In Conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam, Photo Credit: Meetesh Taneja

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

Goddess II 
(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.

Photo Credit: Meetesh Taneja

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal.


Click here to read more works by Arundhathi Subramaniam.



Beyond Ideological Borders

By Anu Karippal

I was doing an interview with a retired college professor and Bharatanatyam dancer a few weeks ago for Humans of Kerala Instagram page. The interviewee, a teacher by the name of Gayathri, learnt to dance as a child, is a single mother and teacher, and when she was about to retire, resumed dancing and has performed widely in the last four years. Her voice was filled with the affection of a teacher and humility for her achievements. Something distinct in the interview was that, she was not a product of any -isms and ideologies that define our generation today — feminism, liberalism, environmentalism, activism, atheism etc. Gayathri was different. She belonged to another era when there were no burdens of ideologies for a layperson to attain something or establish an identity. She became a professor and a dancer and accomplished everything unbound by any ideological objective. She was only bound by her passion. Doing something or defining ourselves within an ideological framework was not popular back then as it is today.

This is not to discount the values such ideologies have enriched our lives with. Feminism empowered women and men. Liberalism opened up the rights discourse. Environmentalism educated us to own up to our responsibility towards nature of which we are a part. Activism taught us that we need to be a collective and make a little noise to stir meaningful and useful changes. I, as a girl, was sent to school just like my brother without a second thought because of the years of the struggle by the women who fought for it in the past.  Labour unions can challenge the exploitative and environmentally destructive changes because ideologies provided us with the sense of awareness of the power dynamics. To forget this is to undervalue the achievements of such struggles that have now given us a comfortable life. While it empowered us and made us better people in many ways, they also came with their limitations.

One must be aware of all of the above ideologies and question power in our daily life, what if in the attempt, our life becomes ideology-centric? When an environmentalist sees everything solely as an environmental issue or an activist sees everything solely as an issue or propaganda by state or corporate, one loses out on the other perspectives of seeing life and makes life a war to be fought. An old saying is worth remembering here, “If you look with yellow eye, everything will look yellow”. This can turn dangerous. Probably, this is something that the dance teacher, Gayathri, could have taught our generation — that we can do good, accomplish our passion without being ideologically assertive and let our life speak as our identity/ideology.

Perhaps, the rising interest to define our lives within dictates of any ideology has intensified with the intrusion of social media into every aspect of our lives, acquainting us with several ideas. I can vouch for it because I have done it too, and continue to do this over and over again. The way ideological battles are fought out in politics and public domain shows how listening to an opinion that is not in agreement with our ideological orientation is becoming an impossibility.

While opinions regarding public matters were left to a few earlier, it is in the hands of anyone with a phone and internet now. This has promoted inclusion of opinions, but it has also led to polarisation of identities and ideologies. Internet was supposed to uphold the spirit of democracy, but it has actually made people intolerable towards each other. There is a continuing loss of intimacy among people in the name of ideologies, easy judgement of people and the constant use of “unfollow” button that we easily press when somebody does not agree with our ideological thoughts on social media. We forget that we cannot press a “delete” button in the real world and that the world is always made of different people with different perspectives.

It took me three year-outside-academia life to begin to understand that life and its ways cannot be contained in any ideology. During my three-year stint at ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore, India), my dear friend Kumar taught me several things on our post-lunch walks. Once our topic was feminism, its possible misinterpretations among men and women and how it might be taking the wrong track. I was immediately angry and asked him why.

He said, “These days sometimes women want to do something because men are doing it. The fact that you want to do something should drive your goals and not the question whether or not men are doing it.” He added, “Do you want to dance, sing, jump, swim, be a CEO, pilot, doctor, anything? Go do it. But do it because you want to and not because men are doing it.” It took me months to understand the gravity of what he was saying. This is not to imply that we shouldn’t ask questions regarding why men and women do different things or why we are different. Our question should be a quest to understand than to react. And our goals should emerge from our passion.

