Little Mother rises well before cockcrow,
roused by the chained spirit that haunts
the streets at night and sleeps by day
in the Sastha temple. She hums a prayer
or two to Krishna and bathes in cold water,
reserved for widows. At first light, Little Mother
covers her shaven head with the crimson-edged
saffron sari that her fair youth had brought.
She was a child bride at six, widowed at sixteen.
Knotting her heart in her sari tip, she is a land
that speaks a different language for women.
She seeks her lost childhood and youth
in nieces and nephews; she spins endless
yarns of stars birthing stars. Fleet-footed
as a deer at seventy, Little Mother warms
water for the family, cooks breakfast
and dinner, tidies up the fallen decades.
She has to serve endless time, number
her lost years, mourn for the distant dead.
New worlds spin on new axes, but to her,
tiny woman with shaven head, each moment
repeats itself, as nieces divide into grandnieces,
nephews into grandnephews and play on her lap,
staining her red borders, with fifty odd years
of raising the children of other women.
Mornings are a happy chore; nights, dreamless;
the stars, dim lights of a dreary eternity.
With her forehead smeared with holy ashes
from the Shiva temple and soul wrapped
in saffron, Little Mother meets the gaze
of an angry sky, as ravens croak yet another
anniversary in rice, tearless sighs, basil leaves
and edifying water. Only the moon
laments between the clouds.
~ Usha Kishore
Author’s note: In many parts of India, widows are ostracised and discriminated against by society. They are not allowed to remarry even if they are young, and are forced to shave their heads, wear saffron clothes and lead an ascetic life.
Indian-born Usha Kishore is a British poet and translator, now resident on the Isle of Man. Usha’s poetry has been widely published in international journals and anthologised by Macmillan (UK), Oxford University Press (UK) and Harper Collins India, among others. The winner of an Isle of Man Arts Council award and a Heritage Foundation award, Usha’s debut collection ‘On Manannan’s Isle’ was published in January 2014.