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Like Divakaruni's much-loved and bestselling short story collection Arranged Marriage, this collection of poetry deals with India and the Indian experience in America, from the adventures of going to a convent school in India run by Irish nuns (Growing up in Darjeeling) to the history of the earliest Indian immigrants in the U.S. (Yuba City Poems).
Groups of interlinked poems divided into six sections are peopled by many of the same characters and explore varying themes. Here, Divakaruni is particularly interested in how different art forms can influence and inspire each other. One section, entitled Indian Miniatures, is based on and named after a series of paintings by Francesco Clemente. Another, called Moving Pictures, is based on Indian films, including Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay" and Satyajit Ray's "Ghare Baire." Photographs by Raghubir Singh inspired the section entitled Rajasthani. The trials and tribulations of growing up and immigration are also considered here and, as with all of Divakaruni's writing, these poems deal with the experience of women and their struggle to find identities for themselves.
This collection is touched with the same magic and universal appeal that excited readers of Arranged Marriage. In Leaving Yuba City, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni proves once again her remarkable literary talents.
From the Trade Paperback edition. less
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; September 2009 128 pages; ISBN 9780307476760 Download in secure EPUB
Title: Leaving Yuba City
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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Each Sunday evening the nuns took us for a walk. We climbed carefully in our patent-leather shoes up hillsides looped with trails the color of earthworms. Below, the school fell away, the sad green roofs of the dormitories, the angled classrooms, the refectory where we learned to cut buttered bread into polite squares, to eat bland stews and puddings. The sharp metallic thrust of the church spire, small, then smaller, and around it the town: bazaar, post office, the scab coated donkeys. Straggle of huts with hesitant woodfires in the yards. All at a respectful distance, like the local children we passed, tattered pants and swollen chilblained fingers color of the torn sky, color of the Sacred Heart in the painting of Jesus that hung above our beds with his chest open.
We were trained not to talk to them, runny-nosed kids with who-knew-what diseases, not even to wave back, and of course it was improper to stare. The nuns walked so fast, already we were passing the plantation, the shrubs lined up neatly, the thick glossy green giving out a faint wild odor like our bodies in bed after lights-out. Passing the pickers, hill women with branch-scarred arms, bent under huge baskets strapped to shoulder and head, the cords in their thin necks pulling like wires. Back at school though Sister Dolores cracked the refectory ruler down on our knuckles, we could not drink our tea. It tasted salty as the bitten inside of the mouth, its brown like the women's necks, that same tense color.
But now we walk quicker because it is drizzling. Drops fall on us from pipul leaves shaped like eyes. We pull on our grey rainhoods and step in time, soldiers of Christ squelching through vales of mud. We are singing, as always on walks, the nuns leading us with choir-boy voices. O Kindly Light, and then a song about the Emerald Isle. Ireland, where they grew up, these two Sisters not much older than us. Mountain fog thickens like a cataract over the sun's pale eye, it is stumbling-dark, we must take a shortcut through the upper town. The nuns motion us, faster, faster, an oval blur of hands in long black sleeves.
Honeysuckle over a gate, lanterns in front windows. In one, a woman in a blue sari holds a baby, his fuzzy backlit head against the curve of her shoulder. Smell of food in the air, real food, onion pakoras, like our mothers once made. Rain in our eyes, our mouths. Salt, salt. A sudden streetlamp lights the nuns' faces, damp, splotched with red like frostbitten camellias. It prickles the backs of our throats. The woman watches, wonder-eyed, as we pass in our wet, determined shoes, singing Beautiful Killarney, a long line of girls, all of us so far from home.
The Geography Lesson
Look, says Sister Seraphina, here is the earth. And holds up, by its base, the metal globe dented from that time when Ratna, not looking, knocked it off its stand and was sent to Mother Superior. And here the axis on which it revolves, tilted around the sun. Like this, the globe a blur now, land and water sloshed into one muddy grey with the thick jab of her finger.
Ratna returned to class with weal-streaked palms, the left one bleeding slightly. She held it curled in her lap so it wouldn't stain her uniform as she wrote out, one hundred times, I will not damage school property again.
