Opening your mouth
I’ve been trying to go out at least once a week, just to look around. School doesn’t count, classes don’t count, errands don’t count. Do you guys have any idea how many colours leaves come in? How the sun looks coming through the clouds at a thirty degree angle? How many gorgeous flowers there are on the ground, just waiting to be picked up?
We’ve spent two years indoors, and we’ve gotten used to stimulation that is filtered through a screen, lacking texture and taste. I’m not saying there was an alternative, but I’m saying get on your balcony, if you have one. Leave your phone inside. Open your mouth. There are beautiful things the world has to give us.
I love poetry partly because it takes these things seriously. I love poetry where love and beauty and life and trees are intertwined - and sometimes, deliciously indistinguishable. Today’s poetry is about this one life we have, and the earthly pleasures we can fill it with.
And yes, there’s a Mary Oliver poem recommendation. Dig your teeth in.
i am a verb
by Brishti Chakraborty
Previously published in Ice Lolly Review, Issue 13
i am a bird who walks. i am / a girl with a mouth that stays open. i am a girl with a / mouth that never learned to stop asking. my favourite colour is green but the trees i love / best have purple leaves. i think i am owed wonder. i think i am owed / ridiculousness / and i think i am owed / some slack. i am seventeen on a / good day, but my days are rarely good. birds don't usually have teeth, but i was just a / prototype. so i got to keep mine. i sharpen them / daily. ino longer worry that / they will disappear. clearly use is not what keeps me / whole. what they don't tell you about seventeen is that you get / three hundred and sixty five tries. i think i am owed a / few bad days. i will never cut my wings off and i will never / use them. i will dye them purple.
Brishti Chakraborty (she/her), our poetry editor and curator of this column, is a disabled teenage lesbian whose work has been published in or is upcoming in Fahmidan Journal, FEED Lit Mag, Sledgehammer Lit, and more. Her favourite poets are Anne Carson, Ocean Vuong and Leela Raj-Sankar. She writes poetry because it leaves her no place to hide.
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Mary Jane Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019) was an American poet who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is inspired by nature, rather than the human world, stemming from her lifelong passion for solitary walks in the wild. It is characterised by a sincere wonderment at the impact of natural imagery, conveyed in unadorned language. In 2007 she was declared to be the country's best-selling poet. (Wikipedia)
Kyoto: March by Gary Snyder
Gary Snyder began his career in the 1950s as a noted member of the “Beat Generation,” though he has since explored a wide range of social and spiritual matters in both poetry and prose. Snyder’s work blends physical reality and precise observations of nature with inner insight received primarily through the practice of Zen Buddhism. In an essay published in A Controversy of Poets, Snyder offered his own assessment of his art. “As a poet,” he wrote, “I hold the most archaic values on earth.” (Poetry Foundation)
Iowa City: Early April by Robert Hass
Robert Hass is one of the most celebrated and widely-read contemporary American poets. In addition to his success as a poet, Hass is also recognized as a leading critic and translator, notably of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Japanese haiku masters Basho, Buson, and Issa. Critics celebrate Hass’s own poetry for its clarity of expression, its concision, and its imagery, often drawn from everyday life. Hass is Distinguished Professor in Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in California with his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman. (Poetry Foundation)
Have you ever gotten lost at an amusement park as a child? It’s not a very pleasant experience, I must say.
Unknown faces of fast-paced strangers move in a chaotic, turbulent flow around you, while you’re at its vortex, stationary and perplexed. Everyone seems to just take a fleeting glance at you and move on, while you strain your neck upwards and attempt to discern a familiar face in the intimidatingly unfamiliar crowd. There are none for ages on end.
Finally, you make your way towards a clearing devoid of the bustling crowd and try to remember where you last saw your parents. After a time that feels like hours, you see your panicked parents running towards you, calling out your name with a hint of relief on their faces. All is well.
That’s how we feel when we’re trying to search for extraterrestrial life in the universe at the moment, with a couple of key differences - there is no bustling crowd, it’s simply radio silence; we haven’t found the parents yet, they might just be drifting off somewhere; and if sometime in the future we do end up finding them, along with a sense of relief there might come another emotion - fear.
