Grazing on the Nerves of Forgiveness

A neighbor girl asks me why my father is black— “It’s weird that he’s black,” she says.
“Why?” I ask, my skin shaking like autumn losing
itself to the bones.


Home is a material we are wrapped inside—national, domestic, ecological, skin—
Does this violence embarrass you?

A new home growing, growing old.

My father fathers a citizen—

The sky bends its blue gaze of surrender.
A weed in the concrete, a rupture of fire ants.
The lag lines of evaporating hands.


Father decorates our home with sculptures cut from the Ajanta Caves.
A red velvet chair in which my grandmother, Dayawati loved to knit.
Brass birds flying across the wall.
We listen to Ravi Shankar on record.
Together, we climb a ladder and water the plants heaped above us like, amid this prairie, a jungle.


My father’s sisters—my buas—agree, Everyone loves babies that are fat and white.
I was skinny and confused.


My mother loves the sun so much she says she wants to be a napping cat in her next life. Sometimes
when we are reading in the sun, she falls asleep and I fall in love with the sun for loving my mother
so sweetly.


Rebel son, you are my rebel father—to marry a white woman, an American. To not return home.
To divorce.

At the wedding, Dayawati gives my mother her gold bangles, a red sari
and an ivory carving of The Three Wise Monkeys:
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.


After my parents’ divorce, everyone wants to know why that sweet, young white woman has such a
dark daughter—
I smile so everyone can see my smile is sweet as hers.

After the divorce, everyone looks at us like, what is that dark man doing with that child—
I smile and talk to everyone so that my father smiles too.


The sun sets and the cul-de-sac swells with grilled meat. But from my house, the intricate
embroidery of jeera and burnt onion.

I don’t want to eat ketchup-dinner at a friend’s house, but I am curious about church.


My mother tells me my skin is exotic, and that “exotic” means unique.
If my skin is exotic, do I feel less
its tensions?

My father tells my mother to keep me out of the sun—
If I am kept from becoming dark, do I?

I love the sun and become what I am.


When I play hide-n-seek, I hide in my father’s closet. I peek from behind his slacks, transfixed by
Dayawati’s silver deities, her small gods preserved in silver aura on a silver platter tucked in a curtain
of his neatly pressed shirts, next to a bowl of pocket change.

I hide. I close my eyes and don a silver aura. I tremble a ghost hidden in my throat, deadweight jaws,
a pea-sized knot under the cushion of my tongue. I am possessed by what I cannot say. I search the
sensation like it is a tiny brain inside my mouth. I believe it a prayer, and so I pray.


How does one become a cat in their next life? I wonder when Mom and I can’t sleep, blocks of light roving
wall to wall with the lonely labor of headlights.

We force sleep to toss us a dream before Mom’s midnight alarm
and then, the babysitter knocking like a shiver at our door.


When anyone speaks of great-grandmother, Malavi Devi they begin with the light color of her eyes.
They sigh and say—though evil, beautiful.
White skin and they remember, until death, her perfect white teeth.
My grandfather had light skin and gloomy blue looming in his eyes.
My father is dark and cringing at this sentence.
His sisters are creamy white.
The eldest has been so cruel, I think she is perhaps a reincarnation of Malavi Devi.
It’s karma, this eldest bua explains a dark child’s darkness as negative karma carried from a past life.
Could have been animal abuse, she continues. With pictures and everything.


Many times, when I was a child, I was the only dark child.
My rage so confused, so unloved. I carried a closet with me.

My mother calls me prickly, a cactus, a hedgehog, anything with spikes.

The white waiter hands my white kid-cousins a glass of water, Pass this to your nanny, she directs them,
smiling at me, winking.

I don’t correct her—but neither does my whole white family.


How to see no evil, how to speak—
I don’t know the preposition relating me here.


My mother calls the umber dots on my skin, “beauty marks.”
I count them to see how beautiful I am.

When we can’t sleep, she braids my hair and, in the morning opens it into waves she calls “princess

Princess, let down your hair, she begs. I am convinced.

In the fairytale, the lost girl claiming to be a princess is given a bed of a hundred feathered mattresses
as a test. When, in the morning, she complains of poor rest, she opens her dress
and the bruises on her back prove she isn’t lying.


Where my father comes from, it’s poor to be dark and skinny.
It’s working class, like my mother and her family.
My father tells me I am too skinny. He forces me to eat so I eat less and less and less—
The act of chewing makes my skin crawl. I go wild imagining the world digesting inside me.
I fold eggs into roti into napkins. Bury the knot of it in the bin.
I grow into the comfort of hunger—pangs grinning like the sun breaking dawn—light seething and
clear in the heavy appendix of my childhood.
Once, walking down a long hotel hallway lecturing me about breakfast, my father becomes so angry
at my thinness, he grabs my waist and shakes me.
I hate writing stomach and belly.
“No belly!” the ballet teacher commands, poking there where I wanted most to disappear.
My body is a cave. I echo, echo, echo.


