In Which Language Do I Remember You

In Which Language Do I Remember You Shruti Sonal

We often find love and grief intertwined, like leaves holding on to branches, days holding onto the nights, or how life holds onto death. Shruti Sonal recalls her mother holding onto the pleats of her sari tightly, with palms clammy of sweat, fazed by the blur of one too many people speaking a language she didn’t quite recognise. Is it betrayal, then, to remember her mother by words she wasn’t familiar with? Should she keep her mother’s memory alive using the tongue she adapted from the world or the broken fragments of her mother tongue’s heavy alphabets that escape the confines of her knowledge? In which language should she remember her mother, the woman who never needed language to express her love in the first place?

Shruti Sonal, writer, poet, and journalist, asks these and a multitude of similar questions in her anthology of poems, In Which Language Do I Remember You, exploring themes of love, loss, grief and memories. “Language connects, but it also alienates so many of us,” she says. In her book, Sonal exposes the reader to the pain that loss inflicts upon us, but leaves us with the armour it builds. In the end, the book teaches us that just as it is possible for life to exist alongside death, it is possible for us to live alongside the truth of having lost. 

Delving deeper into the nuances of writing for the heart, we are in conversation with her to learn more about her book and her poetry.

What’s the inspiration behind your anthology of poems, In Which Language Do I Remember You?
This is a collection of poems I wrote over the span of three to four years, many of which deal with themes of love, loss and longing. A substantial number of these poems are written for my mother: I lost her during the second wave of COVID in 2021, which is why I have divided the collection into three segments. The first one encompasses poems about my mother that I wrote Before her death, and the second section comprises poems that I wrote after her death. The last one is rather broad and embraces the ways of dealing with grief: Love and Loss. Since these are all extremely personal and intimate poems, I think they take inspiration from my life and how much my mother's presence, and even absence, impacts it.

What is the significance of the title?
The title of the book is borrowed from one of the poems in it. My mother tongue is Hindi, but I write my poems in English, which created a conflict in my mind, especially when it came to my mom. She was never exposed to an English-medium education, which is why she never ended up learning the language. Growing up, I witnessed situations in which I’d often find her feeling uneasy because of her inability to partake in the time’s common parlance. Hence, for her, the English language was extremely exclusionary. Regardless, all this time, I have written poetry, often if not always, in English, even if it was meant for her- because it is what comes naturally to me. The title puts this juxtaposition that exists inside my mind into words: even if this is not quite the language I remember conversing with my mother in, why is it the one I feel most comfortable writing about her in?

The book revolves strongly around grief, love and loss. How do you strike a balance between honouring the pain of loss and finding moments of solace and beauty in your verses?
Something I noticed a few years ago was that during the process of writing, several of my poems would start in melancholy. But the act of writing them gave me a sense of comfort; as I worded my thoughts, things would somehow become easy to deal with. I realised that as I wrote, the endings would invariably become a lot less sad than what I started with. Moreover, that time was one of loss for so many people across the country, which meant that this feeling was, in many ways, more universal than personal. Thereafter, I started balancing the personal with the universal in my poems. And when I started doing that, these verses became a lot more about hope and solidarity than the pain of loss.

In what ways do you feel poetry uniquely captures the nuances of love and loss compared to other forms of expression?
The intensity that poetry brings with it sets it apart from all others. The fact that there is emotion involved in every single line of a verse speaks volumes about how much meaning each word holds. It overwhelms the readers the first time they read it, and the second time, it helps them come face to face with those emotions a lot more directly than reading a book or watching a film would. With poetry, unlike any other form of expression, there’s constant drama, emotion and feeling; it is so fluid that you can spill your heart onto paper and call it art.

Do you have a favourite poem from this anthology?
Apart from the title poem, another one I love dearly is My Mother Did Not Consider Herself Beautiful. It deals with the unfortunate reality that often, as children, we don’t see our parents as individuals who went through the same emotions that we’re going through- as humans who felt self-conscious or lonely- felt real emotions. In my mother’s absence, a lot of those questions came to me: who was she in school, did she have crushes as a child, was she ever anxious? I knew for a fact that she was very self-conscious about how she looked, and that’s when the title came to me. But the poem travels well beyond this realm: it asks why beautiful is the only adjective that mothers can be. Why can’t they be a goofball or just somebody who hates maths? What is it that makes a mother human? Such questions led me to write this poem.

Are there any particular literary, poetic, or artistic influences that have shaped your work?
One of the most significant books that pushed me to take up writing in the first place was Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. I read it in class 10th, and reading it at that stage completely shifted my perspective towards life. I still credit reading that book for urging me to choose the career path I did and for even being here today. 

Film references also pervade my poems generously; sometimes, I watch a film, and a line resonates with me so much that I dedicate an entire poem to it. I’m a huge fan of writing one-line closing lines in my poems because I feel that one single line can often be worth seven pages of dialogue, which is certainly a technique I have learned from movies.

What is next in the works for you?
I’m in the process of writing the script of a film, and I’m also working on a non-fiction book based on cinema. I think this year is going to be all about research and putting all my hard work into new ventures. 


Words Muskan Kaur
Date 17.01.24