21 Days/ 21 Poems: Under and Over by Shailja Patel


The theme is migration for today’s Another 21 Days/ 21 Poems.

Kenyan poet Shailja Patel is the author of Migritude, published in Italy, Sweden and the US. Migritude was an Amazon poetry bestseller, a Seattle Times bestseller, won Outstanding Book Design in the US Graphic Design Awards, and was shortlisted for Italy’s Camaiore Prize.
Read Shailja Patel’s latest essay, “Kenya’s Three Tribes” on The New Inquiry.
Author website: www.shailja.com



Under and Over

You ask me: What goes under a sari? What does a woman wear over her saris to match their splendour?

When I turned twenty-one, I was a student in England. At York, in the North. My sister Shruti was a medical student in Bristol, down in the South. Six hours away by coach.

We were both poor. Converted pounds to shillings in our heads. Worked the lowest paying jobs on campus because as overseas students, we weren’t legally allowed to work at anything else.

I had a job interview in London a month after my twenty-first birthday. Shruti took the coach from Bristol to see me. We met up at King’s Cross Station. We went to a nearby hotel for tea.

The waiters looked at us disdainfully. Two Pakis. In heavy, ugly coats. Cheap trousers. Thick sneakers for trudging through winter streets.

We thought they were going to say, Sorry ladies. We only do teas for hotel guests. But they let us in. Grudgingly.

Shruti gave me my twenty-first birthday present. A pure wool scarlet cape that hung down to my knees. Sleeves like wings. A wide soft collar that wrapped around my neck. It was magnificent. It was grander, more luxurious, than anything I’d ever worn before. It came from Harrods. The House of Fraser. It cost fifty pounds.

Fifty pounds?

Fifty pounds was twenty-five hours of scraping dishes, loading washers in the college kitchens. A month’s salary for an office worker in Nairobi.

Fifty pounds worth of scarlet wool was my sister saying to me: I see you. I believe in you. You shine.

I wore that coat to every job interview after that. I’ve worn it over my saris even when it didn’t match. I stroked it at two in the morning while studying for professional exams. Lonely, desperate, terrified I wouldn’t make it.

I didn’t. I failed my final exams. I lost my job and work permit. I burned all my boats. I went to America.

We migrants lie to those we love about our success. About our happiness. We tell them how wonderful things are, even when we’re failing. We cannot bear to fall short of their hopes for us. To stab them with the realization that their dreams will not come true. We carry the visions of whole peoples right against our skin. We push ourselves to the breaking point to manifest them.

What we wear under our saris is unachievable perfectionism. Pride so fierce it threatens to incinerate us. We don’t start anything we will not finish. We don’t stop until we’re done.

When I arrived in America, my eldest aunt said to me:

The first thing you say when a man approaches you is I have Family. Everywhere. All Around. Then he won’t think you’re unprotected. Try to take advantage of you.

I have been unprotected. I have been naked and exposed. I have been clothed and armoured. I know what I carry in my suitcase. I carry my history. I carry my family. Over my saris, I wear my sisters.

– by Shailja Patel

From Migritude (2010) and with permission of poet.



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