Sridala Swami’s “moments before they take him away” [Read the poem here] (First published in issue #3 of Cha)
The first stanza, and the title, of Swami’s poem paint a rather cold and medical picture of a corpse: ‘he lies occupying six tiles / by one and a half his hands laid out across / his birdcage chest / jaw palms big toes tied’ (L1-L4). If there was any doubt as to the state of the person described, the fourth line dispels any possible notion of him being merely asleep. But while death may be a ghastly thing to describe, the apparently orderly manner in which the body is arranged implies already that this carcass did not die like this, but was deliberaly arranged like a pharaoh in his deathbed. The cause of death is not revealed, but the ‘birdcage chest’ implies that the man was withered and sickly and fell victim to a disease or old age rather than dying violently.
After the description of the lifeless body the reader is introduced to the protagonist of the poem, a woman hovering around the body (L5). It is immediately obvious that she was close to the man, and is distressed of his passing away. Sure enough, the third stanza reveals that she was his wife. Her demeanor around the body betrays her regrets for not being affectionate enough, at least in public, towards her husband: ‘his wife strokes his cool lifeless hand / reassuringly she caresses his cheek his forehead / it took a death for her to allow herself / this public display of affection ‘ (L9-L12). And at the same time the circumstances of the poem become clearer, it is not a private function but probably she is surrounded by paramedics, doctors, nurses, family or other people — the ‘public’ in L12. What is certain though is that at least he died in his home, as he had his own clothes instead of hospital garments, and was able to still light the fireplace and use the bathroom prior to his death (L13-L15).
The common thread of the poem is the wife’s mourning over her husband’s death, and her attempts to grasp final moments with him while coming to a realization that he is gone. She ‘looks for things his soul might have occupied’ (L6) in the breeze, his clothes, his odours and little things surrounding them. Whatever the husband was in his life, his ‘soul’ if you will, has discarded his body now and is only an echo in the surroundings which, presumably, the wife has to continue to live in. But even then the echo diminishes as the water in the bathroom is being swept away, the embers in the fireplace cool down, and the bees in rose garlands fly away. ‘the soul / discards an old body’ (L19-L20), as the poem concludes.
What is a person, if not the footprint of his life, the sum of his actions? It is those transient things that define us, and after we are gone there is hardly anything left except memories in the minds of our loved ones.
Sridala Swami‘s poetry has appeared and forthcoming in Nthposition, Kritya, Muse India, Chandrabhaga, The Little Magazine, New Quest, Wasafiri, 50 Poets 50 Poems, The South Asian Review and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Three books for very young children, Phani’s Funny Chappals, The Flyaway Cradle and Kabadiwala will be published by Pratham later this year. Her first collection of poems, A Reluctant Survivor, was published by The Sahitya Akademi in June 2007. Swami blogs at The Spaniard In The Works.