Arundhathi Subramaniamis 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.
We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?
Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?
That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.
“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”
Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’. Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?
Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.
In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices? We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.
We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.
Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!
While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?
Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares,and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.
We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.
When God is a Traveller
(wondering about Kartikeya, Muruga, Subramania, my namesake)
Trust the god
back from his travels,
his voice wholegrain
his wisdom neem,
his peacock, sweaty-plumed,
drowsing in the shadows.
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.
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
who no longer begrudges
his brother his prize,
his parents their partisanship.
whose race is run,
whose journey remains,
who stands fluid-stemmed
knowing he is the tree
that bears fruit, festive
who recognizes you –
auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred,
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
The trick, Shakuntala,
is not to see it
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
that creeps into your bones
like warmth on a winter evening
as you watch
the milky jade
of the river Malini flow by,
and there’s a home
that will live evergreen
in the folklore of tourist brochures,
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
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,
and just the right smear
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.
but the hope
of something new
between parted lips.
A kiss --
jasmine lapis moonshock.
And around the corner
with the old refrain,
(Sanskrit, Greek, whatever):
It’s never close enough
It’s never long enough
It’s never enough
As for his amnesia,
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
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.
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
at an ex-lover, an ex-rival,
and effortlessly attain a kind
She’s not against play-acting either.
She enjoys the smell of fiction,
knows it’s fun to pretend
She knows centuries are separated
by historians, not poets,
that now and then
are divided by
the thinnest membranes
that there’s not much difference
between lush shola grasslands
stunned by a blue fusillade
of kurinji flowers
and urban jungles
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,
She knows also
that folklore has its stories,
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).
Spare me the desperation of the old,
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
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
*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 Subramaniamis 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.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an upsurge in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule. Click here to read.
On August 8th 2021, the chief of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, pointed out during the closing ceremony that these games were “unprecedented” and brought messages of “hope, solidarity and peace” into a world torn with the desolation generated by the pandemic. It was a victory of the human spirit again, a precursor of what is to come. That the Japanese could get over their pandemic wrought hurdles, just as they did post the nuclear disasters wrought by the Second World War and by the 2011 earthquake-tsunami at Fukushimaya, to host something as spectacular and inspiring as these international games reflects, as the commentators contended, a spirit of ‘harmony and humility’. The last song performed by many youngsters seemed to dwell on stars in the sky — not only were the athletes and organisers the stars but this also reminded of unexplored frontiers that beckon mankind, the space.What a wonderful thing it was to see people give their best and unite under the banner of sports to bring messages of survival and glimpses of a future we can all share as human beings! Our way of doing things might have to evolve but we will always move forward as a species to thrive and expand beyond the known frontiers.
One such explorer of yet unknown frontiers who mingles the historic with the contemporary, Goutam Ghose, an award-winning filmmaker and writer, has honoured our pages with an extensive interview showing us how art and harmony can weave lores that can help mankind survive. This is reinforced by the other interview with Singaporean academic, Dr Kirpal Singh, whose poetry reflects his convictions of a better world. With our intelligence, we can redefine processes that hold us back and grind our spirits to dust — be it the conventional ‘isms’ or norms that restrict our movement forward – just as Tagore says in the poem, we have translated this time, ‘Deliverance’.
…On this auspicious dawn,
Let us hold our heads high in the infinite sky
Amidst the light of bounteousness and the heady breeze of freedom.
As the Kobiguru mentioned earlier in the poem, the factors that oppress could be societal, political, or economic. Could they perhaps even be the fetters put on us by the prescribed preconceived definition of manmade concepts like ‘freedom’ itself? Freedom can be interpreted differently by multiple voices.
This month, on our pages, ‘freedom’ has found multiple interpretations in myriad of ways — each voice visualising a different dream; each dream adding value to the idea of human progress. We have discussions and stories on freedom from Nigeria, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia and more. Strangely enough, August holds multiple independence/ national days that are always for some reason seen as days of being ‘freed’ by many — at least from oppression. But is that true?
Indo-Pak independence, celebrated now on 14th (Pakistan) and 15th August (India), reflects not only the violence of the Partition which dislocated and killed millions historically but also the trauma caused by the event. Capturing this trauma is a short story based on memories of Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by his daughter, Amna Ali. Ratnottama Sengupta translates from the diary of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), a woman’s voice from the past that empathises with the subjugated who were subdued yet again after an upsurge of violence during the Quit India Movement (1942) against the colonials. Sinha contends that though the movement frittered away, the colonials were left with an after-taste of people hankering for self-rule. A thought-provoking short story by Sunil Sharma explores the results of self-rule in independent India.
