Latha Prem Sakhya’s second book, Nature At My Doorstep, is an unusual experiment in poetry, prose and painting

Latha Prem Sakhya’s home in Perumbavoor is a semi-circular brick and stone affair hidden beneath trees. Squirrels visit her doorstep, sparrows sing by her windowsill, dogs wander in her yard and rabbits squeak from their hideouts. While large windows let in the Nature outside, the red walls within are covered by her paintings of horses and birds, rivers and hills. Nature has been her constant muse, says poet and painter Latha whose second book Nature At My Doorstep is an unusual narrative experiment told through poetry, prose and paintings.

The book was born after Latha’s first collection of poetry — Memory Rain (published by Monsoon Editions). “While I was happy with that work, I still wanted to create my ‘ideal’ book which would blend my poetry and painting.” Published by Roots and Wings, Nature At My Doorstep, therefore, takes Latha’s poems and sketches, and intertwines them with prose portions to tell the story of Kanaka, a young, sensitive woman growing up amidst Nature. Kanaka is named after Latha’s grandmother, a woman whose stories and world-view influenced her upbringing. Latha’s poems often centre around women, from childlike innocence and curiosity to teenage awakenings and eventually the joys and trials of womanhood.

Latha’s day job as associate professor of English at Mar Thoma College for Women for 25 years has also worked its way into her writing. The college enables Latha to meet women from varying backgrounds; and their struggles and stories inspire her. Her engagement with literary scholarship too has had its say. Latha observes that a lot of literary criticism on women’s writing seemed to dismiss it as “written from an ivory tower”, and that was a notion she wanted to change.

Nature At My Doorstep therefore engages with various social issues. For instance, her poem “Shall I Let Her Go?” speaks of a dogcatcher culling a pregnant dog, “Sans Fangs Sans Teeth” of a de-fanged snake and her snake charmer, “Elizabeth” about the Haiti earthquake, “Where Shall we Go” of environmental degradation and “Spark” about juvenile justice. Many of the poems are however written from the point of view of an animal speaking in “I”, thus keeping with the book’s Nature theme.

About the good

Despite addressing these darker sides to humanity, Latha says she wants her poetry to talk of the good and the beautiful in life. “I found that the common ground between my poems and paintings was its focus on Nature and childhood. They all seemed to look outward to a distant and better horizon.” The perspective probably comes from her youth spent in an idyllic village 18 kms from Thiruvananthapuram. “My father was a farmer and he loved trees. Our farm is always somewhere at the back of my mind when I’m writing poetry,” says Latha. Her poems are also peppered with Tamil words, learnt from her roots in Neyyoor, near Kanyakumari, and her paintings are signed in Tamil.

Both Latha’s writing and painting stem from moments of inspiration drawn from the world around her. “Spark”, for example, came from a newspaper report about a boy who committed suicide after his term at a juvenile home, as did her two poems on Irom Sharmila. “I often cut out stories and pictures that move me. Returning to them years later might trigger off a stream of thought which becomes a poem.” Writing, says Latha, has often helped her work through sorrow, in particular after the demise of her daughter. The experience has also resulted in much probing into spirituality which reflects in her poetry.

Latha says her writing is on scraps of paper tucked into textbooks and reports. The first time she gathered them all together was to create her debut work, on nostalgia, Memory Rain. “I write usually in one sitting; the longer poems, especially, are rarely reworked. It’s the shorter ones that take much editing,” says Latha. Painting, on the other hand, is a more prolonged process. “I rarely find time between teaching and house work; so I paint with oils because they take time to dry and I can keep returning to them as and when I’m free,” she adds.

Besides the books, Latha has been published in several online journals such as Muse India, Spark, and Indian Ruminations. She was also briefly the editor of Indian Poesy, a magazine for Indian poetry by the New Voices Writer’s Circle. She is currently working on her third book, besides helping out at Leora — a small lending library and used-books shop in Perumbavoor. “It is my husband’s and my little endeavour to encourage reading here,” she concludes.