Shyla C George, author of ‘Rain in the Attic’, talks about her early influences living in a communist family, her work in a bank, and life in a foreign University.

Meet Shyla Kerala poet who went from banking to creative writing in her 50s
Features Literature Tuesday, March 03, 2020 - 18:24

At the end of a one-and-a-half hour chat, it's likely that Shyla C George will remember the tiny details of our meeting – the corner table of a nearly-empty café in Thiruvananthapuram, the bad tea she couldn’t take a second sip of, the road outside the glass wall screeching with the afternoon traffic. Every detail, retained in her mind, like a picture, to be remembered later, and perhaps be made a poem of.

Shyla, days after publishing her first book of poems Rain in the Attic, is a bundle of such surprises. She worked for 35 years in a bank. Two years before retirement, she decided to do a creative writing course in the Nottingham University in the UK.

She is 60 something years old, and can still remember the rain she saw and marvelled at as a child of seven, somewhere in Perunthalamanna, where Shyla grew up in a family of communists. Her mother Koothattukulam Mary had joined the Indian freedom struggle as a girl of Class IX, and later the Communist Party of India at a time when it was banned. Mary was arrested once and tortured in custody. Shyla’s father CS George was another communist leader who had, for long, gone underground when the party was banned.  

Shyla with her sisters and mother Koothattukulam Mary (second from left)

Shyla, the second daughter among the four girls born to the couple, had obvious influences at an early age. But apart from her parents, she also names IV Sasankan, communist leader and brother of late filmmaker IV Sasi, as the one who got her to write. 

“He got me to write columns for Janayugam (a Malayalam daily affiliated to the CPI). I wrote about women – interviewing some who lived in the Papathy colony, others who made baskets, sitting on small hills – I wrote columns on how to treat your domestic help with respect and not like someone you have rights over,” Shyla, with her impeccable memory, narrates a few of her story ideas.

She had a small tryst with journalism earlier when she with her friend and colleague Nirmala went off to Kollam to interview a dancer, and both of them forgot to take any notes. “But Nirmala wrote a beautiful copy of it anyway!” says the dear friend, decades later. Shyla would have liked to pursue journalism or literature but for reasons she’d rather not talk about, she did a degree in Economics and joined a bank. “I did like the discipline of the work, and that I had an office to go to and colleagues to interact with every day. I miss all of that now!” she says with the lovely wide smile that she easily breaks into between her words.

It is that longing, that feeling of having missed doing something really dear to her, that made her fly off to the UK and do a creative writing course a little late in life. Appreciation came her way for not letting age stop her but Shyla writes in the preface of her book: “It is always better to study when you are young.”

The course did present her the confidence that she went in search of, but Shyla didn’t have the best of days, living in a foreign country, surrounded by young classmates who didn’t seem too welcoming of her. She did find friends there, nice humans who stood by her when she felt ignored. Shyla also wrote most of the poems in her book in those few months at the University.

In her poems, are the wind that once caught a fruit and ‘breezed down to place it gently on the palms of a girl’ and the girl (perhaps the same one) who took out the house key from her pocket, threw it up once, caught it, threw it again, until ‘in the fifth round, it didn’t come down to her hands’. Thoughts emerged in her poems from passengers relaxing on a train, the ‘thoughts that heated up and caught fire’ and gave momentum to the train that had slowed to a halt. Somewhere else, there is a funeral, and the author, who didn’t know who was crying or who carried the dead, knew ‘that she had waited for friends and that it had been long and painful’. Cats walk into her poems, windows open and dry leaves enter, and poems get eaten. There are leaves that did not know how to hurt, unlike humans who did. Along the way is a man called Ayyappan whom the coconut trees loved and would cry for when he died.

“He was real, there really was an Ayyappan who took so much care of coconut trees – not any other trees but ‘thengu’,” Shyla says dreamily, slipping for a few moments into her past. The mention of Ayyappan brings another poem into my mind – ‘Wisdom’. It’s only a few lines long and about a temple atop a hill and an old woman in a hurry to meet the deity. The poem ends with these lines: ‘Today, she stops at each step / waiting for the young girl / climbing after her’.

Shyla’s eyes widen. No, she had not written that about Sabarimala or the round of controversies surrounding it when young women were suddenly allowed by the law to enter the Ayyappa temple they were banned from before. Shyla had written this years earlier, before any of the ruckus. She only notices now how those words would seem very much like a prophecy. “It wasn’t even meant to be Sabarimala, just a temple on the top of a hill and an old woman’s eagerness to meet the god, making her climb much faster than a young girl," she says.

Just snippets that Shyla notices like these would make it to her poems on unpredictable days. She has not brought her family into the picture, at least not obviously – so her husband, CPI leader and Rajya Sabha member Binoy Viswam, and her two girls stay away from the book, but urge her to write all the time. Her parents, whose lives were full of stories, too remain as faces in the background you don't see when the little girl in her poems looks out of windows.

Koothattukulam Mary and CS George / Courtesy - From Mary's book 'Kanaleriyum Kaalam'

Apart from the cats and the windows and the girls in her poems, there is of course the rain. Rain in the attic and rain everywhere else. But Shyla writes in the beginning of her book: “I haven’t learnt how to swim, how to climb a tree, and have never dared touch an elephant, nevertheless, I have smelled the earth and I have understood the rain. With the recent floods in Kerala, though, I am afraid I haven’t understood the rain and that it is capable of making us fearful. I will, perhaps, if I write about it.”

But what she’s now written is a travelogue in Malayalam, off for print as we do the interview. “It’s called Thistleum Neela Poppyum (Thistle and Blue Poppy), thistle being the national flower of Edinburgh and blue poppy of Bhutan, two of the countries I have visited and written about. The other two are Estonia and Nottingham.”

What she also loves to write is for children – there have been six of those books before the book of poems. And from the interests she lays out before you – the children’s classics and other books that she is even now earnestly reading – Shyla will continue writing those. With the eagerness of a child, no doubt.

Also read: Kshetrayya and the legacy of erasing women’s voices from erotic poetry

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