Fear of Flying
In several of the city's air-conditioned spaces
he spoke to her of his fears. How he carried
a pair of heavy boots as talisman, protection
not from a rare tropical disease
or even from the more common ones, no,
these shoes shielded him and everyone else
on an airplane from certain death. The crash
he was sure he alone could prevent.
The revelation was made casually, but well.
Why couldn't I have picked something lighter,
he said, like a peacock feather or a shell?
So she responded. How could she
not? Since the gesture was tried
even if the man was not. When a man shines
his light on a woman, it's as if for a little while
she's transformed into one of the city's fine
antique monuments, flattered by the attentions
of the boats plying the river for the tourist trade.
While the city and the rest of its ancient
the man is her companion and guide,
conducting her through her own story:
her singsong voice is soothing as a
lullaby, her salt and pepper hair
a signifier of style, and the fear
of flying, well, that was mutual.
Boat, madam, boat, they called from every ghat,
their singsong carrying like a tropical disease,
boat, madam, boat, fantastic views from the river,
the city for which you travel will please
you more, boat, madam, boat, this atmosphere is best
enjoyed at dusk, in soft light and cooling breeze,
boat, madam, boat, let me take you to Panchganga,
all the way to the ancient maseed,
boat, madam, boat, my offer is cheap and best,
and yet you haggle over a few Rupees,
boat, madam, boat, this Ganga has carried so many
souls, what is one more touriste?
Boat, madam, boat— Later, she said, tomorrow,
she said. Tomorrow, they said, madam, you tease.
Couples wherever she looked: breakfast at the posh
hotel, poolside, amply sun-blocked, or strolling, giggling
at the so-called Kama Sutra scenes. Enough
to make a girl wish for the unreliable man she left
behind, the ministrations of hotel staff and pavement
Romeos notwithstanding. It was not the sexual high jinks
per se, the acrobatics the ancient sculptors signaled
with shocked bystanders who covered their eyes
while peeping through parted fingers, the scenes
from which visitors still turn away
only to turn back and gape, in every language.
Rather, it was such a scene, there, up high,
on one of the lesser temples, sandwiched
between a straightforward god
and the figure of a girl—a couple (yet another):
he fondles her jeweled waistband, and she
reaches up, twists, really, to meet him:
her left arm directing his mouth toward hers;
the artist arresting the look that passes
between them, the moment of mutual want
that for her—on the outside peering in—
had been felt, acknowledged, and was now
She resorts to sophistry:
in this best of possible worlds
this is the best
of possible outcomes;
She recalls, once long ago
a man said to her:
you think of me
only when I don't return
your calls. She reflects
it was too short the duration
of my illusion;
when two people share
is it less an illusion.
it was too long
the duration of my illusion;
can two people ever share
the same illusion. She repeats
this is not loss
only reluctance to return to routine;
dull though it may be
it is less an illusion. She remembers
when an illusion is short
only the ego is hurt.
This is not pain
only the ego considering
To start a romance
with the city
where the beloved
When he was not
the gone one.
When he sat close by
in the shade
of the Rangoon creeper,
and grazed her cheek
while the heat
and the traffic blared on.
Subhashini Kaligotla's poems have appeared in diode, Drunken Boat, LUMINA, New England Review, and The Literary Review, among others, and in anthologies published in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She has been a writer in residence at Hedgebrook and Sanskriti Kendra (New Delhi) and received fellowships from The National Gallery of Art, the Fulbright Program, and Kundiman. Subhashini is a doctoral candidate in the history of art at Columbia University.