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The Bright Future of Jalebi

Twisted, but comes full circle


Before

My mother, wrapped in a verdant green Mysore 

silk saree with sweet-scented jasmine 

adorning her plait, sits cross-legged 

on her parents’ divan as the women of her family

place gifts on her lap: two coconuts - 

the water will be calming for the baby; glass 

bangles - the sound will be pleasing to the baby 

as his mother moves around; five bananas

and five dates for good health; betel leaves

betel nuts and handfuls of rice for prosperity.


First decade 

A cacophony of aunties and uncles - cannibals 

around a fire in a jungle - snack on the details 

of their childrens’ lives. Top marks, selective 

schools, career paths already carved out.

I am very strict with them, you know, 

it’s the only way to control these kids.

Who cares about what we want. Our thoughts are nought

but tiny motes of cold, dry dust, 

fragmented, insignificant, full of mistrust.

Obey me next time if you don’t want to get hurt.

 

Second decade 

When I had outgrown naughty corners 

and squats with my arms crossed over my chest,

pulling my ear lobes into my hands, 

it was time for the choochga (a steel spatula), 

the lathuguni (a rolling pin), a wooden spoon

or my parents’ bare hands, hot with fury.

How much we have sacrificed for you and this

is how you repay us? Have some shame.

One day you will thank us. We hit you because

we love you; to teach you right from wrong.



Third decade 

Look at this newspaper article, Pa 

used to say, of the clippings he left for me 

on the dining table. These students were at 

the top of their class. I, on the other hand,

barely graduated. Now Ma had new

goals for me: sit properly, 

laugh more delicately, lose some weight -

so you look like a nice match for your husband.

So much for those bananas, dates and coconuts; 

antivenom might have proven more useful.


Second decade 

The expression, “lesser of two evils,” brought 

to mind: the choice between stitching myself

into the fabric of our Holden Camira 

seats or leaving the safety of the 

car to reenter the house that betrayed me 

to those who oppressed me for my own good; 

the choice to go on existing or 

to stop myself breathing with my frilly, pink pillow.

But really there was no choice at all as most

of them were already made for me.  

 

First decade

Uniformed in his blue shirt, black trousers

and polished leather steel-cap shoes, 

Pa knelt on the floor beside my bed 

and looked into my swollen eyes with pity. 

Fishing my fist out from under the doona 

he prised my fingers outward and stroked 

my open palm with his. Your 

education line is very long

and you will live a long life,

your future is bright, I can tell you that.



Before

When will you distribute pedhas?

was the question they shouted to my mother across 

the warm, dusty street. Her face

aglow, she looked down at her belly - no longer

able to see her chappals beneath - 

and beamed at the thought of a boy. Everyone 

expected a boy. It hadn’t occurred to her 

that jalebis, not pedhas, would be in order; 

still sweet but stickier, sicklier, slightly 

disappointing with their orange, sugar soaked whorls.  

About this poem

I wrote this piece just before I turned thirty in reflection of my life before I started to heal from childhood trauma, set healthy boundaries and break out of the mould that I was forced into. It is an exploration of childhood as a migrant but more importantly as a girl, in a culture that places a higher value on boys while requiring less of them - still a great deal - and punishes girls more brutally when they fall short of societal and familial expectations. The title is a reference to my family’s tradition of handing out sweets to their community when a baby is born; pedhas if it is a boy and jalebis if it is a girl. In terms of structure, each stanza corresponds with a decade of my life and only "allowing" ten lines per stanza with four feet per line, speaks to the rigidity and authoritarianism under which my childhood unfolded. As it travels over my life, the poem sets out and swirls back in a circular motion, like a jalebi.

About the author

Ruhi Lee writes on Boon Wurrung land. Her work has been published in the Guardian, ABC Life, SBS Voices, The Big Issue and WILD magazine. Her book, Good Indian Daughter comes out with Affirm Press in June 2021. Instagram: @lee_ruhi

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