When God is a Traveller (wondering about Kartikeya, Muruga, Subramania, my namesake) Trust the god back from his travels, his voice wholegrain (and chamomile), his wisdom neem, his peacock, sweaty-plumed, drowsing in the shadows. Trust him who sits wordless on park benches listening to the cries of children fading into the dusk, his gaze emptied of vagrancy, his heart of ownership. Trust him who has seen enough -- revolutions, promises, the desperate light of shopping malls, hospital rooms, manifestos, theologies, the iron taste of blood, the great craters in the middle of love. Trust him who no longer begrudges his brother his prize, his parents their partisanship. Trust him whose race is run, whose journey remains, who stands fluid-stemmed knowing he is the tree that bears fruit, festive with sun. Trust him who recognizes you – auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred, alive -- and knows from where you come. Trust the god ready to circle the world all over again this time for no reason at all other than to see it through your eyes. (Excerpted from When God is a Traveller, Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2014) Eight Poems for Shakuntala 1 So here you are, just another mixed-up kid, daughter of a sage and celestial sex worker, clueless like the rest of us about your address -- hermitage or castle earth or sky here or hereafter. What did you expect? What could you be but halfway, forever interim? What else but goddamn human? 2 The trick, Shakuntala, is not to see it as betrayal when the sky collapses and closes in as four windowless walls with a chipped Mickey Mouse magnet on the refrigerator door or as eviction when the ceiling crumbles and you walk into a night of stars. 3 Yes, there’s the grizzled sage Kanva his clarity that creeps into your bones like warmth on a winter evening as you watch the milky jade of the river Malini flow by, serene, annotated by cloud and there’s a home that will live evergreen in the folklore of tourist brochures, detonating with butterflies. But what of those nights when all you want is a lover’s breath, regular, regular, starlight through a diaphanous curtain, and a respite from too much wisdom? 4 Besides, who hasn’t known Dushyanta’s charms? The smell of perspiration, the sour sharp beginnings of decay that never leave a man who’s breathed the air of courtrooms and battlefields. A man with winedark eyes who knows of the velvet liquors and hushed laughter in curtained recesses. A man whose smile is abstraction and crowsfeet, whose gaze is just a little shopsoiled, whose hair, mussed by summer winds, still crackles with the verbal joust of distant worlds. Who hasn’t known a man cinnamon-tongued, stubbled with desire and just the right smear of history? 5 The same hackneyed script. The same old cast. Springtime and the endless dress rehearsal -- a woman lustrous eyed, a deer, two friends, the lotus, the bee, the inevitable man, the heart’s sudden anapest. Nothing original but the hope of something new between parted lips. A kiss -- jasmine lapis moonshock. And around the corner with the old refrain, this chorus, (Sanskrit, Greek, whatever): It’s never close enough It’s never long enough It’s never enough It’s never 6 As for his amnesia, be fair. He recognized the moment when he saw it -- sun springtime woman -- and all around thick, warm, motiveless green. Can we blame him for later erasing the snapshot forgetting his lines losing the plot? We who still wander along alien shorelines hoping one day to be stilled by the tidal gasp of recollection? We whose fingers still trail the waters, restless as seaweed, hoping to snag the ring in the belly of a deep river fish -- round starlit uncompromised? 7 What you might say to the sage: It only makes sense if you’re looking for me too wild-eyed but never despairing, certain I’ll get through eventually through palace and marketplace, the smoky minarets of half-dreamed cities, and even if you know how it all ends I need to know you’re wandering the forest repeating the lines you cannot forget -- my conversations with the wind and the deer, my songs to the creeper, our endless arguments about beginnings and endings. Let’s hear it from you, big daddy old man, keeper of the gates. I need to know wise men weep like little boys. I need to hear your words, hoarse, parched, echoing through the thickening air and curdled fog of this endless city -- ‘Come back, Shakuntala.’ 8 And what you might say of the ending: Yes, it’s cosy -- family album in place, a kid with a name to bequeath to a country, perhaps even a chipped magnet on the refrigerator door. I’m in favour of happy endings too but not those born of bad bargains. Next time let there be a hermitage in coconut green light, the sage and I in conversation, two friends at the door, weaving garlands of fragrant dream through days long and riverine and gazing at a waterfront stunned by sun, my mother, on an indefinite sabbatical from the skies. And let me never take for granted this green into which I was born, this green without ache, this green without guile, stippled with birdcall, bruised with sun, this clotted green, this unpremeditated green. And as wild jasmine blooms in courtrooms and lotuses in battlefields let warriors with winedark eyes and hair rinsed in summer wind gambol forever with knobble-kneed fawns in the ancient forests of memory. (Excerpted from When God is a Traveller, Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2014) The Fine Art of Ageing 1. It’s not that Avvaiyar* doesn’t admire the green impertinence of sapling bodies or the way a middle-aged woman can smile at an ex-lover, an ex-rival, and effortlessly attain a kind of goddesshood. She’s not against play-acting either. She enjoys the smell of fiction, knows it’s fun to pretend at immortality. She knows centuries are separated by historians, not poets, that now and then are divided by the thinnest membranes of belief, that there’s not much difference really between lush shola grasslands stunned by a blue fusillade of kurinji flowers and urban jungles moistly evergreen with people on the make. But she knows the journey from goddess to gran, sylph to hag, prom queen to queen mum, is longer than most, more tortuous. She knows also that folklore has its stories, newspapers too, of old kings dewrinkling into young men (a man called Yayati, for instance, conqueror of free radicals, victor of fine lines, high on a son’s sacrifice, women, fine wines, collagen, spirulina, vitamin E, macadamia nuts, extracts of green tea, triclosan, selenium, proplylene glycol, alpha hydroxy acids, bergamot, retinol). Avvaiyar makes another choice. Spare me the desperation of the old, she says, and the puerility of the young. Spare me the glamour of being youthful wife to five princes -- Draupadi, the fruit everyone wants to peel. And spare me the sainthood of mad women mystics who peel off their own rind before others can get to them (vaporizing into the white jasmine scent of hagiography). Avvaiyar makes another choice -- fearless friend to gods, ally of peasants, counselor to kings, traveler of the darkest streets, she walks the world alone. And on such a path, she says, it’s best to be a crone. *Avvaiyar: legendary poet and wise woman of Tamil literature. The name (literally ‘respectable old woman’) was probably accorded to more than one poet in the canon.
Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet who has recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award, 2020, for her book When God is a traveller (2014). She has authored a number of books and won multiple awards and fellowships. She has been part of numerous anthologies and journals.
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