Night-Scene Night Scene, The Garden (1992)

Praise for Night Scene

“This extraordinary poem-play … is remarkable for the unswerving strength of its movement which carries with it a multitude of intense details..(it is) raw in sensory evocation and ruthless at times in its precision.” — Hilda Morley

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Aunt Chinna


Meena's Home

Kuruchiethu House, Tiruvella.


One summer’s day
we put out in a painted boat
the family entire,
a few friends included

The men in dhotis and well
fitted shirts,
a few with cigars spouting smoke

The women with their saris
edging right past
their eyes, drawn down

Against the sun
that eclipsed itself in fury
at the Kerala coast.

We rocked at a rope’s end
in Cochin harbour
till my great uncle Alexander
cried out, dropping his pipe

And the men screwed
monocles just right
and the women crouching down
held bits of broken mirror
to their eyes

Or clear gray glass
my grandmother
for me, crying
child, child
so the sun might kiss
and not burn

Child, unripe child

Till the wooden hull
dashed suddenly
against the swollen pier
and shot us
into cold sea spray

The blackest depths
drawn up in pleated waves,
my smocking dress
puckered and ripped with salt

Child, 0 child
shut your eyes
so tight
Grandmother cried
clutching me
to her bony neck

Her silken cloak
with the golden pin
stuck fast
to my fist

When they pulled
us out
we would not
come unstuck.


Aunt Chinna

Do you recall
your old aunt Chinna,
the night you turned seven?

Her hair all cracked with mud
hot and dried
she fetched it from the cobra’s hole
in a little silver spoon.

It was her mind, child.
After he died
what was left for her?

Heaps and piles of sewing,
every tiny scrap
she saved until the end,
samplers with little mottos
Honour thy Mother and thy Father
Home is best
and other such sayings
the English woman taught her

She could slip the needle through
and knot the cotton, so little showed.
Sometimes her silk had the sheen
of a hummingbird’s wing
flashing under the bent vine.


In your grandmother’s house

birds sang all night,
the sky was a canopy of light.

The full moon of her love
bathed Chinna.
Chinna laughed like a two year old
cut jokes with father
about the price of candlewax or tobacco.

She had no one to care for her
when father died.
I grew to hate her too.

She’d filch
rolls of brocade from our dead mother’s saris,
set them in the sun,
stare at the knobbles of gold,
lumps and jots of gleaming silver
pinned into wheels of amethyst, turquoise and ruby

Sit and stare for hours
at those bumpy lights
as if the universe
had formed inside her mind.

Then came the mud,
her nightly fascination with it.
She raced, clothes streaming
from her sides, mud in her hair
like a stuck boar
uprooted from its pit,
all in public down the village street.

Your uncle Paulos almost hung her in his rage.

Once he gave chase with five armed men
he almost had a private army then,
the mahout I think snared her with his thong
thick as a man’s neck.

Poor Chinna,
snooked like a wild chicken.
I hate to think of what happened to her.

All her stitching stopped.

She crouched
by the mango tree in its crust of dirt
hiding the coiled menstrual cloths,
the heaps of paper
on which she wrote her name

Over and over in all the languages
she thought the earth contained.
Bits from Revelation her favorite book,
songs that little children sing
when fever drives them under the mother’s wing.


One night she came and said to me
There shall be no more sea
or The sea shall cease
or some such thing.

I thought it was that boating
trip we took, just before the sun’s eclipse.
You fell into the water with mother
we had to change your dothes,
those pretty pink shoes with the shine on it
we bought from Bengali market,
ruined quite.

Mother trembled so,
with rage I think not knowing why the sea
behaved like that, a sudden wave and poof
all gone into black salt water.

Well Chinna was there with us
though who’d have known?

She wore a pale grey sari
we gave her for the feast day after Lent,
her chin tucked in like a pigeon brooding,
her whole face hidden in the spray.


Death seizes you in the morning
she sang to me
my mad aunt Chinna

kneel she sang to me,
clutch the polished doorknob
lick the doorstep dean

kneel she sang to me,
before they bind
your mouth with cords

She broke into her babble
chattering of a dog
whipped at the master’s gate

A woman’s hand
unnaturally pale
severed in a rice bowl

Twisting her cloak
in both her hands
she rocked
beside the silken bed

“0 Saramma
I would have this girl child
laid naked
on rosewood.

“Touch her tongue,
no, not with gold
as is our practice

“Take earth, dark mud
in both your palms
annoint her tongue
her tiny limbs.”

Tighter and tighter
she bound her clothes
about her,
my mad aunt Chinna
rocking and rocking
by the rosewood bed

The fern leaves
mother set in a porcelain bowl
by the window ledge
to see if their spores would hatch,
fell to the floor

They clacked their tongues
about Aunt Chinna’s thighs
and would not stop.

Next morning
when the elders
took themselves to church
the ripe red berries
in the silver dish
took up the chorus

And their fruity gossip
lit up all the parlour.

Night Scene, The Garden | 1992 | Poetry, Works & Collaborations
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