Chow Mein + Anti-Ode

Anti-Ode to this TSA Woman Touching Me Right Now

Please step aside      for a moment, ma’am.
A strike at my bare feet. 
someone else exits the coffin, and 

they go on and      I am here. I have
no bomb but I wish I had 
something to mop the blood with. 

Security, security, my body is yours.
 All around me a taxonomy of luggage: 
raven black briefcase
Prada purse, two seasons ago
pink cheetah print suitcase, 
a faded fuschia trolley bag

I did not offer my body to you. 
I sacrifice at the altar of the state. I am 
grateful to be here, I am grateful to be

here, I am grateful to be he— each red
beep the sound of prayer. We make
a home of thanking no one.

Efficient patting down of what
is mine: widening hips, gift from
Nani in her saffron sari, making halwa. 

Dadi listening to her radio, all night-gown
pale. Milk curdles in the kitchen and
my mother waits at the airport. 

Arms, legs,       extremities, liabilities, 
risky, frisky, it’s all the same. Random. 
Your large palms find my breasts, 

and I wonder at all the people who have
touched me: 
first love, soldered kiss 
roommate’s black hair on my neck
long fingers in my petaled cunt
grandpa’s eyelashes on my cheek
angry brother, wringing my hand

My arms they stink of threat.
That I would dare enter through
your door. How could I move?

I’m not really talking to you. Silence
has made a knot of my tongue. To unfurl
it would be to release the ocean. 

Ma’am,    I’m going to have to check your hair.     
Sugarcane juice sharp, scent of jaggery,
oil of coconut and its hairy whiskers, 

bounce of endless sun, frizz of mud-soaked
earth and rain, where the stray dogs howl,
a dirty river that is still ours

— these are not words you have in mind. 
More like BIG, more like ETHNIC, more
like BROWN, more like TOO MUCH HAIR. 

Your hands are on my scalp, they orphan 
each curl, splay the parts out like a ritual killing, 
ripe for the hunt, the slow-burning touch

of nation. You’ve done this before. 
You’ll do it again. 
It’s not your fault. My hair is ruined. 

Interview with Chow Mein

Note: This poem is drawn from interviews with members of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a sex workers’ collective in Sonagachi, Kolkata.

I. How or why did you come here?
Your voice stutters 
across the afternoon, 
like it’s crossing a street.
Now, jaywalking: 
you say you’ll tell me though
you don’t like to repeat it. 
I was trafficked, you say, 
|and your voice knocks 
to the ground. 
It tiptoes. 

A simple fact 
has been placed before me
with all the quietness
of pain. 
It asks softly
for the hush 
of lunchtime and
the trust of a woman. 

All around us there is 
a riot of chow mein, 
plastic forks 
moving up and 
down and 
sideways like 
jagged drumsticks. You say 
you cried. You say they 
kept your money. You say 
no one helped. The ends 
of your sentences are swallowed 
by the afternoon din. Misshapen words 
will have to do 
in this summer heat. 

Cross-legged, limbs tucked, our bodies
plastered to the wall, 
I pose questions in half-Hindi
half-Bengali, half-silence,
half-rain, half-diminution,

II. Did you choose to remain here? 

I prod on, interrogate
the shape of your everyday. 
Your voice lifts, a 
pressure cooker before dinner,
a happy whistle. You are

telling me you own yourself now. 
You stack your claims, say 
your mind is fashioned 
in your likeness.
And though the air 
is stale with something unlike joy, 
you insist on saying it: happy. 

III. What are your thoughts on calling sex work work?

Eyebrows furrowed, you say 
you’ll only fight if someone else 
fights you. But if they
come for you — politicians & policemen
& thugs in the ilaka & men & women 
& anyone at all — if they do, 
you’ve got a list of what is yours. 
You’re not sharing.

Urvi Kumbhat is an English and Creative Writing major at the University of Chicago, who was born and raised in the city of Calcutta. She serves as Senior Editor of Blacklight Magazine, Viewpoints Editor for the Chicago Maroon, and has work published in Rigorous, Vavarya, and other publications.