For as long as she can remember, Sakuntala Sachithanandan has loved animals. It was during her holidays that she first made the acquaintance of some mice scampering around the family tea estate in Hatton. Later they would star in their own series, written for the children’s section of a local newspaper. Another series drew inspiration from the animals that lived in her house in Wattala – “I wrote about the squirrels in the tree, the mice in the roof, my own dogs and cats,” explains Sakuntala.
A third she based on her son. After he left home, Sakuntala says that she missed him terribly. “It was a real solace to write about what he used to do in his childhood with his cousin,” she confesses. ‘Tales from the Tree House’ later compiled and published in the format of a diary had its little protagonist writing his dispatches from a tree house exactly like one her son himself had.
Though she is better known for these stories, Sakuntala is also a poet. It is for her first collection of 28 poems titled ‘On the Streets and Other Revelations’ that she has been recognized as a nominee for the Gratiaen Prize. “When something happens that moves me, I write poems about it,” she says, adding, “these poems come from way back in the seventies.” For all these years, the only other people she has trusted with them have been her husband and son. However, a first place in the Channels poetry competition, the support of dear friends and the encouragement of the Wadiya Writers Group gave her the confidence to submit them to the Gratiaen committee.
The voices in the poems belong to both people and animals noted the panel of judges, identifying the poet’s forte as lying in her “penetrating portrayals of human situations with all their contradictions.” Her style, they described as being “economic, simple and down-to-earth.” “Sachithanandan’s poetry works best when it is socially engaged and encapsulates issues of justice and fair-play,” they said.
The title of the collection is from a poem about street children. Describing herself as profoundly moved by their plight, she says “they’ve lost the battle from the inception.” She also wishes to focus on society’s flawed response. In a poem titled ‘The Thank You Song’ she speaks about the tradition of having the children at an orphanage sing a song of gratitude to their benefactors after every meal.
“I hated that,” she says, “when we give the same to our children, we don’t expect them to sing a thank you song for every meal they get.” Other poems in the collection touch on the stratification of society and the unfair treatment of estate workers.
A qualified lawyer, Sakuntala is married to Thirukeswaram Sachithanandan, also a lawyer. Their family still goes to Hatton for the holidays. Though their family bungalow is leased out now, Sakuntala has not forgotten her animal friends. Later this year, ‘The Adventures of Sokadi the Line-Room Mouse’ will be published by Godage.
The title poem from Sakuntala’s collection ‘On the Streets and Other Revelations’
My mother, I remember, had her
hair tied in a knot
and was always chewing betel - lips as red as the May - flowers
fallen by the roadside I loved to stick
in my matted hair.
Around her neck hung necklaces of
and I remember that they called her Kamala.
They said that she had many men and
my father had been one of them and
they said my sister was from
One night, as always, when she’d gone
All dressed up in her new blue cloth
we were left there all alone on the barber-shop verandah .
We were busy eating some stale rice in the dark,
when we heard her scream and everyone was running.
No more did we have our mother, she was dead,
because she’d had a fight with someone who
refused to pay and throttled her, they said.
We never saw her, never had her hugging us or kissing us
or screaming at whoever hurt us, again.
Kalu Nenda then took charge: she set up Akka who
was just fourteen or so,
in what she said was Good Business,
the only business the lowly likes of us
would ever know.
And Akka passed from man to man
(“We’ve got to live!” Kalu Nenda planned)
while we ate our bread and maalu hodi
In the barber shop verandah in the night.
It’s morning ! Time to hurry to our “place”
outside kindly Martin Maama’s “kadey”,
to set up our flimsy patch of existence
for the day
where we raise shrill voices, begging.
First I lay the polythene and then I spread
the papers –
Hurry! There she comes, my Akka,
with her baby on her hip.
And Martin Maama likes me,
and at times he strokes me here and there
and up and down and gently pats my hair.
He gives me a maalu paan and smiles
a secret – looking smile,
and he murmurs: Hey, this little girl’s now
growing up just fine!