Denaturalization: An Elegy for Mr. Vaishno Das Bagai, an American

Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights. Humility and insults, who is responsible for all this? Me and the American government. . . . Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and bridges burnt behind.

—from Vaishno Das Bagai’s suicide letter, San Francisco Examiner, March 17, 1928

1. Inner Light

As a boy, visiting blood
                         in the warmer regions

of Hindustan, bursting
                         with a sorrow he did not

yet understand, he stuffed
                         his mouth with the fire

of fireflies, haunting
                         his bemused cousins

with a flickering
                         smile, all teeth and flint

spark. Before they drowned
                         in the spit of unspoken

wishes, he gulped them
                         down, believing, thanks

to the delicious God-bending
                         bak-bak of his best friend,

Muhammad, a princely Pathan,
                         eyes bewitched by

a marrow-deep lust
                         for independence,

that the swallowed magic
                         of their light would guide

his ache-shackled
                         heart toward a purer

promise of home waiting
                         beyond the untouchable

hunger of this stolen land’s
                         stolen futures,

in a place perfected by freedom
                         and christened America.

2. San Francisco

For thirteen years he woke
haunted by the dreamt-of smells
of Peshawar—his father’s

neem-fragrant breath, his mother’s
hair, its coconut oil–pungent
blooming comfort, the punch

of gardenia ghosting through
night’s fragile stillness. Sometimes
even the kneeling crave of sun-

baked water-buffalo dung burning
beneath an immense copper
daig of moong daal, enough

to feed every hunger-striking
prisoner back home or to last until
the first blare of Judgment Day’s

trumpet call, until the bladed
shards of a shattered American sky
smashed against his brown face.

His wife, Kala, and their three sons,
had allowed Bagai to forsake Brahma,
to turn his faith toward the blue-

eyed gods of Transformation
who had greeted them at the gates
of Angel Island with flameless

lanterns, festering wounds to mark
the sites of amputated wings.
Kala had given into the delusion too,

had, out of mercy, learned to bite
her cautioning tongue, to silence doubt,
to sweet-talk away the undeniable—

that one day her husband’s blood
would mount the most vicious
testimony against him.
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