Ocean Vuong

Born in 1988 in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is currently an undergraduate English Major at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His poems have received an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Beatrice Dubin Rose Award, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as two Pushcart Prize nominations. His work appear in Word Riot, the Kartika Review, Lantern Review, SOFTBLOW, Asia Literary Review, and PANK among others. He enjoys practicing Zen Meditation and lives in Brooklyn with an 84 year old lady who he nurses in lieu of paying rent. Visit his blog at www.oceanvuong.blogspot.com


Arrival by Fire

Wooden teacups, steam swirled into the blue
then gray of morning. There was no one there to drink.
Before dawn blurred the edges of the sky,

when darkness made fools of limbs, we followed
the lantern’s golden eye, blinking from across the shore.
The river sliced our legs at the waist. Water

could not keep our secrets. When a croc’s eyes lit
like coals in the dark, my mother’s hand
clasped my mouth. The scent of sweat and garlic

would infuse my dreams for years. I had to touch
to believe my father was shaking. But there
is something different about reptiles.

Unlike humans, they do not eat when full.
But to disappear one must be swallowed
and so, we crawled into the bowels of a boat.

When we drifted to where sky and sea vanished
into a black wall, someone began to sing
a childhood song, and someone else begged him

to stop. The air began to tremble
as a hundred prayers hummed through my skin.
And where a fragment of moon fell through the hull,

a blue river of piss and vomit streamed
across the deck—washing away the fallen tears.
When there was too much silence, we would place

a hand on the closest chest, feel for drumbeats
then drift into dreams of chrysanthemums
flickering in the youth we’ve never known.

When we reached the new world, we dissipated
into shadows, apologized for our clumsy tongues,
our far and archaic gods. We changed our names

to John, Julie, Edward, or Susan. How many mirrors
have we tried to prove wrong? Who were we
when burning houses dimmed with distance,

and we watched our fathers hurl their hearts
into oceans where the salt sizzled in their wounds?
Now, on nights like this, when sleep sounds too much

like the sea, when the bed stretches into a ship
we cannot abandon, all we have are these stories, resurrected
like ghosts over steam of tea. Listen. Someone is trying

to croon that old song but the voice cracks over words
like Mother, Home. Nicolas, comrade, brother, whatever
your name, touch here—my hand, and remember: we were drifters,

we were orphans, but mostly, we were heat—steam
                   our bones.



If You Are a Refugee

There will be nights when you wake
to touch the photo, your fingers
fading the faces you cannot name.
They are phantoms of your own,
whose eyes have watched the precession
of waving hands
diminish into distance. 

There will be moments, between
a lover’s kiss, when you remember
the taste of blood,
and the limits to the answers
one mouth can hold.

When you sweat, you will sweat the oil
that has stained the city
of which you only know
from what is lost.

You will return to that city,
beg the woman whose hair
has grayed to scalp to tell you
your true name. You will stare
into her turbid eyes and ask
of the crescent in your mother’s smile.

And when you dream, you will revisit
the body in the forest, say
it is not your brother’s. You will see again
the naked man crouched
by the charred house, licking ash
from his fingers to taste the bodies
he can no longer hold.

If you are a refugee, you will come to praise
the thickness of walls, the warmth
that clings to cotton
from embrace,

the cricket’s song
in a night virgin to death.
But before you leave
what is gone forever,

go back. Go back and gather that boy
you left behind. The boy who stood
at the edge of a field
where your father once prayed
with a pistol in his mouth.




Douglas Miles on WS Rendra


: An Essay On W.S. Rendra





W.S. Rendra who enjoyed several visits to Australia, died in Jakarta on the 6 August, 2009 at the age of 74.  I valued a joking relationship with the “Burong

Merak” (= peacock).  He delighted in this soubriquet and successfully nurtured his own media image as a youthful cosmopolitan and energetically flamboyant maverick despite the fact that like Javanese farmers, he always went barefooted and usually dressed entirely in their faded black cotton garments anywhere “off- stage” and as a rule when on it. Indonesian thespians who were younger than he assumed that he was my junior. They called him “mas” (= “gold” as well as “big brother”) but categorised me with the dross of “oom” (=“Dutch uncle”).  Even so, among Indonesian sponsors of my graduate students, it was he who proved to be the most venerably avuncular and persuasively represented the interests of these sometimes difficult expatriates during his occasional formal visits to the Academy of Sciences (LIPI) with a charmingly elegant (alus) but sartorially flawless (rapi) professionalism. Should I now share the secret that he persuaded me 30 years ago (when Suharto’s junta refused him an exit permit) to smuggle his way an urgent consignment of not-so-flamboyant-black hair-dye? Never!

My disconnection from the internet in recent months because of travel spared me the sad news of the death until his Teater Bengkel (Workshop Theatre) unexpectedly contacted me during mid-October with some of the distressing details.  And I certainly was not insensitive in retrospect to the poignancy of my efforts in Europe during the interim to have striven to emulate the characteristic vivacity of Rendra’s own readings of his poetry with my own incomparably ersatz declamations but of course with no mention of his recent passing to any of my audiences. An even greater regret has become my inability to tell him how his work has recently helped me to recruit Western students to the study of his language. But it would be more important to him that teachers who have that responsibility should receive that message in which any doubt they may have that this is so will cease once they have tested the tried and proven pedagogical procedure I exemplify below.

Even so it will be interesting to see whether any of the cognoscenti will gainsay my certainty that Rendra was the most brilliant of the few Indonesian poets and playwrights who managed to emerge from and survive the suffocation of literary creativity for three decades under Suharto’s New Order (late 1960s- mid 1990s). The Smiling General’s regime banned any printing or performance of The Struggle of the Naga Tribe which through the structure of classical Javanese/Balinese shadow puppetry, satirised the royal court in the pseudonymous Astinam (read Indonesia) and hilariously pilloried the Queen (read Mrs Tien -“Ten Percent”- Suharto) as well as her ministers for their vanity, venality and vene …(read the American itches which his dalang, played by Rendra’s wife had all these puppets forever scratching).

His security guard of military police arrested him rather than his assailant when targeted by a bomber while reciting the even more satirical Snapshots of Development in Poetry to the thousands of roisterously applauding aficionados who packed Ismael Mazuki’s roofless Garden Theatre (TIM).  His prosecutors had to invoke a special Emergency Law that he had “provoked the attacker to violence” so that it was the terrorist in mufti who walked free while the poet went to gaol … And not for his longest stint … But what gets under my skin even years later, for nine eternally vermin-infecting months.

