Quiet in the Flurry

Sridala Swami’s debut collection, ‘A Reluctant Survivor’, explores a range of themes with subtlety

The relationship between language and meaning has always haunted poets. Surviving the onslaught of familiar words and bending them to one’s will is something that most poets grapple with daily. In her debut collection of poems, “A Reluctant Survivor” (Sahitya Akademi, Rs. 50), Sridala Swami not only ‘reluctantly survives’, but also explores words—and the silences between them—to considerable effect.

Sridala’s concern with the freshness of words is evident in poems like ‘Category Instability’, in which she likens us to “beasts of burden / tied to our words”. The inability to do away with the “laziness” of oft-used words and symbols, the “weight of history”, worries her because, as she says in the poem, “When we think of something / we are really thinking / of something else.”

Political and social concerns resonate in Sridala’s poems. In her introduction to the book, she asserts: “The part that gets caught up and shivers in response to the world is the voice of the engaged poet.” Many of her poems reflect this capacity to be affected by external events, even those at a distance. Take “Aftermath”, a poem written in reaction to the bomb blasts in Mumbai’s local trains last year. In this brief poem, potent images such as “railway tracks / like slit throats, / that grin at the empty sky” stare up from the page to bring the horror alive.

“Celebrating Rain” is another example of this preoccupation with giving voice to the lives of others. Sridala was surprised when her poetry reading group chose rain as a theme last year even while war raged in Lebanon. The poem is both rejoinder and appeal: “if nobody speaks of remarkable things/ who will know /about torn lands where the rains/ do not fall at this time.”

Images of nature are woven deftly into some of her poems to illustrate larger concepts. In “Nocturne”, she conjures up the violence of the night and the stillness of the morning to talk about change and stasis.

In her more personal poems, longing and hurt echo in the minutest gestures. An entire relationship is sketched into a moment in “A History of Scars”, when she, “looking at the thin, livid line that runs” down his cheek, touches her own to trace a “line that isn’t there”.

The lyrical “Quantify My Love” is almost a romp with words. The poet frolics through it, tracing love’s many aspects from “goose-pimply” moods to “shred-the-paper murder”, its wickedness and its calm. The short lines and gentle rhyme scheme give the poem a sing-song lilt. Her battle with cliché and over-use is obvious in “Hospital Catalogues”.