Original Poetry: “The Secret to a Good Biryani,” “Immigration Roulette,” & “The House with Sienna Walls”

The Secret to a Good Biryani

I.     There are no measures. Not in cooking.

Nor in love. Sab andaaz se, you are driven by instinct.

Layers of marinated chicken alternate

with rice. Think of the multiple layers you need

to stave off the wind and snow of an Illinois winter.

That first winter especially, when you bought the down jacket.

after numerous rounds of the Thanksgiving sales.

Against those, the graduate student stipend is like the dash of chili powder

you sprinkle into the dish.


II.    The jacket soon smells.

Teaspoons of saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, cumin.

mingled with the buttery smell of ghee.

Calls home — I want to come back

Counter claims — think of the sacrifices we made for a better life

for you. Orange and gold autumn nights resemble the puffed layers of saffron

-flavored rice of the almost-cooked biryani in a cold, cold country,

leavening the homesickness for Ma’s fingers kneading oil

into every section of the scalp, while updating you about the neighborhood gossip.


III.  Hair tied tight — Just like the biryani pot with its layers and spices sealed finally.

You wait for the spices to mix and the chicken to infuse the rice.

You hope to mix with the people here.

You source friends amongst the locals unsuccessfully.

You integrate with the Desis — the label embracing you and your neighboring country citizens, all brown-skinned — instead.

Visit temples that you ignored back home, start wearing saris,

Cheer for the cricket team that you ignored earlier, celebrate all festivals,

and pity the people back home.

It makes you feel better just like when you unseal

the biryani and take that first bite.

But something is always missing.

* * *

The Immigration Roulette

The flags at Taksim Square gleam crimson

matching the fez topis on the staff of Hafiz Mustafa, 1864

packing Kunafas, Baklavas, and Locumas in painted boxes

Their eyes slide past the cross-legged women outside, waiting

for leftovers: food, money, and attention.

‘Pay attention to the star-shaped patterns and water fountains’

say the guides. The lacy carvings, the jewel-like tiles, the octagonal muqarnas,

the cobbled paths are jewels on the tours around the Alhambra and Albayćin,

showcasing designs by Moors. Who were expelled by kings and queens buried

in chapels built on what were once mosques.

The New Mosque on Galata Bridge — started by Queen Safiye — an immigrant herself —

buzzes with tourists. The ferries have just come in. A couple stops to take selfies. The wife clicks

her husband handing over his half-eaten ice-cream cone to one of the kids trailing them.

‘How lucky!’ shout the other children.

 Luck selects the twelve for a new life as the Refugees Welcome sign blazes

white on Barcelona’s Casa de la Ciutat ramparts. Turning away from the TV screen

showing weeping, desperate men, women, and children, trying to kiss the Pope’s hand,

the man snarls,‘Who is going to give us a new life? So many have crossed over to other

countries for jobs.’

A century ago, for the ship Komagata Maru

crossing over from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and finally, reaching Vancouver, didn’t work.

The passengers were thrown back, only to be greeted by bullets in their own land.

A hundred years, apologies galore, and a memorial in a town near Kolkata testify

that it’s the turn of a magical roulette that decides:

Who is an immigrant? Who, a citizen?


* * *

The House with Sienna Walls

for Bachuben Nagarwala, Ahmedabad

The sari is draped in the Parsi style

With delicate daisies embroidered on the pallu

that covers your right shoulder.

You sit with back straight and shoulders pulled back.

Your hair is coiffed into a perfect bob

perhaps done by yourself using the scissors and comb,

Made in England, still lying on the shelf.

Your gaze is direct — no flinching or fear in it.

Living alone, no husband or children,

styling hair of women — a first in the city —

You must have steeled yourself against

questions and glances, if not taunts,

multiplicatively more in those years.

It is fitting that your photo is placed in front

of a mirror — surrounded by sienna walls

and crystal globules floating from the ceiling

in the house that you left behind, as a place

for people to walk into and remember the conflicts in their life.

Remember, yet forgive, and learn finally, to love.

* * *

* * *

Jonaki Ray was educated in India (IIT Kanpur) and the USA (UIUC), and is now a poet, editor, and writer based in India. Her poetry has appeared and is forthcoming in The Matador Review, So to Speak, The Lake, Kitaab, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, Indian Literature, Silver Birch Press, and elsewhere. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in print and online for Out of Print, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Wire, The Times of India, and The Telegraph India, among others.