Tallying zeroes

By Rafiq Kathwari

14 November 2016

Seven poems
Nishat Garden in Srinagar (Photo: Indra Dhoj Kshetri)

Nishat Garden with Dal lake in the background in Srinagar (Photo: Indra Dhoj Kshetri)

Reading Lolita in Kashmir

A boy, I often raided
my grandpa’s study.

An art dealer,
he collected books

with gilded edges,
Aristotle to Zola

all stuck together
in the humidity.

But I found Lolita
and carried it out

to his ‘69 Chevy,
scanning the pages

for ‘dirty’ bits.
Should have looked

harder, I guess.
I drove Lo out for a spin

teen-tunes swirling
in my head,

‘I wanna hold your hand.’
We idled over a valley ringed

by sharp mountains, white
turbans on their peaks.

Lake Dal shimmered
in the mountain’s hem,
polished by a soft breeze.
A paisley-shaped river sobbed

through a dazed valley.
Amputated tree trunks screamed

reams of plastic choked icy streams,
barbed wire hedged the Shalimar,

Toyotas jammed the bazaars.
An ancient Sufi shrine oddly gutted,

its rich latticework lost.
New architecture

showed no awe for Nature.
Half-widows wailed,

clawing at mass graves,
yearning for their disappeared.

Nightingales sang
of joy, not sorrow.

At Zero Bridge,
lilacs by bunkers bloomed.

A Lord of the Skies sound-boomed —
startled, stray dogs howled.

In Grandpa’s shiny Chevy,
Lolita slipped from my lap

as we finished
our foreboding odyssey.

* * *

In another country

In Kashmir, half-asleep, Mother listens to the rain.
In Manhattan, I feel her presence in the rain.

A rooster precedes the Call to Prayer at Dawn:
God is a namedropper: All names at once in the rain.

Forsythias shrivel in a glass vase on her nightstand.
On my windowsills, wilted petals, a petulance in the rain.

She must wonder when I will put on the kettle,
butter the crumpets, observe silence in the rain.

She veils her hair, offers a prayer across the oceans
water on my hands becomes a reverence in the rain.

At Jewel House in Srinagar, Mother reshapes my ghazal.
“No enjambments!” she says as I listen in the rain.

“Rafiq,” I hear her call above the city din
The kettle whistles: Mother’s scent in the rain.

* * *

I go back to 1939 when my parents wed

As arranged, they meet the first time.
He’s a law student. She’s a child-bride.

She wears red: For rancor?
Head bowed, veiled little stars

in gold thread, waits on the bed
like an arrow drawn on a bow.

Henna-touched hands, a mirror poised
on lap: A girl staring back.

If he sits beside her,
she will see him glance at her image.

In the courtyard, children sing,
“Petals fall from almond trees.”

The singing could continue until
he displays a blood-stained sheet.

Footfalls on stairs, whispers,
robes rustling, attar of roses.

His hand on her chin, her heart leaping.
He kisses her eyes closed.

“Stop. Sever the bond,” I scream,
“He’ll play possum, make you prey.”

The mirror slips from her fingers,
bangles clash on her fleshy arms.

* * *

Lost in Translation

“I have a radio in my head
and I’m forever listening

to whispers, always whispers,”
Mother tells Harry the shrink,

who puts a rubber band on her arm,
and flicks it. “Did that turn

off the radio?” he asks.
She winces, removes the band,

“You’ve made this into child’s play,”
she says, swiveling her chair

to glare at me, her fifth child,
reclined on the couch

translating Kashmiri,
Mother tongue.

* * *


The servants never listen to me
only when the new wife nods
they run around like rats
to fetch the thermos

There is poison in the spring water
Chanel! A present from my son
in America — the wind
carried my message

after all

under my bed

I want latches on my door

and a mirror
The old one shattered when the nail
gave way
I hang my shawl on the wall

dried roses upside down
My room not swept for six days
No water to soak clothes
My daughter will clean

this room when she visits me
At night the door is bolted from outside
If the house catches fire who will open it?
Will I burn alive?

A pane is broken
and smell from the servant’s outhouse
turns my stomach
I’ll spray Chanel!

My grandson from his grave
has come to visit me
He is with his great-grandfather
They both received transfusions

My husband says I don’t need a doctor
but that doesn’t keep his new wife
from going to the General Hospital
I am still the head of this household

O Wind tell my son in America
the dollars he sends
the new wife misspends
Tell him I need a car

to buy roses in the bazaar
at the Shalimar
My husband has lost interest
in roses

For years he’s been saying
“Maryam is mad, mad”
Is there anything wrong with me?
My sky is vaster than my mind

My son builds homes for me in America

for me in America

Views of river and rolling hills where
the Maharaja of Kashmir exhales —

No waterI have no water

I have no water

The servant washing dishes
keeps it from reaching me

Everyone has cancer
including the midwives
O North windwhat is taking my grandson so long?

what is taking my grandson so long?

Dead mosquitoes in my denture bowl

* * *

On receiving Father at JFK after his long flight
from Kashmir

As I fling my arms wide, he extends his hand.

* * *

Fire tree

Tips of his mustache whip braided,
my Harris Tweed-suited grandfather
60-years-ago planted a sapling in the
front lawn of our home in Kashmir.

“Our chinar will last a thousand years,”
Grandfather said as rustling boughs
reigned above the tin roof of the house
where I was born a Scorpio at midnight.

Every fall each leaf burst into a flower.
We gathered the remains of dyes
to create our rustic fuel for winter,
sprinkling water on burning leaves

palms brushing light ashes together.
I packed fragile coal in a clay pot
matted in painted wicker, my kangri,
cloaking it between my knees

under a loose mantle, my pharun.
The ashes warmed my bag of bones.
I flew to the future of other worlds,
returning years later to see my father,

sun-withered, sipping his morning tea
alone beside an amputated trunk.
Last night I dreamt I went to Kashmir again.
I was being rowed in an embroidered shikara

to the Garden of Rajas who had vanished,
and the garden was a sea of hell; our tin roof
collapsed, our fire tree submerged, and
barrenness had become a thousand things.

~ Rafiq Kathwari, the first non-Irish to be awarded the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, obtained an MFA from Columbia University. His debut collection, In Another Country, is published by Doire Press. He divides his time between New York, Dublin and Kashmir.

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