• 2020 Volume 15
Ria Agarwal

In Hindi, a “dhaaba” is a roadside restaurant.
Positioned on the side of highways and sullied streets, dhaabas use distinct, chillied aromas to attract hordes of customers. Once inside, blackened rings of smoke waft out of primitive ovens called “tandoors,” and steel plates sit upon long wooden planks that make up the tables.
Here, the ambiance plays a different role. As opposed to the extravagance inherent in candle-lit dining and wine glasses that clink with every movement, dhaabas embrace the basics. They embody the aromatic memory of my mother’s cooking combined with a pinch of garlic, nutmeg, and personality.
If I tried to explain the meaning of a “dhaaba,” I would betray the unspoken yet widely understood personal and cultural implications of the word, so I rely on lengthy anecdotes.

In my family, “dhaaba” began with my parents.

Every Sunday morning, I woke up to simmering, brown flatbreads on the stove. I would skip brushing my teeth until after breakfast, as I had no desire to contaminate the flavors with lingering toothpaste. I always noticed my dad secretly tasting the food before any of us had the chance, and I looked forward to his animated smile.
Every Sunday morning, before I began to eat, I would wait until my dad muttered, “ye Archana ka dhaaba ka kamaal hai” as he compared my mother’s exquisite cooking to a “dhaaba.” His appreciative sighs became a part of my routine.

This routine produced a tangible nostalgia. For my parents, the word allows them to reminisce about running out of musty high school classrooms in search of the nearest eatery, while drenched from the sweltering sun. For me, the word conjures memories of heartfelt family dinners. I remember the moment my sister and I first recited my dad’s dhaaba-mantra with him. His smile widened.
My dad smiles whenever I long for my mother’s “dhaaba” while eating hardened PB&Js that engulf my tastebuds with artificial jelly. He smiles whenever his best friends converse through appreciative nods as their mouths are too stuffed with my mother’s “dhaaba” to speak. He smiles whenever my sister and I assemble more food on our plates than we can eat. 

My dad’s joy is contagious, and only a “dhaaba” can produce this type of joy. 

Whether this happiness stems from devouring coconut chicken curries after dance practice or enjoying garlic-infused lentils with my friends around the dining table, my mother’s “dhaaba” always manages to enliven the conversation. In the process, the “dhaaba” maintains my relationships with my friends and family. 

To me, a “dhaaba” represents more than a disheveled building on the street. A “dhaaba” allows my parents to reflect on their old memories, while also forming new ones with me. It produces genuine happiness within my community and also reinforces my relationships with my sister, my friends, and my culture. This process cannot be simplified into one definition. 

So, on the surface, “dhaaba” is a roadside restaurant.
But, underneath the surface, “dhaaba” is a modern representation of my nostalgia for and pride in my Indian culture. “Dhaaba” cannot be translated because this simplifaction would neglect my appreciation of my community. 

Finally, I could go on about how “dhaaba” is the only word qualified to describe my mother’s cooking, but I’ll leave you hungry for now.

Photo by Garrett Glasgow 


Pedal Gracefully


The petals will be sand in my rain jacket pocket.
They lick dryly against the polyester static
in the zipped cell set flat against my chest.
I was taught to leave them until they
shriveled by their own means, the only pressure
my movement, my legs gliding through circles
on the spokes of my droplet-dotted bicycle in evening’s rain,
the jerks and shifts to avoid senseless puddles threading waves,
energy, loops of ice pebbles
up through my muscles, startling my core
and promoting the slight saunter, delayed erosion
of the curled-up, cocoon shape of decay
beyond replenishment dangling
in my hidden pocket.

When I feel their knots and spikes
jutting slightly against the thin, glossy fabric of my coat
to skim my chest, I know that their abrasion
counts on more than the donut circulation
of pulses in my legs, the swaying of my torso
set on an evening of shades lighter than gray
but softer, less blinding than white:
an evening where my head moves from ground
to overhead, to every side as lustrous cars,
colors of maroon, navy, black,
ripe cherry
paint strokes of my reflection beating by.
The people on the sidewalk
glance down at their puddle-tinted soles
though inside their heads feel nothing close to dread.

