What it Takes to be a Redwood Tree: Arundhathi Subramaniam

‘How ready am I for a vision of utter and absolute equality, I ask myself?’

Title: Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys

Author: Arundhathi Subramaniam

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

What It Takes to Be a Redwood Tree

Lata Mani

When Lata Mani was driving to her office at the University of California, Davis, one morning in 1993, her life turned turtle. Quite literally. A stolen Pepsi Cola truck collided headlong with her on the freeway. As her car flew up into the air and spun several times before landing, much else plunged into a dizzying spin-cycle from which it would take years to emerge. Her career, her health, her worldview, her life as she knew it. 

It had to be one of the rudest and most catastrophic spiritual initiations in the book. A rebirth that turned things upside down, inside out. The most radical lesson in de-hierarchizing the world. The ground beneath her feet vanished, the mind was stunned into silence, the body shocked out of its illusion of solidity into a state of uncongealed pain and seismic uncertainty. And with that brain injury, everything changed. It has never quite been the same again.  

And so, sceptic turned spiritual apprentice. Marxist turned meditator. Scholar turned bhakta. 

I knew the old Lata Mani somewhat. She happens to be a second cousin. She also happened to live in Mumbai in her growing years. She was a remote figure, older by some years, inspiring as an articulate feminist of her generation, glamorous in the life of self-determination that she represented. She left for California to study, proceeding to author a major work of feminist scholarship on the debate around sati in colonial India. I lost touch with her after she left my city. 

But it is the new Lata Mani that I have got to know better. I had my first real conversation with her in 2010. Our connect was immediate, spontaneous, cutting through social natter and nicety with a directness and definitiveness that surprised me. I had known the ‘outer’ Lata somewhat sketchily. I now encountered what one might call the ‘inner’ Lata: contemplative writer, unabashed Devi devotee, a woman of clarity and unselfconscious poise. It was like meeting her for the very first time.  

And yet, there were connections with the Lata of old. The lucidity and incisiveness of mind was very much in evidence. The commitment to social justice remained, even if its textures were altered. And she was still blazing her own trail—interior, perhaps, but with no loss of self-reliance or intensity.  

‘“Falling upward” into the world of spirit is usually a metaphor. But in your case, it was absurdly literal!’ I tell her. 

‘I think some of us are hard nuts to crack, so it had to happen this way!’ Lata grins. 

My conversations with Lata have been largely telephonic, punctuated by fleeting meetings when I happen to be passing through her city. But I have a vivid recollection of a long evening I spent with her in her Bengaluru flat in 2011—an oasis of luminous quiet amidst the mayhem of metropolitan India. We talked a great deal that day, late into the evening, and again the next morning. We talked of family, books, the Goddess, love, as well as the spiritual ‘crash course’ that redefined her life. She had moved back to India in 2004—a major transition, but perhaps not as disruptive as the inner shift that had already occurred. 

I remember her saying her injury had dropped her into ‘a new neighbourhood’—a quietly laconic phrase with which she summed up this descent into horrifying and unrelenting pain. In her writing, she describes it even more vividly as a state of being ‘in pre-op for cosmic surgery’. The description reminded me of some calamitous rite of shamanic initiation. The experience compelled her to inhabit the body in a way she never had before. Was this a direct insight that happened as a consequence of the trauma, I ask her. 

‘Yes, it all changed when that desperate young man driving at hundred miles per hour sought to end his life by ploughing into my car. We both survived! But while I survived the collision, my brain was no longer intact. Gradually, I began to experience states of consciousness for which I had no language. I first began to sense the connectedness of everything. I had encountered the notion of a unifying substratum before, but only as an idea. Experiencing it was an altogether different matter.’  

