Travelling in South India

Sneha Madhavan-Reese

Palm trees flash past
barred windows, and words
waft over the train’s
noisy pulse. Something
is different—conjugations
of verbs, endings
of nouns—but I still understand
these pieces of stories
on the train heading east
from Vasco da Gama Station.

Vasco himself once travelled this land, came for spices
and jewels, found language of every hue and heat. How
did these sound to his Portuguese ear, the Malayalam,
Kannada, Konkani of the Indian coast? In three expeditions
to this foreign land, which of these did he come to understand?

I understand every language
in this part of the world
but one. Telugu speakers
switch to Hindi, I revert
to English, and somehow—
Aek masala dosa? No, doh
masala dosa
—I manage
to buy my lunch. But in Kerala,
people see only my foreignness,
speak only English in reply
to my fluent Malayalam.

Melodious Malayalam streams with the afternoon sun
into the sanctuary of St. Francis Church in Kochi. Outside,
two young girls with hair in braids drag the heavy gate
open and shut for fun. Inside, da Gama’s first grave,
before his remains were exhumed and returned to Lisbon.

Where will my bones
rightly belong? Where
I was born, where my
parents were? Where I
speak the language, or only
where my first language
is spoken? On the train
in India, trees flashing past,
I smile to myself
and listen to stories
in a language I don’t know
but filled with words I still

922 public://TravelinginSouthIndia.mp3

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