A cup of fine tea: Shikhandin’s “Bones”

Shikhandin’s “Bones” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #12 of Cha, this poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for inclusion in Best of the Net.)

–This post is written by Bob Bradshaw.

Sometimes a poem relies on the reader’s knowledge of the poet’s local region or even of her life. Sometimes a poem relies on a wider knowledge, of a specific literary tradition or religion.

Sometimes this can’t be helped. In general, however, I think this kind of specialized knowledge should only be there to enhance a poem. It shouldn’t be crucial to its understanding.

There are, of course, exceptions. Sylvia Plath’s poetry is an example. How much would I enjoy her poetry without some knowledge of her life? Would it be like watching a fencer practice alone? The fencer’s ‘fight’ wouldn’t engage me emotionally.

In “Bones” I don’t need to know either the poet’s life story or the religious tradition that she comes from. Clearly there is a religious background to this poem. And the Ganges is known as the holiest of rivers. But beyond knowing that, do I need specialized knowledge to enjoy this poem?

We have all probably seen documentaries of India where bodies are burned in religious ceremonies along the Ganges’ banks. That is all that I, for the moment, need to know.

How could this stanza fail to capture my attention?

The smallest bones I collected,
still warm and sticky
from your smoldering pyre.

I’m taken aback by the stanza’s last line, ‘Mother’. It places me in another place, physically and emotionally. The lines are simple straightforward, as if this isn’t something shocking but simply part of a world that I’m unfamiliar with.

But a mother reduced to ‘warm and sticky’ bones is disorienting, at least for me, temporarily. The shock, however, is offset by the speaker’s calm tone. It reassures me. The poet tells us that her mother’s charred bones symbolized

those small pieces of your life
that you had never intended
anyone to see.

I take these lines at face value. I assume I’m overhearing the speaker talk to her mother, and that there would be no reason to question what she is saying, especially at such a time.

I made sure
the pot containing them sank
deep into the Ganges.
I watched the bubbles bob and spit
as the pot receded

Here the narrator is carrying out an obligation, as if she were a guardian of her mother’s wishes. It’s almost a pledge by the daughter not to reveal those ‘small pieces’ of her mother’s life that she ‘never intended anyone to see’. She sinks the pot ‘deep’ into the river. They also sink deep into the daughter, not to be lifted out.

Yes Mother, I did.
This was one task I did

The last stanza, ambivalent, is powerful. Here the speaker isn’t as forthcoming as she was in the previous stanzas. Here she only hints at the conflict that existed between them. This is the ‘one task’ at least that she has done for her mother ‘sincerely’.

The last task is a gift to her mother. The conflict and to some degree an attempt at reconciliation with a loved one at death is a common one, and one that I identify with.

No doubt readers can fill in background material, literary or cultural, that would enhance this poem. But the information won’t change the power that the piece carries.

“Bones” is a beautiful, and touching poem.

Also read Tammy’s brief commentary on the poem on the Cha blog.

Shikhandin [blog] has been published in India and abroad in both online and print journals and anthologies. She has won prizes in poetry contests in India and one of her poems was long listed for the Bridport Poetry Prize 2006, while “March” was commended in the Writelinks’ Spring Fever Competition, 2008. Also, her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among Story South’s Million Writers’ notable stories of 2007. Biswas was a participating poet in the 2008 Prakriti Foundation Poetry Festival in Chennai and a featured poet during the Poetry Slam organized jointly by the US Consul General, Chennai and The Prakriti Foundation in December 2009. She continues to write full time.

8 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Shikhandin’s “Bones””

  1. Kulpreet Yadav Says:

    I guess ‘Bones’ by Rumjhum, is a simple, yet powerful work. For me the impact maximizes at the very end where she says, ‘This was one task I did/ sincerely’.

    I guess when the parents depart, they do so still thinking the children needed to be parented a little more. So, the poem wraps up the growing up of the narrator very well indeed. It’s intended to bring peace to a mother, and I think it does so very aptly.

  2. Rumjhum Biswas Says:

    Thank you so much for this Bob. I had no idea how far this poem could go where my readers are concerned. I will come back here and re-read your article with greater care, and then write a proper response. I have to run now and do so many things that are keeping me away from poetry these last few days.

