Lifespan of a Blooming Chembarathi (Hibiscus)

to Chinnu (Anjana Harish) 
TW: Suicide  

Did your Amma tell you too
that the chembarathi was a sign of madness?
My Amma did. You know, because Pappu
the ‘madman comic’, wears it before Dr. Sunny
gently ‘fixes’ him with a knock to his head, 
after saving Ganga from Nagavalli’s Ghost
in Manichitrathazhu, cult
psychological horror where women are
both accused & victim.
Chembarathi became this Madness–
through repetition, internal rhymes 
of malayalam comedy,
dialogue our families love quoting with
umpteen rules about being the right Malayali 
penne, all straight, like the 
goddamn pasta. Did you like penne? Or did you
like Parotta, maida layers & oil, quintessential
Malayali food? I’m an idiyappam person though.
I–I mean–my hair is as straight 
as its steamed, squished noodles. You would
get this joke. I can’t translate 
the joke to Malayalam–no words
for us, not any I know. 
You might have; you studied Malayalam, but
your Amma didn’t understand 
it anyway. I can guess. Her first
question must have been are you 
mad? I know how Ammas are. To try help you,  
she took you to school, church, therapy, where 
they knocked you around to
put sense in you/get english nonsense out, 
like a stuck chala fish-bone
they can heimlich out & not 
our ribs, cracking into heart.
Curious me googled ‘chembarathi’ and result:
represents the feminine. trope twisted stigma.
Did you know the lifespan of a chembarathi 
at full bloom was one day?
That’s how long the news cared. I dug 
through the articles for weeks, found photos 
of you smiling with her, both in matching red
and that you went by Chinnu instead – a pet-name, 
from your chosen family? Or maybe pen-name? 
We are no Kamala Das & even she went 
by Madhavikutty. I get it. 
our day to be an open book is not 
here yet.


Glossary
chembarathi – Hibiscus
chala – A type of fish commonly eaten in Kerala
Penne – Girl in Malayalam (in latin letters)
Manichitrathazhu – a famous psychological thriller/horror in Malayalam Cinema.
Kamala Das – Malayali poet and writer, famous/controversial for her depictions of same-sex relations in her poetry/autobiography/fiction
idiyappam  – A steamed rice noodle cake common to Southern India, often eaten with curries
Parotta – A type of bread, with Beef Fry; it is the most well known food in Kerala.

Written by Rouha.
Photograph by Nydia Blas, “Untitled” from The Girls Who Spun Gold, 2016.

Kadalamma speaks to me

Everytime I meet the sea I call Kadalamma at the Corniche, it calls me her kadal-kutti, her sea child, floating inbetween the gaps of land. Kadalamma says I will come back to her. Kadalamma came to me through my Ammuma’s flowing voice, the malayali folklore of a sea mother who is as mothers are: benevolence and rampage all in one. My hair’s waves are not the only way I am water, she speaks through the moonlit breeze combing my hair. My Amma is the storm of which I am the eye. My ancestral mothers bled seas before they bled life. Kadalamma carries the women whose clothes she soaks to protect their children from the fires of this funeral pyre earth. Kadalamma says we forgot we have come from her. We forget no fire we have learned to make, no earth we break, no air we poison, will destroy Kadalamma. We forget these borders we burn on the edges of the earth cannot hold her fury.

Image by Nada Al Mosa, “It’s Raining”

Amma, Acha & Malayalam ft. english

അമ്മ (Amma)
My Amma’s Malayalam is Trivandrum slang,
shifting between simple
churidar and formal sari in a blink.
trishurpooram cacaphony is her laugh,
words the speed of onam boat races
on slow crashing waves of kovalam beach.
It is every spice bubbling
in my Ammuma’s cheenachatti,
both sweet sharkara and sour achar
Chutni podi with chilli podi by her hand.
Her Malayalam hits hard
Ammuma’s soft palms, Appupa’s rare playfulness;
Her Malayalam is a 22-year-old recipe, came along to flavour a desert.

My Amma’s english is accented
with Malayalam, from ancestral
beef fry to salmon grill
Other worlds and words with a twist of her own
Kovalam softened by corniche calm,
chilli podi, sounds of two cities, date syrup
and desert sand filling
the gaps in her english
“Yalla pogam!” She yells “Mafi Mushkil, Aathma!”
Sharkara lacing her laugh,
it echoes loudly in between
the buildings of Hamdan St.

Appupa said my laugh is like hers,
I carry it safe in my voice box.
My Malayalam is a mirror  
of her slang, her lullaby my tongue
Trishupooram still resounding in them.

They complain they can’t understand her,
her laugh too loud, her accent too strong for their weak ears
They demand us altered for their palate
demand silence, compliance
for their tongues to handle.

Amma did not move
for me to be silent;
our laughs are trapped ancestral joy, they died
for the spices you came to our shores for,
they died. Our laughs are eulogy
folded into our voice boxes.

Does your tongue burn?
Here, have the water–
our laughter will not drown again

അച്ഛാ (Acha)
My Acha’s malayalam drips
on the page, fountain pen sprouting
rhymes, rhythms, words
of a Love, land,
loss, gain,
home, no home, new home, old home,
dreams to come, dreams left behind,
shore he came to, shore he left,
a sea, a kadal that watched him come
and go over and over and over–
the second half of his life,
the first half he refuses to forget.

He polishes an english accent
with experience, age, command
and Malayalam slips in, a jewel found:
film comes filim, his english crashes
under Malayalam exclamation,
the language of his soul sees no barrier.

An architect of words, an architect of worlds
an architect on two shores, he built
poems, he built places,
built a love for words in his Molu,
built a home, a city for his daughter.

This new city gentrifies her tongue;
he wonders if he can build
a bridge, a boat for his daughter lost in the kadal
between the poems of his soul and
this new city she speaks of.

Artwork by Dayanita Singh “go away closer”