The Skin of Tradition

The foreigner watches a wedding in fascination

large bindi squatting on her forehead

red saree colouring white limbs.

The elders enthuse at how she

sits relaxed on the dusty ground

reveres the sacredness of every chant

embraces chaos in wondrous happiness.

 

The Americans, Germans, English,

French, Italians flock here, hearts one

with conch shells; cross-legged,

slurp white rice and dal from banana leaves.

Yet I, I ask for my fork and spoon.

Yet I, born in a small town, tempered by heat,

coloured with tradition, married saree-clad

in front of the fire, complain of the fumes,

my eyes burning. I, brought up within these walls

make it a point to question too much:

Why should I, why must I, bow in respect,

hide in shame, follow rules and customs,

forget myself? I question for years.

 

Later, in London, that city I call home,

forgetting that at home tulsi plants sit in courtyards

white chita is drawn on Thursday

to welcome Lakshmi.

‘A city without temples scratching its skyline

cannot be home, ever,’ they pronounce.

I question for years.

 

The answer, thought but not mouthed:

You can appreciate culture

fold your legs in supplication

bend your head, fast all day in a temple

knowing tomorrow you will be home.

Today is a thrill, like climbing Machu Picchu

like rowing down the Okavango Delta.

When the blood that runs in you today

bled on a pyre hundreds of years ago

soaking chrysanthemum garlands;

when, had you lived in a village

fifty years ago, you would be

behind a veil waiting, watching;

when not that many years back, a marriage

marked you with blood red sindoor in black hair

closeted rooms, opened legs

breeding healthy sons

if not white widows.

 

Since you know all this, the legs don’t fold here

in the dust, in the sacredness

even though they do at yoga in the gym.

 

The heart that belongs, never accepting, runs,

runs the farthest,

to shed centuries of old skin.

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