Wicked Cakes and Chai

“Foreign cakes and wicked cakes”

you call them, and you call them sweet sirens
that glory in quantities of cream and
chocolate and tooth-deep frosting.
I, too, took
my Darjeeling in ice-blue China once,
dear Helen, with hot paratha and sweet cream,
did some wicked reading under the jujuberry:
Kipling’s words like pistol shots ringing through
my verandah—menagerie, I recall, 
the word he used for my city, and for
its glory of faces: weasels, dogs and swine.

I see a sepoy sipping tea

with Rudyard Kipling, and wonder as I
view them, Enfield rifle in hand, what year
I am in, and what kind of tea their bubbling
Samovar has, and being certain Kipling
was born years after the “mutiny,” the
sepoy is likely my male alter-ego.
Tea with a native! Shoo, figment, shoo! We
float away like dandelions to the
sound of the military band. I wake up
bleeding from the wound of a fountain pen.

“four dirty little cakes of the coarsest flour,
about the size and thickness of a biscuit…”

the English magistrate writes with India ink,
examining (with a sudden knot in his
stomach) the chapattis on his Chittagong
Mahogany desk—what secret message
was kneaded in the native dough? How were
the watchmen passing the bread, turban
to turban, reaching across the country
faster than British post? And the meaning
of a lotus wrapped in bread: Deflowered
India writing history in salt and flour?

Tea Fetish

Fetish (from the Portuguese feitiço)
is “a human-made object that has power
over others.” Fold the faces of the dead
in newsprint: It’s half past three, everything
stops for tea
. A homesick princess had a
sinking feeling once—it stopped all the
clocks from Bath to Bengal. Look how a woman
belongs to power, her fetish hangs everywhere:
wedding patios, barbed asylums, office
deals, marbled parlors, memory-dribbling deathbeds.

Brown Memsahib Masquerade

In a sari spun by silkworms spilling
their guts against a gold-edged gossamer
lullaby—her forgetting begins: brown
memsahib on sofa, maid on floor, chai
and sweetmeats on the trolley, remember
your bungalow going up in smoke? The cuts—
soldiers grinding names between teeth? “In the
brown sandwiches are: thinly sliced cucumber,
cream cheese beaten with a few chopped chives, smoked
salmon…” Serrated pages. Book, a hungry saw, a scream.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi, a Pakistani-American poet and essayist, is the winner of the San Diego Book Award and the Nazim Hikmet Prize, and has been nominated for the Pushcart multiple times. Her books include Kohl and ChalkBaker of Tarifa and Ghazal Cosmopolitan: The Culture and Craft of the Ghazal