England, 1999

By K. Srilata

It turns out that my hostess
is a wonderful woman,
kind, house-proud,
and gracious in the extreme.
I couldn’t have asked for more.
She hovers around me
like a small butterfly,
pointing out the songbirds,
the excessively clear skies,
air crisper than fresh toast,
the cheerful cows bursting with good health and milk,
and the trees.
And then she pops it,
the question I have been dreading all along:
“So what’s it like, in India?”
“We are a developing nation, as you know,” I say, beginning badly.
Soon, I am selling the country
for less than a song.
“Our cities are full of withering trees, their leaves covered in dust,
You are lucky if you see a bird,
the air is always hot with smoke,
our cows are parchment-thin,
and our skies,
no one has the time for them.”
All along, I am holding back another story,
a story I don’t know how to tell,
an interior, shadow story,
and this is how it goes:

Back home, laughter can spring unexpectedly
from last night’s trash.
People steal the skies from themselves,
in the early hours of dawn.
Every day, they eke out colour,
weave the sparkle of diamond needles into silk,
create the perfect, ordinary geometry of kolams
for ants to feed off,
for feet to trample on,
these, and a million other beautiful things,
our people do, daily.
All along, I am sitting on
a dormant volcano of a lie,
“Our naked babies crawl off the streets and
into the embrace of their mothers,
beggars are always fed,
women and minorities are safe,
and caste is dead…”

Long after I have said my goodbyes,
I dream of visiting on my gracious hostess,
this shadow story,
that volcano lie,
imploding within.


"England, 1999" by K. Srilata, The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans (Mumbai: Paperwall/Poetrywala, 2019).