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Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Ballad of Baby Gone Native

 

Baby Sahib brings her island fox

with a key tied to its hind leg

The voyage, a cadet-blue sleep

skirting Asia— war’s opioid peg

 

Baby Sahib takes tea with Ferozepur

cake in First Class, crumbs in curls,

first taste of Punjabi milk, first

puff of Shalimar dust on pearls

 

Baby Sahib rings the bell

with the blue ceramic princess

Ayah comes to freshen her nose with

monogrammed mulmul, clove-incense 

 

Baby Sahib learns about the first automaton

to offer towels and soap— invention

of Baghdad— fashioned as an iridescent bird

(shooed from history, skipped all mention)

 

Baby Sahib eats tiffin cake

and dholi buns during lessons,

spills hot tea on the native tutor—

a pool of steaming indiscretions

 

Baby Sahib undoes the cat’s cradle

drops the Raj’s fork, eats with fingers,

salaams elder servants, hums ayah’s lori

to hop-scotch, gulab scent in her braid lingers

 

Baby Sahib out-howls Coleridge’s woman

wailing for her demon lover, learns the fact

of the cedar forest, filters river Alph

of the rabid visions that Kubla Khan enacts

 

Baby Sahib dons a Phulkari shawl

to the officers’ ball at the club

dazzles in chashm e bulubul (a bird’s eye radiating

silk floss), sustains glares and an icy snub

 

Baby Sahib hangs chambeli buds, marries her tutor

in the dusty Urdu library, over laddu, “biscoot,”

chai— with Ayah, cousin, and cook in attendance

The groom is suddenly called away, a forced recruit

 

Baby Sahib sees in a rain of bullets a fox feeding 

on Gymkhana Cake, meat slices served on bayonets

She wants the pulse back in twisted necks,  

detritus back into musk, wakes in a cold sweat

 

Baby Sahib finds that a broken teapot

is a bad omen, means a beloved’s death

Next to the morning glories: telegrams

coughing up miasma of beloved’s breath

 

Baby Sahib dances to the Widow’s Waltz

before lights go out in the ballroom

forever; in the emollient leather, ayah’s hand,

a lost husband in the sacred fig’s perfume

The Great Game

 

 

Poetry was a mastication of stolen pigeons

An ear bleeding on a stack of hay

 

A gold-edged battlefield wrote the novel

The painting was a swirling café called compulsion

 

A military band blared its brass baraat

to ravish oil brides across Asia

 

So I came back to the caravanserai

and found you broken luminescent as an egg

 

Writing on lymphatic glass

a manifesto of gestation

 

chronicles of a sometime star

brought down to pedestrian scale

 

The balcony is blushing with fruits

you have no time for

 

Our breath is once again held hostage

between the mongoose and the snake

Shadab Zeest Hashmi, a poet and essayist, is the winner of the San Diego Book Award, Sable Books' Hybrid BookPrize, and the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize. Her books include Kohl and Chalk, Baker of Tarifa, Ghazal Cosmopolitan and the forthcoming memoir Comb.