“Who are you?” Rarely do people vocalize this question, but you know they’re thinking it — from the very moment you meet them. To answer that question, you have to deal with another, internal one first. Who amI?
For a long time, I believed in a rigid identity, a fixed innate truth. Identity was a monolith, immutable and inherited. Down the river of years and landscapes, I have docked at numerous destinations, calling at each port with a distinct call. Heraclitus said you cannot step into the same river twice: the river moves on and so do you. If everything is in flux, how could I be, forever and everywhere I went, only one of the many things I could be?
In an interview, author Jhumpa Lahiri contended a singular, unchanging identity no longer interested her. Instead, she was seeking out different facets of her being and pushing the limits of how she defines herself. Lahiri grew up in an immigrant Indian family in the US but now lives in Rome, having learned and published in her adoptive language. She wonders if she is a Bengali, an American, an Italian, a woman, a writer, a wife or all of the above? Reading Lahiri’s words was liberating. Here was someone who had immersed herself into the Heracletian river, instead of skimming its superficial curves and bends.
I find this detachment from an unchanging, stereotypical identity appealing as I grow older. The more I turn around the sun, the more I want to shed cloaks of nationality, race, religion, sexuality and career. I want to be who I am, only I get to decide which emotional, political and social avatar I wish to place uppermost given the context. The richness of a pluralistic life means different hues take precedence depending on space and time. Back in the Renaissance period, polymaths were celebrated for being cultural chameleons and intellectual infidels. Utilitarianism has turned us into reductionists and prejudice into bigots. We want quick, short, predictable, comfortable answers to “Who are you?”. “Save the transgressive, subversive ambiguity of your Being,” they seem to say. “We need a label to comprehend your humanity. So, hurry up, what’s yours?”
Like Gandhi who wrote My Experiments with Truth, I too am Indian but unlike him, I am also the person who has lived most of his adult life away from India. I am gay, part of the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ minority and in the same breath I am also a cisgender able-bodied male with unspoken privileges. I am a scientist, but I am also a writer, poet. Sometimes I am a ‘person of colour’ and sometimes my emotional reactions against the racial battle fatigue, make me wish I could simply blend into the seawater of majority White.
Today, I have a paid job, but I am also someone who carries inside the memory of being unemployed. At times the immigrant in me surges to the forefront, on other occasions the anti-capitalist. I can be lucid and peaceful, but I know too the chasms between depression and vitality, the ones that are never fully bridged. Although this schizoid state recalls split personalities, a multi-layered identity is far from an incoherent, fragmented sense of self. All of these planes of existence make me who I am and, nevertheless, none of them are sufficient to define me. Only a paradox remains when I think of the whole of me. Identity then is an oxymoron, in evolution.
Undeniably, in a world that likes stock labels and neat boundaries it can feel chaotic to juggle different identities. Heterogeneity strikes many as a threat. Dissonance, variance, deviance constitute a trident charged against the constant, the power-wielding majority. The allure of sameness is strong in mobs, groups, entitled circles. They proclaim cohesiveness is the same as compassion. All outliers are dangerous. This primitive insularity reeks of exclusivity, of othering.
Invariability strikes those with unquestioned identities as the paragon of assimilation. But assimilation asks a great deal out of me and nothing out of you. How is that fair? Perhaps it is fair in the same way that ignorance and intolerance prosper while justice langours in the darkness. Assimilation has one objective: constancy. I’ve lived in four countries, speak five languages, straddle Science and Art. I stand at the crossroads of the developing East and developed West. I know the taste of racism deep in my skin (like spit full of hateful fear), I’ve walked down shiny corridors of privilege (Oxford, New York, Paris). I know the eyes that ask “Who are you?” and answer before I can, denying me the dignity of equality. In their gaze, my identity is a foregone, implicit bias. To them I say, constant is a dead word to me.
I live in the rough, mean, fleeting edges, the boundaries that no one sees because intersections are tough places. They are also thriving, lush, transcendent niches for the invisible and ignored. At intersections, we become so much greater than the sum total of our experiences. The goal of self-determination is not to figure out the right identity label and hold on to it dearly and protect it vehemently when attacked. Instead, fluidity serves natural order better. Amorphous like the primordial sizzling soup we come from, full of protean charm. Complex and dazzling like precious stones under a stolid terra firma. I wish to carry myself with my multitudinous, contradictory truths. If someone is not prepared to engage in meaningful exchange with my nebulous vibrant ‘otherness’, they will receive a unidimensional, disengaged version of me. Or better, none at all.
Rumi allegedly said “You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” As I write these words, I’m starting to see what he meant. My experiments with difference continue, ironically because the word identitycomes from the Latin one, idem, which means the same. How much of me is lost if the river stops flowing? Congruity always tries to boss over irregularity. In the end, the truth of one’s identity stems from uniqueness, not uniformity. Manifold and bewildering is the flow of an ecstatic river that refuses to be forded by narrow constraints imposed by mankind.
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.
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