Aliya*

What weighs the wisdom of memory

What weighs the spear

What weighs the thud of step

When the tusked warrior draws near

What weighs the water

when the trunk droops deep

What weighs the wind when

the ears hear the fleet

How feels the sand

against the skin so dry then wet

How tears the small eyes

when kin decay

and the end

is met

*Tamil/Sinhala for Elephant

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Chugging chai

The chugging slowed and stopped with a last screech. The suited mustache on the opposite bench stood up to step off the carriage, so I took his seat by the window. The distressed leather was warm from his body, but the air outside chilled the metal window pane, stiffened the black hairs on my arm before I could secure my pashmina over my head and around my shoulders. I wasn’t going to leave the spot. The surest way to travel alone is to stare out through the window until your station arrives.

I wasn’t sure what station we were at and I didn’t bother to look, much less ask. And there was the nine year old shirtless boy, selling ginger chai and biskut along the cold damp platform. It was chilly and early enough for a saucer full, maybe two. I poked my head out, a few centimeters, my drowsy sleep deprived lids folding up, eyes on the chai boy. The chai boy? Chotu? I would buy his chai and ask him his name. Not that it mattered, we may never meet again.

The sleeping man on the bench opposite mine stirs and shifts, his right arm hanging out of the window as if in a sling. I panicked for a second. Will he shift again before the train starts to move? Am I supposed to wake him up now? I look around. Just he and I in this compartment. How do I wake him? I shuffle my dupatta nervously and squirm in my seat. My journey was going smoothly until then. I can’t let this man sleep like this. How can he stand the cold morning winds cutting his bare skin? How is he so soundly asleep? When I start to recall, he’d been asleep the entire time, ever since I got on board. Four hours exactly. I clear my throat, nervously. Not helpful. I drag my shoe on the floor board. Nothing. Is he dead? No, I see his chest rise and fall. His beard is a brilliant black, thick and unkempt. His arms slightly muscular, and I could tell his eyes were large and slightly bulging from the expanse of his eye lids. A sharp nose, even a bow shaped upper lip..and then I saw his clothes. Dirt on what could be a white shirt and worn out jeans. He was dressed the part, exhausted. I began to feel sorry for him. And then.

Akka, did you want some tea? Good tea, warm warm tea. Only 10 rupees one saucer. Akka, will you take?”

I awoke, my co passenger didn’t. The chai boy was here.

“What is your name?”

“Ha?”

He didn’t understand the question.

“What is your name?”

He grins.

“Spiderman, akka.”

I smile back.

“Ey Mr.Spiderman. Will you ask this aiya if he wants some chai too?”

He nods, smile unfaltering. Spiderman taps his fingernail on the side of the train carriage.

Aiya! Will you have tea?”

Nothing.

“Is he asleep, akka?”

“Yes.”

Spiderman taps him on the arm, finally, waking him up with these words.

“Oh aiya. It is not safe to ride a train like this. Your arm will get ripped off…haha!”

The sleeping stranger was awake now. He looked at the boy, annoyed and then at me. He has stunning eyes, masked by a scary frown. His features softened when he saw me, so I adjusted the pashmina and looked away. He stood up and exited the compartment.

“Two cups chai.”

Spiderman obliged, slightly amused by his morning so far. He gave me two saucers and skipped off to the next carriage. When the sleeping stranger returned from the rest room, looking like he’d washed his face, I handed him the saucer in my right hand.

“How much do I owe you?”

His voice was cracking to wake, like sunlight through the clouds.

“Nothing.”

Why couldn’t I look at him. My eyes couldn’t handle the weight of his? It wouldn’t have hurt to look at him when he spoke to me. Would it have? He should have gone back to sleep. I should have never bought him the tea. I could look at him when he wasn’t aware.

“Thank you.”

Quiet. The train picked up and started on it’s way again, both saucers of chai were emptied and nothing more was spoken.

Burning winds

farahfilasteen:

Sebastia near Nablus, Palestine

“Careful, Samaya. You will burn the naan if you let it sit too long. Flip it now!”

Samaya flipped the flat dough in the furnace obediently and sighed. Her ammi knew all too well, how impatient her oldest child was. What the twelve year old wouldn’t give to run off and join the boys racing their bicycles in the next community. Samaya never cared that her parents would never afford a brand new bicycle. Her friends would share theirs because Samaya was almost faster than the speediest of the juvenile lot.

“You shouldn’t be playing with boys anymore, Samaya. This is not the age for that.”

“You will bleed soon, you are taking a big risk by racing with them. You will understand my words when your body begins to change.”

“You think they are your friends now, but wait and see how they look at you, how they speak to you when you have breasts, when your hips show.”

“Your father disapproves, Samaya. He will be angry if he finds out you’ve been over there again. Your father disapproves. So does your grandmother.”

Ammi didn’t really want to say all those things to her daughter, so vibrant, competitive, adventurous, living the dreams she dreamed as she slept soundlessly. She didn’t want to take away the innocence of play time, the drive to run off, keep running, running. Teaching her how to mix and knead the dough, roll it out and put it on the flame, this was tradition. Samaya understood that too. But there was always times for making naan, it was made every single day. It wasn’t every evening that the boys took their cycles out. Samaya was angry at her father, she knew it was he who choreographed this. He and her grumpy grandmother who stayed in bed all day, never lifting a finger. Ammi was an angel. She only chastised Samaya as she ran off, never before. So Samaya sacrificed an evening of cold biting winds knocking the cotton dupatta off her head and ruffling her curls as she sped down hill, weaved around potholes and made hair pin turns.

The neighborhood gossips twittered about Samaya, fashioning her out to be a whore in the making, craving the company and attention of young boys at such a fertile age. Samaya and her ammi jaan knew they were lies, words for the hens to chew on, instead of paan. Only the truth hurt Samaya, however. These four boys had already begun to look at her through different eyes. Not because Samaya was changing, but because they were. Their shoulders broadened, their hips looked narrow, their voices deepened, the hair on their faces thickened, their hands turned rough as their touched lingered.

Of course they weren’t malignant, none of them.Their bodies were only morphing, puzzling their spirits, setting the stage for new discovery. Samaya made this day about recalculation. She can decide to oppose the wishes of the snarky old woman and her son, continue seeking the rush of racing on two wheels in the face of the setting sun. Or she could realize that these days will end, and at the end she wanted to have her own bicycle. If she were to acquire one by herself, with her own earnings, no one could take her joys away from her. Not the warble of society, not the furrows of her family, not even the sense of belonging in the adjacent neighborhood. She would have a choice. She could do both. Race the chill winds in the afternoon and then snuggle beside the furnace, breathing in the smell of butter spreading on the warm naan.

She looked at ammi. Her old eyes, older hands punching the ball of dough, pulling, rolling, balling some more. Samaya turned to the pile of freshly cooked bread, broke off a piece, blew onto it and leaned over to her mother, interrupting the process.

“What-“

Ammi took the food into her mouth, felt Samaya’s long fingers cover her hand and heard a voice full of assertion.

“Don’t worry ammi. It will not burn.”