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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