The Anatomy of a Servant

By Pranav Mishra
Art by Catherine Hwu
Issue: Scintilla (Spring 2019)

I. anabolism (n.): the synthesis of complex molecules from simpler ones together with the build-up of energy.


be careful, dalit, with your words,
with your posture, with your touch —

you, who rolls the dough, supervises the fire at the woodstove,
you, who sniffs, snorts like a camel everyday as you draw water from the courtyard,
you, who agitates my slumber with the glitter of anklets as you clean,
you, who watches over me as i struggle to eat with childish fingers,
watches the achaar drip down my chin, mango pulp like sinews clinging to my lips; i wish
you could just let me eat alone.

years pass, faces shrivels: marred, sagging flesh,
a mother’s eyes that cannot meet mine.
my unchecked tongue cannot help but wonder at the
scars at the soles of your feet, scars i cannot touch on
skin i cannot touch for its searing impurity; i know i should not be asking
why, but your shoulders stir tar-slow and
you answer me anyway.

II. catabolism (n.): the breakdown of complex molecules to form simpler ones, together with the release of energy.

this scar is from your father when you were born.
his words spill out of it, hot and sticky like the blood you were soaked in
when you were thrust from your mother’s womb, as unsettled watchers murmured.
the man banged his fist on the table with resentment, your mother moaned like an orphaned calf,
chhori hai, chhori hai. it’s a girl.

this bruise is from when you were fourteen,
and your papa showed you an engagement ring. you sobbed,
begged, your throat raw and bleeding like a housefly crushed under a foot; your
dreams of becoming a doctor simmering with the arguments, but he just laughed. you ran,
ran as far as you could, tripped over god-knows-what, watched as bruises flowered
like poppies on your knee.

this mark is from your husband the week before he was killed, you can still
feel the heat of his palms draw away from your thighs, slick with blood,
a pearl-like stone in your mouth so that you do not scream,
so beautiful that it is unworthy of your touch.

this wound is from when you came to work here, when your
unholy dalit skin unknowingly touched the silky brahmin pelt of my sister and
mataji’s face ruby with fury, jewels of anaar in her cheeks,
be careful with your words, dalit, she said as she brought down the beating stick,
the pain like a cold bath in the allahabadi winter,

and all you ever wanted to do was heal —

III. detritus (n.): organic matter produced by the decomposition of organisms.

and now you clutch the letter pressed tight into your palms, declaring
you to be a medical student, an escape, an escape —
i study the cosmos of wrinkles, the constellations of stars
on your face; hear the whisper of knowledge diffusing in and out of your veins,
the humanity pressed and folded between your brittle shoulders. i feel my fingers shiver,
then burn as i put them on your shoulder consolingly, an illegal moment of intimacy.
be careful, dalit, be careful.

Three images arranged horizontally. The first image is someone using a rolling pin to roll out dough. The third image is a scar. The second image is a person clutching a letter tied with ribbon, a hospital and high-rise buildings in the background.