Sridala Swami paints the most poignant pictures with the least number of words.
A Reluctant Survivor; Sridala Swami, Sahitya Akademi, Navodaya Series, Rs 50.
What is a good poem? That which offers an array of arresting images or sweeps its readers in a sway of thoughts? “All good poetry tends towards silence,” writes Sridala Swami in the introduction to A Reluctant Survivor. And it is this “silence” which appeals to me the most. That which is left unsaid…
Published under the Sahitya Akademi’s Navodaya Scheme, A Reluctant Survivor is Sridala Swami’s first book. The foreword by Keki N. Daruwalla underlines a few endearing qualities of her poems: That things are not always spelled out and that she is not a slave to rigid metrics.
Divided into six sections, the 59 poems approach a universe of themes, from Nature to Love, from Riots to Arthritis. Swami’s poetry abounds in unusual and beautiful images. There is, at the same time, a controlled sense of loss as the economy of words intensifies the emotions.
Fun with language
A few love poems in the following section are as sharp as the title — “Love Comes With a Knife”. Swami also seems to have fun with language as “Quantify My Love” talks of the “goose-pimply, sun-dappled, shampoo-on-a-cold-day…pine-cone, new book way” the persona loves her beloved. Equally striking is “Shelter” in which the poet wants to be “like a tree/on which the birds rest/but when they fly away/there is no pain.”
In the following section, “In the Flurry of the World”, Swami emerges as the poet of responses. So, “Bombay, December 1992” (on the Mumbai riots) portrays the uneasy reality harbouring “a dark god hurriedly hung up on doors/to appease the lust of hunters/on this flickering night.” Not surprisingly, Swami’s responses thrive on powerful imagery. Her railway tracks are “like slit throats, that grin at the empty sky” (“Aftermath”) — an unforgettable image, indeed. Swami is more subdued, no less appealing, in “Flying Needle”, a section thriving on memory and nostalgia. I was touched by the optimism that drives “Arthritic”: “Bare fingers, knotted, gnarled... I will take these knots and/make a ladder to the stars.” Memories also impel the following section, ‘And You Give Yourself Away’. A line that immediately comes to my mind is “…the house where I got married/shook off its sleep/and got ready for/another auspicious beginning” from ‘Anniversary’.
The last section titled “Life Geographies” is dotted with melancholy. In “Still Life”, “the people picked up/their hopes and carried them to the cities;/and the houses, tired of holding up/for so long/slumped their shoulders into the ground.” The book ends with “Life Geographies”, a philosophical take on life and one of the very few ‘long’ poems.
But what remains with me are the short poems where Swami paints the most poignant pictures with the least number of words. In the introduction, she calls her book a “first step on what has become a necessary journey.” I hope more steps will follow.