Calcutta

by Urvi Kumbhat

 

Blanched by sun. Wading home in knee-high water.

The muri man and roadside pharmacist and coconut seller
guarding their precarious wares as the water rises. 

What does a place become when you imagine it over and over? 

Another diaspora poem, anguished at a chosen separation—
I am laying my cards out before you. 

The American Embassy is located on a street
named Ho Chi Minh Sarani. Every visa granted
in the shadow of war. Like all visas. 

The diplomats say Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh
to the taxi drivers thronging the airport,
their currency swindling foreigners.
The diplomats go to work, remembering. 

What’s discarded doesn’t disappear. 

Dross and debris accumulate in the gutters
and reappear at our doorstep when the city floods. 

My brother tries to clean the river all year. 

The same river an erasure, an archive, a desire,
a forced goodbye, carrying ships full
of people to the Caribbean who never came back.
I didn’t learn about indenture at school
but I drove past the water, the ports, the ledgers. 

Home, not longing. I pick through my leaving with
a fine-toothed comb, gather even the ugly bits, like lice.
Their bodies—mine—spill into my hands. 

It’s not like I’m trying to go back. My plants would die. 

When it’s my turn the visa officer sees
I am reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and
grants me my papers without further questions. 

Nights spent with the light on, reading, curling away from
my brother’s body so he wouldn’t read my text messages. 

Sharing only secrecy, speaking the language of threat
(I’ll tell mom, worse, I’ll tell dad). 

My mom and brother love to do the laundry together.
Watching the foam swallow the dregs of our living,
turn to blue whirlpool behind glass. 

I won’t insult anyone by talking about the mangoes. 

There is a pleasure in misremembering.
In rewriting a city you only saw
through the glass panes of a car window (for your own safety). 

Still, the ghats at sunset. This I ask permission
to romanticize. It’s not that I lack the words it’s that
you’d have to go there with the right person to understand. 

I can’t claim to know my city. I don’t even claim
my remembrance. I make no claims on its goodness
or disrepair or its violence or its history or mine.
I see only its outline against mine. 

At school. Our braids slicing the sky, the centuries-old staircase
rattling with girls. Our giggles deemed impolite (by who). 

The historic, mighty house of Henry Vansittart,
British Governor of Bengal, where I learned English
and Hindi and Bengali (in that order). 

Blood drying on our knees after tiffin break.
Bra straps snapping.
The heat broiling our foreheads.
We turn to liquid. We turn to each other.
We hide from our teachers in the bathroom.
We never reappear.

 


Urvi Kumbhat graduated from the University of Chicago with degrees in English and Creative Writing. She has published or has forthcoming work in The Margins, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Vayavya, and Apogee. She grew up in Calcutta.