The former love lyricist’s originality in eliding the idioms with the sophistries of several languagesultimately defied Wordsworth’s (1800) narrowly effete definition that “poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility (sic) and calls for recognition of the genius Rendra evinced through anything- but- tranquil articulation of authentic and indeed uniquely Indonesian cultural and political priorities in Western literary forms.  The poems he scripted as critiques of the New Order in his own handwriting for his lively readings from the stage became somewhat more than even the finest examples of that art by his most talented contemporaries (e.g. consider his protégé Emha, the theologically muscular Muslim bard).  It was indeed Rendra more than any other of these Indonesian scribblers who transformed the “ho-hum” convention ofCatholic schoolboy elocution at Dutch eisteddfods throughout the colonial Indies into modern Indonesia’s robustly intellectual and iconically political dramatic genre of deklamasi whose magnetism has packed the theatres of Asian capitals and of foreign universities whenever they have delivered to publics and whether domestically or overseas.

Top dissident musicians of the time who were no strangers to the limelights were glad to sit somewhere out there in the darkness before him at home in awe-stricken envy of his command over that ambience. They included glitterati of pop and folk such as Ebiet of country-and-western fame, Mogi Daroessman whom they called the “Neil Diamond of Indonesia” and Gombloh of Lemon Trees. The singers persuaded the declaimers to compose lyrics for them whenever possible as they imbibed the lesson that the thousands of typically illiterate but articulate Jakartans in the surrounding blackness would loudly relish a politically barbed stanza whenever Rendra fired it just as surely as these ghetto-dwellers would flinch at the sharp whiff of a real Betawi curry when a back-alley cook  stirred it : just a slight breath of salty blacan serrated the bite which hallmarked its own  perfection;  no need for these acolytes of Rendra to read some bit of paper like a recipe  to savour either; and no need for them to wear footwear to a  his recital if the price of cheapest thongs challenged their purchase of a ticket.

My tape-recordings vouch for Rendra’s remarkable propensity to draw volcanically creative spiritual energy from his largely barefooted audiences when he composed some of his most inflammatory verses. He would even create new stanzas spontaneously from behind the lectern amid his fire-and-brimstone barrages at the regime’s catechism of national commitment which prioritised ‘Development’ (Pembangunan) over ‘Freedom’ (Kemerdekaan); and the security of censorship over the public’s hunger to know (see below). During intervals in TIM’s dressing room he was genuinely inquisitive when he asked for someone to play back still-smoking lines he had just uttered but never yet read even to himself so that he could scribble them down notably for the first time and ask: “Did I say that or did you just make it up?”  (How I wished I had.)

The specific qualities which constitute Rendra’s artistic greatness also include the many ways with which he transcended cultural differences; for example, with the translingual pun which I understand is an anathema for literary purists.  The device helped him (deliberately?) to induce Western novices into an appreciation of Bahasa Indonesia and uncannily to speak that language sometimes before they even knew they were doing so.  As a mere taste of this magic, I invite the readers to reflect on at least their own whisper of a few lines which the paragraph after next will borrow from “Sajak Mata-mata”.  This “Ode to Spies” enlivens both Snapshots of Development in Poetry (Potret Pembangunan dalam Puisi, Balai Pusaka, 1978) and SOB (State of War and Siege, University of Queensland Press 1979).

Mourners at mortuary gatherings in Australia conventionally request one another to be upstanding and close their eyes to observe a collective silence in memory of the deceased.  I propose that we honour Rendra’s memory equally respectfully by the very opposite of silence and with pupils wide open on the world in rousing declamations of what he wrote even when those who are with us are not all Indonesian speakers. Teachers can do no better than follow his example in providing prospective students of Bahasa Indonesia with such tempting introductions as the following to the creative possibilities of lovingly moulding the clay of the language he mined as the basic material for his wordcrafting.

Consider for instance the duplication which is so well exemplified by a word whose root “mata” means “eye” and which in the internationally now familiar “Mata Hari “translates as “eye of the sky” (= “sun”).  As “mata2”, the root becomes an expression for “spy” or “spies”.  In recent months I have introduced my tributes for Rendra in Europe by drawing attention to that simple feature of Indonesian and then inviting my listeners to participate in an articulation of this poem by quietly voicing  the words “mutter, mutter” as a chorus to contextualize my own declamation from a faulty memory of the following  excerpts from “Sajak Mata2”.

I recalled that the opening stanza of his handwritten notes of which I had kept a few photocopies somewhere back in Australia, began with an allusion to Indonesian newspaper readers urinating provocative gossip on one another to substitute for the facts which the controlled press denied those in the political hierarchy’s lower echelons:

Ada suara gaduh di atas tanah. (aduh2)

Ada suara pi(s)sing kebawah tanah

Ada ucapan-ucapan kacau di antara rumah-rumah.

Ada tangis tak menentu di tengah sawah.

Dan, lho, ini di belakang saya

Ada tentara marah-marah.


 I encourage the continuation of the chant of “mutter, mutter” especially to accompany this fifth stanza about censorship and the expression of outrage that:

“……. Aku  tak tahu. Kamu tak tahu.

Tak ada yang tahu..Betapa kita akan tahu,

Kalau koran-koran ditekan sensor,

Dan mimbar-mimbar yang bebas telah dikontrol?

Koran-koran adalah penerusan mata kita.

Kini sudah diganti mata yang resmi.

Kita tidak lagi melihat kenyataan yang beragam.

Kita hanya diberi gambara model keadaan

yang sudah dijahit oleh penjahit resmi.



Mata rakyat sudah dicabut.”!!…oleh… ?


This italicized and highlighted initial line of the sixth stanza translates as

The eyes of the people have been “ripped out ” (like teeth) …by … ?

And the chorus answers with mutter, mutter “ which harmonises with the



So be it if Auden mused that “Poetry doesn’t (sic) make things happen….”(MascaraEditorial, November, 2009) when decades later on the other side of the globe Rendra’s  talents with ball-point and microphone panicked even the most menacing of the New Order’s managers into seriously self-damaging, political miscalculation under the relentless barrage not only of Rendra’s drama but also of his declamations. Peerless artistic qualities proofed them against competitive cover-up of malpractice by the junta throughout the social system. Remarkably, the contribution of this Indonesian scribbler to the cultural heritage of the oppressed in his country has probably become the best evidence which pundits may ever need to marshal that poetry really does matter (c.f. Parini, 2008).

Even if only a few critics (and Auden) never understood that truth as certainly as Rendra did, he has bequeathed future scholars with an obligation to analyse the chemistry of the breathtaking literary and thespian dynamite he used to achieve its realisation during his own lifetime.  Ma’afkan kenang2an saya yang begini syukurlah, mas; semoga berpulang dengan selamat!