Alluding to Jinnah’s vision for women, Aysha Baqir muses emotionally about the goals that remain yet to be fulfilled 74 years after independence. Moazzam Sheikh’s story of immigrants explores dementia, giving us a glimpse of the lives of Asian immigrants in America, immigrants who had to find a new home despite independence. Was this the freedom they dreamt of — all those who fought against various oppressive regimes or colonialism?
Tagore’s lyrics might procure a few ideas on freedom, especially in the song that India calls its National Anthem. Anasuya Bhar assays around the history that surrounds the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated to English by the poet himself and more recently, only by Aruna Chakravarti. We also carry Dr Chakravarti’s translation of the National Anthem in the essay. Reflecting on the politics of Partition and romance is a lighter piece by Devraj Singh Kalsi which says much. ‘Dinos in France’ by Rhys Hughes and Neil Reddick’s ‘The Coupon’ have tongue-in-cheek humour from two sides of the Atlantic.
A coming-of-age story has been translated from Nepali by Mahesh Paudyal – a story by a popular author, Dev Kumari Thapa – our first Nepali prose piece. We start a four-part travelogue by John Herlihy, a travel writer, on Myanmar, a country which has recently been much in the news with its fight for surviving with democracy taking ascendency over the pandemic and leaving the people bereft of what we take for granted.
Candice Louisa Daquin discusses a life well-lived in a thought provoking essay, in which she draws lessons from her mother as do Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, and Argentinian writer, Marcelo Medone. Maybe, mothers and freedom draw similar emotions, of blind love and adulation. They seem to be connected in some strange way with terms like motherland and mother tongue used in common parlance.
We have two book excerpts this time: one from Beyond the Himalayas by the multi-faceted, feted and awarded filmmaker we have interviewed, Goutam Ghose, reflecting on how much effort went in to make a trip beyond boundaries drawn by what Tagore called “narrow domestic walls”. We carry a second book excerpt this time, from Jessica Muddit’s Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon. Keith Lyons has reviewed this book too. If you are interested in freedom and democracy, this sounds like a must read.
Maithreyi Karnoor’sSylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends,is a fiction that seems to redefine norms by what Rakhi Dalal suggests in her review. Bhaskar Parichha has picked a book that many of us have been curious about, Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Parichha is of the opinion, “Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.”One wonders if this is conclusive for all ‘unworldly women’ in India only or is it a worldwide phenomenon or is it true only for those who are tied to a particular ethos within the geographical concept of India? The book reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, dwells on the fierce independence of the early twentieth century women caregivers of the maestro from Bengal. These women did not look for approval or acceptance but made their own rules as did Jnadanandini, Tagore’s sister-in-law. Bhaskar Parichha has also added to our Tagore lore with his essay on Tagore in Odisha.
As usual, we have given you a peek into some of our content. There is more, which we leave for our wonderful readers to uncover. We thank all the readers, our fantastic contributors and the outstanding Borderless team that helps the journal thrive drawing in the best of writers.
I wish you all a happy August as many of the countries try to move towards a new normal.
This is an unusual book–unusual because of the theme, approach and style. And when it comes from a skilled author, it ought to be still more engrossing. A tiny book of about two hundred pages but not so diminutive in its journey to profile four women — who are known little outside their small world of followers and who matter in the arena of spirituality. It is a melodious presentation.
‘Women Who Wear Only Themselves–Conversations with Four Travelers on Sacred Journeys’ by Arundhathi Subramaniam is prophetic, in-depth and counter-revolutionary.
Author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, Arundhathi is an award-winning author. Her most recent book is Love Without a Story. The Other books include an anthology of bhakti poetry, Eating God, and a book of essays, Pilgrim’s India. The Book of Buddha and the bestselling biography of a modern-day mystic, Sadguru: More Than a Life are also the talked about ones. Arundhati is widely known as a poetry editor, curator and critic. Her book, When God Is a Traveller, won the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020 besides being shortlisted for various other prizes.
Arundhathi’s book provides glimpses of four spiritual practitioners – Sri Annapurani Amma, Balarishi Vishwashirasini, Lata Mani, and Maa Karpoori — who unlike the chatty sadhus prominent on the social media, practice in isolation. Arundhati talks at length to these women of substance and in doing so, she gives some promise for the jaded souls. Besides, she looks for a gender-balancing act and tries to widen the circle of women spiritual leaders.
