From the Archive (1992) | ‘The Country at My Shoulder’ by Moniza Alvi

There’s a country at my shoulder, 
growing larger – soon it will burst, 
rivers will spill out, run down my chest.

My cousin Azam wants visitors to play 
ludo with him all the time.
He learns English in a class of seventy.

And I must stand to attention
with the country at my shoulder. 
There’s an execution in the square –

the women’s dupattas are wet with tears. 
The offices have closed
for the white-hot afternoon.

But the women stone-breakers chip away 
at boulders, dirt on their bright hems. 
They await the men and the trucks.

I try to shake the dust from the country, 
smooth it with my hands.
I watch Indian films –

everyone is very unhappy,
or very happy,
dancing garlanded through parks.

I hear of bribery, family quarrels, 
travellers’ tales – the stars
are so low you think you can touch them.

Uncle Aqbar drives down the mountain 
to arrange his daughter’s marriage. 
She’s studying Christina Rossetti.

When the country bursts, we’ll meet. 
Uncle Kamil shot a tiger,
it hung over the wardrobe, its jaws

fixed in a roar – I wanted to hide
its head in a towel.
The country has become my body –

I can’t break bits off.
The men go home in loose cotton clothes. 
In the square there are those who beg –

and those who beg for mercy.
Azam passes the sweetshop,
names the sugar monuments Taj Mahal.

I water the country with English rain, 
cover it with English words.
Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.