“Echo” by Vandana Khanna

Vandana Khanna


I cannot make it lovely,
this story of my father: his body
raw under the lights like a skinned

almond, surrounded by sandalwood,
pickled carrots, and the hush of
rice settling in a bag.

I can’t help it, I need metaphors:
his body curls like the curve of a cheek,
a knife lies beside him, done with its work.

This story in metaphors. Not simply:
You lie on the floor. You’ve been cut
by two men you don’t know. They wanted

money and you were too slow, didn’t understand.
But rather: bruises braid his skin, the bitter black
of leaves, eyes red as the swollen sting

of chili powder. Why do I write into the past?
He smells only sweat, sickened blood seeping,
nothing familiar—not black and red pepper pinched

into the air, not the jasmine of his mother’s
kitchen. Nothing—until his breath is like a tea
bag twisted, pressed into the cup of the room.

But it’s not an Indian grocery, it is a shabby
downtown hotel, the kind that lock their doors
at ten, have security guards to stop the prostitutes

from coming in, from warming themselves
in the lobby. The kind where hallways echo
of accents. The phone is off the hook.

Not, why do I write about the past?” but, what story
must I tell? You lie there dreaming, but I’m
not sure, dreaming of your childhood in Lahore:

the city escaping the finite lines of a map, erased
by riots, civil war. You remember the hot nights,
chattering birds—how the world was never silent then.

You tell me over and over but I can’t write it:
the same story, but I know we are leaving
things out. Embellishing. What they must

have said, the words, harsh like Bengali, you never
tell, the first cut and then the next, how you fell
like a sack of mangoes into a heavy tumble.

You have left the spaces empty for me to add
in colors, the smells, to translate to English.
To translate into the present, into beautiful.

I nearly forgot what I wanted.

from Rattle #15, Summer 2001


Vandana Khanna: “I began writing when I was nine and have continued to write as a way to re-live, re-member, and re-vision life. I received my MFA in poetry from the University of Nebraska, where I came to love corn fields, donuts, and walks through cemeteries. Currently, I live in Los Angeles—a place where I can pretend that, outside my window, the freeway sounds like an ocean.”

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