I. The Book Review on “Table for Four”
(VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 11 NOVEMBER 2012)
Novel as an Art Form
K.Srilata’s debut novel Table for Four, long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2009 and published by Penguin Books India 2011, is a resurrection of the past probably as a moral protest against the burden of the private ethics of the characters. It also offers an unfailing anchor to sustain the pent-up emotional and intellectual needs of the characters caught in a continuum between the exploiter and the exploited. Suffocating under the repository of their memories, the underpinning of the subconscious desire provides the internal evidence to size up the characters squarely. The novel’s preoccupation with memory makes it essentially an exploration of the inner selves forging the characters’ identities. No wonder, the novel is an engrossing journey from memory to multidimensional meanings as the characters identify their fugitive selves. The listening tortoise table Nikolai, anthropomorphized and oxymoronic by being articulate silence, donning the role of an objective character, is the silent witness as the narrative action gains momentum in ‘part two’ at No.14 Bay Street, Santa Cruz on the last evening in the game of swapping stories and, thus, creating a sense of undefined and unassailable intrigue, awe, fear, foreboding, guilt, remorse, loss and pity as the four characters release the prisoners (read stories) inside them; Sandra and Uncle Prithvi followed by Derek in snatches and Maya the narrator. Memory acquires a new centrality as action through flashback narrative catches up and readers are drawn hauntingly into the unravelling interior of the human psyche. The interplay of the past and the present acts as a cultural radar for self-correction of the characters. Beneath the simple, placid exterior, the novel has an agenda. The characters are fraught with ambiguities, paradoxes and crises. Prithvi Uncle, a still-waters-run-deep type, is aloof by nature but makes his brooding presence felt in the form of fragmentary representations. Gifted with ‘enormous mirrors’, this charmingly odd Elf-man’s deliberate distance from his boarders, his poignant awareness of his life devoid of commitment, his loveless relationship with his wife Shyamala, his sadistic attitude to and estrangement from his daughter Mira, his belief in the efficacy of his compelling ambition and his plight of getting trapped in his sudden mind-reading ability which pushes him to escape into a self-induced exile and precipitates the change of relationship—all are no less intriguing. Intractable dilemma, despair and guilt run through Sandra’s past life at the Mercy Home—her heart bleeding …
II. Anupama Raju’s review of my poetry collection “Arriving Shortly” in The Hindu’s Literary Review (October 1, 2011)
Experience has no theme
K. Srilata’s latest book of poems takes off from the poet’s multifarious experiences across time and space
It’s always a pleasure to review the work of a writer who’s from the same city as I am: Chennai. It brings about a certain sense of solidarity especially when it’s a fellow poet who is increasingly being recognised for her versatility.
K. Srilata’s latest book of poems Arriving Shortly, like most poetry collections, takes off from the poet’s multifarious experiences across time and space. And experience has no theme.
Divided into seven prolific sections, the book published by Writers Workshop takes us through these experiences through varied tones and images; sometimes predictable, at times gently surprising and now and then shocking.
The predictable tone and image in this book is that of explicit sentiment and so, I like Srilata’s poems best when they are startlingly ironic, terse, or even playful. And every section has its share of such lines. ‘Many poems nestle inside houses’ a poem in the eponymous first section is appealing for the straightforward observation. For the fact is that poems are omnipresent. The closing lines are striking: “Sometimes the poem sitting in that crumbling old house/urges me to knock/at the door/and touch her face./Each day every day/I pass the house./I just pass by.”
‘For Jeanne Mukuninwa’ in the first section is perhaps more blatant in the way the poet refers to war crimes. Though at times dramatic and sentimental, the poem does take a twist towards the end.
The poem begins with the question, “Just what can you bake into a poem?” Sky-blue skies, cotton clouds, vanilla milk shake moons and red-breasted robbins could be poured into “moulds of lyrics, sonnets and free verse”. Then, she asks: “But what of Jeanne Mukuninwa/who slid off sky blue skies and clouds of cotton and milk shake moons when she was raped over and over/by soldiers till inside her fistulas erupted…”
The arresting denouement comes in the rhetoric: “There must be a way, surely,/of baking fistulas into a poem?”