Doug Miles (Centro In Contri Umani, Ascona Switzerland)

Email: miles.douglas09@gmail.com




Mascara, (2009) Editorial, November, https://www.mascarareview.com/editorial.html

Parini, J., (2008) Why Poetry Matters, New Haven, Yale UP

Rendra, W., (1978) The Struggle of The Naga Tribe (translated by Max Lane) Brisbane, University of Queensland Press

Rendra, W., (1978) Potret Pembangunan dalam Puisi, Jakarta, Balai Pusaka

Rendra W., (1979) SOB, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press

Wordsworth, W., (1800) “Observations Prefaced to Lyrical Ballads” in Harmon’s Classic Writings (pp. 279-296)



Shannon Burns: The Translator

 Shannon Burns is a writer who lives in Adelaide.






The Translator

I am, you should know, by trade, a translator, which is to say I know several languages, and I can turn one language into another, as it were, so I am no amateur to this, whatever it is, if there is a name for it, which I doubt, since I haven’t come across it, and I have come across a lot of names, in many languages, but not the name for this, to what we are doing, or what I am doing, or what the world is doing with us both, whether we like it or not – and whether or not we like it I cannot honestly say.
I can turn one language into another, yet you, it would seem, have no language at all, you can barely turn your thoughts into sounds and gestures. The best I get from you is your moaning and biting, and the way you wring your hands, if they are in fact hands, since they seem to me to be somewhat like hands but not completely functional.
In any event, you won’t let me look at them closely. Every time I get near enough to study them you move away. If you are in your corner you move to the other side of the room, or you growl, or you foil my attempts in some other way, by sitting on them, for instance, or by screaming so loudly it hurts my ears.
When you scream, I am the one who is forced to move to the other side of the room, which leads me to imagine, sometimes, as I am scurrying away, that I have in fact taken on your body as you scurry away from me, from my desire to see your hands, which are in some sense sacred to you, and untouchable, although you touch them yourself, but always as if to protect them from being touched by someone else, by something else, since you won’t touch anything with your hands, other than yourself, which leads me to wonder whether they are hands at all, since hands are surely for touching, and if they do not touch perhaps they cease to be hands, and if they are in some way misshapen perhaps they cease to be what they seem to be, or seem to attempt to be, although they make no practical effort, but just by looking somewhat like hands, by having fingers and thumbs, and having the general shape of a hand, but never being used as a hand, and therefore doing nothing more than seeming like one – which strikes me as an attempt to be a hand, because it is so close to being a hand, whether it desires to be a hand or not, that it appears to want to be a hand, as if the form itself is the truest gauge of intention, although I strongly doubt it, yet it seems that way nonetheless.
It is as if, in those moments when I scurry away from you, feeling myself to be you scurrying away from me, I finally understand what it is to have those hands, which are not hands. I wonder, at those moments, or to be more precise in the aftermath of those moments, whether you have undergone a similar experience, whether you have taken on my hands while I have yours, whether you have suddenly felt yourself to be inside my body, and whether, for the briefest moment, while I am wholly disoriented and therefore incapable of watching over you, you have been able to speak.
The question of your hands is something we cannot depart from, but we will, for now, at least to a certain extent, although they must always be hovering, those hands, over everything, since without them what else?
What else, other than this, since there must be more than this, because without that what is this?
At least they are better than my eyes, which are nearly blind.
But, there again, how can one compare eyes which do not work with hands that are not, strictly speaking, hands?
It appears foolish, but at the same time strikes me as acceptable, and that seems good enough, for now, for me to depart from all this talk of hands or whatever they are, although they may hover, and let them hover for all I care, for I have cast them away with my eyes, which do not work very well, but whose mention at least has this power, so let that be the end of that.
The real question is as follows:
If I am to be you, it seems to me that I am, as a result, in a sense, to embody you, but which you? You have not yet, in truth, been allowed to speak, despite my speaking for you, as you. In truth I speak despite you, as well as for you, and with you, and because of you. In truth you are my speaking, and yet you are dumb, utterly.
For the most part you shuffle from side to side, instead of speaking, which is to say you walk in a strange way, if one could go about calling such a thing, as your gait, a walk. It is more like a dance, but without rhythm, or flow, or balance, or anything resembling the joyful expression of bodily movement. Instead you gait. There is no other way of putting it.
I have considered purchasing footwear, within which you might steady yourself, or seeking podiatric or chiropodic stimulus, in the sense of diagnosis and treatment and healing, or of teaching you to walk differently, given your lack of balance, or disease.
I say these things, I confess, as one might whisper prayers in the face of an abyss, against which we are thrown, so to speak, with little more than our selves, our basic parts, our meager substance, to subsist on. But you are not an abyss, by any means, my dear, or at the very least not merely.
If you are, as they say, enigmatic, a thing to puzzle over, a wound, let’s say, an opening, let’s say, then you are not quite an abyss, but rather an opening into flesh, with its definite tissue, its intimate warmth, its assent by touch.
Because this is the crux of the matter: I have felt your assent.
That is to say, you have said yes to me, but it was a yes, a trust, consisting entirely in touch, in touching your body with my fingers, although it’s true to say you withdrew from me in that touching, but you allowed it nonetheless, even though you were not completely there, since you seemed to take refuge in some other place, some place demonstrably inside you and therefore, I might add, bodily.
You were not there, you said yes to me. This is what I am getting at.
Perhaps you will be able to enlighten me, later on, when you have taken up some form of speaking, when you have become, in a sense, speech itself, of the place into which you withdraw. Is it a place of the past? Or is it a still place – a sanctuary, let’s say, against time, in which things are wholly unfamiliar, as a landscape in a different world, given other predicates, attuned to different sensibilities, like, for instance, a gentler form of gravity, or a porous light.
Perhaps it is a place inside you, and if I am, in fact, to draw you away from it, in a sense, with this language, to give you tools for containing it, and constituting it, and re-constituting it, then it seems to me I am doing something bodily, something concrete, and acquiescence to such a thing can only be given as touch, as I have touched you, and discovered your withdrawal, at the same time as your assent, which is at the very least an assent to something, though it only be my presence there beside you, with my hand on your mouth, covering your lips, that you might speak.
Your lips said yes, without speaking. This is how I’ve interpreted it.
There is a risk involved, undoubtedly, but if you were only there, as you are now, as you read this, then you would understand my response to your lips, as you are now, as I write this.
You are asleep.
Something in the writing of this, while you are asleep, is a digression from the ordinary work I have taken up, of becoming your story, so you might be told it from my mouth, in return, and this digression speaks of something else, something I am not entirely comfortable with in this process.
It is this.
I was leaning over you, earlier, and in a sense conjuring something, something concrete, since the feeling had crept over me quite overwhelmingly the night before, and was being repeated at that moment, earlier today, that I was in need of your touch, and that your touch, your skin, might not be entirely relied upon, and there was something about this idea, which I couldn’t put out of my head, as I lay there in the dark, last night, which I could hardly endure, which threatened to tear away at something, something altogether necessary, the loss of which would leave me utterly disrupted, let’s say catatonic, completely destroyed, erased from existence.
Yet the next day, today, I touched you, and your flesh said yes, or if it wasn’t a complete assent it was at least a partial one, since your flesh said yes to me, yes, I am here, even as you withdrew.