The injury catapulted Lata into a land for which she had no name. When I think of the ways in which some saint poets have invoked it (Ravidas’ ‘Begumpura’, the utopian land without sorrows, taxes, travails and hierarchies, for instance, or Kabir’s ‘wondrous city’, the land where ‘fruit shines without a tree’), the descriptions are lyrical. They do not suggest the ordeal, the baptism by fire that can precede it. Lata’s term for the land in which she crash-landed is, by contrast, unsentimental. She describes it simply as abiding ‘isness’. She did not discover it as a lofty philosophical idea. There was no flight into the empyrean. No ‘top of the world looking down on creation’ brand of ecstatic high. No out-of-body experience. Instead, Lata Mani discovered isness in and through her body.  

‘As you know many spiritual experiences or insights are first experienced as spontaneous gifts for which we have no prior frame of reference,’ she says. ‘Isness was gradually revealed to me in the depths of a brain injury which had made thought and communication difficult. Everything was stripped to its bare essentials. And yet there was a certain vibrancy and richness that I was experiencing alongside the very real trauma of the injury. It was not a state in which I “transcended” my circumstances, but one in which I was breathed more deeply into it.’ 

And this is the most fascinating part about Lata’s journey: the upside-downness of it at every level. Her training thus far had prepared her to look at social structures ‘ground up’, but this was about a ‘ground up’ darshan of existence itself—orchestrated by a cellular intelligence rather than a cerebral one. The intellect was no longer in charge. As the reins were handed over to a more grassroots wisdom of marrow and viscera, the mind emerged, redefined—a democratic collaborator on the life journey, rather than dictator of it.  

I imagine this as the state of gob-smacked awe in which Yudhishtira might have found himself at the top of Mount Meru: a terrifying confrontation with reversal of every kind. But then other questions begin to surface. It is wonderful to think of some reversals, but not others. The Biblical image of lions eating with lambs, for instance, gives me consolation. But what of all our divisions of the world into good guys and bad, the forces of light and darkness, or even our political allegiances to left wing or right? What about our longing for poetic justice? How ready am I for a vision of utter and absolute equality, I ask myself? 

(Excerpted from Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys by Arundhathi Subramaniam. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021.)


 Sri Annapurani Amma left the safety of home and family to follow the summons of a long-dead saint. Like Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded before her, she chooses to live naked, and sometimes delivers prophecies, but what shines through is her humour and crazily one-pointed devotion to her path.

Soon after her tenth birthday, Balarishi Vishwashirasini was predicting futures—in no time she was transformed into a guru. Now in her thirties, this gifted teacher of nada yoga admits to sometimes feeling she’s missed out on a real childhood.

Lata Mani, a respected academician in the US, was plunged into the path of tantra after a major accident left her with a brain injury. Today, she talks of how the spiritual life is deeply anchored in the wisdom of the body—not unlike the soaring yet rooted redwood trees of her adopted home.

Maa Karpoori, a feisty young woman, found her calling when she joined a local yoga class. Through a rollercoaster ride that catapulted her from marriage to monkhood, she retains her fierce independence and contagious joy of living.

In this extraordinary book, poet and seeker Arundhathi Subramaniam gives us a glimpse into the lives of four self-contained, unapologetic female spiritual travellers. Sensitive, insightful and spare, Women Who Wear Only Themselves is a revelation and a celebration.


 Arundhathi Subramaniam is the award-winning author of twelve books of poetry and prose. As poet, her most recent book is Love Without a Story. As anthologist, her books include an anthology of bhakti poetry, Eating God, and a book of essays, Pilgrim’s India. As prose writer, her work includes The Book of Buddha and the bestselling biography of a contemporary mystic, Sadhguru: More Than a Life. She has worked over the years as poetry editor, curator and critic.

Her book, When God Is a Traveller, won the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020; was the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society, UK; and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize in 2015. Her awards include the inaugural Khushwant Singh Poetry Prize, the Raza Award for Poetry, the Il Ceppo Prize in Italy, the Zee Indian Women’s Award for Literature, the Mystic Kalinga Award, among others.

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books



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