The second section also titled “Arriving Shortly” takes readers through different geographic locations. I particularly liked “Terra Nullius” in which the poet describes the experience of flying over Alice Springs, especially when she talks of an entire people, who are “educated white, and stirred like sugar into milk.”
Family and personal reminiscences are the overriding theme of the third section appropriately called “Bionote”. The first poem here touched a chord with me more for the references to the city of Chennai and everything that makes this city so dear to Chennaiites!
The poet proclaims that she is middle class and very Madras, born and raised in West Mambalam (a bustling residential locality in Chennai): “the other side of the railway tracks where fabled mosquitoes turn people into elephants.”
The same sense of humour comes through the fourth section devoted to light verse. There is even a dosa poem to boot. However, the section I like the most is the last one, “The Wingspan Of Words”, where 11 poems come together to reflect on poetry. Look at “What Befell That Fourth Poem”: “A dead rat/Got to the fourth/ Before I could/his blood pooling/around/black fur/and white page.”
“There are Many Ways to Stop a Poem” is equally effective. “The most popular method is to explain it,” goes the poem. So taking my cue, I refrain from further explanations and encourage you to discover Arriving Shortly on your own. Read it for the sheer versatility of a prolific poet.
III. The Hindu (Literary Review) on Table for Four – December 3, 2011
An engaging psychological-thriller that goes back and forth in time, the book is a refreshing read.Kankana Basu
There are poets who are content to exist in the matrix of poetry for an entire lifetime and novelists who prefer writing the long form while giving vent to their imagination. And then there are those who dare to do a trapeze act, swinging from one form of expression to the other and end up doing it with a certain degree of finesse. Noted poet K. Srilata, with her latest novel Table for Four, proves to be the perfect candidate for this last group. With a vast body of writing behind her, the author now returns with a slim engaging novel that by its very engaging nature, seems to defy compartmentalisation.
Fiction enthusiasts will recall Table for Four making ripples a couple of years back when it was long listed for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, after which the manuscript inexplicably disappeared (like most long listed books). It now resurfaces in its crisply edited, hugely readable avatar giving the psychological-thriller genre a whole new meaning.
Narrated in the voice of Maya, the novel spins around the characters of Derek, Sandra, Maya and Uncle Prithvi. Maya, a graduation student studying at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is desperately on the look out for accommodation when she spots a poster offering a room with a view. A meeting with the prospective landlord, a genial dwarfish man of Indian origin, and a quick tour of the house results in Maya settling for the offered room almost instantaneously. On moving in, she meets her fellow boarders, the ever spiffily-dressed Orkut obsessed Sandra (also hailing from Madras, like Maya) and war correspondent Derek. The stage thus set for drama is reminiscent of the traditional form of murder mysteries favored by the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Delano Ames (as a matter of fact there is a mention of the first author at the beginning of the novel). But just as the reader is rubbing his hands in glee, anticipating a couple of corpses and some good old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger stuff, the plot veers off unexpectedly into dark, convoluted terrain, delving deep into the suppressed desires and guilty secrets of all four.
The three years of graduation pass with remarkable speed for Maya and what is even more remarkable is that she hardly encounters her landlord, Uncle Prithvi, in this period (though he lives upstairs in the same house). Instead, the quirky old man, a cross between Hercule Poirot and the mysterious Mr. Quin, prefers to leave post-it notes by way of communication. The relationships between the three boarders shift pattern and equations constantly although the author refrains from dwelling too long and too deeply on these.
It is on the last evening before Maya departs for her hometown Madras and the other two also disperse that Uncle Prithvi invites them for a farewell dinner. The table is set for four. The host conversationally mentions that his strangely-shaped dining table possesses special powers and invites his boarders to reveal their innermost stories this night. And thus tumble forth an extraordinary series of disturbing secrets long suppressed in each heart. One of the guests does not turn up for dinner at all, yet the story of his life gets through and is probably the most touching of the four.
