The Abduction

Lines composed in the Thar desert, six years after India’s nuclear test


It’s been six years since angels crossed the road at springtime.

Six years ago the Cherwell carried boats of scrolls whose black letters sliced through ivory sheets. We undid the blue ribbons and the words fell onto our feet, cutting our flesh. We bled. Our feet caked, shards of T’s and Y’s stuck out as we ran home in a sapphire meadow knee deep in water, grey spires suffocating as the wings came down in millions around us.

That night at the ball we crammed strawberries into angels’ mouths but they would not keep silent. “The desert is so still at night,” they said. “You can hear the shifting of the sand.”

The juice from the berries dripped from their lips and splashed on our feet, burning them. “My stinging skin, where is my home, where is my home?” I asked. The night was fluorescent, your green dress fired cannonballs into the sky. “It is time to celebrate,” you said, “not to mourn.”

We danced. Fireflies in the desert broke into homes, hovered over sleeping children, entered bloodstreams, blew up spleens, burned up hearts, singed brains and livers.

“The desert rose to the sky,” I said, but you had already forgiven them.

Your mouth covered my eyes, my tears made you spin round and round, your waist-length hair catching the strobe lights. Your seduction was complete, how could I resist you? You pleaded, “Love me. Love me,” so I took your hand. “Dance,” I said. I wished you were dead.

At seven o’clock no sun rose over the valley. The streets were empty as we dragged our trains home. You stopped for a moment to take up the fabric in your hands and then—as if you knew I would need something of you—you tore off the dirty train and stuffed it into my surprised hands.

Six years ago angels crossed the road at springtime in front of me. I stood in an emerald green dress, alone. They carried you away with them.

The empty street wound round the river’s neck and as I crossed the bridge on the high street, I saw the boats sail out of view. I threw the green rag after them. I was free. I was free of you.


I have a memory of you alone in the night,
The rain outside, you screaming to belong,
My people you called them.
I will not accept that, I said, pushing you away,
These are not your people, these are not my people.
You wore your silver angel around your neck
As if it would protect you from hate.
Conquerors and conquered we have been
With such jewels of god hanging by our hearts.
Like the sand in the desert, you had believed
The burning train would never happen again,
That the women on their backs were the victims of barbarians,
Not our people.
“Why do you want to belong?” I had asked you.
Sometimes I feel belonging is like loving a corpse,
History’s endless funerals.


I return without you to Bombay, the city of our birth. Memory is a curse; what have you done?

I search. I know that carved silver creature must be somewhere. You hadn’t taken it with you the night of the ball, you had left it on the dresser by the window overlooking the crab apple tree. I must find that Asho Farohar, I must wear it, I must remember what happens when I hate, when I hate who we are because I fear our people are killers.

You could not understand why I do not like mirrors. In the mirror in the green dress we were the same person; my betrayal—when you decided silently in a room full of angels to leave me—was to let you go.


I have been looking for you in a hundred cities;
I have been calling your name;
I watch the mountains rise up in Tehran like
Vultures worshipping the sun;
I throw my net into the Arabian Sea and pull up
Skeletons of exiles who searched for land.

Hesitant in prayer, I stand in an ancestral fire temple in Udwada
Repeating softly, humata, hukhta, huvarashta
Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.
You are nowhere to be found.
Don’t my children need to know who you are?

Finally, in Pokhran, in an ancient haveli with
A Hindu shrine that leads off from a courtyard full of peacocks
I sit silently watching for a sign.
The sand moans, the well runs dry, the angels do not come.
They will not come.

Leeya Mehta
Leeya Mehta writes fiction and poetry. Her work explores the intimate space of the family and how it relates to the physical geography of cities and nature. She is the author of a chapbook, The Towers of Silence. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her poems "Black Dog on the Anacostia River" (District Lit, 2015) and "The Abduction" (Beloit Poetry Journal, 2014), and is working on a novel.
Note: From the Beloit Poetry Journal Poet’s Forum, May 1, 2014, where Leeya Mehta was the Poet of the Month: "At the beginning of 'The Abduction' I construct a personal image of war. As I am writing this note to accompany my poem, I believe we are again at war for the idea of India.'The Abduction' begins among the spires of Oxford University in England, where I was a student and first heard about India’s nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert. Some of the images in the poem are from my life at Oxford. My bedroom overlooked a crabapple tree. I rode my bicycle over Magdalen bridge, under which boats passed on their way up the Cherwell River.Other symbols in the poem are specific to my own cultural heritage as a Parsi Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism predates Judaism and is considered to be the first monotheistic religion. My ancestors came to India from Persia fleeing religious persecution from Islam. In the poem I refer to some of those lost ancestors, who never made it to safety in India, and whose skeletons lie at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. The first Parsis landed on the beaches of Gujarat, the birthplace of Gandhi as well as the controversial Narendra Modi, India’s likely next Prime Minister. In India, Parsis found religious freedom and great economic opportunity.The vision of India that I grew up with was deeply influenced by my socially liberal family and the school where I spent twelve years from pre-K through tenth grade. I came to see India as a special place with transformative ideas: democracy, non-alignment, ahimsa or non-violence, non-proliferation and religious freedom.Fissures began to appear in this utopian landscape around the time I went on to a new high school. It started with the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and Hindu/Muslim riots in Bombay. When the carnage began, a school friend dismissed it saying, 'Only twenty Muslims have been killed so far.' A Hindu friend said of a fellow Muslim student, 'Why doesn’t she just go back to Pakistan, where she belongs?' I remember saying, 'But she was born here, she’s never been to Pakistan. This is her home.' A new cycle of violence had begun, and in 1993, Bombay had one of its worst terrorist attacks by the Muslim underworld.In 'The Abduction' I make a reference to the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in 2002, after the Godhra train fire, which killed Hindu pilgrims and was blamed on Islamic terrorists. Muslim artist friends had to flee to neighboring states because they could not find sanctuary anywhere in Ahmedabad, the city of their birth, as hundreds of thousands of Muslims became internally displaced, lining the roads leading out of Gujarat.Each time we repeat this cycle of violence, I am concerned that we are returning to that time when India was partitioned. Pakistan was partly created because Muslims believed that a Hindu India would not provide equal opportunity to its minority Muslim citizens. Muslim families were uprooted and went to Pakistan; Hindu families fled to India. A million people perished in this bloody cross-migration. In spite of this, India continues to be home to nearly 180 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world.In 'Watching the Fifth War,' a short story set after the Indo-Pak conflict in Kargil in 1999, I wrote about how a Hindu and Muslim family inadvertently exchanged homes after India’s Partition. I was interested in the way we inhabit the same space as simultaneously interlopers and brothers. In 'The Abduction,' a similar dual nature is personified by twinned figures representing my inner battle between conscience and an alter ego, which in turn represents nationalism and a need to belong—to a country, to a parochial history tied to blood and religion. The Asho Farohar that the narrator wears around her neck is the Zoroastrian guardian angel symbolizing the soul’s battle between good and evil.I visited Pokhran, where India's nuclear tests were conducted, shortly before going to Hiroshima in Japan. There it became even clearer that it made no sense to own what you will never use. If you have an atom bomb, you may, in fact, use it. For the narrator in 'The Abduction,' the cycle of violence must end with her. This personal renunciation of blood nationalism is not an act of helplessness or futility even if she feels an overwhelming sense of loss.The idea of India has always been contested. This can perhaps be avoided if enough of us go through a struggle similar to the narrator's in the poem—one which Gandhi saw as an allegorical battle between our higher selves and the allure of blood."