Literature and pilgrimage have a lengthy historical relationship: John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a popular candidate for the first novel in English. The idea of an inner journey that helps us know ourselves better is common to the physical act of religious travel as well as the intellectual exercise of writing or composing.
Pilgrim’s India, a new anthology edited by poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, shows us the extent to which this is true of Indian literature. From the early utterances of the Katha Upanishad to essays by modern voyagers such as Anjum Hasan in Ajmer and Bachi Karkaria in Udvada, it demonstrates how far and wide the faithful—and doubters—have roamed. Subramaniam, who says she is inspired by the idea of the “questor who is willing to stake his life on a question mark”, spoke to Lounge about the book. Edited excerpts:
The pieces in ‘Pilgrim’s India’ tell us that pilgrimage and religious faith have a tricky relationship.
If you are a conscious seeker, it’s a journey that compels you to travel light. It forces you to examine all sorts of subtle self-serving notions of personal identity, of conceptual idolatry. Even if you are an unconscious seeker, travelling to sacred places can unsettle you, derail you. The Indian pilgrimage is a particularly overwhelming one. But then, there are moments of surprise as well. Moments of clarity and insight happen when you least expect them. For me Arun Kolatkar’s An Old Woman poem from Jejuri is a reminder of that.
Pilgrim’s India: Penguin Ananda, 285 pages, Rs 399
Has literary practice in India become more reticent about religion over the last few years?
This has been an area of unease, and not without reason. And that’s primarily because it’s difficult to disengage religious fundamentalism from the quest for the sacred. That’s made many thinking people wary of talking about the religious experience. Then there’s the avalanche of trite, new agey, spiritual pulp literature.
But if we allow a cozy, blinkered rationality to stifle our real questions about life and death, we run the risk of chopping off some vital part of ourselves. A habitual brittle suspicion about everything “spiritual” may make your life more convenient, more manageable, but it insulates you from deeper possibilities of self-understanding that may never be “dreamt of in your philosophy”.
Are we a more irreligious reading public than our ancestors, or is that a fallacy?
At least the content of some doubts has changed. Some anxieties about being exploited or manipulated in the name of religion are historically specific, and entirely pardonable. At the same time, if you read poems by Basavanna, Kabir and Akho in the book, you realize that an attitude of irreverence towards oppressive forms of organized faith, punditry and crass ritual is not a new phenomenon at all.
What are the challenges to anthologizing a category of literature so vast?
The challenge is not knowing where to begin and where to end. I told myself I could never be as comprehensive as I wanted. But I did want a variety of tone and approach. I think the end result tries to strike a certain balance between the voices of mystics and sceptics; between intrepid spiritual backpackers and cautious observers; between the voices of then and now; between the familiar and the new; between prose and poetry.
What was the most troublesome piece in this anthology?
Initially, there was a subconscious block about allowing myself the “too mystical” account. I thought this might be too fantastic. Later, I had the reverse concern—I wondered if it was all turning too measured and rational. But then I realized that this didn’t have to be an either-or situation. Why was I inflicting this kind of wilful violence on the book? This is an anthology about seeking and travelling. Seekers and travellers come in all shapes and sizes. I don’t think scepticism is incompatible with faith.