RSportfolioPOETRYFive Women
Tahseen Khaleel
Runestone, Volume 1

Five Women

How Rabbits Taste – Ammijaan (My Grandmother)

Whenever you come visit us,
You sit by the bay window, watching the rabbits,
Your little hands folded neatly over your sari.
It makes you look bigger than you are:
A white cloud gathered and folded over
Shrunken bones and hanging skin
Encircled with rings and bangles of gold.
I wonder what you think about.

One day I try to ask as I plop down next to you,
Enjoying the smell of your Vicks and jasmine oil,
My head against your bony shoulder and you say:
“I wonder what those kharghosht taste like,
I used to hunt them back in India.”

For one sparkling moment, your wit reminds me
Of a story Mama told me about you
When you were young and strong.
You had shocked everyone and jumped into the fishing hole in your village
Your sari billowing around you as you swam,
Silken black hair streaming.
She said you caught fish for everyone that day.

I tell you this, and you nod fondly as it registers.
Then you ask me to remind you who I am.

At Least She’s a Doctor – Phuppo (My Father’s Sister)

They’ve just cut the cake,
And gingerly, Cousin Hamid feeds his glowing new bride
A tiny piece so as not to smudge her lipstick.
We clap for the glittering couple as they smile at the rows
Of decked-out aunties with matching bejeweled headscarves
(Halfway down their heads, like afterthoughts,
So the glorious perms underneath will not have gone to waste).

Babies have begun to cry,
Sweaty uncles seem like they will too,
But then chai is served, and all is well.
The banquet hall is now abuzz
With the hum of everyone gushing
About how wonderful the occasion is.

As they eat together,
Glittering in their finery,
I watch Hamid sneak glances at her,
And smile to himself like a happy fool.
“They’re adorable,” I tell my phuppo, mother of the groom.
She gives me a hard look, and sips her chai before answering:
“Cheh! She’s dark as a koyal bird.
Laughs like one too!”

Braiding in the Afternoon – Mama (My Mother)

It’s nearly noon and she’s still sitting there,
Not quite watching television.
So I sit at her feet, pressed to her knees
And hand her the bottle of liquid almonds.

My scalp is suddenly cool
As I feel her fingers twist and pull
The scraggly hair she gave me.
The comb makes rows and scratches well.
“Like tilling earth,” she says.

I poke her wrinkled feet and tell her things:
“Everyone takes my new markers.
Baba’s socks didn’t match at all today.
Also, I got a ninety-two in science!”

“Ahh, and who got the ninety-nine?”
Sternly she knocks my now-oiled head
(It sounds as hollow as she says it is.)
Tying back the slick black braid, she stands.
“Challo, it’s time for lunch.”

The Tea Party – Khala (My Mother’s Sister)

It’s going well.
My khala surveys the room
Full of plump ladies in sequined
Pink, blue, and green shalwars,
And though her eyes catch every crumb
Of cake rusk that drops on her sun-faded Persian rug–
The Kashmir Crown rusks she had me carefully place
In each of the twenty flower-painted china plates
(The ones she only takes out for the in-laws and potential suitors)–
She is pleased.

Bits of vapid conversation float pleasantly:
“Arey, I haven’t seen you in ages, ji!”
“Why don’t you try, kya bolthe, a neti pot?”
“Yes, I am looking now for my son, but doctor girls only.”
“But what about Syeda’s niece?”
Here they gesture, here I blush,
Top off their teacups and turn away,
When suddenly we hear the unmistakable crash
Of one of those precious in-law plates shattering
Like all of my khala’s dreams.

The women gasp
And mill about the scene of the disturbance.
Has taken a tumble on a spot of spilled cardamom chai I missed.
And now the sole baby in the room has burst into tears,
As is the appropriate response
When a two-hundred-pound woman hits the floor.
“I’m fine, I’m fine!” she insists as she tries to heave to her feet.
Someone grabs my arm too tightly:
“Beti, get your khala! And some ice!”

Sleepover – Meri Choti Behen (My Little Sister)

It’s well past midnight.
But you just keep talking.
We are playing the imagination game.
“Okay, picture a sheep,” you say.
“Okay, but instead of wool, he’s wearing chainmail.”

I check the clock. 1 a.m.
We are discussing our parents.
“So like, have you noticed
When we’re out with Mama,
She freaks out when she realizes
She needs to be home before Baba to make him chai?”

It’s 2 a.m. now.
You need to sleep, there’s school tomorrow.
I tell you so, but you’ve grown quiet.
“Yeah,” you say.
“What’s wrong?”
“So there’s this boy.”

3 a.m. I’m talking now.
I’m telling you about my own boy problems:
How badly I messed up.
How much we hurt each other.
How Baba confronted him.
“It’s not worth the trouble,” I say.

4 a.m. You’re starting to yawn.
“I would never marry a fat dude,” I say.
“What if he was hilarious?”
“I’d rather marry a F.O.B. from India.”
“F.O.B.s can be kind of sexy though!”
“Oh my gosh, shut up!”

5 a.m. You’re out cold.
I feel bad, you need to be up soon.
You’ve started to drool on your pillow.
Even in the dark, I can see we have the same mouth.
I kiss your forehead, and pull the blanket under your chin–
Something you’d never let me do when you’re awake.

Tahseen Khaleel

Loyola University Chicago

Tahseen Khaleel is a senior at Loyola University Chicago majoring in biology and minoring in biostatistics and English. She enjoys reading and writing about the intersectionality between religion and nationality, as well as the experiences of immigrants in the South Asian diaspora in various forms of media.

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