While the prospect of finding alien life might sound exciting, it’s only naive to think that extraterrestrial life will not be threatening to humans as a species. Some might not, but when I picture a UFO landing on Earth with alien organisms swarming out, I don’t picture them with a white flag and doughnuts, but rather with machinery and weapons (and of course, their non-opposable thumbs). If you imagine it to be something else, please let me know.
Nevertheless, the search for alien life is continual and persistent. The fact that they might be dangerous to us doesn’t mean we stop looking for them altogether. The thrill of adrenaline, right?
However, while some researchers and Elon Musk believe that intelligent life other than us exists in this universe, others postulate that this might not be the case. There is a popular theory doing the rounds of the scientific community called the Great Barrier. It states that at some point during the evolution of microorganisms to the complex organisms that we are today, life had to cross multiple barriers in the process. Be it the ability to make chlorophyll so that plants could synthesise their own food or the ability to move from one place to another to survive adverse weather conditions, these evolutionary mechanics made life on Earth more complex than it previously was. Scientists think that while our race could cross all of those barriers successfully, we might have just gotten lucky to have crossed them all; meanwhile, other forms of potentially intelligent life might not have been able to overcome one of those barriers, leading to their extinction.
But I simply think it’s incredibly narcissistic of us to believe that there is no intelligent life in this universe other than us. While you might find me having a hearty laugh at the recent news that life on Mars has been discovered (owing to the fact that I am pessimistic enough to think that we won’t find alien life during my lifetime), I certainly believe they’re there. Somewhere in the depths of the unexplored realms of the cosmos lies some intelligent life outside our species. Chances are that they’re 3 headed, 5 eyed, and 7 footed, with an appearance that scares the living hell out of every toddler in the world. But they’re there.
They have to be.
I am a chocolate milk person. Any time, any day, give me a glass of ice-cold chocolate milk and I’ll gulp it down before you can ask, “coffee or tea?” Evidently, I still have not graduated and moved on to the world of more ‘adult’ drinks. I’ve grown out of the baby cup with a straw, to the Tinker Bell and Winnie the Pooh plastic cups, and finally to glass and ceramic mugs, but I don’t normally venture beyond the realm of chocolate milk.
I have a coffee-obsessed family, though. I wake up to the smell of fresh coffee and the loud gurgle of a drip machine every single morning. I love all of that. But the moment the coffee sets foot in my mouth, I hate it. Believe me, I’ve tried to like coffee. Several times I’ve tried the sweetest, most sugary drink Starbucks has and at first, it was great, I’ll give you that. After a few sips though, I could no longer say I liked coffee. From then on, if I went there with my friends, I would get either nothing or chocolate milk.
So yes, I am nothing if not a chocolate milk person.
Now, after 17 years of drinking chocolate milk, it’s more than just that - than just merely an act of drinking chocolate milk. It has always been there for me. It was the only constant in my life back when I treasured graham crackers more than Milk Bikkies (I know - abhorrent). It let me stare at it forlornly on rainy days when I couldn’t go outside to play. It provided that much-needed fuel after a full day of school to share a 45-minute bus ride with two dozen screaming toddlers.
I think all of us have small, seemingly insignificant objects in our lives that we don’t give enough thought to, but should. Things that provide us with nostalgia, comfort, happiness. The little things. Maybe it’s chocolate milk. Maybe it’s that stuffed toy you found buried deep inside a closet, or maybe it’s that dish that your mom made after a long time that you absolutely love. Being caught up in the stress of high school has definitely made me fixated on the future - the bigger picture, and it’s made me forget about the little things that make me happy.
I started writing this article about a year ago, with no idea where it would end up or how I would ever make it coherent. Yet here I am, trying to finish writing that same article about chocolate milk. A lot has changed over the past year, but I don’t think my love for chocolate milk will ever change.
To conclude, I’d like to share the bad haiku that brought about the article’s inception:
Chocolate milk is the
Ultimate comfort drink if
You don’t like coffee.
Try to find those little things. You’ll find there are a lot of them.
INTERTWINING THE STRANDS
My hair is the most important part of my presentation. I’m also awfully reckless with it.
