What We Wear

Zilka Joseph

Zilka Joseph

ma when I miss you most I bury my head
in your old chunni or kurta or nightgown I smell your
smell and the dust

of the city of my childhood
city of your death
the dust of the house of burdens
no rest for you no one to care
properly for you even
as your aged body crumbled

the saris you stored away in overstuffed
cupboards were too tiresome to wear
so you wore salwar-kameez
soft pastel cotton prints but mostly
because of the heat you
wore only a loose flowing kurta

sans the pajamas but you would hurriedly
pull them on and drape one of your colorful
chiffon chunnis over your chest
only if some vendor or visitor
unexpectedly
showed up at our door

ah those days when I lived at home
we lived in worn-thin
sleeveless cotton nighties and dad
wore his ratty shorts and his faded
but favorite one pocket Fruit of the Loom
T-shirt I brought for him from America

how swelteringly hot it was in summer
we could barely
breathe

heat bearing down
from the roof the fans
slapping humid air there was
only you and dad and I
and life was slow slow slow

who cared about what we wore at home
or what looked good or shabby
those kinds of things never
bothered us anyway
and how on those muggy afternoons
after lunch we would draw the curtains
and settle down to sleep in a row
like little children
on your joined beds

we slept like the dead
three old souls becoming one
softly rocking
on a raft on a peaceful and infinite sea

one day
you died suddenly
I returned to your empty bed

alone when I was tidying up
I found
in the drawers under your bed
chiffon chunnis of every color

gleaming like a shroud
of rainbows

did you watch ma as we dressed you
in your apricot-colored salwar-kameeez
draped your head and shoulders
with a matching chunni

covered
you in rose petals before we
gave you
to the flames

it's burned so deep
the wound
never heals

your feather-light chunni
this scarf of fire
I wear around my neck
bury my face in it
search for your smell
for home
see how heavy it sits
this ring of fabric
this weight waiting to be lifted

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