The Hindi Word for Prayer
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR