like my legs licked so profusely but I let him do it.

When she is tucked back in bed and I am inquiring about her next meal, she says, as if pleasantly surprised by her hunger, “I should fill this belly, shouldn’t I?”

“How about a BLT?” I say.

“Oh yes, darling,” she agrees.

The house fills up with the smell of bacon. I cut it into small bite sized pieces. Then I take the thinnest slice of tomato, a tender part of the lettuce and press it together between two slices of soft buttered potato bread so it is flat, easy to chew with her dentures. She lifts the squares delicately into her mouth.

The last time I coaxed her to eat was four days ago in the hospital; she had been brought in for dehydration and for refusing to eat for days. The BLT worked then too. I said, “Do you remember, when I was so sick from being pregnant, how you cooked me a pork chop and it was the first meal I ate in three months? Now it’s your turn.” She couldn’t remember, “Really?” she said, but she liked the story and polished off the BLT and a brownie between sips of black coffee.

At the hospital she was disoriented. She tore the IV out of her arm in the middle of the night and ignored the awful hospital food tray. At home she likes the TV on all the time, but the TV didn’t work and she thought she was in an odd shaped apartment, “Which no one will buy. They will have to tear down the whole building soon. No one would want to live in a place where the walls are so ugly.” A moment later she thought we were in a car dealership. Then she announced, “This Church has too many rooms.” As if on cue, a woman stopped by to ask if she wanted Holy Communion. It was a Filipina accent she couldn’t understand so I told her what she was there for. “Yes,” she said, her orange Irish bob perking up at the question. “Big wafer or small,” she was asked. “Small,” I suggested, and she agreed, this time a lady. Earlier that day she had yelled at me to take her pills and “stuff them up my asshole”.

At home she is content and her short-term memory seems better. Today I read her the first page of my novel and she kept bringing it up through the day. Yesterday, at the hospital, she was mad at me for coming to visit her, “Who are you?” she asked, giving me a dirty look as I quietly worked in a corner. She hasn’t recognized me for over a year now.

“It doesn’t matter who I am,” I said to her, “but I’d like to stay anyway if that’s okay with you?”

Now, as she eats a cinnamon swirl in the bed she shares with her daughter, I think of my grandmother, Armaity. She died seven years ago in Mumbai, on a June day quite like this one. I lived much of my life with her until I moved to America. She loved cats too. It would be nice to spend one more meal with her. We’ve got so much love to give and we are still figuring that part out—how to love better—and we keep losing people before we have mastered the art of it.

Afterword: My friend died shortly after I wrote this, in November, just before her ninety-first birthday. November is the month of my grandmother’s birthday too.

You can purchase District Lines IV here: 
About District Lines: The fourth edition of the popular P&P anthology of work by local writers and artists testifies to the city’s diverse social and cultural range; as we know, there’s much more than politics going on here. Featuring both written and visual arts, from fiction, poetry, and essays to photography and drawings, this collection is a vivid kaleidoscope of District life.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Essays on writing I - James Salter

The company we keep


After James Salter

10 June 1925 — 19 June 2015

By LB Mehta, 31 July, 2017

“There is your life as you know it and also as others know it, perhaps incorrectly, but to which some importance must be attached. It is difficult to realize that you are observed from a number of points and the sum of them has validity.” From Burning the Days, a memoir by James Salter

ome time ago I became convinced that summer is the time for dying. The body wants to go when the earth is closer to the sun, heat can reach the bones, lift the loneliness of winter away. My sample set is personal, but continues to grow. Both my mother’s parents died in June, seven years apart. When my partner was a young boy, his mother died in July. Just this weekend, after two immense family losses this summer, I heard of the passing of my beloved English Literature professor and friend Eunice de Souza, on July 29th 2017.

This piece began as a diary entry, a way of recollecting my meeting with James Salter. Mr Salter passed away on June 19th, 2015, the summer after I met him. It was his death that led me to the conclusion that perhaps summer is a time for letting go, somehow convinced that Salter augered his own season of passing in the death of Dean, Salter’s young American protagonist in one of his early novels, A Sport and a Pastime. Dean dies in the book on the 12th of June.

In October 2014, the fiction writer and essayist Olufemi Terry invited me to the Scott Fitzgerald Festival where Salter was to teach a master class.  Femi revered Mr Salter but I had not yet read him, so I went downstairs to my building library, and found a copy of A Sport and a Pastime.

We arrived at the venue in Rockville around the same time as Mr Salter and his wife Kay Eldgridge. Femi is Salter’s kind of writer – critical, always polishing – he is a savant. Mr Salter drew us aside. He was 89, his eyes attentive as he engaged us, asking me to spell my name. He was unlike the description Robert Redford gave of him, “how quiet and reserved he was,” quoted here from a New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten.

If I remember correctly, Mr Salter asked me, “Why do you write?” and his head tilted forward, leaning in for the answer, his face lined and handsome. Nick Paumgarten, had said that Salter was often writing notes about people he met, layering them into his stories.

