Cardamom Vowels by Aruni Wijesinghe

Your name is “one of the greatest gifts that a family can give you. It is the first gift that a child, when they enter the Earth, receives from their family. It is usually informed by tradition and love, and the hope and aspiration the family has for that child. It is something precious and sacred and it is a part of their identity.”–Vice-President Kamala Harris on The Daily Show, October 2020

Cardamom Vowels

For Prema, also known as Divine Love
For Neelakshi, also known as Blue Eyes
For Kamala, also known as Lotus
And for me, The Red Glow of Dawn

Your name is not
an apology, the sound kowtowing
to ears accustomed to Jennifers
and Debbies. You are a namesake
for a temple rising
in the Chao Phraya River,
face to the morning sun. Your name
is mantra, meant for repetition.

Sanskrit tattoo on the author’s left wrist in honor of her grandmother, Prema, whose name means ‘divine love.’ The tattoo says Aham Prema, which translates to I Am Divine Love. But it really says, ‘I am my grandmother.’ Image courtesy of Aruni Wijesinghe

Your name is not
a question, voice rising at the end.
Unlearn the habit
of asking. Hold the magic
of Sanskrit in your throat.
Orient yourself with definitions:
red dawns, lotus offerings,
the padding steps of lions’ feet
in forests of rare trees,
groves that tremble incantation.

Your name is not
a punchline. You are not obliged
to accept awkward nicknames
and laugh, not required
to contort your tongue
into a foreign shape. Don’t grow toward
mispronunciation, dividing yourself
into two people. Remove ill-fitting shoes
that chafe along the seams; roam
barefoot in the halls of your name.

Unlearn a lifetime
of answering to
not your name. Make them taste
your name, their unknowing tongues
prickling with tamarind.
Shape their mouths around
cardamom vowels,
your syllables turmeric. Teach them
to whisper spice, intone fire.


Aruni Wijesinghe

Aruni Wijesinghe is a Sri Lankan-American poet. A project manager, ESL teacher, erstwhile belly dance instructor, constant crocheter and occasional sous chef, she has been published in anthologies and journals both nationally and internationally and has collections forthcoming with Moon Tide Press and Silver Star Laboratory. A native New Yorker, she was born in the Bronx and raised in Rockland County, New York, and Orange County, California, where she resides with Jeff, Jack and Josie.

Feature image of the author as a baby with her grandmother, Prema, holding her beside her mother, Neelakshi, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., courtesy of Aruni Wijesinghe