In a world where women have been seen traditionally as someone’s wife, mother, daughter, or sister, why would a woman choose to follow a spiritual path? Perhaps because, deep inside every woman has a longing to be someone in her own self, confident and in control.
In the last two thousand years, women have not fully used their spiritual power. Instead, aspects of the feminine have taken mainly symbolic forms from the Virgin Mary to the vestal virgins, from Earth Goddesses to the Shakti Devis. Women have been put on pedestals and worshiped on account of their purity or femininity; but have been excluded from religious activities and barred from entering places of worship.
In the present book, she talked to Annapurani Amma who left the safety of home and family to follow the summons of a long-dead saint (she lives naked but delivers prophecies.) Balarishi Vishwashirasini who was predicting futures ultimately transformed into a guru. Now in her thirties, she is a gifted teacher of nada yoga. 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. The fourth woman is Maa Karpoori, who had a rollercoaster ride that catapulted her from marriage to monkhood.
Writes Arundhathi in the Preface: “The primary motivation behind this book is simple. Thirst. Hopefully, a shared one. As a seeker, I have spent years thirsting for conversations. With spiritual teachers, with fellow travellers committed to the life of the spirit. I cannot complain. My life has been rich in conversations.
“I have had conversations with seekers of various persuasions. I have spent long hours listening to the yogi and mystic who later became my guru. I have eavesdropped on countless conversations with mystics in books — Shirdi Sai Baba, J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Osho. I’ve even imagined the lapping waters of the Hooghly quieting to listen to the extraordinary exchanges between Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciples. But another kind of thirst remained.”
So, what made her plan this book? “There was no crusading zeal that motivated this book. There was no schematic design. No spirit of advocacy. But there was a longing to listen to the voices of lesser-known women—women who choose to live in relative seclusion and shadow, and yet burn brightly. Women whom I met, accidentally, in the course of my own journey, and who generously allowed me a glimpse of their light. Something shifted within me after each of these chance encounters. I did not leave any of them unmoved.”
Arundhati doesn’t skip history: “The Indian spiritual landscape is not devoid of its women. We are routinely reminded of an illustrious litany: Maitreyi, Gargi, Andal, Karaikal Ammaiyar, Akka Mahadevi, Janabai, Muktabai, Bahinabai, Lal Ded, Rupa Bhavani, Gangasati, Meerabai. The list is long and varied. There are well-known figures in more recent times too, from the 20th-century mystics, Anandamayi Ma and The Mother of Pondicherry, to contemporary guru, Mata Amritanandamayi. Remarkable women. Beacons for many even today.”
Says Arundhathi admittedly: “These women made no effort to impress. They were gracious enough to share their life journeys, without trying to flaunt their attainments, win recruits, or garner publicity. I am a seasoned listener, and instantly alert to subtle attempts to broker deals. There were no bargains being hatched here. I write about these conversations primarily because they were so remarkably free of agenda.
“My initial encounters with the women in this book were unplanned. I happened to have spent large swathes of time in southern India in the past decade, and so, not surprisingly, that is where these meetings happened. They are not meant to represent the religious plurality of the Indian subcontinent, although I do believe that they reveal the still-vanquished hospitality of vision that characterizes its spiritual ethos.”
While she is on the subject, her incredulity and concerns goes farther than the original remit: “The terror of uncertainty is more blazingly evident in our world than it ever has been. To carve a path between the certitudes of a frozen faith and the dogmas of arid materialism can be challenging. I marvelled at how these women held their own in a world so conceptually fragmented. A world that divides the material and the spiritual into such impermeable categories. How did these women tune into their own inner guidance? How did they come to terms with that simple but oddly elusive truth: that we are both flesh and spirit? That we do not have to masquerade as simply one or the other?”
Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.
Interspersed with her own poems to uphold the content, the four conversations in the book are as fascinating as pathbreaking. Appropriate for an awakened reading!
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
Greetings fromBorderless Journalfor all Asian New Years!Click here to read our message along with the video and a translation of a Tagore song written to greet the new year, with lyrics that not only inspire but ask the fledgling to heal mankind from deadly diseases.
Ratnottama Sengupta, a well-known senior journalist and film critic lives through her past to make an interesting discovery at the end of recapping about the silk route. Click here to read and find out more.
Over 150 Authors and Artists from five continents have written on mental illness in an anthology called Through the Looking Glass. Candice Louisa Daquin, a psychotherapist and writer and editor, tells us why this is important for healing. Click here to read.
