The Big House At Mambalam

by Siva Ramanathan
The Writer's Block
Second Place (tie), November 2019
Judged by Laurie Byro


The cattle left Pondicherry in four wheelers
and came to T-Nagar in Mambalam,

straight to their sheds behind the house
where partitions were made for cows and buffaloes.
They settled down, they wagged off flies.

The clay pot soon filled up with kitchen waste—
the uncooked, the peels, and rice-washed water,
all for the fodder trough.

The dung used to make gobar gas
reached the kitchen through PVC pipes.

Daughter-in-law number one did puja;
she took Aarti with camphor and incense
and worshipped the behind, where the tail started,

the dung place—goddess Lakshmi resides there—
she loved to circumambulate,
feed it hummingbird-tree leaves.

The harvest Pongal was celebrated
for the worshipping of cows, buffaloes and goats.

Before the celebration, the courtyard was prepared
for the festivities, topography marked
with pointers in strategic places,

cow dung was lumped as Pillayars
every dawn at the front doorsteps
and crowned with yellow flowers.

The hierarchy of daughters-in-law vied with the daughter
of the house to draw the kolam, a rice flour artwork
with dots and loops, depicting the Sun Lord’s chariot.

Cattle with newly-painted horns in vibrant colours,
wearing huge Hare Krishna beads and mock-silver anklets,
were made to circumambulate the wood-fired brick stove.

Freshly-harvested rice boiled in jaggery, garnished
with cashew nuts and ghee brimmed over as prasad.

Respected and pampered, the cows
received the first offering.


Grandma and little uncle had four chicken coops
for raising broiler chickens. When floods came,
the chickens drowned,

but the cattle were led to higher plains.
Servants and vendors only dared use the side gate.
The long queue was for buying thick buttermilk.

Drumstick trees, mangoes, giant limes, guavas,
sapota, were grown at the back of the compound.

Night jasmines, ixora, wax flower, oleander,
were planted for the gods.
We did not have to purchase flowers.

A few furlongs away, Grandma had a farm
where the well was always full. Beans and gourds
intertwined and every two or three days,

we plucked greens and vegetables.
I tagged along with her to the family farm.

Inside the house’s inner courtyard, uncles sat
with hand-woven towels wrapped around their waists,
while their wives rubbed gingelly oil on their bodies

for the ritual oil bath. I vowed never to get married
if this was one of a wife’s duties,
little realizing they enjoyed it.

Now the big house is demolished, the family farm levelled,
concrete flats tower, and the well is full no more.

As I said previously, I am a sucker for travel inspired poetry. There are many traditions in this poem and references that I needed to look up. We know from the worshipping of the cows this is India.  I found quite a lot of information on Hindu mythology. I love the story as it unfolds, the naming of the flowers, the big house being demolished at the end, echoing Chekhov, so much to like in this poem.  Rather than give it a third, it is long and every part seems necessary, true, well observed and sensual. It is a little taste of traveling to an exotic place, and satisfies the traveler in me.  --Laurie Byro