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An American

Every Diwali, I explain
to my friends at school
why I am so tired—garba
it’s like dancing—pujas? I guess
like praying— 

I explain in fragments
because even we don’t know
why we wash statues with milk,
why worshipping God takes
so many coats. I don’t ask, 

just sit beside my mother
when she sings. My sister and I
watch our father struggle
to cross his legs; his laughter
resting on his lifted knees. 

He closes his eyes, pretending
to pray. We believe my mother
made this temple herself,
found pictures and tiny murtis, gold
coins with Shiva, rice and turmeric 

stored in tiny steel jars. Only she knows
where everything goes and how to use it.
I have sat at that temple many times,
looking at Krishna’s blue face
and pleasing smile framed inside 

where life is easy—
my mother tells me he is blue
because he is so dark; we would not be
able to see his face otherwise, she says.
Every time I close my eyes to pray 

I see Jesus on that cross and taste
pennies. His blond face like the girl
in music class who told me not to
take the Lord’s name in vain.
I feel guilty wanting to

have stew and tuna sandwiches
instead of kichree. So when my Ba
showed up at school this afternoon
in her maroon and gold sari, and called
my name, I didn’t answer. 

I walked past her to the car, slid
between my sister and her white friend.
I wanted to believe that I was still
American, hiding in the back seat
like a crumpled sari.

This poem appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine.