Athena grew up in India and went to the U.S. for her higher education, where she received her BA in Critical Social Thought and History from Mount Holyoke College, her MA in English from the University of California at Davis, and her MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She currently lives in San Francisco where she teaches English at City College of San Francisco.
Athena has written two collections of poetry, Sita's Choice (2019) and Crossing Black Waters (2012), both published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press in Texas. Her poems have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, All Roads Lead You Home, The Missing Slate, Forum, The Fourth River among other journals. Her work has also been anthologized both in the U.S. and India and has been translated into other languages.
Coming Down the Mountain
for Shiv Ram Kashyap
Great-grandfather enters my room in Los Angeles, clutching two clumps of roots still bleeding Himalayan mud. He says he’s sorry to come so late at night, but he can’t find his way. The family house he built in Lahore still stands, but neighbors have moved in and his family is gone. At the University, the botany lab he founded no longer bears his name. His students have aged terribly—they look right through him. He has trouble with his eyes, sees just half of everything—his students, the map of India on the wall. Even the city landscape is missing parts—temples, sari shops, certain street names. The last thing he remembers is climbing the mountain, up from the city he once knew and loved. He looks so tired, I want to help him but am myself adrift, barely flickering in this city’s sea of lights. Our family’s dispersed like seeds, searching for each other and their own selves in clouds of lost mountains. I see, says Grandfather with his half-blind eyes, but then he’s gone, waving dead roots in my face.
Crossing Black Waters
Once she stepped outside, her skin
dissolved. She struggled to stay
afloat but as years distanced her
from the caress of the Ganges
that once swept her plains,
holy hum of her hidden
Himalayan caves, she grew
weak. Just when she started
to drown, webs of seed,
teeth, and hair unraveled
to release her, let her float away,
guided by loose, unkempt stars
For the hundreds of thousands of mothers who lost sons
and daughters during the partition of India in 1947.
I thought I lost you
after these thirty years of yearning
to see your face again, your brown eyes,
your hair falling across your forehead,
your smile. And, then this chance
to go to Lahore, to see the house.
Your father warns me not to raise my hopes;
it is not our house anymore. But, there I see it
on the street lined with the marigold trees,
bright orange flowers sailing in the wind like swallows
before falling. The house looks just the same.
The woman who opens the door is old like us.
We used to live here, your father says,
before the Partition.
She smiles and opens the door
I’ve been waiting for you, she says.
We walk into the house; the furniture is still the same—
mahogany table, green lime sofa with wood-carved crustings.
How grand-father had been so proud of them.
May I look around? Please, she steps aside.
This is your house. I walk to the kitchen—
my feet know this path well! Often in the apartment
back in Bombay, my feet traced this path in sleep
but instead of your room, this dining room
I woke up in the balcony and once even outside
the house. Your father made me promise to bolt
all doors lest my feet grapple empty space.
Here in the kitchen, my hands trace the air
like the paths that migratory birds know by heart
still knowing where I kept spices, lentils, rice, wheat
in the various cabinets. All the same ingredients
are here for this woman looks and eats like us
but I don’t know her secret zoning.
The thought of you so close is overpowering.
Can we go to the bedrooms? Please, she repeats.
This is your house.
As I walk up the stairs, my palm resting on the stair-head,
it all comes back. The tension in the house so high
the air is trembling. Your father saying we have to leave
right away. The neighbor’s child, sweet Sunil
was murdered in the market with his ayah. Three days ago,
the house down the street was scorched.
We’d heard the stories before—the news was full of it.
But, then they came to visit us, tap on our door,
envelop us in their horror, shaking rage.
We never thought it could happen to us.
Grandfather wandered about the house touching
everything: the walls, the furniture, even the floor.
He’d spent forty years of his life building this house.
Take nothing, your father repeats. Just cash,
jewelry, a change of clothes. I nod dumbly.
I wouldn’t know where to begin to pack not knowing
where we are going, if we are ever coming back.
it breaks my heart to leave you behind.
I pass by our bedroom with its giant bed still
intact and walk into your room. Your bed is there
in the same place, by the window. But the walls
are bare, and you are gone.
Your father squeezes my hand.
All these years, the days turning into nights and back again
I could take with the thought of you in your room
of all your twelve years. And now, this?
My darling boy! My son!
My husband warned of this great awakening
but how to see the world torn asunder and still live?
The earth, one people, a mother torn from her son
My son! My world crumbles before me and I stumble
down the stairs as if I am dreaming, time and life
no longer a care. The woman entreats us to stay
have tea, share biscuits. Our plane is leaving soon,
your father says.
As we walk out the door, the woman grasps
my hand. She runs back and returns with a package
rolled in old newspapers, moldy string. I take it.
There are taxis at the end of the street, she tells us.
There were always taxis at the end of the street.
My feet crunch the flowers on the ground leaving
orange footsteps. My fingers struggle with the string,
your father helps get it open. I undo sheet after sheet
of old newspapers, the headlines still screaming.
THOUSANDS MURDERED IN RAWALPINDI
TRAINS WITH MUTILATED BODIES ARRIVE
REFUGEES COLLIDE IN RIVERS OF BLOOD
I am mute to the news, and I let the newspapers
to the ground. Your father shakes his head
and picks up after me. There, at the very end
after I have unwrapped all the news is a canvas,
dry and safe after all these years, cocooned
in its horrific packaging. I slowly unroll…
the top of your head, your soft brown hair,
your brown eyes looking so curious and straight at me,
your nose, your mouth, your smile,
your small shoulders, your chest—still breathing!
I hold you up with both hands as I walk and I am smiling
and orange flowers are falling from the sky
raining on both of us.
Contributors and Attributions
Printed with permission from Athena Kashyap and Stephen F. Austin State University Press, Nagadoches, Texas. Cannot be shared without permission.