Andrew Jackson

Andy Jackson lives in Melbourne, Australia, and writes poetry exploring the body, identity and marginality. He has been published in a wide variety of print and on-line journals; received grants from the Australia Council and Arts Victoria, and a mentorship from the Australian Society of Authors; and featured at events and festivals such as Australian Poetry Festival, Queensland Poetry Festival, Newcastle Young Writers Festival and Overload Poetry Festival. Most recently, he was awarded the Rosemary Dobson Prize for Poetry, and is currently a Café Poet in Residence for the Australian Poetry Centre. His most recent collection of poems, Among the Regulars, is scheduled for release by papertiger media later in 2009. 



Why do you smother your soul in that fist still?
This wound will open and heal itself – just sit still.

Sheer will’s not enough.  Floating past like dropped pollen –
all these tree-borne thoughts your intellect has missed, still.

The country doesn’t care for you, the earth craves your bones.
All your machines will only make you an atavist.  Still,

who are you but your tics and eruptions, your prosthetics
and open holes?  A flower is much more than its pistil.

Sand is not ground but a crowd.  The ocean knows this.
However bitter the wind, the shore must still be kissed.

Press your thumb into these bruises, your forehead
to the earth, and face the unbreakable tryst.  Still

water? A trick your mind plays, persuasive as a mother
tongue or god.  Beyond the city’s grid, thick mist still

waits in the deep valley for your water-logged body.
Dream of becoming bread, oh grain – you are grist, still.

Not the smoke or the wick or the shadow on the wall,
moth, but the flame, which cannot exist if still.


Something else

Since the door was locked, I’ve learnt so much.
A face can feel the sun yet forget what it’s for.

Bars obscure the world, shrink the room
to stand up, take a few steps.  Legs buckle

under the weight of a body with no soul.
At intervals I’m fed, given medication.  The walls

absorb the smell of those who arrived and left.
Only the press release escapes.

I have no desire to lash out.  The voices are calm
and impersonal – the risk to the public

still not low enough.  These wings
are withered and pecked to the bone

and see the future, like the sky, is an open
lie.  Everything is a weapon.

Refusing food, speechless, I speak
the only dialect left.  Outside are people

who say they wouldn’t treat an animal like this,
their faces averted like statues, ideal humans.

My life depends on us becoming something else.



My instinct’s to curse myself –
the shore is a wall of fire, my city sings
its people into fuel, the rotten pillars

of the jetty creak their warnings, while
this boat of bones tugs at its moorings.
Yet each rope I approach with the knife

has become a throat my heart can’t cut.
Instead, alone, at night I pace the hull
and scrutinise each knot – these twisted

lines, old stories which hold me here,
a half-brave face raised, my fear
the sea could be a mirage.

Johanna Featherstone

Johanna Featherstone is a Sydney-based poet and founder and Artistic Director of The Red Room Company: www.redroomcompany.org.




After the Funeral

Family space vibrates with Grampa’s past effects;
to the left shoulder of an elegant desk, a square
gold frame holding the smile of his son,
dead at twelve year’s old. Toiletries, wallet things,
collected from the hospital, weigh down the single
bed that recently held his butterfly body.
On the dresser, pollen flakes from a posy of blue
cornflowers, pulled from their garden plot.
Dust particles through light, fuzz forms atop
rubbish bags, packed with his clothes, for the tip.


The Fernery

Ferns shroud the bench where I sit.
Each frond settles in its own moist corner,
a rivulet trickles beneath the simple teak bridge.

Moments grow. Then your shape enters the
miniature jungle. Our bodies cowled in vines;
plants and ants witness our licks, until tourists
with cameras snap open the yielding bodies –

and we run from the radiance, leaving behind
(for next time)
the filtered light and vanishing faces of mist.



Franz Wright


Franz Wright, the son of poet James Wright, was born in Vienna in 1953. During his youth, his family moved to the Northwest United States, the Midwest, and northern California. Wright’s most recent collections of poetry include Wheeling Motel, where the poem "Night Flight Turbulence" appears. Past collections include Earlier Poems, God’s Silence and The Before Life. Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) received a Pulitzer Prize. Wright has translated poems by René Char, Erica Pedretti, and Rainer Maria Rilke. He received the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, as well as grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Sushma Joshi: Shelling Peas and History Lessons

Sushma Joshi is a Nepali writer and filmmaker based in Kathmandu, Nepal. End of the World, her book of short stories, was long-listed for the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award in 2009. She co-edited New Nepal, New Voices (Rupa 2008). Art Matters, a book of art essays, was supported by the Alliance Francaise De Katmandou. Inspired by Nepali history and contemporary politics, her fiction and reportage deal with issues of social inequality, environment and gender. Sound of Silence (1997) her first documentary, was screened at the New Asian Currents at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival. Water (2000) was screened on the Q and A with Riz Khan on CNN International, and the UN World Water Forum in Kyoto. The Escape (2006), a short about a teacher targeted by rebels, was accepted to the Berlinale Talent Campus. Joshi was born and grew up in Kathmandu. She studied in Dowhill School, Kurseong, for four years before finishing her education in Mahendra Bhawan and Siddhartha Vanasthali Institute. She received a BA in international relations from Brown University in 1996. She has a MA in anthropology from the New School, NY, and a MA in English Literature from Middlebury College, Vermont.Joshi contributes The Global and the Local, a weekly op-ed, to Nepal’s leading English daily, The Kathmandu Post.


Shelling Peas and History Lessons

“And then? And then?” Sapana asked, six-year-old impatience catching up with the slow pace of thought of an old woman.

            “Yes, yes,” said the old woman absently, caught up in a world that was a long time away from this hot, dusty May afternoon. A long time ago, when the mist covered the early mornings, and the ice froze on top of wells. Long ago, when she was still young enough to clamber barefoot on the winding, stony paths of the hills. Young enough to drink the icy water of the springs and let it wash away the pain in her legs. Young enough to nibble the chutro berries from the branches like the goats, and then sit down with a sharp splinter to take out the thorns embedded in the soles of her feet.

Bubu moved easily between these two worlds. This hot afternoon, with the sun baking the tiles of the verandah as she sat in the shade with the six-year-old in her yellow frock, shelling peas together to the distant roar of the traffic. And that other world of brown dust between the toes, the water that sprung out of the hills like a blessing, the echoes of people calling from one valley to the other.

            “It was a long time ago. Sixty, sixty-five years ago? Maybe more. I was small then, about eight maybe. Just a little older than you are now. All the little ones would be sent into the hills every morning to search for firewood.”

