Sonali Pattnaik


Baba: two short syllables in Odia,
unlike its Hindi or Bangla counterparts
where the first syllable stretches
in the word for ‘father’ or ‘papa’.
nothing about you was a stretch,
in Odia, it is a sing-song sound
like a swing, which you made for us
and would pass under
as you pushed us high
even flat and precise
like the hands of a clock
and now, of time:
your life matched the quick paces
of the two syllables
that held you, for the three of us.
nothing stretched in your leaving either:
you fought with swift strokes
and in your inimitable quick style, you left,
without even a “bye bye”.
you rarely said ‘bye’ once,
always in twos, always repetition
not surprising that we await a return.

Baba, what language
do I remember you in?
remembering is a repetition
that I do not want to endure-
it means the first event is lost.
Baba, barsa padi laani,
‘It’s starting to rain, Baba’
Baba, khaiba badhaa helani,aasa,
‘The food is on the table, baba, come’
Baba, mo print-out neiki aasiba,
‘bring my print-outs with you
on your way back’
a little bit of this, a little bit of that
two languages together and apart;
in the later years,
it was always English
when I fought back
but when I remember you in Odia
seas threaten to drown my heart.
what language did we love in?
mostly indecipherable
but this comes to me often–
I was inconsolable in school
because a teacher had been harsh
my sister called you and you came
straight from work and took me home
no questions asked;
on your scooter, as I stood in front,
six years of age, tears fast drying up,
before my mother sent us right back,
I tasted unadulterated love,
a smattering of the freedom from hurt
and fear that only love can bring us.
the logos of love
stands tilted and shaped
like a father in a red shirt
on a Bajaj scooter
appearing on a hot afternoon
in the middle
of a harsh school day
waiting with a smile
on the other side
of iron gates.
If language could hold
then I’d hold you there forever
but look at me, alien and bereft
in my own land. where I am
I have come only to see you leaving,
the gates in between seem
to be made of something
stronger than metal this time.
I am thrice removed from you now
remembering you in a language
that was neither this, nor that
outside of you, in many places at once,
desolate, inconsolable and mad,
I am placeless, nomad.
what language did I love you in?
that’s easy –
it was the language of silence.
I hope you heard through
the whirr of the ventilator
the ensnarement of sedation.
you must have remembered
that I spoke best when I was silent
when you swung your head
with a sudden jerk
as they put you on with me
on a hospital video call
as you fought to regain
your senses.
what language did we lose you in?
Chaali gala?
you left? you walked away?
chaali- to walk in Odia but also to go
and how you always loved both
‘let’s go’, ‘chaala chaala’
you urged us to be on the move
you, always towards
me, always to, in twos,
some of me now gone with you,
some of me smothered, split, unsaid
wondering where you could have gone
you were always so at home here
the earth solid under your feet.
home is a watery place since your leaving
good thing, for you didn’t like swimming.

what language do I find you in?
I find you in between worlds
in the little spaces between the big things
where you always lived
where you are most unwritten, unwritable
checkered lungis, warts on your clear skin
that bothered you now and then
unreasonable fights
and uncontrollable laughter
at memories of follies
which once seemed like iron gates
opening wide, as our sides hurt
and our egos melted into joyful tears.
your name to us or what we call you,
a token of the untranslatability
of twined lives, 
of your indelible
presence on my being, on my tongue
which I may have been foolish
enough to believe was mine alone
now I see, what I may not have seen,
you are a language I had learnt
without being taught,
a mother-tongue,
a language that is home.
these two short syllables,
packed closely together,
all the place you need
to live on

miracle called life

this wondrous body,
with orbs and orifices,
veins running like wild brookes
amidst a forest of atoms.
this ever-giving body,
how hard it works but never
in doubt about what it must knead,
when it must rest and when sow seeds.
let your body heal, it is stronger than
you know or think, trust the heart,
it knows, in faith and love it grows
as does your glorious body–
It's the stage of the miracle
called life.

Sonali writes : This poem I wrote for my father when he was being treated for Covid in the semi-ICU on oxygen support and couldn't read, but I sent it to him nevertheless. Once he came home after being on ventilator support, only to go back to the hospital again after three days, he remembered that I had written a poem for him and asked for it through gestures and barely audible speech. I read it to him, overwhelmed with emotion, little knowing that we would lose him five days from that day. His asking for it on that day, is all the validation the poet and the daughter in me will ever need.

Dr. Sonali Pattnaik is a teacher, poet, visual artist and academic. She was a permanent lecturer at Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College where she co-founded with students, the literary journal Palimpsest. She has since then taught Literature in English, Gender Studies and Film Studies to graduate and under-graduate students for over a decade at several colleges of Delhi University, Mumbai  and Gujarat University. She currently serves as Visiting Faculty and ‘Outside Expert’ on the Board of Studies in English at The Department of English, St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad. Her poetry, artwork and book reviews have been published in several journals and anthologies, including The Bombay ReviewYugen Quest ReviewThe Book Review, The Indian ExpressMuse IndiaCafedissensusWordgatheringWriter’s AsylumWomen’s Web and The Shout Network and Through the Looking Glass: Reflecting on the Madness Within, Indie Blu(e), Pennsylvania, USA: 2021, The Kali Project, Indie Blu(e), USA: 2021 and Journeys, Sampad, UK: 2010. Her debut book of poetry, When the Flowers Begin to Speak awaits publication later this year by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. Her academic publications and interests converge on gender, cinema and body politics. Her work can be found at and her Instagram handle @versonali.