The first time I dyed it, I made the brilliant decision of bleaching it first - which I did without appropriate equipment, in my bathroom, with two other people on the phone who didn’t once try to talk me out of it. My hair was some odd shade of purple afterwards, and it’s still damaged from the incident. Three months later, I decided that that wasn’t enough - I needed to damage a different part of my hair. I went red two weeks before my boards and was told to focus on work instead of distracting myself with irrelevant things (and this only grows funnier in hindsight).
Despite the mess I had made, I felt, for the first time, like I looked the way I was supposed to. Growing up, I believed white people were inherently more beautiful than POC - not just because of their Eurocentric features, but because my friends and I never really felt like we looked ‘right’, whereas white kids always seemed so self-assured in their appearance. That has little to do with their physical features and so much to do with their autonomy in their appearances growing up. For white kids, turning sixteen seems to signify getting a third piercing or dyeing their hair, but for many people here in India, all being sixteen really seems to mean is board exams. So many Indian people only seem to start discovering themselves during adulthood because we’ve actively been discouraged from exploring our identities and experimenting with our appearances as children.
Hair is also a big source of gender affirmation for non-cisgender people. Yes, I cut my hair relentlessly because it’s a cathartic experience, but I also cut it because I can’t tolerate the thought of having to braid it for school. But if I were to tell an authority figure that cutting my hair makes me less dysphoric, they probably wouldn’t be able to empathise with me. I’ve been told several times by my parents that being openly queer and ‘having pronouns’ is a white people thing. That gender dysphoria is a first-world problem, and that it’s only a grain of sand in the deserts that my parents and grandparents have crossed. I still don’t fully understand why my desperate attempts to describe my identity seem foreign to my parents.
This is part of the reason there is a lack of Indian representation in queer media, and vice versa. It seems, somehow, as though Indianness and queerness cannot be intersecting identities. Diverse content is nearly impossible to find unless you explicitly search for it. Even within queer communities online, I rarely find people genderbending or breaking binaries within ethnic Indian attire. My parents seemed to share in this observation: Boys in skirts? That’s a white people thing. Boys in lehengas? That’s almost unheard of. You won’t see it, not unless you scour the earth specifically looking for it.
By ‘white people’, my parents refer to kids in America on Twitter who tweet about the overturning of Roe v Wade and how much they hate their own government. In Indian communities, America is seen as one of the most self-loathing countries. They think American kids are too self aware for their own good. And subsequently, the fraction of our generation in India that hates our own government is seen as ‘whitewashed’, almost as though any degree of individualism is dismissed as a foreign concept. Recently, my psychology teacher was talking about how most modern psychology is WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) - and it’s important that we recognise the privilege behind being able to easily orient our mindsets to WEIRD thinking without having to first deconstruct our worldviews. And I recognise that I’m inclined to WEIRD thinking as a result of consuming almost exclusively Western-dominated media growing up, while my parents don’t have the same context. They don’t see everyday things through the same lens as me, and I can empathise with them on that.
It isn’t even true that the entire young population of Americans is completely self-centred and hyper-individualistic. In their defence, Americans have definitely realised how extreme me-ism has led to the modern capitalistic hellhole that is America. People who challenge their own government are usually trying to build a healthier community, not break it apart. Historically, nationalism has only been thought possible for homogeneous communities. France, for example, put in years of work to erase language dialects in order to create a uniform, and therefore more united (and patriotic) nation-state. They’re continuing to enforce this archaic tradition with their latest hijab ban, which seems to perpetuate the notion that in order to be equal, people must be similar. Which just isn’t reality, because if people are given the opportunity to express themselves, they’ll inevitably diverge from each other.
Even still, I don’t get it; I don’t get why individualism isn’t celebrated with the same enthusiasm as togetherness in this country. I don’t get why having purple hair and pronouns has to be a white person thing. And I don’t get how the same people who stand up for the national anthem on Independence Day and call themselves proud Indians claim that identity and individualism are white people concepts.
Anyway, I’m thinking I’ll dye my hair all the rainbow pride flag colours this December. Just for the fun of it.
Creators of this universe yet scorned,
Dishonored and oppressed
My thoughts sardonic
Yet you gaslight me to overdramatic
A canvas for your frustrations, opinions galore
Each time my plight worsening from before
Should the broom be all I hold,
Can I never be someone you hold?
