Srilata Krishnan (2009-10)

Srilata Krishnan

A poet and fiction writer, Srilata is a Professor of English at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Srilata was a writer-in-residence at the University of Stirling, at Sangam house and at the Yeonhui Art Space in Seoul. Her debut novel Table for Fourlong listed in 2009 for the Man Asian literary prize, was published by Penguin. Srilata has three collections of poems, Writing Octopus (Authorspress, 2013), Arriving Shortly (Writers Workshop, 2011) and Seablue Child (Brown Critique, 2002). She also co-edited the anthology Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil PoetryHer work has been featured in The BloodAxe Anthology of Indian Poets, The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, Wasafiri, Recours au Poeme, Caravan, Fulcrum, The Little MagazineKavya Bharati and in two anthologies published by the Sahitya Akademi. 

Time at Stirling

I spent late spring and part of the summer of 2010 on the University of Stirling’s picturesque campus working on a draft of a second novel. The first month was (for me, at least) cold and frosty though the shops were optimistically displaying “summer” clothes. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the Scottish summer is purely a matter of hope and imagination.  That is to say, it takes place solely inside people’s heads.

After the hustle and bustle of Chennai, the silence of Stirling felt constructed, almost unreal, even loud. This got worse after the students left for the summer. The campus turned into hauntingly beautiful acres of empty space. Too quiet almost for someone like me who had just left behind a densely populated city. But the quiet time helped kick start my work wonderfully. And leaving the familiar behind often fuels the writing mind. You acquire a certain perspective, a certain useful distance from everything that you know or think you know.

I spent my mornings and afternoons writing – either in my apartment or in my room in the Department of English Studies. The staff and faculty at the department were wonderfully welcoming. John Drakakis, Katie, Scott, Stephen, Angela, Bethan, Alison, Jacqui and many others became my friends from another space that I slowly began to feel at home in.  The department with its coffee and stimulating conversations is now part of me.

Evenings were spent taking long walks around the loch, past the swans and their signets and yes, an eighteenth century Italian style castle (the Airthrey castle) which now houses the Department of law. I would return to my apartment and spend a couple of hours reading Kelman, borrowed from the University library. 

As an academic and a mother of two, I am pressed for time, torn in multiple directions. I forget sometimes that there is a big part of me that needs to write. That identity melts and disappears into other roles – more pressing and urgent. At Stirling, no one was aware of these other roles – they knew me only as a “writer from India” and so, for the first time, I felt as though I was walking on the right side of the road – not against the flow of traffic but with it! I didn’t have to steal time from anything or anyone to write and that was lovely. I had vast stretches of uninterrupted writing time – especially precious when you are working on longer narratives where it is so easy to loose the thread of words and ideas.

Sometimes though I missed the happy chaos, the small talk and the constant interruptions of my life back home. In many ways, it is this that makes up the “stream” of my consciousness, I think.

I gave a reading at the department which I thoroughly enjoyed! I read from my short story “These Things Happen if You Don’t Watch It” (which was eventually published in Wasafiri), an excerpt from my novel Table for Four (now out from Penguin) and a couple of poems. Towards the end of my stay in the U.K, I also participated in a reading held at Lauderdale house, London. 

On the whole, I felt as though I was back to being myself again and I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that there were no “official” demands on my time.

Creative writing extracts

Arriving Shortly

When amma came 
to New York city,
she wore unfashionably cut
salwar kurtas,
mostly in beige,
so as to blend in,
her body
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
and leather,
remarked in a  stage whisper,
“This is New York, you know –
not Madras.
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
sticking out
like a malnourished fox’s tail
from underneath
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,
die again
and again
and again.

England, 1999

It turns out that my hostess
is a wonderful woman,
kind, house-proud,
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,
imploding within.

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?