 Sapana dragged a straw mat down from the wall so she could sit comfortably on the scorching tiles. She was the only one at home. Buba and Ama were in the office, and so were all her uncles and aunts. They would get home only in the evening. Her school ended at three pm, unlike all her cousins, who got off at five. Sapana, left alone in an empty house, had finally wandered up to the roof, where Bubu was engaged in endless chores. Bubu, who usually did not say a whole lot, sometimes could be egged on to reveal a parable or ukkan-tukki that Sapana had never heard before. The old woman, with a turban of faded red cloth wrapped around her head, continued to shell the peas. The two green halves exploded under her calloused fingers, pop-pop, like corn popping open in heat.

“The jungles were still very thick then, not like today, where you have to walk for half a day if you want to find a tree,” said Bubu, stretching out her long legs in front of her. She was tall, taller than some of the men in the house. A faded choli was tied around her thin chest. Sapana could occasionally catch a glimpse of a withered breast through the gap in the middle of her blouse, which didn’t close. “I don’t know how the people will manage when those start running out. Anyway, we wouldn’t have to go very far those days. We would fill our patuka with popped corn, and eat that when the sun got hot in the sky.”

“Just popcorn? Nothing else?” asked Sapana. She popped a pea and felt the tender juice spurt out in her mouth. The softness of the green halves turned to pulp between her teeth. She stuck her tongue out to see the squelchy remains.

            “When we went to get the firewood, we would take the goats with us to graze, and some of the younger children would drink straight out of the teats. I never did that though. Disgusting habit,” said Bubu, wrinkling her patrician nose. Bubu noticed the empty pea-shells wilting in the heat, and pushed them under the shadow cast by the huge bottlebrush tree. The red brushes hung down in drunken lethargy, filled with the sweet honey hum of a thousand bees.

“Then there were the berries and amla that grew in the forest. The forest floor would be covered with them, we would not even have to climb the trees. Sometimes, if it was the season, we would put some soybeans and peanuts into our patuka too. Ah, those were delicious. You have to roast them over the hadi pot to get the flavor out. Now I don’t even have the teeth to bite them…”

            “But you always grind them up and put them in your tea,” said Sapana, pulling out the ragged edges of the straw mat. She now had a long straw in her hand, and she was carefully weaving the two ends into little Os to make a pair of spectacle frames.

            “That’s right, Baba. I shouldn’t complain. I have all my cares taken care of.”

            There was a long silence as the woman drifted off into another reverie. Her hands moved swiftly, automatically, her mind elsewhere. Sapana’s fingers slipped and slid over the pods, unable to pop them open like her Bubu was doing so effortlessly. She wondered when she would be able to shell like the old woman, when she would be able to pick them up and pop them open with speed and efficiency without mangling anything. When she would not have to rip them open with her teeth, and she could have an entire bowl of round peas without tooth-marks in them. All of the peas she had managed to extract in various stages of wholeness had either rolled into the grass or ended up discreetly in her own appreciative mouth.

She was more a hindrance than help, and she knew it. She also knew that Bubu’s patience was limited. In a short while, she would start getting irritated by either the flow of questions, or the wasteful shelling, and that would be the end of Sapana’s daily dose of both stories and peas. Sapana, with six-year-old wisdom, knew that she had to be judicious in order not to cut off the flow to either of these precious things. So the peas were popped into the mouth with uncanny timing each time Bubu looked away, and the solicitations only piped in when it looked like the old woman was too lost in her own thoughts to notice the prompting. 

            Bubu tolerated Sapana’s presence, her inquisitiveness, more than she tolerated many other things. The child was her little baba, her darling. She was not a demonstrative woman, and she had strict rules of impartiality towards her nine charges. But there was something about Sapana, who was the smallest and followed her around mercilessly, begging for lumps of sugar and stories with equal insistence, that made her special among all the children she had nursed. Perhaps she was still too innocent, and didn’t yet realize the rules of the world. Perhaps she would grow up to become a cold-hearted woman who would forget old Bubu, like all the other children before her had done.

Nobody even bothered to talk to her nowadays. She was just there, the servant who had been around for so long that people took her for granted, like the giant empty grain-jars in the basement. But Sapana still ran to her with her questions.

“How do you know a spider’s web brings wealth to a home?

“Why can’t Ama touch the loukat tree when she is bleeding?”

“Why is Mami being nasty to Sanuama?

“Because a spider is lucky.”

“Because when a woman is bleeding she makes the crops die.”

“Because Mami thinks Sanuama is not doing enough work, and that she should stay at home instead of going to college.”

And then the answers, which were not really answers, would elicit more questions: Why is a spider lucky? How can a bleeding woman make the crops die? And why shouldn’t Sanuama go to college if her brothers can? The questions were never-ending, an answer promptly giving birth to the next inquiry, in an unending web of interrogation.

Bubu looked forwards to the times when the little girl would come running up, asking her slyly if she could help with shelling the peas, emptying herself of all of her questions in her head, and demanding to know the old woman’s too. The old woman hadn’t talked about her life for sixty-five years. Perhaps she had mentioned her brother to the woman who came to sell turmeric. It was difficult for her to talk about her life. Nobody had ever bothered to ask her, and she would not have told them anything even if they had asked. Indeed, why should they? But Sapana needed to know.

            “What about the tigers? You said there were tigers in the jungle. Weren’t you scared they were going to carry you away?”

            The old woman laughed, the laugh instantly turning to a hoarse cough. “The tigers never came near us. We would see them only from a distance; they were as scared of us as we were of them. I know of only one person who was attacked by a tiger, and that was by accident. He was walking at night alone, the idiot. You should never walk alone in the jungle at night, you never know what might happen.”

Sapana held her breath. It was one of those rare moments when the old woman’s mind rambled into exciting territory. She hoped Bubu would not lose her train of thought. Often times, Bubu would decide to stop the story randomly in the middle. Once in a while, she followed her stories to the end.

“He came too near to the cubs. The mother flew at him, and who can blame her. One has to protect one’s children, especially when their father is not around…”

“Did you have any children, Bubu?” asked Sapana.

            There was silence.  The traffic continued its muted roar in the distance. The koel bird went coo-hoo. Sapana felt a shock of fear at having breached an unknown taboo. Bubu had never talked about her children before.

“Did you?” Her voice muted was with fright, but she pressed on, because she was six and at six one knows only that one has to know, even when it is forbidden to know.

“Uuhuh. Long time ago. I had a son,” said Bubu. Her voice, rough as sandpaper, sounded almost soft.

“Where’s he now? Is he as big as me?” Sapana asked.

Bubu looked at the small figure sitting on the mat, straw frames perched on her nose. “He’s gone,” she replied gruffly. What would her son have looked like at the same age, she wondered.