As I was sharing these thoughts with a friend, she told me that doing something for the sake of any ideology gives a “restricted contentment”. When you do something because you like it, it is a fulfilment, a larger contentment of inner peace and elation that cannot be fit into any ideology. If you don’t want to buy a pink doll because pink has largely been associated with feminine, that is a vain battle to fight. If you like a pink doll, buy it. If you want to reduce plastic use because capitalism has been environmentally drastic and overpowering, then it might not give you enough contentment. Reduce plastic use because you care immensely about nature and you want to do your part. If you decide to grow long hair because men have primarily been associated with short hair and wants to break the stereotype, that is a limiting happiness. Grow long hair if you like long hair. If a husband and wife begin to look at everything in life through rights and equality, then marital life might create tensions and frictions. One who mocks arranged marriages as traditional and one who mocks love marriage as modern both know that despite the nature of acquaintance before marriage, married life anywhere is filled with adjustments and compassion. Life is always beyond ideologies.

Once, as the man I first fell in love with and I were walking back after our class. I was walking on the pavement to his right, touching the road. He held my hand and moved me to his left side, away from the road. He wanted me to be safe and if anything happened, that I would be spared. We were just friends at that time, so I smiled inside, enjoyed how my heart had felt a free fall and walked with him. If I were to call this as an instance of benevolent patriarchy and tell him I can take care of myself, I would be being so unfair to that act of love and destroy my happiness and his.

Even if it were a power relation, can it be scraped off with a reactionary attitude like a stain on the plate? Probably we are then replacing one form of power with a politically correct, elegant looking form of power. How ironic! And this is one of limitation of any ideology. If we begin to look at every little thing through liberalism, feminism and rights discourse, then all we might see is inequality, power and our life can get burdening. If we look at it through love, respect and kindness, life can be easier to live.

How easier said than done, right! I try to let go of my personal ideological thoughts, but it is one of the most difficult things for me to do. In the few retrospective moments of thinking and writing, it is easy to appreciate that one must go beyond the ideologies to understand life. Difficult as it may be, we must still try to not let ideologies influence all our actions. Life can best be viewed in simple terms. At the end of the day, environmentalism, feminism, activism and liberalism can turn as restricting as capitalism and fascism if we don’t treat them carefully. Even the idea of freedom can be limiting and can bind us. Ideologies are as transient as anything else in this world. Yuval Noah Harari shows how the world has gone through different historical epochs such as imperialism, communism and now liberalism in 21 lessons for the 21st century.

Let’s ask questions to understand and not to react. If we approach anything with a predisposed reactionary attitude, we will merely spread our opinion on the matter before understanding it. If we do something in the name of an ideology despite wanting something else, our life wouldn’t be as fulfilling. This self-fulfilment is not be misunderstood as selfishness, but as the open-mindedness to see life beyond ideologies and live a fulfilling life.

An ideology can get twisted and turned and corrupted in no time. But staying true to your passion and dedicating your time and effort,  will give a certain contentment that is unparalleled. In one of his lectures, the Indian mystic, Sadhguru, despite his biases, refers to the thought that our minds are becoming a market place, where we weigh everything. The thought struck me. If we give something and expect the exact quantity in return in friendships and romance, we might end up being disappointed and angry at everything. Moving beyond ideologies; feminist, liberal, capitalist, activist, right-wing, left-wing etc. can probably lead us to a satisfied life. 

Social media is all intrusive. While it brings lost friends and families together and keeps the world functioning even as the pandemic struck, it also catalyses polarising identities and proliferation of ideologies. While we imagined our house or immediate locality to be the world before, now we imagine our self-curated social media to be the world. We follow and unfollow people to create a desirable world of similar ideologies that we can easily agree with and offer a collective critique of ideologies we disagree with. And we become intolerable of the vast differences of opinion in the real world. Paying attention to passion is probably more important and fulfilling than assembling a life out of ideology, only to be discounted by another ideology of sound arguments. Writer Howard Rheingold wrote: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention”.

Anu Karippal is a student of Anthropology and Sociology at Graduate Institute, Geneva. She is from Kerala and she writes personal essays, movie reviews, short stories and poetry occasionally.