Look I have set my house on fire! – Kabir

for Kimiko Hahn


I used to live in the Bronx. One night I covered my manuscript in a woolen shawl and carried it to the incinerator. I opened the metal bin, shoved it in. The shawl had flowers and bird beaks embroidered on the

I could hear the crackling when the edges caught fire.


A friend came for dinner. He entered our apartment at the edge of Fort Washington Avenue; he stared at the black trees outside the window. He settled into the couch.

Two months earlier his wife had killed herself plunging a knife into her chest. She was lying on the bed when he entered.

There was blood everywhere. I got a new bed. I thought he was going to choke, the way he said it. He pointed to his book bag—green with blue straps, a meager thing.

I go from house to house. I live out of that, he said.

I make the jitney to Mattituck. K and I have been friends for thirty years. Her house is brand new. On the lawn the swit-swit of tiny earth creatures,

Bustle of birds, insects rubbing against grass blades, swarm of crickets. We spill over our shadows, traipse over to the pool.

Resist the temptation to look in.


K introduces me to Barthes’s Mourning Diary. He wrote it after his mother died. My own mother lies in hospital. She has a lump on her neck. No one knows the cause.

The windows have green shutters. The nurses keep coming in. What do they think I am? Amma whispers on the phone. That night I see a nurse all veiled in white.

She has no eyes.


In Mattituck, cocooned in sheets, I see the Untouchable man who chopped wood, then begged for silver. He wants to put the coins on his own eyes when he dies, Grandfather said—

Untouchable means someone whose touch pollutes you. Even the shadow can do this. They used to beat drums to warn people they were coming close. This was in the house of my childhood, the house with the courtyard where the mulberry tree bloomed.

He must hate us for living here, for making him chop wood, I said to grandfather. The wind rose in the mango trees and whipped against the wood stumps piled by the wellside.

Some of the stumps were tied with black cord.


The path of social reform like the path to heaven (at any rate in India) is strewn with many difficulties, Ambedkar wrote. The Untouchable was required to have a black thread either on his wrist or around his neck, As a sign or a mark to prevent the Hindus from getting themselves polluted.


So it was that we dwelt in the house. A verb deliberately archaic (Old English dwellen—to lead or go astray, hinder, delay, stun). Five decades after grandfather’s death, four years ago to this date, the house was sold to a distant cousin. Gutted, a deliberate ruin.

The land is used for a block of luxury flats, complete with swimming pool.


I crouch in front of a lightbox, out of it comes a sonic scape, pitched higher than I can bear. In a back room of moma fluted cries of forest birds, some already extinct

Childhood comes back, pure black happiness. My shadow and I sit weeping.

Bird sounds trapped in a forest, magnified by machines, else inaudible. The forest in the mind’s space, an openness sunk in darkness.

What does it mean to conjugate joy?

Elsewhere air axed, trees burnt, ground clawed apart for bauxite.


K tells me that the lines I hope to write about the house of my childhood, destroyed now, could make a poem. It’s your voice, she says. I wish I could believe her. I make a show of thrusting out with my elbows

As babies do, wet and bloodied, after being born.


Nothing is nowhere. This rings in my ear—line from a handbook for teaching English in Dubai

(I find the book shoved into the seat pocket of a plane circling above Kochi). I keep flying, says the stewardess who wears a blue hat—I could not bear to stop.

The past returns as penitence—what might this mean?


I see my old friend in West Side Market, by the stall of tomatoes. He waves at me. He has his backpack. Is he still going from house to house? I cannot ask him that.

In my notebook lines from Barthes copied in over a month ago—Since maman’s death, despite—or because of it—a strenuous effort to set up a grand project of writing, a gradual alteration of confidence in myself—

In what I write.


Mother takes leave of her mind. She knows grandfather has come to get her. He’s walking by the wellside, she cries on the telephone.

A nurse pushes open the door to my mother’s hospital room.

She has no eyes.


As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the future (shifting
furniture, etc.): futuromania.
—Roland Barthes


Once I had a manuscript, I say to Kimiko. I will dwell in it. I wrapped it in an embroidered cloth, bore it, ever so tenderly, to the incinerator chute

Forever after a feeling of flesh bathed in flame.


Flight of geese over her house. Red maples quivering. I do not find a word for the sound the leaves make. They fly from the fields to the lake, K says.

Close, see how close?