Illness in Instalments


by Sumana Roy



Illness rinses my insides
while I wait for you
to dye my hair.
Syringes and needles
lie carcass to a past
in my blood.
You like colour.
My paint is dark sputum,
sunlight a walking stick
with which you reward me.
We repeat passwords
of bank accounts.
Sweet lime, pomegranate,
apple, banana:
you fill my canvas
with demons of promises.
My tongue drains of its mother.
You scold me
in unfamiliar languages.
I sit straight in bed,
my spine in ballet.
“Good Health” is a skit
I now rehearse every evening.
The doctor claps
with stethoscope beats.
He borrows the sound
of my heart
for his orchestra.
You plan, like an ant
who’s suddenly discovered
this season’s immortality.
You hold my hand
as if it was an umbrella
you are opening into the rain.
You plug my ears
with your fingers:
the world is a firecracker
whose sound
you’re guarding me from.
But I can hear what they say.
I see it in their calendar faces.
You move wispy hair
from my forehead.
You count time in finger taps.

Convalescence arrives
like an unfulfilled expectation.

You treat health like bed linen,
ironing out its creases
around my body.
You teach me how to breathe,
to steal air from its march past.
You stir spoons in empty glasses,
you scold the thermometer,
you calculate, you wait
for my fever to dissolve
into inconsequential sweat.
You promise to take me home
as if I was a newly-wed bride.
You talk of the past
as if it was the future.

And when my body begins
making my future a past,
you look at me
as if I was an old photograph.

I wait for a new album.




This disease makes of my life an untruth –
a long corridor of fasting.
Food and its epigrams of cure
accuse me of a career of neglect.
The rewards of weakness are few:
almost none, except a lover’s tourist care.
Every morning I am measured against myself.
I watch my shadows shrink into parenthesis.
Everything gets smaller – the dent on my pillow,
my signature on letters; and life.
Only my dreams stretch like elastic.
That, and the day. At night I am Keats,
sometimes Kafka, even Lawrence,
staring at death’s deep cleavage.
By day I’m a hospital poet.

But even my bones had strength once:
it carried the weight of your poems, you forget.




The world’s mouthwash drains
into my gullet. The slap of acid
beat by beat, a fresco of corrosion
in the oesophagus. That beauty is
an untouchable the doctor spies on –
the betrayals of endoscopy.
*All great art comes from suffering.*
Now I know the pain of canvasses
as they are pinched by paint.
All sounds grow faint:
the crowd of pain is a roar
that drowns all other secrets.
I stay up to give it company.
I eavesdrop on hospital gossip
and watch the night fold into
an anthology of obituaries.




More knives have cut through me than men.
Insurance agents avoid me: I’m a ‘hospital whore’.
Needles no longer prick, they are an arsenal of nostalgia.
The chart in the nurse’s hand is a history textbook
doctors consult for reference. Vials annotate.
‘To’ and ‘OT’ form a palindrome around
which anaesthesiologists embalm my heartbeat.

Womanhood is an ambulance
screaming red light from a moving vehicle.
White. Distant. Only one mark of red.
It bleeds to no one’s command.

Nurses talk about aging as if it were a disease.
But men were once like trees, valued for age rings.
Nothing changes, almost nothing, the doctors say,
only a gradual slowing of the movement of oars
on a river I thought I’d tamed forever.

When I return home, restored but never quite the same,
I discover that death is always a hobo.
Now, all the news is on the neighbour’s TV,
all the aroma in yesterday’s leftovers.

Only the first night home after surgery
is what the day once was:
a reservoir of movement, the uterus a fledgling
insect trapped in marmalade on toast.


About the Author:

Sumana Roy’s first novel was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. Her poems, fiction and essays have appeared in Guernica, Caravan, Cha, Seminar, Open, Himal Southasian among other places.