F o u r  P o e m s
Ashley Tellis

Gujarat, 2002
VT Station, Bombay, 1993
You and I
Maar Daala

Ashley Tellis joined the faculty at Eastern in Fall 2004 after receiving his PhD from the University of Cambridge, England, and his MA and BA in English from the University of Bombay, India. His teaching and research interests include contemporary Irish women's poetry, post-colonial literature, literary theory, lesbian and gay studies, and nonwestern literatures. During 2003-2004 he was a Rockefeller Residency Fellow at the University of Arizona. --JDK

Gujarat, 2002

A charred skull rolls into my room.
It stares up at me.
The liquid flesh burnt off it
has left this black bone,
this terrible expression.

It follows me to work.
I trip on it as I enter class.
I want to fill its gaping mouth
with words
but they feel useless,


like kerosene.

What hand could throw the flame,
plunge the sword
fill the word ‘Indian’ with ‘Hindu,’ with blood
and burning flesh?

I pick up my Muslim skull.

It is my national flag.

Author's Note: In 2002, Hindu fundamentalists organized a systematic pogrom against the Muslim community in Gujarat, India, killing, burning, raping and maiming thousands of Muslims in what can only be called, and has been called by the International Initiative for Justice (a group of feminists from across the world), a genocide.

VT Station, Bombay, 1993

Your face was engraved in this city.

Here you started from scratch,
here earned every paisa you had,
every vessel in your kitchen,
every child that graced your world.

The small tied blanket in your hand
denies that history.

A few moments can undo a life.
One match can cinder a family in seconds.

When I offer you the food packet
you look at it wanting it to make sense.

For a moment, our eyes meet.

The city dies between us.


Author's Note: In 1993, Hindu fundamentalists organized a systematic pogrom against the Muslim community in Bombay. Thousands were killed, their lives and homes destroyed, and they were forced to leave the city.

Paisa is Indian currency for pence. It also stands for money in general, in languages like Hindi and Marathi.

You and I

I am the Nepali prostitute
writing love letters to you in broken Hindi,
quoting bad shairs by movie Mujrewaalis
to give my love dignity, a name.

You are the client
who is missing
when I open my eyes in the morning.

I will never know you carry my letters in your wallet,
show them to friends on drunken evenings.

You will never know
how far the idea of loving you took me.


Author's Note: A large percentage of sex workers in India are abducted / swindled / kidnapped / brought from Nepal. A shair is a couplet of poetry in Urdu. A mujrewaali is a courtesan, a common figure in popular Hindi cinema in India, figuring the ‘bad/loose’ woman (the whore with the golden heart), the sufferer of unrequited love.


Maar Daala

As they pulled at my choli,
poked at my chest to see if they were real,
grabbed my hair,
I thought of him, smiling shyly.

As they pinned me to the floor
fucked my arse and it bled,
I thought of his gentle kisses on my neck.

As they zipped up, prodded me with their
lathis, stamped on me, I wrote him a letter:
‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’

Then I blacked out

When I awoke,
He was nowhere and the road was long.
But I walked it,
I imagined him coming from the other side,

whistling a tune.
I imagined dying in his arms:
‘Hum pe ye kisne hara rang daala.’

The road is endless.

But he will come,
he will come.


Author's Note: This poem is about a hijra. Hijras are a transgendered community on the fringes of India. They dress up like women, live in communities based on their own rituals and practices and beg and do sex work for a living. Denied all basic economic, social and political rights, they are frequently subject to police harassment, abuse, rape and death.

Maar dala literally translates as ‘Killed me.’ It is the title of a popular song from a Hindi film called Devdas, sung by the courtesan character, like the ones referred to above. Devdas is a nineteenth century novel by Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chatterjee.

Choli: blouse. Lathis: nightsticks, police batons.

Aaj jaane ki zid na karo: "Please don’t insist on leaving today." Lyric from a popular ghazal sung by Pakistani singer Farida Khanum.

Hum pe yeh kisne hara rang daala: "Who put this green color upon me?" Lyric from the song of the title. Green is symbolic of fertility and marital union, an impossibility for the courtesan, who in this sequence wins a battle because the hero comes to see / hear her perform, something she is convinced the power of her love will make happen.

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