Prime Edition

Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Of women’s bones & the frailty of old age

n the Bangla child rhymes that came to me as a child, the "boori", the old woman, was often a scary figure. Her house was dark and mysterious, the food she cooked the equivalent of a witch's broth, her words came in riddles, and in the illustrations that accompanied those rhymes, she inevitably had a walking stick in her hand. Her age was discernible from her stooping gait. As I grew up, I first saw my grandmother turning into one such woman, and then later my mother-in-law, and now my mother too, women whose age had become a burden for their bones.

You comment on the gait

of women in this country,

those above fifty,

how they roll shiplike from side to side.


I say with the wisdom of my thirties,

a generation without HRT,

and then venture

to try the truth:

Where I live

intent doesn't translate

into action

without bottlenecks

at every joint,

every junction,

every circuit,

every street

Sideways isn't a strategy here.

It's how we live.

Pain, because it cannot be shared, leads to the most subjective interpretations of texts. I have not been able to read this poem, Osteoporosis, by Arundhathi Subramaniam, without the sense of my mother's expressions of pain "footnoting" it. The annotations of Subramaniam's poem are not only in her words or muffled sounds of pain. They are to be found scattered all over our house — in X-ray reports of more than two decades that record the crumbling life of her bones, in bottles of calcium supplements, now numerous enough to be used as bricks for a giant-sized doll house, in the silverfish-eaten prescription notes that could be used as an archive for the treatment of osteoporosis before and after liberalisation of India.

In a youth obsessed culture like ours, where potions and cosmetic creams are supposed to cure "fine lines" and other narrative marks that time leaves on human bodies, Subramaniam's poem builds on a parallel autobiography of age, one that is to be heard especially on mornings and evenings, from women who are sad to be betrayed by their bones. "Joint", "junction", "circuit", "street": here is Subramaniam's map of the osteoporosis city. In these metaphors from urban geography is of course a tracing of the journey of pain. It goes a bit like this: during a drive, one is aware of the destination, but this conscious awareness of a possible traffic snarl at a crossing, a potholed road somewhere else, makes the journey difficult, even painful. In a utopian world, there would be no brakes or need for accelerators inside the human body, but like dust and garbage, pain accumulates at edges and corners, the "joints", and hence the pain caused by travel, of blood and other transmissions.

n this female body, this city of pain, there is no permanent moral. As the penultimate line of the poem goes, "Sideways isn't a strategy here". What is one to do in this city of ruins, of bones losing their density, of synovial fluid drying up to cause commotion between bone joints? One turns "sideways", changes posture and position, prescription drugs and painkillers, but in this poem that comes from a collection titled When God is a Traveller, one wonders who it is that travels — isn't pain a traveller like god?

My mother belongs, as the osteoporosis poem goes, to "a generation without HRT". This is not the only poem that Subramaniam has written on the subject. "It runs in some families/this stiffening, in the early forties,/around the knee, the need/to invest more effort/in the flexion of thumb/and maybe the more attentive/hear a wind blowing/through the card palace/of their bones — a premonition/of the crumble/of resolve and calcium/and fortitude that some call/ageing. And so they pull in their limbs/like ancient drawbridges,/watch roaring desires sputter/into gentler static/though there were always other ways to get here." This poem is titled, almost matter-of-factly, Bones. It is there where everything is — the deposition of food and medicine, perhaps also of prayer, and the gradual erosion of it all, the reserves of calcium and its mythical hardness. It is also where the brakes of life's motion machine are, where swiftness gradually metamorphoses into "gentler static".

And yet, in spite of all the betrayals, of fortifying doses of bone building supplements, the morning and late evening glasses of milk, the annual injections, nothing really happens. And yet one has no choice. As Subramaniam says in another poem, Bones – 2, "When the heart's sludgy tributaries grow dry,/trust the bones". My mother often wonders whether her bones have a memory, whether her limbs remember their swift-footed journeys from the past, and if they do, whether they too feel like succumbing to nostalgia to recreate the days of movement without the encumbrance of pain.

Their dry winter wisdom

will not deceive you

for in their white chalk quarry

lies something truer

than any of the fruity varieties of love

you have known.

What kind of love can one feel for one's bones then? And what use is wisdom if it can't offer a cure for suffering? The last line of this poem is a moral-cum-prescription: "But even then,/remember,/try to remember/the bones". But should we have to remember the bones at all? One realises the failings of the heart only when an infiltrator like loss and pain comes to live in it, after all. Would we remember our bones if they did not hurt?

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