Sir Shamsi & Other Poems

by Orooj-e-Zafar

Sir Shamsi

The damp smell of paint is a soundscape.

Sir Shamsi’s throaty cough echoes
down steep stairs to the music-room, ripe
with dampness and I think to my seven-year-old-self,
“This is what right feels like.”

He presses each key on his harmonium
like a woman he cannot help pleasing;
she responds in kind. He asks
me to use my voice until it surrounds me.

The raag leaves my throat without me wishing it to,
and he runs a high pass filter on it with kindness–
his eyes, jaundiced, but their warmth still eludes me.

Years later, when I had tucked kindergarten
long past primary school, his show aired
on national television. He sang, filling
his concert with the thick scent of nicotine

and when he rested his head on his woman before
starting another song, he never lifted it again.
They say his heart stopped,

just like raag malkons never does
like the days I sing without him never do.

He raised my voice and lulled it to honey;
he showed me what it could do if I always

Your Skin Tells Your Story

published originally at Sula Collective Issue 7

Loss will find a way under your skin no sun-ray
has ever walked through, undress its baked-brick form,
enrich your vessels with its score, rush to your head
like a compliment you never got before

and make sure every dividing cell remembers
the burn in your chest unraveling like hand-knit stitches.

Loss is dhikr
the dowry we take without ever being asked;
it is etched in the muchness of birthmarks,
reinforced in your collaterals so no obstruction could
ever hinder its infinite course.

Loss is your true inheritance, the codon
hidden in your melanin. Your eyes have seen worlds
the spectrum of violence has deemed necessary just
for you–

your body is a canvas of insecurity nestling like a hive-thought
broadcast in all the men you have known;

watch how your pride only inhabits your sleeve.

Loss is your color, paling the rest of the gallows
while your Sama spins spirit
out of your every turn.


Tell Your Growing Brown Daughter

Kajal looks great on you as long as it isn’t speaking for you.

You are the sound of spring blooming;
it’s alright if you cannot hear it.

Your being emotional is not a lunar cycle.
It is not an excuse to unbruise your knees
from praying; it is understanding why you need to pray
in the first place.

Boys may call you names but, they wouldn’t know holy
if it stared their eyes back into their skulls.

You look great in orange,
you look great in black,
you look fantastic in any color you feel proud wearing.

Be kind to all the anvils not letting you leave your bed this morning-
especially to yourself.

Your parents are trying their best
to parachute to where you are;
we need you to tell us we’re doing okay.

You are doing so well my belly has swelled with pride
more times than I can birth;

It’s hard untethering you from my core
but, it is my job to ensure you can shed
what keeps you down.

You don’t have to get married unless you find someone
who gets thrills from hearing your name;
you don’t have to get married at all.

Give back to the earth at the very least
what it gave you; the world owes you nothing
so your place is yours to make.

You will never outgrow crying in my lap—
even if it is all I have to offer.

You are beautiful, blushing under layers
and layers of melanin when you were born.

You have the instinct of a woman,
but there will be times you are wrong
and that’s okay.

Always – always – be kind.

I love you and you never made it hard for me to do that little.

I am proud of your heart still unrusted under the world’s vitriol.

You never needed fixing
neither does anyone around you
who caught or let loose of, your fancy.

There will always be other times you can be right so
be kind,
be kind,
be kind.


My Khala is an Honest Woman

originally published at Rising Phoenix Review, April

Being an educator is in her blood.
Her school was rechristened after Khaula
so she would live thirteen-hundred-and-
fifty times more after she left us.

My khala put half of her life teaching girls in a village
till it stood eighty thousand square feet off the earth,
unhinged from all the revolutions she started.

She made history in the quietest of places
for the brightest minds to shine colors
while she handed them a glass bottle.

She made the news once, when her school
was renovated after thirty years of its standing
but I pray–

I pray for the day I turn the news on
and don’t see human natural disasters
disguised as reporters.

Those fifteen minutes of fame not once asked for,
not once appealed,
tore down her hammock-dreams
off her whitewashed walls,

spit in her new cooler-filters,

questioned whether her nurturing was enough
for these “village girls”–

my khala is an honest woman.

“Our kids have ambition. I dare you to find
a private school that can breed our discipline,
our morals. We sit on carpets and partitioned halls taken for a library.
I dare you to teach your star-children
humility sitting on a cushioned chair.

Our girls are equal.
Our girls are learning.
Our girls
deserve better

so thank you for stopping by.”

My khala is a grateful woman;
not one story can ever do that justice.


Decembers in Islamabad

Originally published at By&By Lit Issue 2

On Sundays, my hair is oiled to the roots
scalp-peace from expert fingers massaging into me,
“Almonds are good for your mind,
I’ll massage capability into your head.”
I believe it.

When I’m bathed and perfumed
with a black cat talcum powder bottle,
my parents’ rug is mine–

Their wall-long window shines sleep in through the sun.
Street helpers announce their arrival
at the commencement of city sectors;
the newspaper smacks against the glass.

I will pretend to read it till mother sounds
her approving “hmm.”
The Qur’an will be caressed with care,
handled with respect,
sung to the perfect enunciation,

wrapped back in its holy silk blanket,
and closed.

My parents’ computer is mine–
Mickey will profess his love for Minnie
for the thousandth time in sixty years.
I will smile from the weight of homework
lifted from my eyelids (done come
Saturday night),

a bowl of almonds to my right,
munching and tugging remnants from between
my brushed teeth.

“My girl wants to be a doctor,
almonds would do her good. They say
they make you sharp. My simple girl
needs almonds.”

When the credits roll, so do I,
scrunch my nose at the blinding sun –
creamy in my half-wet hair,
out of reach – streaming between my marveling fingers.

I am six, without worry:
prayers behind me, almonds finished,
milk drunk, cartoons watched;
these Sunday mornings are mine.




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