Four Good Words: K. Srilata

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A Professor of English at IIT Madras, K Srilata was a writer in residence at the University of Stirling, Scotland, Yeonhui Art Space, Seoul and Sangam house. She has five collections of poetry, the latest of which, The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans, was published by Poetrywala in 2019. Srilata has a novel titled Table for Four (Penguin, India) and is co-editor of the anthology Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry.

A Woman of Letters

Some days what I want to be is a woman of letters,
to retire to my study and be
solitary.
I can see it all:
that desk – neat, rectangular, coffee brown,
its drawers seductive and deep,
holding secrets from another age,
on it some paper, a pen and an ink well,
and a bookcase filled with every kind of book –
Austen definitely and Dickinson and Chugthtai…

No adolescent daughters abandoning dresses in contemptuous heaps.
No grubby sons, their dirty socks like bombs under my books.
No spouses, no mothers, nor mothers-in-law
with their urgent thoughts.
Sometimes all I want to be is a woman of letters.
Between chores, the very idea makes me weep.

Boxes Have That Effect

All evening, I have been considering boxes.
Hand-crafted ones, compelling and impractical,
the sort that jam easily.
I drop my earrings into one of them,
its blue-bird shimmer
gone before you know it.

I have lived in them all my life,
boxes in which I have become,
with a dangerous degree of precision,
this, that, the other, or etcetra.
I have noted the contents of their insides,
Not bad boxes to be in and yet,
I have clawed at their lids
like some death-row prisoner.

Not in the Picture

I

Adoption agency file.
Her first photograph. The only one in the file.
Passport size. Taken at age eleven months.
Studio backdrop: faded orange and dust you can smell.
There is no prior story. Nothing before
the orange and the dust.
Except a thick sky of blankness.

“Why didn’t they do more than follow procedure? Why didn’t they do more than stick a bottle of milk into her tiny, seeking mouth? Why didn’t they do more than wrap a towel around her elfin thin body?”

I am greedy. I want something larger than orange and dust. I want a sky with fluffy white clouds. I am greedy for some infant cuteness. I want pictures of the day they found her.
Glossy, flattering ones I can enlarge,
slide into albums,
design coffee mugs out of,
seal into her life and mine.
Didn’t they have a bloody camera?
Now what will I tell her?

“What did I look like as a baby, amma?”
Why are there no photographs of me as a little baby, amma?”
“Maybe, they didn’t have a camera, love. Or maybe they did but someone dropped it and it shattered into a million pieces.”
“But they could have stuck it back together.”
“That’s not so easy!”
“Why didn’t they simply get a new one, amma?”

II.

Five years ago. A new-found first cousin on my father’s side tells me about a photograph in his family album. “We are all in it,” he says, “Your parents and mine, my sister, me, and you, with your cute, shining pate and no hair. You had just come back from Tirupati, post-tonsure. Must have been soon after your first birthday.”

I want to see that photograph.
I don’t want to see that photograph.
I will never see that photograph.
I am too busy burying the kernel of a father who has been absent, loud and long, these last thirty five years.

“I have often wondered,” ventures my cousin, “what became of my baby cousin with her Tirupati-tonsured head. But now I know!”


III.

I am leafing through an old album. My mother isn’t home. The shock of a picture with one edge snipped off. There’s only two of us – me and my mother. A tiny bit of someone’s elbow. I know, without being told, whose.

IV.

I am ten. My cousin’s a year old. We are playing on the beach. My uncle produces a camera. I hurry into the frame. Greed again.
“Let me get one of Arvind first,” my uncle says. I step aside. Afterwards, I refuse to have my picture taken.

V.

My wedding. My mother, having raised me single-handedly, has hired a professional photographer. When the album arrives, we find she is not in any of the pictures.

VI.

“It is sharp as an ice pick,”
I tell a politely puzzled friend over dinner,
“this desire,
for certain photographs. If you are not watchful,
it can stab you through the heart”.