Komal Mathew

The Return
“The finding has the losing in the background, the returning has the leaving under its cloak.”
          -Henri J.M. Nouwe, The Return of the Prodigal Son

When you come out of exile, do they celebrate you—
Do they thicken milk with sugar and add crushed cashews?

Do they lay it out with ghee and gold vark like a thin carpet
welcoming a king god? Do they feed you with rows of candles,

a praise of small lights? Do they celebrate that evil failed
and goodness won, that you changed after leaving

after covering a wound, after coming home
to wear what your father wanted you to wear?

In the beginning, the [home] already existed.
The [home] was with God.
The [home] was God.

Then God said, “Let the [homes] beneath the sky flow together in one place, so dry ground may appear.” And that is what happened. God called the dry ground [“freedom”] and the [homes “community”].

The surprise isn’t that the son would leave, desiring land
in a new community. The surprise isn’t that he would win
before losing, that he would return ashamed of dark corners.
The surprise isn’t that the good father would give the son
a party that takes more of his wealth. It isn’t the older, bitter
gate that opened wide. Or that a dream or two was crushed
or a brother who protested this grace upon grace upon grace.

The surprise is that the prodigal son accepts all of it—the long safe
road home, the hug, the meat off the bone. His life before a memory—
could he rejoice in his father’s joy, proclaiming, “My son, my son
has returned!” without thinking of his first meal away. Did he rejoice
later, remembering the old crushed desires? Could he desire
this new desire (a surprise!) without his yesterday
that smells just like his father’s wet neck?

How does anyone come back without going?
Go without being sent? Send without hearing first?
How does anyone hear without being told and told and told?

How does anyone tell without first believing?
(Am I who my father says I am?) How does anyone believe
without being called?

          We are down the road, past the main road, over
          the far border—living in a wilderness but marching
          towards a new land. How can a father call his son

when the son is freely living on dry ground, pacing across
a red road like the seas were eternally parted?

There are questions that take sharp
rights, questions that have limits,
questions that curve slowly, rumbling
into red ripples. There are questions that go
nowhere, that turn around and ask Where was I
going in the first place? Who was I
trying to see?
There are questions that freely
live and freely come home to great mercies,
to gold vark and crushed almonds,
to a home still inside the dining room.

In the beginning, the [inheritance] already existed.
The [inheritance] was with God.
The [inheritance] was God.

Then God said, “Let there be a space between the homes, to separate the homes of the heavens from the homes of the earth.” And that is what happened. God made this space to separate the homes of the earth from the homes of the heavens. God called the space “poverty.”

Bhai, did you know too
that you have a home?
You stayed. You obeyed.
Did you know that this home
is where you want to be?
Did you know that our Father
also left a field for you—

You’ve been carrying the box for so long
you think it’s a good idea to stop
and place it on someone else’s doorstep.
When your neighbor realizes it’s not
the ripe oranges she ordered, she’ll be drawn
to pick it up and hold it close to her
chest. Its weight will not crush her.
Though it will require a pull of her
wrist and a shoulder stretch, a squeeze
from her heart—through the door until,
days later, or maybe years, she will pass it on
like new: a package waiting to be carried,
the brown flap of the box folded to make
a smile, for another friend, so sweet and so kind.

My grandmother’s hands have skin that folds like a moving river, rippling
from her thumb to her wrist to her elbows, falling
towards her wedding ring and her gold bracelets. Short clings
announcing her knees’ desire for hands. What I love most
is that her old hands only stop to tell stories when she makes dhokla.
She stirs without the pinky or the thumb, a three-finger salute
to chickpea flour and Eno, repeating lines of a young bride
to taste and see if it is the same as last week’s. She beats
the batter before it rises, making sure that it knows that nothing
lasts forever. Her tired hands stir and serve and heap until we are full
and ready to return home.

Customary for our leaving and returning, I touch her feet and watch her hands
fall into a blessing—until, I see her old feet, a beauty before mountains.

If I am the clay
and you are the one
that gives gold
on gold on gold
(somebody has to)
If I make myself
into a deep dish,
ready for the pour
If I ask for you
to take care of me—
in bigger houses
and faster cars, in and out
of tunnels, would you
make me into something
little, what you could hold
in both of your hands?

I have a home
that’s been mine.
Now I see—
my whole life
is concerning,
my whole life
is over,
my whole life
isn’t just about
the return.

Now I see—
my whole life
is becoming
the father
and the mother—
hands that hold
and caress—
my whole life
is concerning/
the return.



Georgia, 1983

My mother
decides first
to call a stranger
in their new town
from the white pages
scrolling down:
the Browns, Carters,
Jacksons, Nelsons,
then the Patel—just one—
now a long list.
She calls to hear:
Come over, stay, all of you
and the little baby?—
Because friendships
come slowly
here, she called
to find a better room
in their new town
from scrolling down
the white pages.


Komal Mathew has an undergraduate degree from Georgia Institute of Technology and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Republic, The Southern Review, Narrative, Prairie Schooner, and others. Her manuscript, “Dressing for Diwali,” has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series Open Competition. She lives with her husband and three children in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is the co-founder and co-editor of Josephine Quarterly