Friday, March 13, 2009

First Flush of Spring

In the Spring when the weather warms
Kamela is wandering naked again
Amongst the tea plants
Grown on steep slopes
Under the shadow of Kanchenjuenga.
The sisters surround her
With bright red shawls
And together they inch down
The steep muddy goat trail
Past the broom reeds and cardamom shoots
Onto a small terrace
Where the rain collects
And a tethered goat
Stands guard on a rock
Bleating its hungered cry.

Kamela and the sisters
Enter a ramshackle hut
With no windows or doors
And three coughing babies
Tended by the oldest boy
Who will leave school at 10
If she can find him a job.
They look to see if Kamela
Brought a package of biscuits
To satiate the gnawing empty pit
“Not now my babies, maybe tomorrow.”
Her heart is filled with shame.

The sisters know they will be punished
And lose their daily wage
For half empty baskets
They must get back to the plants.
Quickly they help slip on
Kamela’s flower print skirt
Her apron
Her bright red sweater
They wrap the scarf around her head
Help her pull on rubber boots
Attach her basket to her back,
And together ascend the steep trail
Returning to the fields
To pick the first Darjeeling flush,
The finest cup in the world.


Plants groomed to perfect round,
Buds picked by crafty fingers
Thrown deftly over the shoulder
Into braided reed baskets
The throngs of giggling women
Pose in smiles for passing tourists
In Maruti vans. The smiles turn to curses
As the drive by shootings
Take the souls of the women
Leaving nothing to offer
To drip into empty coffers.
Kamela coughs and spits up blood
The fever is high today
But there will be no pay
If she goes home to rest.

Kamela is Brahmin, highest caste
Early the next morning,
She asks at the temple
What karma this?
As she takes the blessing,
At least I am not Adivasi, she thinks
Not dark skinned, like the sisters.
She smears red powder on her hair part
The sign of marriage,
Of a husband, yes, who can’t find work
He takes her meager wage
And drinks it away
Leaving bruises on her
Fair Brahmin skin
Now dark and leathered
From years in the sun.

She returns to the garden
To pick the first flush of Spring
One pound of which will bring from
Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly
Enough to pay Kamela
For the rest of her life.

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