K. Srilata writes a crisp self-assured hand, refusing to digress into unnecessary detailing or embroider superfluous frills into the prose to add thickness to this slim work of fiction. And thereby, succeeds in keeping the tempo as taut as a bow-string all through. Instead, the author chooses to play on the psychological intricacies of her characters and creates a subterranean feeling of menace that keeps the reader glued to the book. Moving back and forth in time and true to the plot at all times, the author cunningly plans her surprises, springing them on her unsuspecting reader and managing to disconcert even the most hardened expert of suspense novels. Maya, Sandra, Derek and Uncle Prithvi are sketched with the bold brush strokes of a master painter and this lends them an impressionistic fuzzy-edged ambiguity that is much more intriguing than any clear-cut definitions of character.
Table for Four is a refreshing read, though vaguely disturbing at the subconscious level. An uncluttered, well-crafted psychological thriller that is somewhat let down by an indifferent cover. Undulating lines in primary colours are better suited for the cover of an academic text-book rather than an accomplished work of fiction. Table for Four could have done with a cover that matched its accomplished text — an impressionistic work of art done by the likes of a Hebbar, a Van Gogh, or a Monet, perhaps…?
IV. S.Muthiah on my poem “Bionote” ( The Hindu (August 29, 2011).
The function wasn’t part of the Madras Week celebrations, but the release of two books by Prof. K. Srilata organised by the Association of British Scholars during that period did provide several echoes of Madras, one of which particularly gladdened me.
Srilata, an Associate Professor in IIT-Madras’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, which seems to be flourishing to judge by the number of students present, mainly girls, released her first novel, Table for Four , on the occasion as well as a book of poetry, Arriving Shortly , which was one of the last works accepted for publication by that Indian publishing legend, Prof. P. Lal of Writers’ Workshop, Kolkata, and one of the first works edited and published by his son, Prof. Anand Lal, after the former passed away some months ago.
It was during the poetry reading that I heard Srilata herself read the poem, ‘Bionote’, which to me appeared to strike the right note for the Week I was immersed in at the time. I hope readers will enjoy reading it below as much as I enjoyed hearing it. It’s great to find others, especially young persons, saying ‘Madras, my dear’.
Very briefly then,
I am middle class
and very Madras.
Born and raised in
West Mambalam —
the other side of the railway tracks
where fabled mosquitoes turn peo-
Went to college in
Khushboo sarees stripped
right off the absurdly voluptuous
Saravana Stores T. Nagar Chennai
To weddings I wore,
in deference to my mother,
silk kanjeevarams with temple
Every other girl
was a designer-sequined shimmer.
I thought nothing of
my dreaming hours on
MTC’s 47 A,
sitting beside women who ruined my
leaning casually across to
through the grime of windows
spinach stems they didn’t fancy
in their evening Kuzhambu,
hurling motherly advice at
young men who dared death by
from other women’s windows.
My idea of a holiday
was rolling down the hillsides
dressed in white
Objects of love-hate:
the auto annas.
And of course it is coffee that de
the limits of my imagination.
I never could think of it as
cappuccino or mocha or
anything other than
deep brown like my own Dravidian
10.30 sharp: sambhar rasam curry
5 sharp: idli dosa vada
My idea of arctic winter:
twenty six degree centigrade.
And so on and so forth
as they don’t say in Tamil.
Never mind this new upstart
Madras, my dear, here I come!
About me, rest assured,
no Bombay, no Delhi, no London
and certainly no New York.
I am all yours,
Madras, my dear,
wrap and filling!
Footnote: Declaring one’s affection for Madras that is Chennai in song and verse has been a trend this year. At Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan, K.K. Nagar, Tamil songs eulogised Madras and Happy Birthday Madras was sung in Sanskrit. Elsewhere Anil Srinivasan composed an Anthem for Madras for INTACH and it was sung by students of Brhaddhvani.