Little Nita in Lockdown
When they announced the lockdown
little Nita’s mother sat dadi maa on the couch
and fitted a silk dupatta over her nose
and draped her brooding mouth.
Dadi maa stared at little Nita through
her rhinestone glasses, her walking stick
astride the fraying settee.
At least her cursing will stop,
little Nita’s mother said. Her father
had breathlessly brought bags of atta
and rice, pounds and pounds of chana
and dal and poured them into six steel bins.
She had never seen him so nervous, never
seen sweat pattern his back and run from his chin.
Then her father sent Asma the housekeeper away.
Who would braid little Nita’s hair after
a coconut oil bath? Bring her steaming
cups of Maggi noodles for lunch?
As the days passed, patience withered.
Doors slammed, shaking tin cups and splattering
tea on the dhurrie. Little Nita cupped her ears
as her father roared at her mother.
She could only pray to Krishna or read her comics.
Go to the balcony, her mother said one day,
and Little Nita saw thousands of people
lumbering down the National Highway,
their possessions in rags and makeshift bags.
Trickles of policemen imposed order with sticks.
What is all this? Why is the sky so blue?
Where are the cars? She wondered about all this
as she breathed in the limpid air, heard the birds
sing their shrill notes on the sill — as she saw langurs
daringly claim the roofs, as they never had before.
Father brought them home from the farmer’s market
on summer Sundays, wrapped in newspaper,
gathered in a cardboard crate. Grandmother, so old,
her face like a walnut shell, uncradled them
as if they were jewels, their skin ripened to golden
yellow. She sliced them into arcs, scraping close
to the pits exposed like bones, and arranged
the slices mandala-like on a stainless-
steel plate. We’d huddle around and finger
the stringy flesh and spoon it free from skin.
Our beautiful aunt, dark as rhubarb jam,
with eyes shaped like the leaves of a lotus,
would say these Mexican Ataulfos couldn’t
compete with the Indian mangoes she loved.
We’d all guffaw as the sweet juice sugared
our lips and cheeks. My brother, always the clown,
would stick a pit in his mouth and make a face.
This was before father’s hands started to quiver.
Before I understood time, disappointment and fate.
Before death kept announcing itself in whispers
to everyone I loved at that table. In the replay,
I always leave out how suffocated I felt
in an extended immigrant family jostling for space
in a creaking walk-up — burning incense,
frying masala fish, smoking bidis in the yard.
Or those aunts and uncles who kept tallies of insults
and slights, who raged with slippers and saucepans
in fights so fearsome I’d run from the house
and tremble in the shed. Why is it that we tint
our memories with childrens’ laughter,
with a grandmother’s feeding hands, with
mangoes spilling from bushels — unbruised
and radiant — when in truth they were often not?
Vikram Masson is a lawyer by training who lives near Richmond, Virginia. His work has been featured most recently in the American Journal of Poetry, Glass, The Blue Mountain Review and Prometheus Dreaming.