“Oh.” Sapana felt a rush of pure shame, mixed with guilt. But death was a topic too close to her heart for her to stop wondering. The shame was overshadowed by the desire that had arisen to understand this sudden opening up of the secrets of Bubu’s life. Why had she never told Sapana that she had had a baby? Why had she kept it a secret? She knew it had to do with death, which was shadowy and smelt of old people and brought tears, hushed telephone conversations, and the puzzling disappearance of adults. Her father had not returned home when his great-uncle had died. He had re-appeared, with a shaved head, dressed all in white cotton, down to his tennis shoes, thirteen days later. Old people died all the time, and they were always talking about it right in front of her. But they always whispered when a baby died. 

“How did he die? Was he sick like Prerana diju? Will she die too? I don’t want her to die. We were planning to climb the loukat tree when she got well again. Now she’s covered with red blotches.” Sapana imagined her cousin being carried away on the back of men on green bamboo, tied up in a saffron shroud. She quickly wiped the thought out of her mind.

“Now don’t you two go up that old tree. Those branches are rickety. A branch might break and then you would be all set for the next six months. You saw what happened to Prakash, didn’t you?” Bubu asked sternly, waving a bony finger in front of Sapana’s face.

“He said he was Tarzan and he jumped out of the tree,” Sapana said, jumping up from the mat to show Bubu how Prakash Dada had done it. “He was right on top of a branch, and then he started to jump, and the branch went winggg!, and he fell. Like this,” she said, rolling on the floor to demonstrate.

“And broke his leg,” added Bubu.

“He has a white cast on his leg now,” said Sapana. Her cousin’s dare-devil exploit, which had brought him so much pain and popularity, had taken on the status of heroism in her mind. She could not help feeling that she needed a white cast, just like all her other cousins had done before her. Perhaps breaking a bone was like losing teeth. Everybody has to do it, and if you don’t, there must be something wrong with you, she thought.

“Are you planning to climb that tree?” queried Bubu, hearing the admiration in Sapana’s voice. 

“Nooo,” said Sapana. I can just climb the tree up to the fork between the two branches, and just sit there, she thought. I won’t jump on the branches.

“Yes? No?” Bubu asked, waving her finger threateningly. “Do I hear a lie?”

“No, I won’t do it,” Sapana said quickly, sensing threats bubbling in Bubu’s mind.

Bubu, satisfied, went back to her peas. “Of course, Prerana’s not going to die, you silly child. She’s just got the measles. Everybody gets it,” she said, wiping the sweat from her brows.

“Did Buba get it? Did Ama get it? Did you, Bubu?” Sapana looked at Bubu, her skin hanging like a soft, washed leather pouch from the bones of her face. It was unblemished, except for two big, black moles next to her lips.

“Sure I did. I got it particularly bad. I had to stay in bed for months,” Bubu said. She remembered the hours of loneliness sleeping in the bed, recovering from sickness. But her grandmother had been there to brew her concoctions, and she had slowly recovered.

            “Did everyone in your house catch it? Mami says I mustn’t go near Prerana Diju because I’ll get it, then it’ll pass to everyone, even the baby. Did your son get measles too?” Sapana added.

“No. He was too young to get measles,” Bubu answered.

“So how did he die?” Sapana knew she was going to get scolded very soon, but she had to know. She wet the tip of her index finger with spit and traced an elaborate face with three eyes on the hot tile.

“He died when I came down into the valley.” Bubu’s face, turned slightly away, looked lost in thought.

“Why did you come down, then? Why did you not stay at home?” Sapana asked. The saliva had evaporated instantly, leaving her with nothing.

“Stop asking so many questions. It’s rude. Women should not ask so many questions,” Bubu answered shortly.

“But I don’t want you to be all alone. Where are your Mamu and Buba?” Sapana asked, distressed. She could not believe Bubu was holding back this essential information from her.  

            “Well, it’s a little too late for me to be having a mother and father, let me tell you.” said the old woman, chuckling. “My mother and father are long dead. They lived in Bhimsen Tole, where my brother is now, and… “

            “When is your brother coming, Bubu?” Sapana interrupted. Bubu complained constantly about how her brother did not come to visit her more often. Sapana had been five when she first saw Bubu’s brother. They had sat outside on the bench, talking for hours in low voices. Sapana, running up to sit next to Bubu, had felt uncomfortable, as if she was not supposed to be there. Bubu had turned to look at her with a far-away glance. Sapana knew Bubu wanted to be alone, so she had left, reluctantly. Sapana felt jealous of the brother, who only came rarely but yet got such lavish attention. Bubu belongs to our family!, she wanted to clarify to the brother. But he was so big, and had such a gruff voice, that she decided it was safer not to say it. Maybe he wanted to take Bubu back to the village. Maybe Bubu would decide she no longer wanted to live with them, pack her boxes, and leave. Bubu’s brother, in his long-drawn out drawl, talked about whose land had been bought and sold, whose daughters had gotten married, whose sons had left the village to go to the city. Two days later, he left, carrying a tin trunk filled with clothes that Bubu had bought with her savings.

            “Uhh, who knows,” went on Bubu, without pausing. “He tells me he has too many things to do in the village. But he’s not too busy to come down when he needs the money. He was pampered because he was the only son. Not me. I was the eldest among eight.” Bubu shooed a crow that had been hopping closer and closer, head tilted consideringly on one side, eyeing the bowl of peas.

 “I didn’t get to live with my parents very long. I was married off to another village seven kos away when I was nine years old. Same age as your Priti Diju. Just two years older than you, my girl.”

            “Weren’t you sad about leaving all your friends, Bubu? Did you tell them that you wanted to live at home?” Sapana asked, troubled now. She imagined Prerana Diju getting married and going away to another place seven kos away. She didn’t even know how big a mile was. Maybe it was far away as India, or China, or even farther. How horrible. Then she would never be able to play with her Diju again.

            “That would have done me a lot of good now, wouldn’t it,” said Bubu derisively. The old woman had a bite to her that could sometimes scare the children. “It was different in those days. Not like now, where you have all these girls old enough to be the mothers of five babies staying at home. Behaving like children themselves. They have no shame nowadays. All the girls then were married by eight or nine. If one was not married by then, people would begin to think there was something wrong with the girl.”

            Sapana did not like it when Bubu got started to get into these frightening moods, when she suddenly became stern and started talking about marrying girls off. The worst was usually when she started singing:

euti chori, mayaki dori, abha kasle lane ho

One daughter, a thread of love, I wonder who will take her away. 

Sapana hated that song. She maintained a cautious silence.

“My parents were lucky to find me my husband. He was the son of a rich family. His family was rich, they were. Owned seven cows and hillsides of land,” Bubu reminisced almost triumphantly.

