Nandini Dhar



The fishbone snaps into two and my mother points out to me—a lavender and orange sunset hidden inside the joints. She collects such skeletons in the way boys collect marbles: with precision, concentration and attention that teaches her to see the difference in every single one of them. She holds them up like a fork.

Eight tines, twelve, fourteen: family.

My mother collects fishbones from others' plates as if they are lost languages. For my father, grandfather and their numerous guests, the bones are redundant. My father plucks the meat out of the backbones, leaving them at the side of his plate. Along with chewed drumsticks, pressed lemon and chili skins.

My mother stares at fishbones —white, bare, edges stewed yellow with turmeric. She stares at them just long enough, her look transforming into gaze. And picks them up before they are tossed off into the trash heap behind our kitchen. For neighborhood cats. Puts the bones back into the stewpot—an archaelogist supplying missing words into a long-lost tongue.

This she repeats with everyone— my grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and even me.


My mother eats her rice quickly, shoving into her mouth one fistful after another. Because she pushes them down so quickly, some of them land in the holes of her nose. She coughs, but does not stop. Chews on her vegetables— the long green beans, pieces of carrots, cauliflowers, spinach— without attention. Smearing them along with rice and dal, aloof about their distinct tastes : mere formalities.

Her famishment thus rinsed away by staples, she picks up the fish-skeletons, retrieved from others' plates all through the morning. She dips them in the sauce, letting the spices seep in between the joints. A fishbone becomes a curved stone when it touches my mother's tongue. She sucks the spices in from between the joints, making sounds on her lips and roof of her mouth with her tongue. Brushes her tongue through them, memorizing the feel and taste of every single one.


A family of eight in a two-room house. Mouths that demand to be fed. Stomachs that want to be full. In a house where no one has a room to oneself, my mother, when she chews the fishbones, builds a room for herself inside her mouth.

Eyes shut, my mother chews the fishbones, her cheeks moving like rhymes at the end of a poem. Lips stained with grease, smacks of yellow on her chin, she chews the bones apart. Hollows them out of marrows, as she empties a pod of its peas.

In the room she has built inside her mouth, my mother chews on the sun, ripping it off its juices and marrow. When she spits it out, left are smeethrens—dry, white, chewed out of form.

My mother sighs, opens the door of her mouth-room. Walks out. The tattered kitchen rag, the sharp edges of our dining table. The familiar world. A house where no one has a room to oneself.


My mother repeats everyday what she has memorized about the fishbone. A record needle stuck on a word— unable to see the validity of the stanza coming next.

Those bones that belong to magurs have thin but sharp edges. Pin-like; so sharp they shouldn't be touched with the tongue.

Suck. Suck the juices with your lips. And then break them open with your teeth.

The ilish's bones are the honeycombs of a girl's frock—delicate, easy to unravel. Yet hard enough to whip back into ruins on her tongue. One needs a cat's mind to figure out what lies in between those broken fish-joints.

And the rui's, let her spread her tongue: slippery, like moss. The sedimentary language passing on to her her childhood names. Delectable, the opposite of flowers. The memory of which she stores in her tongue and teeth.

They all have themes that others cannot replicate.

The magur provides ordinary assurance: like the smell of the day's first cup of tea, welcomes and guides a sick child back home.

From rui pours forth whatever makes the present—the kitchen cabinets, white walls of the rooms.

Ilish, on the other hand, is legend: the other side, the fish that keeps jumping even when cooked.

The fishbone snaps into two and my mother points out to me—a tongue free of words. My mother collects skeletons of fish in the way museums collect oddities. I snap them with my teeth, in the way my mother has taught me. Unwritten histories strain against, and melt, on my tongue. Of eating. Non-eating too.

Nandini Dhar hails from Kolkata, India. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in PANK, Pear Noir!, UCity Review and Potomac Review. She has just completed her PhD in Comparative Literature at University of Texas at Austin, and teaches postcolonial literature at University of Texas at San Antonio.

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