Their Elephant is Longing for Hindustan: Nilofar Shidmehr’s Between Lives

The opening section, set in Iran after the revolution, explores the impacts of the repressive regime, especially on women. With varying points of view, Shidmehr examines how children, marriage, criminal justice and even relations between siblings become warped. Her spare, graceful, understated lines make the brutality they reveal all the more shocking.

For example, the first poem, “Alive,” begins with the unsettling stanza:

Under the knife blade,
my mother’s broken hand in a sling,
purple peels fall
over the face of the counter.

The second stanza unveils a facial bruise (foreshadowed by the onion skin on the “face” of the counter), a scald, neck scratches and a crutch under a chador. The final stanza (with my emphasis inserted) leaves an unforgettable image of indifference:

Feet tangled in the hem of her chador;
my father, leaning over the banister,
slips his hands back in his pockets,
watching as she rolls down the stairs, still alive.

Poems in the second section of the book depict the continuing pain of those who escape: broken ties with family, even children; separation from remembered joys. Its opening poem, “Lovers’ Applications,” depicts the frail link of a chatline in extended metaphors of knitting, thread, fabric and yarn. The final stanza:

I push my nails into my palm
until it hurts. I think we are caught
on the yarn of it. The person who knits
this world into a village has dropped
the ball and it is rolling away from us.

The book’s final section moves to getting on with life and travelling in countries not of the poet’s origin or adoption. Some of the poems here feel slight compared to the power bombs in the first section, but here, too, are delights, such as “Eve’s Eureka,” in which Eve dreams of a time when:

… all Men of Science

can finally admit

they have no teeth
to bite the apple
I have found.

Shidmehr has succeeded in exposing the pain of repression, loss and displacement without sentimentality or political rant. She evokes in few words a real human being, as in this stanza from “A Jingle of Bracelets”:

her sweaty fingers pushing
crumpled one thousand-toman bills into my hand
or mossy coins slid between the chinks
in her chador, from the soft fabric
of her bra. Sometimes the tin bell sound
of her bracelets is a silver arc like ice
on the base of my spine.

This is a book well worth reading.


Jean Van Loon holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared in Canadian literary magazines, including one story in Journey Prize Stories 19.




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