 “I’ll be seven in four months,” Sapana reminded Bubu. She wanted Bubu to know that she was too small to be married.

“Yes, that’s right. Seven, or eight? Seven, I think. I was nine when I got married. My husband was older, much older. Twenty-three-years older…”

            “Twenty-three-years?” Sapana could not fathom this age difference. It sounded enormous.

            The old woman looked at her with something like slightly condescending contempt; an almost benign malignancy. She alarmed Sapana when she became like this, almost as if she would declare that girls should still get married at nine even in these changed times. “We weren’t sitting at home going to school like you, Baba. We got married early. People didn’t look for husbands the same age, as they do nowadays. I got pregnant when I was thirteen.”

“Where’s your husband now?” Sapana asked, trying to change the conversation. She sneaked another pea into her mouth as the old woman turned to get a broom to sweep up the pods.

“The river took him. There was a massive flood, one, two years after we were married. The bridge was swept away. Then the men went down to see if they could re-build it. They say he went too close. There were lots of rocks under the water that you could not really see…”

” Did your Sasu kick you out of her house, like Sukumel did when Daya’s husband died?” Bubu swatted away the little hand that was sneaking into the bowl of peas as if it were a fly. Sapana retreated hastily. The old woman could be deceptive, appearing  to be lost in her thoughts when she really wasn’t at all. 

“My mother-in-law was a kind woman,” Bubu said reflectively. “Kinder than the rest. She let me live in the house until the baby was born. She could easily have sent me back to my parents house, but she didn’t. Then they thought I would have a better life if I came down to the valley, worked at one of the big houses. So they sent me down.”

“Did you want to leave your village, Bubu?” asked Sapana, anxiously. She wanted to think that Bubu was here because she wanted to be here, not because she had been forced to.

“It didn’t matter what I wanted,” said Bubu, tiredly. “Who would listen to me? But I wanted to leave too. I thought my son would have a better life down here. Old man Astha helped me to get into the Ranaji’s house. Then they sent me here because the Ranaji’s wife didn’t want me in her house.”

“Ranaji’s wife sent you here because she was afraid her husband would want to marry you. Because you were pretty. Ruku told me. She said the wife must have been jealous of you. Ruku said so.”

“Ruku is an old chatterbox,” said Bubu, straightening up and lifting her chin in the air. “She talks too much. When I came here, the eldest Dulahi-saab had just given birth. She couldn’t suckle her own child. She was a princess, you know, and princesses didn’t do that then. She was the granddaughter of Chandra Shamsher Maharaja. I hear the young women do whatever they want nowadays. Feeding children out of bottles. Whoever heard of such nonsense. The  women now, they have no sense.”

“Darshana drinks out of a bottle. Will she grow up to have no sense too?”

“No. She’s a bright child. She will have sense. Anyway, they hired me to be the dhai for Mohan-raja. Yes, he was a little baby then. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Now he’s balding, he looks old.” Bubu had been happy at the idea of nursing two babies. She had imagined that the two of them would suckle her together, one on the left, the other on the right. “But they said there was not enough milk.”

“And then?” Sapana held her breath. The peas were all shelled. Inside her closed hand Sapana had a fistful of peas that she had removed from the bowl and which she was saving for later. The old woman usually went inside the kitchen after all the vegetables were done. Would she leave Sapana hanging in the middle?

Bubu ambled around for a bit, then dragged out the comb from underneath the straw mat and started to comb her hair. “So my son had to be sent away. They gave him to Hira to look after. Remember the old woman with goitre who comes here and brings us bay leaves? That was Hira.” Bubu raked the bamboo comb through her hair. “She used to come here occasionally, so the mistress asked her to look after my child for a bit of money.” She stopped to pull out the strands of silver hair entangled in the bamboo teeth. Sapana knew there was no need for prompting. The old woman was talking almost as if she was all alone.

“I remember that last day, holding him in my arms, feeling him breath before Hira took him into her back. She stopped coming to the house after that. I heard she used to come looking for me with the child in her arms, but nobody called me because they thought that if I was upset that would effect the milk.”

             The sun slowly dipped down through the purple blooms of the jackaranda trees. A loud clamoring broke the silence as the crows came back home to roost in the bottlebrush branches. “And then?” said Sapana, underneath her breath.

“So then I never saw my child again. I heard he died six months later.” Bubu had found out about the death of her child only two years later. They had told her he was well and thriving. She had asked the mistress to give all of her salary to Hira. Hira later told Bubu that she never received any money, not even the promised stipend. Hira said she gave him all the food she had in the house, but that was just rice, and he couldn’t eat that, and she did not have the money to buy him any milk.

“She said that when he died he was just skin and bones…” Bubu’s face, pure silhouette in the sunset, was fathomless. But Sapana felt her pain, musky and old, curling up like smoke in the evening air.

A pack of street dogs started to howl, cutting through the sounds of the temple-bells. Sapana felt the loneliness in a way she never had before, a sharp cutting loneliness that seemed to transmit from the old woman and seep into her throat, making her heavy from hurting. She wanted to say something to comfort Bubu, but no words came. She waited, feeling the pain, dark blue as the night sky that was starting to descend. Slowly, the old woman picked up the bowl of peas, and walked into the kitchen. A few seconds later, a small bottle filled with kerosene and a wick flickered alight onto the surface of the windowsill. Only then did the little girl follow her inside.


Eileen Chong

Eileen Chong is a Singapore-born, Sydney-based writer and photographer. An essay of hers was published in Hecate in 2008. Her poetry has appeared in the first issue of Meanjin this year. Her Polaroid photography has been featured in D2, a Norwegian arts magazine. She lives with her husband and two moggy cats.




What a poem is

A poem is a heavy thing. It weighs
as you scrub the potatoes,
rub them with salt, then decide
to boil them instead. A poem
is a heavy thing. You carry its strain
as you lay plates on the table, as you set
out cutlery. A poem is
a heavy thing. Even the brownness
of the chicken’s skin reminds you
of your grandfather’s hands
in the dirt. Of his feet on the deck
when he caught the fish. A poem is a heavy
thing. You’d wanted greens
but instead bought beansprouts, pale
with their arching necks, tails intact
because you couldn’t bear the smell
of your grandmother’s hours
at the sink: plucking, washing, plucking.
A poem is a heavy thing.
When your husband comes
home from work, you think
man, labour, dust, evensong
as he kisses you and asks
how your day was. Heavy,
you tell him. Heavy.


Blue Velvet

I bought her those shoes. I was the only one
who ever bought her shoes. I knew her
size. I knew what she liked. She’d always
picked on me, but I was the only one
who ever bought her shoes
in her size that she liked.

She had told her oldest son
that when death called
for her, she wanted to be wearing
those shoes. He said
they were house slippers, too flimsy
for her walk in the other world.