Weak, helpless, amiable
Never somebody incredible
Every success of mine dignified
Yet you make it seem plagiarized
Dominated by your power
From effervescent to withered flower
Your norms disillusioning
My faith depleting
Contemplating my liberty
From the shackles of your mentality
My happiness, now only a ridicularity
WAKING IN HELL
She woke with a jolt, her unruly curls falling on her face. Sweat collected on her brow. Why on earth was it so hot here? She shook her head, pushing the hair and blinking the sweat out of her eyes.
She rubbed her eyes, her blurry vision clearing, slowly. Her expression changed rapidly from confusion to pure terror. She scrambled to her feet, her fear-filled eyes shifting across the forbidding landscape.
Under her worn sneakers was dark red mud; a color so deep, it was as if it was stained with blood. Above her swarmed dark, formidable clouds. If there was anything beyond them, no one would know, and it would be impossible to find out.
Crevices dotted the ground for miles, flames growing from them, licking the soil. That would explain the temperature. From the larger craters spurts of hot lava erupted, enough to illuminate this strange place.
Elisa turned with a loud shriek, stumbling backward. Her frantic eyes locked with those of a towering creature, draped from head to toe in terrifying shades of black and red, an intimidating sight indeed. “Elisa Stretser?” The creature questioned the frightened girl.
“No.” She stammered, forcing the words out. “I'm Elisa Sletser, sir. Might I ask who you are?” She offered a small, shivering hand to him.
His brow furrowed, and he turned back to his clipboard. “Well I would know if you were lying. I am the Devil, my dear girl, and it seems that there has been a terrible mistake,” he said as he shook her hand with two of his enormous fingers.
Elisa muffled a soft gasp, whispering, her voice breaking. “Does this mean I’m dead?”
“It certainly looks like it. But you darling, are in the wrong place. You weren’t meant to arrive down here. That imbecile of a demon Skara must have made a mistake, and I assure you he will face consequences.”
“No!” blurted out Elisa, shocked at herself. “Everyone messes up… Please don’t hurt him.”
The Devil gave her a curious look. He was now certain this had been a mistake. Even if she had truly died, she deserved to be up there, not here in this searing, soldering, quite literal hellscape.
“As you wish. And there is nothing you need to worry about. Contrary to what most of you humans believe, I am not a cruel, barbaric monster. Until the matter is sorted and you are back where you belong, you will remain under my wing. You will have my protection and anything else you could wish for. It will be a delight getting to know you, dear Elisa.”
He carefully offered her a finger, that her tiny hand cautiously grasped. A warm, unexpected gust of wind swept past them, as their disparate hands made contact.
“The feeling is mutual, Sir.”
The two walked hand in hand, as the Devil shared with her stories of her new home - at least, temporarily - and she listened with wonder.
- ADORA WILLIAMS
I operate in capitals but the low case
Is always afraid of existing alone
Or not existing at
I need someone to watch existence for me while I
was supposed to be poetic
But it just reminds me of the day I almost died
Trying to get to the bottom of the hill
I couldn’t see a thing
And all I could think was how much I
Would do stuff to forever regret
When I got to that town
I was alone, no one knew I was there
I didn’t exist at that time
And that terrified me
The frightening of the course
Of the mist, of the source
I was the worst at being dense enough
So others could orbit me
You’re just walking in time and time is already late
Watch existence for me
- ADORA WILLIAMS
I. If one could only envision
The deepness that exist in the insignificance of their lives
In the colloquial prose, in cordial relationships, in a word you say, in how
Someone shakes your hand, in how someone walks, in a different rock thrown
On street, in the birds on a wire, in the flower that lost one petal and stands out
From the rest,
II. If one could only lose their concepts of life
In the shape of a tree,
In the darkness of 5 in the morning on a winter day in the city centre,
In how words feel when you close your eyes, in how someone sits,
In how someone talks, in accents, in big words, in small words,
In ugly words, in beautiful words, in the colours,
In the way colours mix, in how they should be mixed,
In the polluted dawn, in the foggy dusk, in how the stars start to appear
If you take some time to look above, distracting yourself from the city lights
III. If one could only shut the thoughts and let the environment speak
In a painting, in a song, in lost love, found love, in a smile, in a tear,
During the rush hour,
From the dirt to the concrete, in the tree as a house,
And the house that becomes the tree of life, of everything and how
The house should not exist
IV. If one could only escape duality for a millisecond and see
The forks on the counter, the foam in the sponge, the foam and the soap
The boiling water on the kettle, it whistles
The position each pen chose in the holder
The Bohemians in the city square and their liquor and their reasons why
Your reasons why and why they’re reasons
And why they should or should not be
Everything becomes poetry
A PIECE OF ADVICE
- CHATURVEDI DIVI
“If you want to enjoy the view more, you should walk down half a kilometre. This place will be crowded in a few minutes. Many visit this café to have their morning coffee,” Sheila said.