    Best regards,


  3. abha Says:

    Through this poem one can read a lot into the relationship between mother and daughter.
    Thanks, Rumjhum.

  4. Amitabh Mitra Says:

    Wonderful Rumjhum
    I had read this poem earlier and remains my favourite

    Amitabh Mitra

  5. Mike Says:

    Thanks a lot! I like this interpretation – “She sinks the pot ‘deep’ into the river. They also sink deep into the daughter, not to be lifted out.”

    But I have these questions in mind as I read this. First, how can one be sure that the persona is a daughter? I’ve learned from somewhere about the Hindu rites at the Ganges- family members, esp female are not allowed to go to the ghats (the stairs) lest that they’ll wail and the deceased can’t leave or enter the their afterlife peacefully. Usually, it’s the eldest son who collected and splashed the ashes. In that case, either the persona is a male or she’s suppressed her feeling hard – this probably explain why his/her action verbs appear calm and quiet like “watched”, “collected” or even “made sure”.

    Another interesting point about this poem is that the persona doesn’t seem to believe in the rejuvernating power of the Ganges that opens the afterlife to the deceased. To him/her, the waters are a cave that buries the mother’s body and secret -the bubbles bob and spit as the pot receded – the last warm breath of hers vanishes and her pieces of life goes down in the cold river and rest in peace. That’s the “one task” that the persona have in mind, sad though he/she is deep down.

    So I’m thinking is that the speaker first, let the mother go by suppressing all tears and dramas, second, to protect her from all the noises and the control in the traditional hindu society – let the pot sink as deep as possible (That’s why I don’t quite agree with the reading here that there may be some conflicts between the mother and daughter). The relationship sounds intimate to me all along- “warm and sticky” bones – the scene is very personal and ‘quietly” moving and the persona also knows the mom well “those small pieces of your life that you had never intended anyone to see”.

    This is just what I feel (somehow related to my own personal experience) as I read this moving poem.

  6. New Year Miscellany | Writers & Writerisms Says:

    […] poem Bones was nominated for a Pushcart. Now it’s up in Cha Journal’s A Cup of Fine Tea. The review was written by Bob Bradshaw. This poem is close to my heart, but what amazed and […]

  7. Rumjhum Biswas Says:

    Thank you Abha and Dr. Mitra.

    Bob, re-reading your review I am touched by your understanding of the poem, the persona and her relationship with mother. When I had finished writing this poem, I did wonder how it would be received by those who are not familiar with our rituals of bereavement. As it turns out, from all the feedback that I received, I need not have worried. Your interpretation of the pledge is very correct. The persona does believe that she is the guardian of her mother’s wishes. The ambivalence later on, hints at more than what the persona chooses to reveal. The persona needs to sink her grief as well, but her relationship with her late mother does not allow her that luxury. So as she sinks the pot – her share of her mother’s bones and ashes, because all mother’s children, both male and female get to do their duty – she needs to reassure herself as much as she needs to tell her mother. Children, even grown up, perhaps never out grow their need to take permission or approval from their mothers.

    Mike thanks. However, I have attended such rituals (in orthodox and old Hindu Brahmin families) since I was nine years old, in detail, and the women were always present. The ancient texts do not forbid women from participating in any important ritual be it of bereavement or joy. In fact, in the lives of a Grihasti or householder, no ritual is complete without the presence and active participation of the wife. The idea of “rest in peace” is a foreign import (just like the misnomer Hindu/Hinduism; the actual word is Dharma, a word whose true meaning was butchered by the English language interpretation -religion). Also, buriel is only thought of in terms of small infants whose fragile bodies cannot be offered up to Agni,so that word is inappropriate. The word afterlife is a wrong interpretation of death here. The physical world as experienced by humans in their physical state is illusion/Maya. The real existence comes after the body is shed. I did not understand what you meant by noises and Control in traditional Hindu society. All societies have people who wish to control and have their own unique noises. If you read the ancient texts, you’ll find that most, all actually, Asian religious practises encouraged equality and sharing of obligations and duties.

  8. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    Thanks, Rumjhum, for your kind words. As I said somewhere else, it was one of the finest pieces that I read in 2010. I really look forward to reading more of your work! Happy New Year, and best wishes….

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