When the sun pierces through the sky and shoots daggers of heat
Towards Earth, women clad in sarees come in groups
And drop yellow-orange sindoor at the base of
Toddy tree trunks.
Men, weeks ago had climbed the same toddy palms,
Made cuts, hung earthen pots right under the incision
Tied with cloth-ropes, and the sap had been for weeks
Trickling into the pots.
They make loops with jute twines, or old clothes,
And wear them around both their ankles, and then mount
The toddy palms for harvest, inching like a caterpillar
To gain liquid courage.
Their women don’t wear vermillion in the partings of their hair
All the while men are to climb the deadly trees
Risking their necks, their produce, and livelihood, their lives in vermillion
Entrusted with the trees.
Upon harvest, men drink the freshly collected wine,
Women keep waiting by the hearth for grain for the meals,
Men inebriated, lulled into slumber, women go off to sleep, uncertain of their spouse’s return,
On an empty stomach.
*Sindoor: A loose power worn in partings of hair by women to symbolize a state of being married, and its absence, widowhood. Women in the northern states of India wear a neon orange coloured sindoor. It holds high significance in most Hindu cultures.
**Toddy wine is a common alcohol brewed among many South Asian nations. The poem is an account of a lesser-known ritual practiced in several households in the north Indian countryside where the women stop wearing the vermillion and instead apply it on the palm trees entrusting the lives of their husbands to the trees during the season of wine harvest.
The celluloid awash with colours,
Fresh samosas* wrapped in old newspaper,
Hot tea in tiny glass tumblers
Encased in a metal crate,
Trying hard to look into the darkened hall,
Chotu would glimpse at the running film,
Learn songs peering through
Doors cracked ajar.
“You rat!” -slapped ruthlessly each time
Maalik** found him day-dreaming, lost.
Never touched a book,
Saw the gates of a school,
Ruined at the tea-stall for life.
Dug up holes in the ground,
Deep, narrow tunnel-like.
Crawling into the holes,
No flashlight, barefeet, scorching sun.
Mining mica, bare-hand-
Chotu, siblings, and friends.
“They say it makes you fair, and glow.
Steal some mica for your sister?”
“You rat!”- slapped (still) by maalik** for wasting time
Playing with mica from a millionaire’s mine.
(Still) Never touched a book,
Not saw the gates of a school,
Ruined at the mines,
Health, future, and life.
*samosa- a deep-fried, potato-filled, Indian snack
(Chotu is the most generic name used to address numerous children trapped in child-labour.
This poem takes up the issue of child labour. The latter part talks about the illegal mica mines in the state of Jharkhand, where the mineral is scavenged for affluent businessmen by young children which affects their health, and the mica later ends up being a component in various make-up products.)
© Roopam Mishra
Ms. Roopam Mishra is from Lucknow, India. She is a Fulbright (FLTA) scholar at the Center for Language Studies, Brown Univerisy, USA, and is to defend her PhD thesis at the University of Lucknow, India. She writes in Hindi, and in English. Her works have appeared in an anthology Earth Fire Water Wind: Anthology of Poems, and in magazines, and journals like The Ekphrastic Review, Confluence Magazine, Setu, FemAsia Magazine, Aspiring Writers’ Society e-zine, Rusty Truck, Café Dissensus, Literary Yard, The Quiver Review, Borderless Journal, Hastaksher, Sahityiki, Rhetorica Quarterly, etc.