Does she need an introduction? Arundhathi Subramaniam who has taken the world by storm with her poetry, reinforcing God, using English as a medium of writing over what we call a mother tongue, and voicing her stand on her own concept of national identity, and yet she has won the Sahitya Akademi award for 2020 for her collection, When God is a Traveller. She has broken rules that defined the modern literary world and moved towards creating her own individual brand of writing. Her writing is full of vivacity and makes the reader emote. She writes from the core of her being — that is clearly evident in the flow of her poems. Clarity, preciseness and perfection in linguistic usage enhance her ideas and grasp the reader in their fulcrum to lever their thoughts and emotions into her world. In this exclusive with Borderless Journal, read about Arundhathi’s journey.
Tell us about your journey as a writer and a poet. When and why did you start writing?
I’ve been excited by poetry for as long as I can remember, Mitali — the swing, the rhythm, the velocity, the precariousness of it. Thankfully, none of my early efforts at writing it have endured! But I composed many bits of doggerel as a child. In my adolescence and early adulthood, poetry was catharsis and emotional self-expression, as it is for so many. I think it was in my late twenties and thirties that I began to come into my own as a poet.
My first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves, happened in 2001. I felt I’d been waiting a long time to be published. But in hindsight, it was a good thing. It took me time to find the timbre of my voice, to allow it to embody a mix of assurance and doubt. At least I now began to know the poetry I aspired to. It is what I still aspire to — a kind of textured clarity, a poised uncertainty.
What gets your muse going?
I’m still finding out! I know some measure of quiet helps. Long days, devoid of agenda, help. And yet, so much writing also happens on flights, in cab rides, in coffee shops, waiting for a friend to arrive. Poems happen when I’m able to strike a certain creative tension between urgency and unhurriedness.
When you were a child, what were your aspirations? What did you want to become?
There was a fleeting aspiration at age five to join the army. But I think I realized pretty soon that the path to field marshaldom was an arduous one. It was always poetry after that!
In 1997 you had a life changing experience. What was it and has it impacted your writing?
It was a naked-wire experience of emptiness, if you will. A brush with life without form, without any graspable meaning. There was terror in it, but later, also a kind of freedom. I’m never quite sure what brought it on. But the experience faded in a week, leaving in its wake a strong, unwavering awareness that I needed to live my life differently, to commit myself to making my peace with this vacancy. That turned me into a seeker, first and foremost. All the writing – both prose and poetry – that came afterwards probably reflected this shift in some way.
What have been the influences that impacted your writing?
The literary influences have been as varied as all the poets whose work I’ve ever loved: TS Eliot, Basho, Wallace Stevens, Donne, Neruda, Rilke, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, Arun Kolatkar, AK Ramanujan, John Burnside, and so, so many more. But as my spiritual journey took on a certain momentum, I also rediscovered the Bhakti poets for myself, and realized they were an integral part of my literary lineage. They are my ancestral guides and companions, in a sense: Nammalvar, Annamacharya, Tukaram, Akka Mahadevi, among others. And there are so many other mystic poets I’d add to that list: Issa, Buson, Ryokan, Ikkyu, Dogen, St John of the Cross, Hafiz, Rumi, among them.
But we aren’t shaped only by what we read, are we? My life experiences have also impacted my writing. I’ve met some extraordinary people, had some fascinating conversations, travelled to some unforgettable places, had some deeply life-altering (and not always easy) experiences, and I’m sure all of those have contributed to who I am and how I write.
You have done a book on Sadhguru and another with him. What was it like working with him?
Sadhguru can be funny, profound, provocative, compassionate, a friend, a remote spiritual master — sometimes all in the course of a single interaction. So, I learnt to go into every book session, prepared to be startled. It’s been interesting — the way I have felt provoked, unsettled, singed, during many of our meetings, and still emerged, feeling oddly energized, invigorated, alive. As the writer of his biography, I was struck by the freedom he allowed me, his refusal to micro-manage the writing.
You have written books on Buddha and Sadhguru. Why did you opt to write on men associated with religion?
Well, I’ve also edited an anthology of Bhakti poetry, Eating God, and have a forthcoming book on four contemporary little-known women who walk the spiritual path in their own deeply individual ways, called Women Who Wear Only Themselves. So, my fascination is with the realm of the sacred – and not just with men who commit themselves to it, but with women too.
I am emphatically not fascinated with the exoteric aspects of religion. But I am interested in the nascent experiential insights around which faiths are often built. So, the Buddha has long interested me as the fearless amateur questor, the compassionate guide who showed us a direct path back to ourselves – one that allows us to bypass all the institutional middlemen who ‘sell water by the river’, as it were. Sadhguru fascinates me for similar reasons, as a contemporary mystic – irreverent, flamboyant, and deeply human all at once.