After my father’s heart attack, an uncle visits us from Delhi. He is a chemist and an Ayurvedic healer and helps us nurse my father back to health. He leads me to a window and asks to see inside my mouth. I swallow, tidy my jaws, and stretch-flat the firm cushion of my tongue. He reads. He lifts my tongue and peers underneath. A prayer, the tinnitus in my teeth. You hold many secrets, he diagnoses. I shut my mouth full of feathers. I cradle a stutter like a lost girl on my tongue. She acts like a smile, and she cannot sleep. Something forked flares beneath, a knot frays a grazing brain. Pea-sized bruises button down her back. No one believes her. A surface of tension approaches its peak.


My mother is beautiful and has two beautiful daughters: a white daughter and a brown one. She says,
“both my daughters are as beautiful as models.”

Her white model daughter is runway, toothpaste, Vogue—but of me she says, sensual, centerfold, pin-
up—exotic means unique.

She is proud of our beauty because each is a version of her own desires.

Between our galaxies of beauty marks, she constellates everything she wants to see
and nothing she hears, nothing
she speaks.


In a dream, I’m on stage surrounded by men. Beyond them, at the next stage, a girl dances for no one
but my father is sitting there, eyes turned down at a glass of water.

Men like that never tip, a white girl tells me.

They call us Dream Girls and give us tee-shirts with an exploding gun.


My mother repeatedly tells me girls are smarter than boys, because she knows I’ll need to believe it.


By the time I am five, my nerves swing on the command to pleasure. I will have to perform things
I don’t believe.

There is feeling and becoming and then there is belief.

We don’t have cable, but I’ve seen magazines
and recognize my body believed.

I hear the slip and know the charge between exotic and erotic.

In the police report, I am five and I call it “biting his carrot.” An officer with a pen describes me
describing it to him.


Many men ask me what I am—I tell them to guess and let their fantasy be correct.


In the police report I call it “biting his carrot” and an officer with a pen describes me describing it to

The sixteen-year-old white boy on the first floor babysits an apartment complex full of dark girls. My
mom and I share a stoop with him. He is number five and we are number six.

I am five going on six.

My back is full of scratches.

I am five and I understand the meaning of looking over my shoulder. I practice it in the mirror.

I practice my eyes.

When will I be sweet sixteen?—I ask the bathwater and count on my fingers.

Under water they fume white like tiny white carrots.

Autumn loses its mind.

If I am ever lost, I ask, Where are five and six?

Every kid in this complex has only mothers, it seems, including the boy in number five. I am not sure
about the fathers, but I see mine each weekend. He discovers my back full of bruised scratches, traces
them under the inspection of bathroom lights, asks me, What is this? He pulls them gently open as if
inside, the answer.

Because the boy in number five’s name was—
I refuse to wear Levi’s jeans.

I look over my shoulder. Looking without offending, buffering the threat ever-looming.

Four dollars an hour. I wonder, what did Five buy with his babysitting cash.
Or, for what forgiveness did he save it—


Of what we resemble to tell: Speak no evil.


Father brings me with him to his car garage, USA Lube-n-Tune, on the weekends. I arrange the
magazines, serve coffee to customers, make bracelets out of printer paper, teach myself Paint, Solitaire,
Mahjong on the computer. I drink Dr. Pepper and love the smell of gasoline. I have my first crush on
a mechanic named Nicole. Each morning, Nicole gives me her pink sweater to wear while she works.
It smells like jasmine and gasoline. It’s cashmere, Doll, she says, sticking her freckled nose in the air,
clutching at the heart of her borrowed mechanic jumpsuit where “Steve” is embroidered under the
soft white erotic of her engine greased hands.


Growing up, my white cousin and I are close—he is unhinged, and I pretend to like it because no one
else puts up with him. I like it because when he is sometimes sweet, he is sweet only to me.

When we are teenagers, he tells me I used to be ugly but now I’m hot, like a Puerto Rican girl, he laughs.

One night, he is laying behind me, holding me sweetly then tight, tighter, grabbing my breasts into
fists. I clench
my thighs, hide between them, a knot. I pretend
to sleep, but am sick
frozen awake all night
I worry, can he hear the feathers fill my chest—O my belabored creature full,
piled breathless-soft and pea-sized knots,
beneath his heavy, seamless sleep.

When I tell him I am queer, he calls me a “fucking queer.”

He calls me a “fucking n-word dyke” and laughs maniac laughter.

