Three Poems

By K Srilata

1. They Help Themselves to Many Things*
(for K. Satyanarayana)

For eight hours, they search his house,
help themselves to the bread
that sits crumbling on the table.
They help themselves to the love letters
he had written his wife at age twenty two,
run their fingers on their yellow age.
They help themselves to a book by Marx
he had bought on the footpath of Abids for ten rupees,
the dust on its spine thick as the country’s decline.
They help themselves to a photograph of Ambedkar,
and then laugh at the spider that scurries from behind it.
One of them mock-aims a gun at it.
They help themselves to his worries about his wife
and what they are doing to her in the next room.
They help themselves to the father- fear in the pit of his stomach.
What will become of my daughter if…?
They help themselves to the revolutionary songs in his head.
They even sing them out loud,
their voices hard and mocking.
The words dart like arrows into the dark night
that crouches by the window,
silent and afraid.

* One of the houses the Pune police raided as part of their nationwide swoop on August 28, 2018 was of Professor K. Satyanarayana of the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) campus in Hyderabad. The raid was one of eight simultaneous raids on activists, lawyers and academics across the country, for their alleged involvement in the violence in Bhima Koregaon. This poem constructs and imagines the scene.
(First published in the Wire, September 3, 2018)

2. Everything Drowns, Except This Poem

I am standing in a country I know like my skin.
The rain is falling slim and sweet,
on crisp butterfly wings,
on the singing minds of people,
and since there are windows
left carelessly open,
the rain is falling in a gentle slant on books,
on the words inside them.
I am standing in a country of many-hued umbrellas.
In it, not one word,
not one poem,
is allowed to drown.

I am standing in a country I once knew like my skin.
The rain is falling like knives,
snapping the wings of butterflies,
and the singing minds of people.
The rain is falling like hard slaps on books,
until no words remain,
except the ones, wet and angry,
which have sought shelter inside this poem.
I am standing in a country of broken umbrellas,
where everything drowns,
except this poem, wet and angry,
that insists on living.

(First published in Indian Cultural Forum, October 25, 2018)

3. Last Rites
(for Natasha and Mahavir Narwal)

We have entered a house that floats on water.
This is where we must live from now.
We write poems. We tweet for beds and oxygen.
We call each other, the dread in our voices a flutter of pigeons.
A young girl has been in prison a whole year. Her father lies dying.
I hope she’s not in jail so long she doesn’t see my face.
We write poems. Uselessly. We fall mildly ill. We check our oxygen levels.
We hope to live, to tide over.
We hope our children will live, tide over.
Whenever she comes back, she should find her room in good shape.
We offer prayers to nameless gods,
find lightness and solace in movies from the seventies.
For a while, we are okay. We hold up.

This house that floats on water is in a containment zone.
But, in the end, our grief escapes it. Spills out.
Wave after wave.
A tsunami of a poem towers over the sickness.
This is the only way. Who said cleansing is easy?
This tsunami of a poem is what we offer
that young girl now on her way
to perform the last rites, to look upon his face
one last time.

A reading of this poem was featured on the Indian Cultural Forum’s Bol

K Srilata was writer in residence at Sangam house, India, Yeonhui Art space, Seoul and the University of Stirling, Scotland. She teaches Literature and Creative Writing at IIT Madras. Her debut novel Table for Four (Penguin, India) was long listed in 2009 for the Man Asian literary prize. Srilata is the c0-editor of the anthologies The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry, Short Fiction from South India (OUP), All the Worlds Between: A Collaborative Poetry Project Between India and Ireland (Yoda) and Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamilnadu (Women Unlimited). Her book The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Writing Self-Respect History was re-issued as an e-book by Zubaan in 2020. She has five poetry collections, the latest of which, The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2019. Her translations include Vatsala’s novels Once there was a Girl (Writers Workshop) and The Scent of Happiness (Ratna Books, 2021). A multi-genre anthology on the disability experience is forthcoming from Amazon/Westland later this year.

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