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The Hindi Word for Prayer

CAS for Database

Shreya Khullar

Iowa City, Iowa, USA

West High School


There are no temples where I live

so we rent out a rec center for worship.

I call it “a sort-of church” to my white friends

in second grade, while we’re segregated

based on who has a peanut allergy

and who doesn't. A lump of sweet

butter lodges in my throat when they point

at my turmeric-stained teeth.

I try to remember the sun that blessed

the night of my birth. A contradiction like the Hindu god Shiva. Half-man, half-woman, whole-god. In the kitchen Mama kneads incense into sticky rice balls

shaped like milk-cake clouds. The kind

served at Diwali dinners with

stumbly dancing and hymn.

She grinds ginger for afternoon tea.

Stone hitting root like hands

clapped together in holy song.

She slices oranges into slivers and I suck

the pulp out of my teeth, remembering

what it’s like to be halved, then wholed again.

Rounded out like a nursery rhyme from

underneath cherried lips. Tucked away

behind a goodnight’s kiss and sun-cleaned skin.

Mama sings my name in the morning

because it is Sanskrit

for auspicious, and I can bless the rain

we wash our vegetables with. I can entice

worship with just three ingredients. Half a

marigold to decorate pleated idols, half a

question from a little second grader:

Is this who taught you to eat real food?

half a poem by a girl tumbling into the womb of Mama’s religion. A blessing calculated as one hundred and fifty percent. In this life, sweet creams and sour curries come at the cost of half a second-grade soul, half a heart of a mother whose baby no longer eats her food,

and half a plate of marigolds for my country's idolatry. So when they ask how my mama can taste the hum of

pulsing earth and drink the sky, I say,

Yes, this is who taught me to eat real food.


There’s nothing more enticing than a homemade dish, even when it can only be imagined. “The Hindi Word for Prayer” treats cultural food with the reverence of a blessing and respect of a god, drawing the reader in until one can taste holiness.

Shreya Khullar will graduate from Iowa City West High School in 2022. Her work has been previously recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the Princeton Poetry Contest. When not writing, she can be found eating corner brownies or curled up in bed with a tragic historical-romance novel.


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