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Sridala Swami On Going Home

Sridala Swami in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where she took part in a Jazz Poetry Festival). Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Sridala Swami in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where she took part in a Jazz Poetry Festival). Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing several short essays commissioned from writers who participated in the 2013 International Writing Program Fall Residency as part of the Shambaugh House blog's annual "On Going Home" series. "On Going Home" is a way to keep in touch and get a glimpse of what returning home is like for authors who've spent nearly three months writing and researching in the U.S.. We asked the authors to include a photograph that represented "home" in some fundamental way. This year’s first installment comes to us from Sridala Swami.

As I write this, I’ve been back home from Iowa City for more weeks than I spent there. In this time, my mother has had two cataract surgeries, and I woke up one day to find I now lived in Telangana instead of Andhra Pradesh. In exactly ten weeks from today (7 March), India will have a new government, after massive general election.

And I still have a huge IWP hangover.

My last coherent memory of the US, before being blinded by sadness at leaving all my friends behind, is sitting by the window at a Starbucks in New York with Shandana, watching my first and last proper snow. It was also the season’s first snow and it came down gently and evasively, rather like the snow in Howard Nemerov’s poem.

A view from my terrace of the western sky.
A view from my terrace of the western sky.
When I returned home, it was to that changing season before Hyderabad’s very brief winter. But it wasn’t the weather that was on my mind; I had precisely two weeks before my son had to head back to boarding school and all I could think of was that I had already missed most of his vacations.

So my first two weeks back home was like a bubble in which everything was suspended. It was a slo-mo interlude of clarity and intensity, and it was only when the train taking my son back to school disappeared from view that the bubble burst.

I want to say that after that, it was all real life; that it was all boring, routine, business-of-living stuff...but it wasn’t! Something about the IWP magic remained because in early December, I was at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, where I met past IWP fellows Bilal Tanweer and Ranjit Hoskote. Spending time with other writers and artists so soon after I’d left Iowa City made me think the energy and optimism I brought back from the IWP need not vanish; that daily responsibilities and the (urgent) need to earn money notwithstanding, it would be possible to hold on to the sense of literary community and dialogue.

It was in that spirit that I continued to write through the end of the year, and right into the new one. In fact, that is how I spent my New Year’s Eve: I wrote through the evening, took a moment to shake out cramped fingers as I wished myself a happy new year and continued right on writing.

Two months in, I may have lost some of that verve to a general feeling of anxiety – to the feeling that so much good stuff must be balanced out with less-than-pleasant news. When such feelings paralyse me and make me incapable of writing, I take comfort in two things: one, of a friend saying to me, “The universe doesn’t care about you or your poetry that much!” and the other, of Iowa City and the bench by the river.

In time, when other things about the IWP – the conversations, the small incidents and memories – fade away, this will remain: the time I spent watching the river and the sky, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, in changing seasons and moods.

I look outside my window as I am writing this, and the mango tree outside has lost all its headily-perfumed flowers in a spell of unseasonal rain. There is what horticulturalists call ‘flush’ – new leaves that not only replace the flowers but also indicate that there will be no more of them. What this means for us is that there will be no mangoes on this tree this year.

But everywhere in the city, the trees are full of flowers or new leaves: the coppery brown of the peepal, the bright reds and yellows of the palash and the peltophorum and the pale pink of the tabebuia rosea, and I can’t, just yet, bring myself to care about the fruits. There is too much in the recent past and in the present to enjoy. There was no better time than the fall, to have been in Iowa City. There is no better time than now to have returned home. 

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