Book Review: Absent Fathers and Claustrophobic Boxes
The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans
In Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Achanak (1989; one-third of what is regarded as his ‘absence trilogy’), a retired professor disappears without warning or a trace one rainy evening. His family struggles to come to terms with the loss and to gain a new, and perhaps always fragmented, understanding of the man in the light (and shadow) of his sudden vanishing. K. Srilata’s The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans (2019) undertakes a similarly trenchant inquiry into absence, its various forms, its flipside, its long-lingering after-effects.
Like charity, for the poet, this scrutiny begins at home, and she writes with a raw, quiet and unfussy honesty about the experience of being raised by a single mother in the ’70s, following her parents’ separation. ‘I am to hold forever the grating harshness of it all,’ she says in the opening poem, ‘It Is 1966’; a simple line that communicates an enormous burden. For in poems written decades later, the harshness still grates. One questions, appeals, retraces, obsesses. But, then as now, the child remains powerless:
You are gone.
And so, too, my word for you.
It sleeps under my tongue.
I have no one to call by it.
(‘Asleep Under My Tongue’)
And turns to the imagination for some solace:
Sometimes I say I am going to meet my father at the park –
even though I have no father,
just because it makes me like those others I knew
with their mums and dads.
But even in these fantasised meetings, where the father buys ‘cotton candy and sometimes we read a poem or two together’, the narrator finds herself shut out. She fades into an invisible (absent?) presence, spying on her father and ‘a woman about her age’, perhaps to shield herself from pain or disappointment.
Moving beyond the zone of the personal, the poet navigates other absences, drawing inspiration from epics, mythology and contemporary political realities. This, as she informs us in the preface, was not a thematic framework she had devised, but rather a pattern that emerged in the poems she was gathering for the book. And so, we encounter as we proceed not only Penelope and Sita, but also Junaid (a fifteen-year-old victim of a fatal communal attack), K. Satyanarayana (a professor whose house was raided during the investigation into the Bhima Koregaon case) and Atta Mohammad (a Kashmiri gravedigger), who delivers one of the most shattering lines in the book: ‘What I cannot bury is the remembering’ (‘I Bury Them Under the Witnessing Yellow of the Chinar’).
It is in the realm of the personal, however, that the poet is able to strike a more resonant and nuanced chord. While the title of the book underscores its central theme, it belies the strong presences the collection is teeming with. Indeed, the collection has an almost kaleidoscopic quality, with poem after poem revealing a different facet of the self – of ‘the poet [enmeshed] in the world’, to borrow the title of a book of essays by the American poet Denise Levertov.
So, mother, daughter, wife, teacher, friend, cousin, writer: each steps forward to claim a space for herself. Let us, then, dim the house lights.
I bring her a cushion,
trick myself into thinking it is a bouquet,
and that I love her in the simplest,
most beautiful way possible,
and that she is not – no, but I must not say it –
(‘From Another Country Called Being’)
We are at the traffic lights, waiting,
when she whispers into car-smog:
I want to skip on grass.
But I tell them there is no remedy for it.
Chaucer is on the syllabus,
this is my job,
some things just are,
they can’t be helped.
(‘Teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to a Class of Eighteen-Year-Olds’)
Into this dynamic theatre of the self, steps the POET, attempting to take centre stage and wishing, in exasperation, that she could shed the many roles she has accumulated (‘A Woman of Letters’). For, these roles are also the ‘boxes’
in which I have become,
with a dangerous degree of precision,
this, that, the other, or et cetera.
Not bad boxes to be in and yet,
I have clawed at their lids
like some death-row prisoner.
(‘Boxes Have That Effect’)
Poetry itself is an important concern in the book, and many poems are conversations with the works of other poets, borrowing and building on a line, a theme or an image. This propensity for dialogue manifests as a formal principle in poems such as ‘A Disappeared Person’, ‘Everything Drowns, Except This Poem’ and ‘Gravity’. These poems have a neat bipartite structure, in which the second half functions as a sort of response, shadow or inverted mirror image of the first.
Throughout, Srilata’s language is plain and unadorned. But, this simplicity can be deceptive and she deploys it, with equal adroitness, to surprise:
cousins asleep on
the floor of ancestral homes dreaming
each other’s dreams.
Old Loveliness, I look at you.
and can’t stop grieving.,
I am off-course.
It is too late.
My destiny is set in stone.
(‘Old Loveliness, Set in the Country Wind’)
It’s an arresting image: one’s dreams leaking into the minds of kin who end up sharing more than sleeping space, while the short, sharp lines of ‘Old Loveliness’ poignantly capture the rarely easy process of coming to terms with the trajectory of one’s life and its irreversibility. While it may, regrettably, be too late for the speaker of the latter poem, it thankfully isn’t for readers to discover Srilata’s fifth book of poems. One certainly hopes that her voice will continue to assert its ‘unmistakable presence’ in the landscape of Indian poetry in English.
Dion D’Souza is a poet and short fiction writer. He is the author of Three Doors (Poetrywala, 2016), a collection of poems, and the poetry chapbook Mirrors Lie, and Sometimes Mothers (Yavanika Press, 2021). He lives in Mumbai.