River Letters

Poorna Swami


What if you had known me differently,
if you didn’t need to purse your lips to say
the “p” that loops into a little exhale—
cheeks sucked in,
half-kissing a mispronunciation?


When I was born, they drew a chart,
a beautifully superstitious crisscross of lines
and stars, folded into quarters,
a prophecy that whatever I turned
into should begin with a “k,”
a throat-click barely audible
without the caresses of vowels
—yours are always harsher than mine.
Those paper-bound stars still listen
to this blasphemy
now, as your lips draw close.


What if I had been called Kaveri,
a great river born of auspicious
consonants, if you had to know me
as the waters I fell into
on family holidays,
as that hairpinning river
we traced in our 70s Fiat, stopping
to watch the elephants bathe
under the banyans—
some of us do live in travel guides.
You must visit.


I feel Kaveri today.
How will you narrate me—collapsing
with mango-orchard
summers, or swelling into paddy fields
on the terraces of faraway cities?
How will you call out to me through a waterfall,
enunciate across a disputed border,
dammed, fished and worshipped,
accent the rapids that froth
with the syllables of my star-picked name?


What if you were a river,
a thin blue line
I could follow with my finger
on a map—I would trace you
to your origin, where you begin
in the melting cleavage
between mountains, you would change
each time you crossed a border. In Tibet
they call it Tsangpo, and here Brahmaputra
creator’s child—as if
the waters were reborn here.
What would you be called
where you met the sea, bled into mangroves,
deltas of river-veins, would you be Hudson
or Thames or Nile or creator’s child
at the Bay of Bengal, where you emptied
into another child, creator’s daughter
Kaveri, she is born of the right consonants.
Contort your mouth, your name,
once more, call me whatever you like.