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
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.
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.
A simple fact
has been placed before me
with all the quietness
It asks softly
for the hush
of lunchtime and
the trust of a woman.
All around us there is
a riot of chow mein,
moving up and
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
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.