Definitions from a Family Dictionary


(told in 150 words)

yaad n. remembrance, memory, recollection

“Yaad lage?” my mother says, which—to the best of my knowledge—translates literally to ‘memory happens,’ and more aptly to ‘do you remember.’ Do you remember the book I was telling you about; do you remember where I put my glasses; do you remember the last big storm of the summer, the water pooling around your ankles, the rainwater braided in your hair?

I nod. I do remember, and memory does happen in the literal sense: synapses burning a path through the dark hollow at the back of the head, associations leaping forth at the speed of light. I look at my mother and I remember our old kitchen, the smell of cumin and garam masala on my skin, aloo matar on my tongue. Memory happens, right up until the moment that it halts.

“Yaad lage?” my mother says, and I nod because I’ve forgotten how to say “yes.”

baat n. matter, reason; word; language.

  1. talk

I forget my language as I become fluent in English, my mother-tongue the victim of a slow and inevitable erasure. My mother’s family takes pity on me. One of four sisters, my mother watches placidly as I duck my head, my cheeks flushed.

“Kekraa— do you know what that means? That means ‘crab,’” my aunt says.

“I know,” I say.

“Tum Hindi nai baat kare?” my grandmother says: you don’t speak Hindi? The entourage of aunties titter in the background.

I don’t speak Hindi because I am embarrassed, because I am wary, because I am a generation removed from the culture that seeps through this house, the scent of it so strong you can smell it in the street.

I step outside to sit with my father, ignoring the shrieks from indoors—somehow, a live crab has escaped and scuttled deep into the fireplace, claws raised as it awaits recapture.

pyada n. pawn

I am four years old when my father and I play chess at the CSL Biomedical Facility. My father, the project engineer of the plant’s electrical audit; my father, the famed ‘King of Sacrifice’ from the local Fiji papers, known for surrendering pieces in order to win a game. I peer at my father over the chess board, unsmiling, shoulders hunched, pieces arranged black-white-black-white, smallest to tallest and back down to smallest. My father smiles.

Twelve years later my father peers at me over the chess board, dismantling my Sicilian defence with practiced ease, as though it’s muscle memory. My fingers hover over a bishop. Each piece has its name, but two come to mind often and with ease: raja and pyada, king and pawn.

In twenty-four years I’ve never toppled a king, never taken a throne. Yet any pawn is a mere six steps away from becoming a queen.

bemaar adj. sick, ill

“Maharani bemaar hai?” my mother says, mock-bowing as she hands me a cup of tea. ‘Maharani’ means ‘queen,’ but out of my mother’s mouth, it translates better as ‘drama queen.’

Whenever I am sick my mother makes scones scented with cinnamon, tea laced with ginger and masala. The coddling feels like reason enough to act absolutely miserable until I am well.

Sometimes, flushed with fever, I remember hearing my mother sing. The words mean little to me but it’s familiar, brand-new yet broken in. Perhaps my mother sings as she soaks a handkerchief in eucalyptus oil and ties it neatly around my neck—a noose designed to help me breathe. Perhaps she sings as I waver between sleep and wakefulness, adrift in the knowledge that I am loved.

I almost always find a mandarin-orange by my bedside when I wake, peeled and segmented, next to a cup of masala tea.

hath n. hand

The last puja I remember happens soon after my brother is born: our house swells with the smell of spice and camphor, and the aunties become an assembly line of hand-made sweets. My mother strides through the house, carrying an aarti dish. She stops in front of me and passes her hand over the aarti’s flame and past my head— a blessing. I clasp my hands in prayer.

A fire burns in the centre of our living room, contained within a black metal pot, and after the ritual is complete my father and my mother’s brother carry the pot outside. I follow it.

I can still hear the bhajans playing, the laughter too big to hold, the conversations too quick to understand. I stare into the fire. Clutching my hands into fists, I blow hard and make a wish. The fire barely flickers.

My hands have never felt so small.

Shastra Deo

Author: Shastra Deo

Shastra Deo was born in Fiji, raised in Melbourne, and lives in Brisbane. Her first book, The Agonist (UQP 2017), won the 2016 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and the 2018 ALS Gold Medal.

2 thoughts on “Definitions from a Family Dictionary”

  1. Excellent work Shastra. Enjoyed this immensely. Brings back memories. I look forward to more from you.

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