Editor's Note

Self-portraits in poetry are intriguing for many reasons, not least for how they compare to their namesake in art. While artists must often use a series of self-portraits to capture change, the interiority of poetry allows each poem to shift, change and speculate. The most powerful use of the self-portrait then, as seen in Zainab Ummer Farook’s work, is when the form assists formation, by shaping the self. In Zainab Ummer Farook’s poem, this change within the speaker, who begins by comparing herself to a shame plant in the title, is as gradual and organic as the unfurling of the plant itself.

This shift could have been captured through any number of poetic styles, but I found it etymologically on point with Zainab Ummer Farook’s choice of the self-portrait. After all, the word ‘portrait’ has its roots in the Latin verb ‘protrahere’, where the prefix ‘pro’ refers to forward or outward, while ‘trahere’ means pulling or drawing something out. The movement therefore, from a thottaavaadi (also called a shy plant) to opening up, coming forth, inviting touch, is a completion of the concept of the portrait itself.

For this, and for other brilliant form-theme couplings, I invite you to this suite of poems. And here’s to more selfies in poetry!

— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Self-Portrait as a Thottaavaadi


Restless in the morning light, I wake to konna

rekindling its romance with the April sky,


umbels of lantana staging a tableau, an abundance

of aambal. I flinch from this flamboyance, this zoo


of velvet marvels. All I know is the grammar of wilting:

clammy limbs and shrinking from skin.


I have grown, untended, into a garden

wary of tenderness. Not for me


the unvexed blush of ixora, or the hibiscus’ hardy bark

to brave a barbed jest. I blink and wither, flimsy


and pink as a cloud wisp. Between this ritual

of drawing taut and trembling shut, there is you—


new, curious. Teach me to hold still.

I may yet learn to revel in your touch.



Strawberry-Picking in Mahabaleshwar


Ruffling through a flurry


of green, I reach for the first drop


of red, sunken in a plush seat of leaf. Then I see:


red strewn through stem and runner and foliage; red glistening


against black plastic mulch; red glossy in the delicate sun; red redder


than the fistful of muscle flinging itself against breastbone. About to realise


a decade-long dream, I leaf through language—choppu, sevpu, erupu, laal, rouge—


and they all fall short. So choppuchoppuchoppuredredred, I murmur, each word


a prayer bead. My fingers pinch and twist the plump fruit by their stalks,


plop them in a basket, plunge back into the plenty, pluck again.


The air is ambrosial. I am glee. I emerge from the garden,


flushed and drunk and weak-kneed, eyes feasting,


once-tart tongue stung with sweetness,


palms juice-stained, studded


with seed, bejewelled


with berry



origin story


your mother wonders how you became a poet. family history of madness feels too glib an answer. the meticulous whimsies of genetics account for dry skin and depression and asthma, not this odd propensity for burrowing, this hoarding of words. the symptoms were always there, perhaps, waiting for the dots to be joined. the aloofness, the squirrelling away of paltry perunnaal paisa to buy books, the three-page epics unfurling in final exam answer sheets. to poet is to make. when your favourite teacher assigns a quest to try and write a poem, there is no try, only do. you jump in, pinafored and pencil-armed, wrangling with twenty-eight lines and the rough tumble of syllables, the world fleetingly legible.


the next day, the teacher festoons you with praise. her words turn gold stars turn three white stripes on your nervous tail. you’ve been chittering away since, hefting pebbles from the shores of language, building a bridge to that burning island across a strange, oracular sea.



Image credits: Pierre Bonnard : L’Atelier au mimosa (~1867). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain. Original source.

The House & Garden magazine has an interesting article on the ‘untold story’ of Pierre Bonnard and his  ‘studio with the mimosa’ painting. Mssr. Pierre loved three things: his wife, his art, and the mimosa tree. In this painting, all three loves are confluent and the result, as is sometimes the case with triangles, a kind of liberation of perception. This thoroughly unscientific claim led us to conjoin this image with this set of poems.


Zainab Ummer Farook loves strawberries, hates writing bios, and lives in her reluctant hometown of Kozhikode. She was a 2023 South Asia Speaks Fellow, and won the 2024 Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing in English. Her work has previously been featured in Muse India, nether Quarterly, and TBLM.

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