K Srilata’s new book of poems is a beautiful blend of un-belonging, longing, living and loving

Editor's note: Writer's Room is a new books column, curated by Krupa Ge along with 15 writers across India. The column seeks to introduce new works as well as allow a peek into the writer's studio, accompanied by recordings of book readings.


K Srilata’s The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans is a wonderful read that travels across terrains, emotional and geographical.

Talking about what drew her to this idea for this collection, she says, “I didn’t think of this as a collection at all at first. I wrote one poem and then another and then a third and so on, a few appeared online and in print, a few of them — 'I Bury Them Under the Witnessing Yellow of the Chinar', 'They Help Themselves to Many Things' and 'Everything Drowns, Except This Poem' — even went viral, which was a totally new thing for me and took me by surprise for I wrote them essentially for myself so I could process some of the horrors of the present. And then I looked back at all the poems I had written subsequent to the publication of my previous poetry collection Bookmarking the Oasis, a book that appeared around the time of the Chennai floods which meant I did nothing for it, not even a proper launch, for I couldn’t muster up the energy for it. I found that I had a reasonable number, that they were not too bad, and then it came to me — that I was perhaps ready for a collection.”

 K Srilata’s new book of poems is a beautiful blend of un-belonging, longing, living and loving

K Srilata. Image credit: Sudarshan

Srilata wrote a beautiful short story for a magazine I founded and edited, The Madras Mag. I couldn’t help but notice an overlapping of themes between the story and this collection. “Yes, that story, 'Cousin, Newly Acquired' and some of the poems in 'The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans' – all deal with absences, the absence of a father in particular. It is a motif that has been present in my work for a while. Only now have I grown more aware of it. I was perhaps blocking that awareness all along!”

On writing in English and being multilingual, Srilata says, “Some things I can only ever say in Tamil even though there may be a decent enough approximation of it in English. When I am at home or when I am talking to people who know Tamil, I will happily switch to Tamil mid-sentence and no one will turn a hair. However, it is quite a different thing when you are setting out to write “a poem in English”. While writing an English poem, you have to stretch extra hard or do something ingenious in order to get your “Tamil” thought across. Or sometimes, it is best to leave the Tamil word in there — let your readers make what they will of it. Languages other than English slip in and out and form the interstices of what is supposed to be poetry in English and I see no reason to stop that.”

The poems in this collection, Srilata says, were written over the last four or five years though she had begun work on some even earlier. “The process for each one was roughly that I would start by writing something down in a simple unruled notebook I carry around with me. Then revisit it a few times before typing it out, leave it to settle in my laptop for a while and then revise it again perhaps. It is a bit messy. The process of putting together an anthology is harder because you have to somehow get individual poems to work together — not so much in terms of a theme but in terms of mood, ideas… And I got quite anxious about it all, went back and forth. I printed out all the poems, laid them on the floor and that’s how I worked, trying to decide which should go where in which order. Then there came a time when it all just seemed to work!” And when does she know if a poem is done and ready? “When I read it out to myself and I don’t cringe at any of the words or phrases,” she says.

Some of the works in this collection feel very intimate, almost autobiographical. To be able to do that the author has to be both brave and vulnerable at the same time. Is this writer used to it yet? “One never grows fully used to it. The vulnerability is always there, though I tell myself I have hardened. It is like looking at deep waters, the ones within you — of not seeing at first that the water runs deep but realising it after you have put your foot into it. A bottomless well, if you will. And though one may think of it all as autobiographical, as meaningful only to the self, you soon realise that that isn’t the case. I have had readers tell me that a poem I thought of as coming from an experience that was solely mine, has resonated with them, that it has spoken to a particular moment in their lives. I would hate to think of poetry as merely a therapeutic tool, though of course, it is also that. I find that a reductive way of looking at it. Because poetry can also make certain things happen. There is no escaping the autobiographical, nor should one want to “escape” from it,” she says.

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K Srilata’s The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans

There is also the political in this book. That feels very urgent and important. Ringing with clarity and truth. (About Gujarat, about unmarked graves, and professor Satyanarayana). I was curious to know when the author began to identify this very personal theme of absence and presence among events that were seemingly political. “That happened only towards the fag end of putting this collection together,” Srilata says, “I saw that the poems were not only about personal absences, the absences of people in my life, but the absence or the slow disappearance of certain ideals that were dear to me — that of a secular, more equitable, truly democratic India, for instance.”

Srilata is currently working “on a collection of inter-leaved short stories around the theme of children whose minds work in non-mainstream ways,” and reading a book by Sarah Wilson called First, We Make the Beast Beautiful. “I am re-reading it, actually. It is a first-person account of living with anxiety. There are no prescriptions. It is not a self-help book. It is what the author calls a “nomadic” book, a memoir of her own journey about living with fairly severe anxiety. For some reason, perhaps because I am given to bouts of fretting and worrying, I find the book appealing,” she said.

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2019 09:28:34 IST