CCT student wins honorable mention in Ora Mary Pelham Poetry Prize

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First-year CCTer Zhengyan Cai impressed judges of the English Department’s Ora Mary Pelham Prize with her poem Karma Befalls. She was invited to read her poem at the awards ceremony on Friday May 1.

Zhengyan came to CCT in 2019 with a degree in English from Southeast University in China. At CCT, she has focused on Gender Studies, Queer Culture, Visual Culture, and Celebrity Culture.

As she puts it, “I have been interested in Hindu literature and its media adaptations since my sophomore year, and am particularly interested in The Mahabharata and the character Amba/Shikhandi. Karma Befalls is my tribute to that character. In Karma Befalls, I include various versions of Amba’s story. In Amba, I see a woman with the body of flesh and blood going through difficulties to fight against injustice. Disgraced in a world ruled by males, Amba sacrifices herself so that she can be reborn with a new queer identity as Shikhandi and bring justice to the whole land. Amba and Shikhandi’s story is, for me, an everlasting and inspiring fable of gender justice, and I would like more people to know about this amazing story.

As my first language is Chinese, it was a real challenge re-writing Amba/Shikhandi’s story from one foreign language (Hindi) into a poem in another foreign language (English). I was initially hesitant to show my interest in Hinduism as well. But at CCT, especially in Prof. Macovski’s Global Media Group, I have come to see that we all have cross-cultural interests and such interests are embraced by the community. This is what gave me the confidence to enter my cross-cultural poem for consideration for the Ora Mary Pelham Poetry Prize.”

Congratulations on receiving honorable mention, Zhengyan! Here is her poem, Karma Befalls:

Karma Befalls
Inspired by Mahabharat


Like every floating oil lamp has its place
in my honorable mother’s embrace
Mahakala! You spare no partiality to any of those
whose sun of life is approaching the day that will never again rise
I have all mercy Mahadeva you gift
The great river’s direction and destination you grant

Yama is the god of aftermath
thus you made him denied my path
And make me stuck in the endless
unhearing the everlasting time I curse

The god of time, Mahakala!
The ruler of grace, lord Shiva!
Please allow me to head your feet
to pursue the taking back of what you’ve bestowed

In this blessed field of justice
I beseech tonight to be the favored one of Shiva’s
Your steps would fall the rage and happiness
down between my funeral’s firewood
and my mother’s arms

I give up my cumbersome life with willingness
To let this devi in my sight fulfill my eagerness
As if male being were reborn through female being
To become renewed and reviving


Great as Shankara would also admit his fragmentary as chopped green end up
And with the better half he rises as the full moon being perfected
But you, Mahamahim Bhishma?
I bet your unawareness of your own deformity
Since the day you left from your mother’s body

Did you hold nothing in the eternal years, with no wisdom accumulated?
Like a stream in deserted mountain, overwhelmed in the rain and infertile when
Never drains yet never fully-watered
‘Cause its shallow riverbed can only be moisturized
Having little water yet ample wet mud

Now you are still caught up in whether your doomsday is a ‘he’ or ‘she’,
Begging for greater glory from being destroyed by Shiva instead of headed by Kali
Is it that Lord Krishna’s mighty discus of time ain’t dazzling enough to catch your
Or is it that fear still occupies your heart
then you are unable to take death as your fate?

Abandon your fatuous blindness!
Then take a good look at your doom-bringer’s face!

And I won’t hesitate for billionth a second
To tell you again how I’ve went through fire and blood
Till I once more stand in this world

Look, son of Goddess Ganga!
On where we stand
Parashurama failed to chop your arrogant head
Here Parashurama dropped his weapon and oath
Meanwhile Amba witnessed Bhairava the decapitator came forth
Leading me to the path of revenge
Guiding me to belong the destination of my preexistence

Listen, Mahamahim Bhishma!
Dark clouds have flooded the sky due to my red tears
Thunders are growling to dedicate Rudra the drumbeats of sacrifice
In this storm half of Amba melted into a new river
And her other half spattered in the yogis’s bonfire
Beneath my ashes there your epilogue lies
Such does the burns-all fire hidden in Shiva’s third one above his two eyes

The one who swears greatness, hear me!
“Shikhandi” means she had her hair coiled on her own
Can you see the true heart that this name has sworn?
I make my own Shiva, and be my own Shakti as well
Never matters male or female
Just as time would fairly bring destruction to all

Arjuna once promised to have you defeated
As the round moon being shot at the falling of the world
Bhishma! I am now Pinak’s arrow of ruination
I am your Rahu who chases you in every life from past to future
Yet in this one Mohini refused to be at your side ever!