“I didn’t notice you. By the way are you …are you from one of the massage centres in the neighbourhood?” Rakesh asked.
Sheila laughed. “It is true there is a tough competition among the massage centres, mushrooming around Kovalam beach and they do try to woo tourists by appointing lady masseurs. I assure you I don’t belong to that tribe.” Sheila again laughed.
“It’s okay. You are very cautious. I like it. Not many young men are as cautious as you.”
“You were talking about more fascinating places somewhere down there.”
“Yes, come along. By the way, I’m Sheila, a garment designer.
“Oh, you belong to the fashion world.”
Rakesh looked at her curiously.
She has an attractive smile. The black shorts and the sports shirt, she is wearing go well with her fair complexion. Her hairstyle, the single mini ponytail, seems to be simple but it is evident that she has taken meticulous care in combing and arranging her hair. It’s natural for someone who belongs to such a glamorous profession, Rakesh thought.
“I suppose you design women’s garments.”
“Not exactly, these days fashion is not the prerogative of women. I get orders from manufacturers of men’s clothes too. However, usually not many young men know how to select the right clothes. Oh, you are walking fast. I’m almost running to keep pace with you,” Sheila said.
Rakesh slowed down. He looked at the clothes he was wearing and felt embarrassed. He never bothered to take so much care even on formal occasions.
“You know it’s not just taste; it’s not just fancy either. It’s the question of suitability…I mean the structure, complexion and gait,” Sheila said.
“Gait! What do you mean?”
“For example, in your case…Oh, I’m sorry. I’m taking too much liberty.”
“No, not at all and I’m glad I met you at the right time. Tomorrow I’ve an interview as a trainee marketing manager in Keltron. I’m wondering what type of dress I should wear, Rakesh said.
“Then I shouldn’t hesitate to give you a few tips. Shall I start with the gait?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You see, you are taking long strides and lifting your left leg a split second late. You are almost dragging it. Take shorter strides and move your left leg slightly quicker.”
“Is it? I never noticed it and no one pointed it out earlier.”
“Your family members and friends might have noticed it. Usually, people consider such things as inherent defects. They don’t tell you as they don’t want to hurt you. Professionals know that the defect can be rectified but they don’t say a word unless you consult them.”
Rakesh observed his steps carefully and started taking shorter strides. He felt that he was able to walk with ease and grace.
“That is right. Let us move towards the café. It’s not convenient to practice on the sands.”
Rakesh was consciously taking shorter strides and was feeling great. Now he became confident that he would impress the interviewers the next day with his newly acquired gait.
When they reached the café, Sheila said, “Now, about your clothes. I don’t find anything wrong with them in general. You’ve a great taste but I’m afraid that the side pockets of your trousers are too deep and your blazer just can’t cover them. You won’t feel comfortable if people know that your pockets are bulging.”
“Yes, of course,” Rakesh said.
She ran her fingers over his pockets as if she were measuring them. “Never keep the hanky in your trouser pockets. Imagine yourself sitting in a sofa. You have to make some awkward movements to take it out.”
She folded the hanky neatly and kept it in his blazer pocket. Then she looked at her watch and said,” Oh, I’m getting late. I must go home. I’ll give you more tips another time.”
“If I want to consult you at your office…”
Sheila quickly took out a card and gave it to him, ran towards the cycle stand and rode away.
Rakesh looked at the gold embossed letters on the calling card. The card is as impressive as the woman, he thought. Then he moved towards the kiosk near the café.
“Gold Flake,” he said to the man in the kiosk and ran his hand into his pocket. His face turned pale. He felt that his pockets should have been still deeper beyond the reach of the garment designer’s fingers, he thought. After some time, he noticed that he was taking long strides again.