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3rd Place Summer Poetry Winner: Untouchable - Shoba Narayan


The pot-bellied man with raven’s night skin

led me through a grass-winged path

that rose like yeast from mouldy earth

mesquite grew. mosquitoes stung

we shared a coffee at a truck-stop, discovered a common tongue

in Tamil, his name meant dreadlocks—Sadaiyan-- which he had

strangers in a foreign land, we became fast friends.

he was a snake catcher from my village

in the blue mountains of south India

where clouds ran to capture blue streams below

and smoked hives dripped honey ceded by angry bees

the snake hunt begins with smeared turmeric, sacred ash

said this savior tasked to catch

marauding Burmese pythons that invaded Florida swamps

last week, one swallowed an alligator and exploded, said dreadlocks

both died.

His teeth gleamed white- ivory on ebony

skin I longed to touch


you are not welcome here, my grandfather used to say

to dreadlocks-- people like him

Beat a drum. Ring a bell. Hold a torch when you enter my village

so that I can duck inside. not see you.

so that I can stay ritually pure.

pariahs, they were called by my ancestors

bell-ringers barred from brahmin villages

where smug men took off their sacred threads

before copulating with low-caste bountiful breasts

pariah women are bedded best

their namesake kites, Milvus migrans, now called

Black. is that better?

two kites circle a twilight sky

one is Black, sans story or song

the other, Brahminy, an avenging god’s steed

the pariah kite’s call is fierce outrage

the brahminy’s cry is an insult to the form.

two kites circle a twilight sky

scavengers both, seeking a fishy afterlife


I touch the black man’s naked skin

its softness a shock. an Arab horse’s shiver.

his white irises, guarded. like closing lotuses.

on top of the mountain two nutcrackers stand guard

a village festival with lurching toy sentinels

a rainbow tent, kaleidoscopic rides

people hurry past staring at us

“You are not welcome here.”

kites swoop down picking bones and meat

inglorious carcasses of a vain civilization


the stench of death drowns out the noise

of spectators watching a bloody bull fight


Shoba Narayan is the author of five books and a freelance writer. She has written about food, arts and culture for a number of publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Condenast Traveler, Gourmet, The Guardian, Financial Times, and The National among others, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship in the process. She divides her time between India and the US. She hosts and anchors Bird Podcast, a top-rated podcast about birds and nature. She has made films, and done radio work for NPR and Radio New Zealand. She was featured in five episodes of the TV show, Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie.

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