by Mydhili Varma

Fossils of Bent Spine

I cradle the fossils of my ancestors’ bent spines —
Cervical in their helplessness,
Thoracic in despair,
Lumbar in naked resignation —
In the secret dominions of my heart
Four chambers pumping shame into my tie-wound neck
I don’t tell people I am the first from my family to cross the threshold of college, school,
To write my name with a flourish in English
My name tastes like the hot rice gruel eaten with raw onions and green chillies,
Accompanied by coconut chutney on festive days,
The tongue-rolling zha of vernacular tongue,
The petrichor-smelling village of my origin,
A terrain of my ancestors’ bent spines
Twisted by a lifetime of slave kowtowing
My mother, a lost empire of hopes,
A map of stretchmarks and skin tags and blemishes,
Still, a seed bank of adoration
Vaults open in cinnamon-smelling embrace
My father, whose two remaining teeth grace his perpetual smile
In mutinous resolve against the kicks and shoves that bent his spine
The doctor tells me to sit erect, shows me exercises
I shorten my name to Anbu
I sit in a swiveling chair inside a matchbox office
That is on top of 11 stacks of matchboxes
I swivel and sit in spine-friendly chairs
To stop my spine from bending like my ancestors’ did
I stretch and my hands bang on the cubicle
A whole urban realm from lands encroached
Lands my ancestors tilled, ploughed and harvested from
Lands now bleeding poison
I sign and share online campaigns for social change
But can’t bear to utter my family name
My contented smile beats my internal polygraph
In the tea shop I frequent daily
Is a cleft-lipped errand boy barely two digits old
The invisible cord connecting our spines peels layers from my shame-pumping heart
I change tea shops so I don’t have to heed to the call of fossilized bent spines
From unmarked graves and thirsty eyes
I run
I sieve the city through me and all of me through the city
And all that remains are clogging bits of snuffed out ash
From my ancestors’ fossilized bent bones


Matchbox Dreams

You live in the matchbox house
On the exclusive corner of the matchbox stack.
Double balcony, north-facing front door, river view, they said,
And you were sold.
You keep telling everyone
What a great bargain this prime real estate is.
You buy the knockoff painting from the flea market
And paint the hideous frame a chic sage green
Because all the statement art pieces you googled
Were arithmetically two zeroes further than your annual salary.
You dust, mop, plug the crevices,
Repaint the statement wall,
Change the curtains with the seasons,
Adjust the living room furniture placement.
On a rainy night you open the window
And lean over to catch the wistful drops on your face,
And you feel stripped to the bone
In a matchbox pile you thought your dreams were made of.


Art by Steve Johnson on Instagram @artbystevej.