Srilata Krishnan (2009-10)
Creative writing extracts
When amma came
to New York city,
she wore unfashionably cut
mostly in beige,
so as to blend in,
a puzzle that was missing a piece -
the many sarees
she had left behind:
that peacock blue
that nondescript nylon in which she had raised
and survived me,
the stiff chikan saree
that had once held her up at work.
When amma came to
New York city,
an Indian friend
who swore by black
remarked in a stage whisper,
“This is New York, you know –
Does she realise?”
Ten years later,
transiting through L.A airport
I find amma
all over again
in the uncles and aunties
who shuffle past the Air India counter
in their uneasily worn, unisex Bata sneakers,
suddenly brown in a white space,
louder than ever in their linguistic unease
as they look for quarters and payphones.
I catch the edge of amma’s saree
like a malnourished fox’s tail
some other woman’s sweater
meant really for Madras’ gentle Decembers.
*(from the collection Arriving Shortly, Writers Workshop, 2011; also appeared inArundhathi Subramaniam ed. Another Country: An Anthology of Post-Independence Indian Poetry in English. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2013.)
Bright Blue Bird
A bright blue bird
from a distant tree
flies into my house.
When it flies out, it leaves behind
its bright blue.
The blue hops down
becomes first one word,
and then, another,
till, finally, it assumes the face of a poem.
Before long, the floor is an upside-down blue sky
and the blue of the poem has made its way
into my ink filler,
into my notebook.
A Graveyard of Faces
That morning, I woke without a face.
I had dropped it,
sleep-walking at night,
a forest of fallen trees.
The worms had gotten to
all but the ears.
In the shop down the road,
they had just sold the last human face.
“Sorry, madam. We are out of stock,” the salesman informed a friend,
“In any case, we only do disposables
and the lady, you say, wants a face
that will weather
the long winters of dying poems?
A more permanent sort of face, that would be then…
We don’t do those, I’m afraid.”
Eventually, I have to settle for a disposable.
A face that will not out-last
the forgetting of lines.
But it can do “sad”.
And it can do “happy”.
It can get on
better than my old face could.
On the first day of every month,
I walk to that forest of fallen trees
and bury my face
in a graveyard filled with my faces.
Carefully, I put on a new one,
pink and fresh from its plastic case and,
despite the absence of interested worms,
It turns out that my hostess
is a wonderful woman,
and gracious in the extreme.
I couldn’t have asked for more.
She hovers around me
like a small butterfly,
pointing out the songbirds,
the excessively clear skies,
air crisper than fresh toast,
the cheerful cows bursting with good health and milk,
and the trees.
And then she pops it,
the question I have been dreading all along:
“So what’s it like, in India?”
“We are a developing nation, as you know,” I say, beginning badly.
Soon, I am selling the country
for less than a song.
“Our cities are full of withering trees, their leaves covered in dust,
You are lucky if you see a bird,
the air is always hot with smoke,
our cows are parchment-thin,
and our skies,
no one has the time for them.”
All along, I am holding back another story,
a story I don’t know how to tell,
an interior, shadow story,
and this is how it goes:
Back home, laughter can spring unexpectedly
from last night’s trash.
People steal the skies from themselves,
in the early hours of dawn.
Every day, they eke out colour,
weave the sparkle of diamond needles into silk,
create the perfect, ordinary geometry of kolams
for ants to feed off,
for feet to trample on,
these, and a million other beautiful things,
our people do, daily.
All along, I am sitting on
a dormant volcano of a lie,
“Our naked babies crawl off the streets and
into the embrace of their mothers,
beggars are always fed,
women and minorities are safe,
and caste is dead…”
Long after I have said my goodbyes,
I dream of visiting on my gracious hostess,
this shadow story,
that volcano lie,
A Somewhat Different Question
Water moves up xylem tubes
from root to leaf
in a song we don’t hear.
A tree sings
in shlicks of water,
in strips of bark-crackle,
in the sharp snapping of twigs
under bird weight.
It is an old question:
If a tree falls in the forest
and no one is there,
does it still make a sound?
Let me ask you a somewhat different one:
If a tree sings
and you don’t listen,
can you really hear?