The Fish (2nd prize: 2012 Competition)

Community Panchayal directs rape accused to marry victim

– Press Trust of India, November 2004

 

She can remove her bra and panties

beneath the tent of a salwar kameez without

an inch of skin made visible.

 

She lowers her gaze in the presence of strangers

reads feet like palms; cracked, pampered,

shod or barefoot.

 

She wants a husband whose feet

are not split at the heel like her father’s

or caked in mud like her brother’s.

 

1 Month Later

Her husband-to-be has feet smooth

as de-scaled fish. The astrologer says

her first born will be ‘famous’.

I think they mishear ‘miracle’.

 

Her family hears about a girl

who hanged herself by a dupatta and hides

all of hers.  She drinks gallons of milk,

the way the Shiva Lingum is cleansed

at temples. Her bridal sari is red.

 

The priest blesses them with a coconut, scatters

rice for fertility – he wasn’t to know I am hiding

in the darkness inside her. She thinks his feet

are like newspaper parcels of fish,

faces sticking out, nails like flat fish eyes.

 

He takes her home with him that night.

His fish-feet mount hers.

I’m only a few cells along, but I know

something isn’t right

 

from the way she stares at his feet.

 

3 Months

She leaves all his shoes in the sun

to rid them of their fish and cabbage smell.

She eats a bag of figs, then pistachios,

then walnuts and retches with such force

 

that I’m afraid

of being wrenched free of her.

 

Her mother comes to take her back home.

It doesn’t last long because all day her father

mutters like a prayer –

what will the neighbours think.

 

Before she leaves she sneaks her old dupattas

from the linen cupboard in with her clothes.

No one sees what she takes away with her.

 

I swim in pumice when she scrubs her feet.

In this house, the smell of fish doesn’t go away.

 

Big Fish Little Fish she murmurs to herself as

she scrubs.

 

5 Months

She turns sixteen today.

I don’t hear voices. Maybe he is mute.

I have not seen his face, but I would

 

know his feet anywhere.

 

7 Months

I give myself vertigo looking at feet

upside down. I sleep curled

the way she does. We are like seahorses.

 

I give myself vertigo again doing hand-stands

to see the sky

 

when she cries outside in mangosteen-coloured nights,

we hang like bats from the sky.

 

His little toes are always turned sideways

for the weight of him.

The big toe has wiry whiskers on the knuckle,

like cat-fish.

 

The sound of fish breathing. Wet sound of fish kissing.

 

3 Days Before My Birth

My mother can’t sleep because I space-walk

inside her. She says:

The stench is unbearable and gets out of bed

(he is asleep).

 

She returns with the axe set apart

for cracking coconuts.

 

I must bury the dead fish she says,

looking at his feet.

I must bury the dead fish.

 

I am almost a miracle.

 

 

Salwar kameez – traditional dress of loose trousers and tunic   Dupatta – a long scarf which is a symbol of modesty   Shiva Lingum – a phallic representation of the major Hindu deity Shiva