He marries a white supremacist who only listens to “white” music, which is a burned CD of the Rolling
Stones and Eminem. He responds to my social media post, “your not a person of color your my
cousin” [sic]. Emoji laughter.

Years later, he calls me from prison. He’s in for domestic violence, can never again contact his wife
or children. He’s apologizing to me for things he “might have said” in the past.

So, you married a girl? he laughs. Do you two like cuddle on the couch and watch movies and shit? he laughs

I tell him we live by the sea and invite him to come visit, whenever he is released.

But he long lost his license and I know how afraid he is to fly.


There is anger there
There is anger there
There is anger there


My mother calls me “princess” because I am “sensitive to everything,” like everything is a tiny,
innocuous pea.


Speak—No— Home is where pressing, pressing mute. I won’t say but

when I am outed to my family, I confirm the accusation. A tiny brain drops out of my mouth,
desperate as a beetle on its back.

My father cannot forgive this truth, scurrying away, playing dead, glinting like a belief.

Deny it, I am told—for parents’ sake, hide it, he demands: respect, a respectful lie.
He never told his mother about his divorce, he justifies—An example of respect, he fumes.

I imagine Dayawati in Delhi, a late noon light, her hands resting on her belly, thinking of her son
asleep in America—not alone on the edge of a dark, undone prairie, heating cans of lentil soup,
working late on his case fighting for shared child custody.

Too, I fight for myself, alone and desperate—I believe I might die. I might not survive more silence—
my tongue tied-up with truths lying and lies truthing me.

My tongue tied-up like a fist, beating each breath bruised and confusing everyone I love away from me.


I trace the uneasy poetry of building home—
the manic fret between a flower and her wind.

I graze the nerves of forgiveness.
Amnesia rolls in like the fog of a long-distance call.

I try and hearno evil

But, where are my mothers—
Mothers, where is your daughter?
Grazing the last plot of this feeble, forgiving land.


One day we are driving through a congested maze of traffic in Delhi—a man on a bike had been hit
by a car. Gridlocked, there is no space to maneuver around him. He is shaking in the street, each car
driving gently over, over him—our driver driving slowly over the body.

Why—I speak.
Like a sieved prayer.

Whoever stops could be blamed, my father, breathless, explains, pulling me back from the window.

Wrapped in rags, children carrying babies tap the windshield for money. Men get out of their cars,
encouraging a nursing cow from the road.

See, hear, speak—we pray.

Guilt domesticates mercy—we pray
forgiveness dilutes memory.

But life is decades and decades of traffic.
My body wraps me a home of a thousand razor-thin faults.


Grasses wheeze at the back of our cul-de-sac.

O Prairie, unforgiving land—some heavy devil weathers my vision skimp—

I become the distance of the world inhabiting my distance.


If, from India, my father arrives for the first time and America isn’t as white as expected.

If my father throws the fluffy dice out my car window because they make me look immigrant, un-

If my skin is exotic, do I?


The mirror unbuttons her blouse to my skin.


When a man who has been eyeing me for an hour buys me a drink at the bar—
When we start talking and I answer No, I don’t speak Spanish
When he asks me what I am—
When I tell him what
I am.
When he throws the bar stool, yelling Why the fuck you standing here looking all Mexican and shit!?
And storms out of the bar—


I become distance, a fault of neon, shame spinning disco ball—a wound
echoing in the eyes of a thousand echoing wounds.


The cab driver asks me if I know the meaning of my name is peace.
Every time you introduce yourself you say, “I am peace, I am peace, here is peace—” he celebrates.


I unzip, I pop the clasp. I pull the straps down.


When I am outed to my family, my father removes the Ajanta Cave sculptures from our walls and
hides them in the basement.

As if, transfixed, my gaze lusted the holy-sensuous curves of devis.

As if, transfixed, I become seduced by their voluptuous piety and profound creation.

As if, transfixed was not a trembling hiding in the closet of my throat.

Call it homoerotic, call it sacred passion, call it possession—

I believed in it.


I unbuckle, I loosen the laces. I stretch the tension over my head.


I lean in, nakedly. My stage name does not mean peace.
On stage I say, I am fire, I am fire, here is fire—
wherein the blue heart of bruise burns hottest.


Does this violence embarrass you?

Home is a material we are wrapped inside—national, domestic, ecological, skin—

O Mercy, laboring creature—
Can I be as the prairie: unforgiving yet pulsing electric her seduction of fireweed
in the pining char of pyre?


That violence breaks and breaks between us, we become kaleidoscopic tailspin binging on the light.

I appear the preposition of our belonging—

Endless prairie mind Lone cricket Home is where
in the pipes exotic rattles us
to bone

Slide 1 - copy
Image is not available
Like what you read?
Here are two ways to show your support:
Liked what you read?
Here are two ways to support: