More Poems from Arundhathi Subramaniam

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


So here you are,
just another mixed-up kid,
daughter of a sage
and celestial sex worker,
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 


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.


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, 
with butterflies.

But what of those nights
when all you want 

is a lover’s breath, 


starlight through a diaphanous curtain,
and a respite 
from too much wisdom?  


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,
with desire

and just the right smear
       of history?


The same hackneyed script.
The same old cast. 

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


As for his amnesia,
be fair.

He recognized the moment
when he saw it --

    sun    springtime    woman --  

and all around
thick, warm, motiveless 

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?


What you might say to the sage:    

It only makes sense
if you’re looking for me too

but never despairing,

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,

through the thickening air
and curdled fog 
of this endless city --
‘Come back, Shakuntala.’



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


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

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 
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
           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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