Now each girl sits with her silent laced shoes flat on the classroom floor. I grip my chair-edge. I know, were it not for the Grace of the Holy Ghost, we would all be swept off this madly spinning world into perdition. Sometimes I feel it at morning mass, six a.m. and the ground under my knees sliding away, hot press of air on the eardrum and the blue sleeves of the Virgin opening into tunnels.
Ratna didn't cry, so Sister Seraphina pinned to her chest a placard that said, in large black letters, WICKED. She was to wear it till she repented, and no one could speak to her.
This is the way the moon travels around the earth, Sister says, her fist circling the globe, solid, tight-knuckled, pink nails clipped back to the skin. I know the moon, dense stone suspended in the sky's chest, which makes flood and madness happen and has no light of its own. As our heathen souls unless redeemed by Christ's blood.
That night in the moon-flecked dormitory we woke to Ratna thrashing around in bed, calling for Sultan, her dog back home. She would not quiet when told, and when the night nun tried to give her water, she knocked the glass away with a swollen hand. All over that floor, shards, glittering like broken eyes, and against the bed-rail the flailing sound of her bones. Until they took her somewhere downstairs.
On this chart, points Sister, you see the major planets of the Solar System. Copy them carefully into your notebooks. Smudges, and you'll do them over. I outline red Mars, ringed Saturn, the far cold gleam of Uranus, their perfect, captive turning around a blank center which flames out like the face of God in dreams. I will my hand not to shake. We never saw Ratna again, and knew not to ask. Tomorrow we will be tested on the various properties of the heavenly bodies, their distance, in light years, from the sun.
I I'd seen it only in daylight, once each month when we were sent down to be dosed with Enos Salts. Regularity, the Sisters said, was the root of health. A nun in front and one behind, we filed across the compound to the low brown building crouched among jhau trees. And at the door, waiting, Sister Mary Lourdes, her habit stiff as pages in a new book, her hard white hands smelling of carbolic soap.
Mixed with warm water, the Enos turned a pale yellow, bitter and bubbly, burning the nose. Like champagne, said Yvonne whose parents were Goan Christians and drank. Cheers, dears, she'd say, the plastic infirmary tumbler raised, breasts thrust out, one eyebrow lifted, a black-haired Marilyn Monroe, while we Hindu girls from bland teetotalling families watched open-mouthed. Until the day
Sister caught her at it. And made her bend over and whacked the backs of her thighs till the ruler left strips of raised flesh. We watched the silent light glint on her Bride of Christ wedding band each time she slashed the air.
II So it was strange to come to it in dark, alone, wrapped in a blanket that prickled my skin. The night nun's name wavered in my brain like a flame in wind. Her hands held me too tightly, made me stumble. Or was it the rippling shift of ground? The air was fire, then ice, I could not swallow, and were those stars or yellow bullet holes in the sky? How the veiny shadows of the jhaus crawled through the infirmary windows onto the bed where they put me. I screamed until Sister Mary Lourdes bent over me with a syringe and then I stopped because I knew that I was going to die.
III After the fever had drained away and the pus, after the swelling in the armpits and the groin had gone down, long after I was returned to the dormitory, to the sough of night-breaths and girls crying out in sleep, I would remember the ghosts. They came to me
when Sister put out the light and disappeared into her cubicle. One by one, spirits of girls who had died in the infirmary, who told me their diseases, diphtheria or polio, cholera, typhoid, the whooping cough. I was not afraid. Their breath was cinnamon-scented, their cool fingers like rain on my fevered forehead. Does it hurt? they would whisper, bending to kiss me, and hush now, though
I was quiet already. Some nights they wore white, some nights their hands glimmered like silver in the dark and smelled of carbolic soap. They would lie with me like my mother long ago, their breasts soft against my face. Their fingers wearing the Bride of Christ bands stroked my back until I slept.
For a long time after I was well I thought of them, wept silently under my blankets, went sweaterless in the Darjeeling damp to make me sick again. Longed to tell someone. But I was afraid of questions, afraid of Father Malhern with the ripe red wart on his chin, who came to exorcise the school the last time a girl talked of spirits. Afraid for Sister Mary Lourdes. And so I held to myself that cool darkness, and rising from it, those hands and mouths and breasts that like grace had called me back.