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Reetika Vazirani

1962–2003

Recipient of a 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her second book, World Hotel (Copper Canyon, 2002), and a Barnard New Women Poets Prize for White Elephants (1996), Reetika Vazirani was educated at Wellesley College and received her MFA from the University of Virginia where she was a Hoyns Fellow.

She was a recipient of a "Discovery"/The Nation Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Poets & Writers Exchange Program Award, and the Glenna Luschei/Prairie Schooner Award for her essay, "The Art of Breathing," which appears in the anthology How We Live our Yoga (Beacon, 2001). She was a Contributing and Advisory Editor for Shenandoah and was the guest poetry editor of two issues. She was a Book Review Editor for Callaloo and a Senior Poetry Editor of Catamaran, a journal featuring work by artists from South Asia.

Born in India on August 9, 1962 and raised in Maryland, she had served as writer-in-residence at The College of William and Mary and part of the core faculty of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops. Reetika Vazirani died on July 16, 2003.

By This Poet

4

Independence

Mussoorie, Uttar Pradesh, India, l947

When I am nine, the British quit
India.  Headmaster says, "The Great
Mutiny started it."  We repeat,
The Great Mutiny of 1857
in our booming voices.  Even
Akbar was Great, even Catherine,
Great!  We titter over History.  His back
turns: we see his pink spotty neck.


Sorry, the British leaving? we beg.
"This is hardly a joke or a quiz --
sit up and stay alert," he spits.
"It is about the trains and ships
you love and city names.  As for me,
I'm old, I'll end in a library,
I began in trade."  But you must stay,
we tell him.  He lived here as we have lived


but longer.  He says he was alive
in Calcutta in 1890.  He didn't have
a rich father.  A third son, he came with
the Tea Company:  we saw a statement
in his office. The company built
the railroads to take the tea "home
to England" so that Darjeeling and Assam
could be sipped by everyone, us and them.


They sold our southern neighbor Ceylon,
silk, pepper, diamonds, cotton.
We make a trade of course.  In England
there is only wool and salt and
snobs and foggy weather, Shakespeare.

Dream of the Evil Servant

New Delhi, 1967

                1.
We kept war in the kitchen.
A set of ten bone china plates, now eight.
As if a perfumed guest stole her riches . . .


The next day she wanted to leave at noon.
I said, be back by four, I'm paying you.
She sat by the door,   
she put out her hand,  
her knuckles knocked against mine,
hard deliberate knuckles. I gave her cash.
Off to watch movies, off to smoke ganja.


                2.
She came back late and high as if my fear asked for it.
I called her junglee.
Everything went off late -- 
dinner, the children getting into bed;
but the guests understood: 
they had servants too.


She stuck diaper pins in my children.
I cursed her openly.  Who shouted?
Or I cursed her silently and went my way.
She stole bangles my husband's mother bought,
bangles a hundred years old.  But she wore frayed jewelry
hawked on the street.  She was like a rock that nicked
furniture in corners you'd think only a rat could go.


                3.
Why didn't I dismiss her?
I don't know.  
She got old as I got old.
I could see her sharp shoulder bones
tighten, her knuckled skull. 
I had to look at her.  It had to wound me.
Listen, said my mother. Yes mother, I listened, crouched in my head.


Looking over the flowered verandah she said:
Who are you to think you are beautiful?
What have you got to show?  
Go sit on your rag.
All my life I tended to looks,
they betrayed me. I bore you. 
I am wretched.  Be my mother.  Be my maid.

Daughter-Mother-Maya-Seeta

To replay errors
the revolving door of days
Now it's over
There's no one point thank god in the turning world 
I was always moving
tired too but laughing
To be a widow is an old
freedom I have known
vidua paradisea    a bird
Singly I flew
and happiness was my giraffe 
in the face of Africa
me among daughters
and my son at work
me pregnant with them
taking in the glamour days
town and country mirabella elle vogue
cosmopolitan    We have made this world
brown  these beautiful women
laughing and crying till we cleared the dining table
In hotels men asked my girls to fetch them towels
In restaurants they asked us for bread
Today I'm a civil servant on the Hill

From the Mall what colorful sarongs
my children bring to drape my ankles
the gifts we give
to Mina a necklace of Mikimoto pearls
Tara a Paloma purse for cosmetics
Lata a pair of lime shoes for the miles
Devi gives me her eclectic lit eyes
the glamour of our wilder regions
Bombay weavers on the twenty-four hour looms
shocking pink is the navy of India

Listen I am listening
my mind is a trip
I flew over oceans
I flew in the face of skies
orienting my loss of caste
my dark complexion
the folly of envy
wishing all my life to be fair
My jealous god leaves
Hello son this is your mother
Daughters take these maroon saris 
these maroon bras
I am proud to have borne you
When you gather around me
newness comes into the world