As I was attempting to arrange these poems, I found that one particular idea surfaced repeatedly – the idea of absent presences, absences that are, quite unmistakably, presences. So too the ideas of disappearance and enforced, often traumatic separation. It was as though I had been trying all along to find the words for these things.

The absent are always present in our lives, in difficult and powerful ways, in ways that we may not always be able to explain or account for. Growing up as the daughter of a single mother I was acutely conscious of the absence of a father. My mother’s challenging life as a divorcee in 1970s’ India had implications for my own life. It was the shadow under which I walked.

For one thing, we were oddities in a world where families meant not just mothers and fathers but also uncles and aunts, grand uncles and grand aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers – on both sides – maternal and paternal. What was a constant presence in our lives was the absence of people who, we felt, ought not to have been absent.

I think people experience absent presences as an itch and in my case I used poetry to get at it. This is also perhaps why I have tried to imagine what absences meant to the lives of characters in mythologies – Sita’s twins Lava and Kusha, for instance, or Penelope, the wife of Ulysses. I have also been haunted by the question of what forced disappearances must mean to people in a conflict-ridden zone such as Kashmir.

And I have found hope too, as in the story of Atta Mohammad, gravedigger and caretaker of unmarked graves in Northern Kashmir, a story that eventually made its way into the poem “I Bury Them Under the Witnessing Yellow of the Chinar”.

There is yet another absence, a disappearance, that we have, of late, started to experience – that of the ideals of social equality, secularism and democracy. Disappearing before our eyes is an India where it had been okay to dissent. This disappearance too has found its way into my poems.

A Disappeared Person

They say
a person can disappear
and leave no trace at all.
Such things are known to happen.
Missing persons cast no shadows
They don’t leave used dishes in the sink,
nor square bits of body soap,
nor toothbrushes that have flowered slightly
nor notes declaring love, etc. on the fridge.
But surely, growth, and all sorts of things,
are possible in the life
of a person who has disappeared?
And so,
like the blade of a knife,
that shadow presence,
leaving used dishes in some other sink,
and square bits of body soap,
and toothbrushes that have flowered slightly,
and notes declaring love etc. on someone else’s fridge,
ever so slightly,
the geometric alignment
of our lives.

Boxes Have That Effect

All evening, I have been considering boxes.
Hand-crafted ones, compelling and impractical,
the sort that jam easily.
I drop my earrings into one of them,
its blue-bird shimmer
gone before you know it.

I have lived in them all my life,
boxes in which I have become,
with a dangerous degree of precision,
this, that, the other, or etcetera.
I have noted the contents of their insides,
Not bad boxes to be in and yet,
I have clawed at their lids
like some death-row prisoner.

A Poem in My Mother Tongue

When I moved out,
I left behind
an aquarium,
in it a fish,
mad and solitary,
the entire line
of a poem
in my mother tongue,
a poem I am still fishing for,
miles away
and out in the stinging rain.

Excerpted with permission from The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans, K Srilata, Poetrywala.