Guest Poet Maliha Dehlvi
The day the wall collapsed,
relations in their cottages outside the gate
wrapped shawls against the shiver of the ground.
They knew explosions of such grandeur
could not come from homes like theirs,
rich only in civility.
War and Partition never scorched
the doctorís pink stone porch:
it stood in invitation to decay.
Inside, in hallways where his photographs
from Heidelberg still hung,
grey Europeans gazed in tails and gowns,
from life-sized picture frames.
Unbroken, in the corners of the drawing room
stood urns as tall as children come to play
where mantel gods laughed, fixed
forever in a porcelain happiness,
and peonies of salt
bloomed ruin on chinese brocade.
The scent of stain and spirits still remained
in doorways where the damp and drain
of winter never came.
And in the bedrooms, ants made pyramids
beside small holes in walls.
For children, butterflies still flew outside
where tangled wreaths replaced
rose bushes once espaliered
to bloom as brilliantly
as daughters at a University.
Back when their street was known as Paris Road
warm rumours flew of tennis courts
obscured by mango groves,
and Englishmen at play with Indian girls
(now mothers growing heavy in the thigh).
The tonga drivers only know the way to Maris Road today.
The doctor and his wife survived: their horned and plated
hide made them as difficult to move
as rhinos stranded in a disappearing majesty.
Old circles of enchantment still protected them,
though thinned, like memories of long-departed friends.
(Once Hindu neighbors smuggled them
to safety in a caravan of care).
They dared to pray to gods nobody faced.
Their children begged they come away
and leave this place.
One afternoon, they sat in the verandah,
on a hard divan, sour berries blooming by the washing line,
clay pots of water warmed in sunshine for the evening bath.
(At eighty-eight the doctorís wife still washed her clothes
by handpump in an old tin tub.)
Iíd like to say they took it as a sign,
or that they made a metaphor of it,
but thatís not how it was.
(When indoor plumbing came,
the outhouse garden fell away, its gardeners long gone.
The industry of ants went undetected at the wall;
disgruntled geese now nested in the seeding grass.)
The doctor read by anglepoise.
Three women held a garment spread with pins,
time on their hands in spots and thickenings.
The courtyard bricks lay quiet as the years.
Before the sound they saw the smoke, as stone
crushed stone, and strength on strength plumed up in flameless booms.
The wall they built when they could build came down
and cries of daughters died, as sand robbed air of air.
All sound and silence seemed the same. Nobody took the name
of God, or called it the beginning of the end.
Maliha Dehlvi's Questions:
My question(s) about this piece have to do with whether the subject is
adequately accessible to a Western reader. I don't really want to deliver a
history or sociology lesson, and would prefer to just offer a brief footnote
to place it in context. Is this necessary? Is the "story" adequate to the
length of the piece? And do other less obvious points come across?
Correspond with Maliha Dehlvi at
with your ideas about this poem.
The Albany Poetry Workshop