Good Mothers by Saudha Kasim
Good mothers obey the old crones who hang
By the windowsills, staring into low-ceilinged, dark rooms.
Toothless and ashen-skinned, they suggest remedies:
Rose water, milk, honey, jasmine, powdery sandalwood.
Good mothers, pregnant and blooming, bathe in all that and
Listen to their mothers echo the interfering old crones.
The ones who suggest bleaching agents
Dredged from the earth and plucked from trees.
Good mothers rub gold rings in honey (vigorously)
And put the gold-flecked syrup drop by little drop
In their newborn’s mouth.
My mother, I guess, was not good.
She didn’t burn cattle skulls and catch the moon
In her bedtime glass of milk. She drank 7 Up and ate
Sardines with relish, burnt frankincense and read up
On Vodka and Cognac brands in Kala Kaumudi.
My mother didn’t stare at snow, but watched Ronald Reagan,
Stetson on his head and mounted on a mustang, chase villains
In black and white cowboy movies subtitled in Arabic.
My mother was not surprised at my burnt bronze skin.
My mother, unlike good mothers, didn’t cover me in Cuticura.
She didn’t want me paraded in whiteface, the Keralite Kabuki artiste.
She kissed my bronze toes and admired my unfair skin.
My mother sneers at whitening unguents and loves my dark brow.
My mother, stuck in a desert town, blew raspberries at
The old crones who gave good mothers white chicken feathers.
You couldn’t be anyone else, she whispered in my ear,
Black, brown, red, yellow.
My mother didn’t name me after Ayesha, the fairest consort.
Instead, she gave me the name of the Abyssinian widow.
Blackness, she says, it means blackness.
My mother gave me the gift of colour.
“As for why I chose to enter the contest: Like most women in India I experienced the prejudice of not being ‘fair or wheatish’ in complexion. As a child I heard catty remarks from neighbours and relatives who couldn’t understand why I was so much more darker than my mother or sister. My mother didn’t really care and taught me not to care – though those lessons were hard to learn and accept for a long time. But as I have grown older I have grown more comfortable in my skin. And my name does mean ‘blackness’ quite literally in Arabic. And I have grown to love it over the years as well.”