When I halt by the sidewalk, slip off my bike,
tumble on sleekness,
When I rush through the black metal
gates, dripping and shedding minced tile slates,
trickling beetle skins of paint to the garden,
my hand hesitant as it hovers before my chest,
I think to
pinch the crinkling petals of the tulip
which once sat dry above dampened dirt
that had not yet turned to mud. I remember there was
a fresh series of days when stems cascaded white silk,
were ruffled against softly by brown rabbits,
so delicately skipping, wisping their rain-stained,
acute triangle noses
against flourishing roots and petal skins, glazed by a natural
film of strawberry milk, frosted white or evergreen-mist blue.

Never bring fingers
like pennies
of frozen plush
to a dry, wrinkled yellow stem:
a stem that may wiggle, hold on
but proceeds to crack.

Art: Flower Fossil by Grace Baranko



Born anew in elasticity, beige and borrowed,
I bathe in barrels of crimson wine
Until it stains in droplets of sacrament on my skin,
Unrelenting, like ashen sediment.

I bathe in barrels of crimson wine
In drunken baptisms veiled by vapor haze.
Unrelenting, like ashen sediment,
My morals bleed in the eggshell of stolen scriptures.

In drunken baptisms veiled by vapor haze,
Could I distill what drapes above in a sole stream?
My morals bleed in the eggshell of stolen scriptures,
Like ink tarnishing cobalt-stained glass.

Could I distill what drapes above in a sole stream?
Its contents coursing, intravenous and acute,
Like ink tarnishing cobalt-stained glass.
I exist outside of solemn syllables and damning.

Its contents coursing, intravenous and acute,
I’m ridden with rituals composed of moss and memory.
I exist outside of solemn syllables and damning,
Evergreen and unforgetting.

I’m ridden with rituals composed of moss and memory,
Curiosity like venom dispersed in opaque milk.
Evergreen and unforgetting,
Do I fear both the life I live and its residue?

Curiosity like venom dispersed in opaque milk,
I feel tangible when speaking in what is not said,
Do I fear both the life I live and its residue?
Sordid in silence, an apple in my teeth.

I feel tangible when speaking in what is not said,
Like how blind blends into midnight with ease.
Sordid in silence, an apple in my teeth,
The remnants of the Sistine chapel on my palm.
Like how blind blends into midnight with ease,
At the week’s closure, I lament and wash away
The remnants of the Sistine chapel on my palm,
Calloused from judgment’s embers.


Art: Angel by Anthony Sanchez

Ramesses II


I used to lounge on the Nile flood plain
to watch the river churn and cut the sands,
and to think how people cheered
for my glory long ago
and now there is only the same glory to cheer for.
Yes, I was great;
I saw it in the flames,
the cascades of shifting bodies in the streets,
proud of swordsmen, land-winners,
fledgeling charioteers.
For them I was enigma,
Ramesses, the Great Ancestor, the god
who tinkered in the life-forge.

But sulking at the Nile bank, I saw rocks
moved and smoothed and shattered, simple water
ravaging the earth, and my mind sprung
up and asked the gods to let me
become water, so Ra told me,
smirking, I was a man.

Yes, I was a man, but maybe
if I climbed high enough
I would be a man emancipated
from the anchors of the world.
Yes, I was a man, but I was a man
deserving, and for years
I climbed the climb to power.

In the seventh year I summited, stumbling
in the sky-wind as gods blew
out their lungs to sound
a warning over the winds, calling
you are no god, just
one speck
on Ta Dehent. Nothing around.
No yielding soldiers, complacent
prince, palace, throne,
glory. Sand. There was sand and I wilted
into it. I took to the tomb.

Now, at night the Nile is not mine;
the red sky sees an empire
and a man in the gloom stands
with a pensive lean.
I am granite; I cannot turn;
neither of us can see the other’s eyes.
In the prelude to boundlessness,
marble does not freeze him,
though his body
mocks me. He forgets
how it is to have everything
and still for the world to spin

Art: Destruction by Jade Wilson