I answered honestly, “I don’t seem quite able to do anything else. It makes me happy.”

Mr Salter looked at me as if he was genuinely intrigued by the concept.

Later, as we waited for the class to start, I thought of all the caveats to such a childish statement. “It makes me happy, except that I’m mostly miserable because writing a novel is so hard (groan).”

My partner says, “You say you are doing this because it makes you happy, but darling, you don’t appear happy at all.” He is right. After a long day I am often irritable. Most days, I stop work dead at three o’clock, having carefully divided my time between paid assignments and writing. I head to pick up my kids from school with bags of healthy snacks and soccer balls. I stand at the playground, hoping to chat about writing if there is someone there to oblige. Mostly, I admire the beauty of the seasons, aware that this time with my children is a gift – how lucky I am to be out on a playground watching children have the unstructured time that children should. Yet, three p.m. is so arbitrary that I am off kilter a little, not in keeping with my natural rhythm of working into the evening.

Mr Salter had begun his class, which turned out to be a conversation with the audience. Kay was sitting near by, her face open to the world, taking it all in, seeming to judge nothing. A beautiful face. The kind of person you want to get to know. I thought about so many of my female writer friends whose partners didn’t show up to anything and had never read a word of what they wrote. It seemed, at that moment, that male writers had their own very special status.

Salter was addressing the audience at one point and said, “There is a writer out there,” and he looked at me, “Who said that she writes because it makes her happy. I’ve never heard of that before.”

If he was being sarcastic, I have to say it didn’t come across that way. He seemed curious, he was making a connection. At some point I asked a question about how one balances family and writing. I was thinking of him, young, trying to make a living from writing, the father of four children.

He looked gravely at me and said, “Something’s got to give. Maybe it will be your writing.”

I was both terrifed and intrigued. You hear that often, successful people talking about how balance is not really possible. I suppose that is partly why writers take many years to finish a book. They are also living, working to make money, taking care of their parents or grandparents, fulfilling other callings or caring for children. All I can say is I accepted the challenge to finish my novel.

Before we left I asked Mr Salter, “Which is your favorite?” gesturing to the books for sale. He said Light Years, so I picked that up and had him sign it as a gift to another writer friend. Then I gave him my library copy of Sport and a Pastime to inscribe to me. I was rather impressed when he spelled my name correctly.

Writing this, I am tipping back in my desk chair, staring out at the fir trees reaching into a washed out blue sky with restless clouds. I wonder for a moment if writing is like going to war, heading into a dark place from which you are not sure you will return. It is very hard to come back to ordinary life after you have gone away. I don’t mean to trivialize war by saying this, and obviously in many other ways a writer is not a soldier. There are days when I am brutalized by the process, but it is not because I have actually lost friends, or my limbs. As a writer, every day you expect it of yourself, that you will wade out into the ocean and return to your family life. That daily journey is the hardest one I take. But I get better at it, I learn that it will still be waiting for me, that a few hours away is not abandoning it.

In those hours away, happiness is not joy as much as purpose, it is duty to the simple intention – that of writing. It is solitary, and it is the company we keep when we emerge, that helps us return to the light of living. The circle of writers that surrounds us during the writing of a book is often very small. It includes the writers we read, like Salter, and the writers who are our friends, like Femi. We are wary of books handed to us while we are working on our own. At other times, we are down right impatient with bestsellers that have to be read, like The Goldfinch. There is only place for writing, and what we read is the same as the company we keep, these are our intimates.

Some writers have made an art of chronicling their own lives with reference to other writers. They are readers too, and see their own stories in those of the writers they love. They organise connections until a montage of experiences form a symphony – a life or a book.

James Salter begins his memoir Burning the Days like this, “The true chronicler of my life…as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything. I had never seen him before.” This stranger comes to Salter trying to connect – he describes Salter’s childhood and has kept track of events in his life. His knowledge has small discrepancies from fact, but is generally correct.

When we chronicle the life of another, even with little inconsistencies, we don’t make the life of the other person whole. Instead, we seek the company of others as a way of making our own life whole,   fitting missing pieces of melody into our own life’s symphony.


Part II  - on the Indian poet and novelist Eunice de Souza and other essays appear in my column: The Company We Keep

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Essay: Close to the End: in District Lines 4

Those she loves are anointed in butter. Her daughter stocks the top shelf of the refrigerator door with slabs of Irish Kerrygold. Before we moved in together, my now husband spent a week with her between rental apartments. The first morning he came down to a big greasy breakfast, “Oh, you don’t have to make me breakfast,” he said to her. She said, “It’s not for you darling, it’s for my poodle." 
- Read Leeya Mehta's personal essay Close to the End in District Lines 4 (Politics and Prose).

Web site:
About: The fourth edition of the popular P&P anthology of work by local writers and artists testifies to the city’s diverse social and cultural range; as we know, there’s much more than politics going on here. Featuring both written and visual arts, from fiction, poetry, and essays to photography and drawings, this collection is a vivid kaleidoscope of District life. Join us for a reading by some of the contributors.