You have got God back into poetry. Eating God, a recent book of yours, even says it in the title. What made you opt for bringing God back in where the modern trend is to shun the spiritual? What is your perception of God?
Eating God is an anthology of sacred verse – of devotional poetry. So, it was difficult not to have god on the menu. The bhaktas wouldn’t have forgiven me for it!
My own book of poems, When God is a Traveller, also uses the word ‘god’. But the god of this book is not a deity in a temple, but a heroic adventurer who, like so many others in world myth, takes off on a journey around the world and returns to find the answers lie within him. So, the god, Muruga, is a kind of alter ego in this case; a pilgrim/ traveller/ vagabond archetype who mirrors us back to ourselves.
My perception of the divine? It’s still unfolding and is best implicated in poetry. So, let me simply share my poem, ‘Goddess – II’, with you. It’s from my most recent book, Love Without a Story.
(after Linga Bhairavi)
In her burning rainforest
silence is so alive
you can hear
Have you ever written in any other language other than English? Why?
No, I haven’t. English is my first language, and it is an Indian language. It may be ours due to unfortunate historical circumstances. But it is no longer a foreign import. It is as much ours today as democracy, or cricket, or chai, or the chili, or tamarind, or okra, or the nose ring! I have translated poems from Tamil and Gujarati into the English, however, working with fellow-translators for whom those are their first languages.
In your poem, To the Welsh Critic, you have said: “This business about language, / how much of it is mine, /how much yours”. By saying this, in a way you critique the commonly held belief that writers should write in their mother tongue to express themselves. Can you explain your views on this?
Well, I often say that my mother speaks many tongues. She is a Tamilian, raised in Burma and Delhi, married in Mumbai, and has chosen now to live in Chennai. Consequently, she speaks Tamil, English and Hindi fluently, and is now studying Spanish online! Like most Indians, she has bequeathed to me a multilingual inheritance. I grew up in Mumbai where I heard Bambaiyya Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and English around me. English, however, was the language I formally studied, and the language I heard plentifully at home, so it is my first language. It is the language I dream in, express rage and grief in. It is the language closest to my skin; it is the language I need, therefore, to write poetry in.
Rather than impose some doomed project of cultural jingoism upon ourselves, rather than try to aspire to some mythic state of cultural purity, it would make our lives infinitely richer and more exciting if we embraced our pasts. My ‘Welsh Critic’ poem is addressed to all those – in our country and elsewhere — who offer us absolutist formulae for belonging, who would have us believe there is only one way to be ourselves. As I say in the poem, ‘I stammer through my Tamil,/ and I long for a nirvana that is hermetic,/ odour-free, bottled in Switzerland’. My cultural identity is polyglottal, happily hybrid, and for those very reasons and other indefinable ones, I believe I am as Indian as they come.
How do you think language should be perceived? Should it be bound to the umbilical bonds? Or should a writer, like an artist, be free to choose his medium of expression — for language is merely his tool, his colour or paintbrush?
Language is and must always be about freedom of choice. Only when we choose freely can we express freely. Rather than chop and hack at a diverse cultural legacy, it makes sense to enjoy its abundance and savour its many flavours. This is why so many Indian poets I know are translators as well. We enjoy the challenges of bringing the textures and insights of one literature into another, opening up new worlds of aesthetic experience. I have worked for years as editor of the India domain of the Poetry International Web, a small but significant online archive of contemporary Indian poetry. It entailed working with poets working in over twenty Indian languages. The work on this website, as well as all my book of Bhakti poetry, has been about translation – allowing literatures to roam freely from one linguistic context to another.
It is time to talk unapologetically about the language of poetry. Poets everywhere recognize each other because of this kinship. It has nothing to do with jaded arguments around language politics. Those belong to politicians, not poets.
Some of your poems talk of establishing an identity as a woman and express a fierce desire for an independent existence. “I erupt from pillars, / half-lion half-woman.” Do you think this need is gender related? Or is it the call of poetry?
Well, yes, some of my poems do consciously assert a female identity. It is one of the many identities I own – alongside being Anglophone, Indian, contemporary, among other things. In ‘Confession’, the poem you mention, the entity that erupts from pillars, ‘half lion-half woman’, is clearly an allusion to the Narasimha avatar of Vishnu – and yes, I’m definitely presenting a female version of that archetype here. I remember the surge of freedom and joy when crafting that metaphor.
