Nagercoil wakes with the approach of dawn.
The sleepy streets fill fast
with dark chocolate-skinned tradesmen,
busy clerks and taximen rush past
uniformed school children with neat braids,
all smelling like the wonder of fresh coconut curry.

It is next to the southernmost tip of India; Kanyakumari,
where the sun sets and rises,
orbs making a gratuitous golden glow.
One hundred years ago my grandparents came from there,
every breath skipping a nervous beat
in a boat rocking back and forth like a candle,
but they couldn't sleep
because their minds were already dancing on land,
with unseen smells and sounds and souls,
their teeth weaving the brightly coloured threads of Nagercoil
into a fabric of words falling from their lips
onto the sunny soil of Singapore.

My grandparents were teachers but cousins first,
with the same ancestors of the same dreams,
in search of a place where apples from trees
found their way onto teachers' desks,
away from the guts of hungry children,
where a family could be sowed in a fertile house
from the seeds of hard work and tradition.

My grandfather was an upright man.
I think his back was straightened with the force of good,
pushing strong against wrong so he wouldn't have to see it.
My grandmother would only ever wear a rustling sari made of
     pristine silk.
She would hold conferences on the kitchen table with herself,
the beautiful sound of home a melody from her lips
her children would never recognise.


My father carries the word lightly upon his breath.
He does not long for the weight of its sounds.
He says it is difficult to savour something you do not understand,
and feel sad missing what you will never know.
Nagercoil is just an unseen image to him,
the language just senseless noise but years later,
I am treading upon the same soil,
muddy boots taking searching steps,
backpack filled with English stories, looking for the place I belong

the history alive in me is unable to speak,
my mouth is a temple without words of praise,
my veins are vessels without blood of my past,
and I want to say Nagercoil like it is mine yet I can't,
I only speak somebody else's language.

My grandparents came one hundred years ago,
every breath skipping a nervous beat,
in a boat rocking back and forth like a cradle.
On the long nights they sang a song of India,
for what was then and what would be,
a fabric of word falling from their lips in
Malayalam, a heirloom I never received.

by Deborah Emmanuel
from When I Giggle in My Sleep (2015)