Yet in the end, afraid, he gave me
the shoes – hand-embroidered
with phoenixes decked out
in sequins, gold thread, green
beads for eyes – I sheathed
the old lady’s cold, rigid feet.

Thank god I had bought them
in blue, not red. She would not
have been allowed to been buried
in anything red. Not unless we wanted her
to come back from the dead, shuffling
in those slippers, going to the courtyard
to beat the night’s blankets
in the dawning sun.


Summer in London

Summer in London is not
to be experienced without
a raincoat and an umbrella.
London cabs are big and black
but their drivers are not. The British Museum
is a collection of loot. The pubs
are the same as English pubs everywhere. The food
is awful. The train stations are beautiful
with their skeletons of efficiency
and clockwork hearts. Trains coming
and leaving like lovers, disgorging passengers
like bile. The Underground is exciting, but only
in name. The warrens smell
of pee. The streets have the same names
as the streets in Singapore, in Australia.
We’ve all dreamt
of Piccadilly Circus. Mine is complete
with horse-cabs, bobbies and whips. It turns out to be
just a rather large roundabout. The hotel
is not grandiose. The bed
has broken springs. At night I turn to you
but, your back hurting, you face
away. I close my eyes
but London calls. My London
with its clocks and castles and
the will-o-the-wisp shimmering
over the moonlit moors.


Anindita Sengupta

Anindita Sengupta’s full-length collection of poems City of Water was published by Sahitya Akademi earlier this year. Her work has previously been published in several journals including Eclectica, NthPosition, Quay, Yellow Medicine Review, Origami Condom, Pratilipi, Cha: An Asian Journal, Kritya, and Muse India. It has also appeared in the anthologies Mosaic (Unisun, 2008), Not A Muse (Haven Books, 2009), and Poetry with Prakriti (Prakriti Foundation, 2010). In 2008, she received the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing and in 2010, she received a writer’s fellowship from the Charles Wallace India Trust for the University of Kent, England. She has contributed articles to The Guardian (UK), The Hindu, Outlook Traveler and Bangalore Mirror. She is also founder-editor of Ultra Violet, a site for contemporary feminism in India.



(to grandfather)


A fuchsia scatter in the courtyard:
the bougainvillea dishevels.


Sheila and I squat on the back porch 
where the clothesline frays in the wind.
Elephant grass gnaws at cement
and a spider silks the windows shut.


‘Weeds have outgrown
mangoes this year,’ she says,

rubbing her sheared head
with one hand. I light a cigarette.


We drag quick and sharp,
as if you’ll still tap down
the garden path, find us there,
grown-up children,
shame us with a frown.


The house falls in flecks—
our clutch of childhood
now wasteland, warm dust,






I came to find the essence of it,
to taste on my tongue its whiteness
like sugar crystals.
I came for the blur and hurry,
the blurry hurl,  the hurly-burly
of devastation.
I rattled up in a red jeep, battling  
eyes open against wind.
Past my window flew bits of paper,
tin cans, a shirt from a forgotten clothesline. 
I hunkered down, gripped the wheel,
and pressed my big toe
on the accelerator. (Speed was essential.
It would distract me from fear.) 
I came for the infinite moment.
I came to chill the tornado’s coil 
around me like a giant python.
I came to risk blood.
I came to inhale the un-breathable breath
and fill up like a balloon.
I came to burst or rise,
to dazzle through air like Dorothy,
to dissolve like stardust.
I came to find that one moment
when nothing mattered. Not sex
or sin or ache. Not even love.

There are things a storm can do to you, darling,
that you wouldn’t imagine. 


We left Bombay to start over


We left Bombay to start over.
It was tumbling rain and vegetarians.
Strings of sausage, once hung like rosaries
at grocery stores, were replaced with rows
of frozen peas. Orange flags had gagged
lesbian flicks. Between polls and pools,
we didn’t know which was dirtier.
A stampede was due.
We left because there was money to be made
in a city with thighs of steel. We left
because hope is tiny and lodges
between a man’s ribs like cancer. But mostly,
we left because we were promised things.
We flew south like geese, twigged a nest
in the outsider neighborhood.
Flyovers flayed the city
but none would hook us across.
We didn’t know that then.
I sat in cafés, scrabbled for love,
stashed postcards like stamps,
tried to stop sneezing.
There comes a time
when home and home
begin to sound the same.
That hasn’t happened yet.
But I’m told a decade’s
too short.


Vikram Teva Raj

Vikram Teva Raj is a 24-year-old Singaporean in his second year of a Bachelor of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. These two poems are his first published pieces. “An Old Vintage” was inspired by a Chinese rentmate, while “My Turkish Rentmate at 37” was about a Turkish rentmate, now 38. He lives comfortably, on account of never having shown them the things.




An Old Vintage

For Tony


A bird is long dead by my pathway home,

frosted over in the humidity of spring and stiff,

a crumbling baseball glove sloughed down to just the dark palm

and a taut white finger pointing down the road.


Here is our garden with the pruned tree

that in its day never failed to raid our laundry,

its green scissor-fingers now excised,

ghost limbs capped by beige fingernails

tight around a new feathering

like the shattered telltales of a more meaty diet.


The clouds are crossing like crazed yarn on a dark loom

that promises cold fire tailing up the breath of the road

right through my balcony door: a sliding grille under strong fabric

that you might expect to keep the rain inside down to a vague dust

but which is more like a fan leaning water in out of the wet.


Now I see a hand forming in the sky,

a long, ornate jester’s cap twisting slowly

like a compound whale, wrung by an invisible fist

to spout from each teat a slow, heavy liquid,

decanting the length of each belly

to filter down muslin miles to land.


As the rain’s curtains snap in the wind and the ground outside

trembles like a tight sail, I see again through unformed crystal

my Chinese father, pouring warm wine out for my new family,


pledging a dowry of close-smelling currency

sealed by the ancient unlit tallow

that melts between changing hands.




My Turkish Rentmate at 37


Reminiscent of NatGeo pics

of that sea eyed Afghan girl

before and after ten adult years,

her face clearly once magnificent

ravaged by her Turkish life spent

designing Renault dashboards

and famous brands of fridge.


She stutters around in English

asking our rentmate the unhappy professor

horrible, tactless things he patiently answers

like she was his wayward first son

paying attention again.


Coming in, she didn’t hide her disgust

at how moth-eaten the place was.

She gave up and then a week later

everything was new and she’d got herself a TV,

silently mouthing along with old Hollywood.


She was going to learn accounting

but her own balance meant a bad job now

but she thinks a hairdressing course

would be hard money in the long run.


The other day her door was open.


Table, toiletry bag, carpet, window,

it was all grey save her white down jacket

and black TV: dust-free,


her own Gone With The Dead

of windrows of ash neat enough

for answering machines.