There is an early poem, ‘5.46, Andheri Local’, in which I speak of a women’s compartment in a peak-hour Mumbai local train being transformed into ‘a thousand-limbed, million-tongued, multi-spoused Kali on wheels’. And in my most recent book, I have a song for ‘catabolic women’ – women who are happily ‘unbuilding, unperpetuating, unfortifying, disintegrating’. These are some of the poems in which the female identity is asserted strongly, emphatically.
‘Catabolic Woman’ is a poem that binds you to both your identity as a woman and an Indian. Do you see nationalism as a necessary part of a writer’s identity?
Well, there’s a playful paradox in one phrase — ‘proudly Indian, anti-national’ — but other than that, the poem doesn’t really dwell on national identity. It’s more about growing into oneself as a woman (something that happens usually in one’s forties and fifties, or at least, did for me), a woman who’s no longer fooled by self-serving rhetoric, vested interests, hidden agendas. As I said of the poem, ‘To the Welsh Critic’, I see myself as deeply Indian. But I’m uncomfortable with dogmatic definitions of what it means to belong to a particular country, a particular faith, or even a particular gender. There are many ways of being not just Indian, but woman, as well. I would like to believe that my work reflects that complex sense of identity.
Tagore, perhaps the most acclaimed poet from India, wrote in the start of his essay on Nationalism, “Our real problem in India is not political. It is social.” Would you agree with that?
Well, I know that there are ways of belonging that lie beyond a glib cosmopolitanism and what I think Tagore called ‘the fierce idolatry of nation-worship’. Belonging anywhere is not about passivity. It is always an act of negotiation. It takes time to see plurality as a possibility, rather than a liability. As richness, rather than confusion. Countries everywhere are grappling with this in their own way – how to celebrate diversity, but without hierarchy, a diversity rooted in justice, in equality. That is our challenge too.
What is your perception of the role of a poet or writer in the world? Is it only aesthetics or something further?
We sometimes tend to polarize the morality-aesthetics debate. Being morally attentive doesn’t mean turning heavy-handed or perennially indignant, and valuing aesthetics doesn’t mean turning ethically laissez-faire or politically indifferent. The role of a poet, as I see it, is to be true to the way she sees the world and to use language with precision and thoughtfulness. A mix of authenticity and artistry, integrity and craft – both are essential to poetry.
Poetry alters human beings in very deep and enduring ways. But those changes aren’t accomplished by turning self-conscious, but by growing more conscious – aiming for greater exactitude and greater nuance, but without losing intensity, without losing the fire that burns, and must always burn, at the core of this art.
Thank you Arundhathi for giving us your time.
This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal.
Click here to read a poem by Arundhathi Subramaniam.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
We’re bound for the ocean
and a largesse of sky,
we’re not looking for the truth
or living a lie.
We’re coming apart,
we’re going downhill,
the fury’s almost done,
we’ve had our fill.
We’re passionate, ironic
wildly Indian, anti-national.
We’re not trying to make our peace
not itching for a fight,
we don’t need your shade
and we don’t need your light.
We know charisma isn’t contagious
and most rules are egregious.
We’re catabolic women.
We’ve known the refuge of human arms,
the comfort of bathroom floors,
we’ve stormed out of rooms,
thrown open the doors.
We’ve figured the tricks to turn rage
we know why the oldest god dances
at every cremation.
We’ve kissed in the rose garden,
been the belles of the ball,
hidden under bedcovers
and we’ve stood tall.
We’re not interested in camouflage
not looking for a bargain
or an invitation.
We’re capable of stillness
even as we gallivant,
capable of wisdom
even as we rant.
Look into our eyes,
you’ll see we’re almost through.
We can be kind but we’re not really
thinking of you.
We don’t remember names
and we don’t do Sudoku.
We’re losing EQ and IQ,
forgetting to say please and thank you.
We’re catabolic women
We’ve never ticked the right boxes,
never filled out the form,
our dharma is tepid,
our politics lukewarm.
We’ve had enough of earnestness
but still keep the faith
We’re wily Easterners enough
to argue nirvana and bhakti,
talk yin and yang,
Shiva and Shakti.
When we’re denied a visa
we fall back on astral travel
and when samsara gets intense
we simply unravel.
We’re unbuilding now,
First Published in Love Without a Story, 2019.
Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet who has recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award, 2020, for her book When God is the traveller (2014). She has authored a number of books and won multiple awards and fellowships. She has been part of a number of numerous anthologies and journals.