Writers at work | Arundhati Subramaniam
The award-winning writer, editor and curator speaks about her poetry and her forthcoming collection
The heart as an address
A poet of dissonant urban landscapes, inconsistent grammars of the body, and lovers feasting on each other while craving release, Arundhathi Subramaniam has come out with a new book recently. When God Is A Traveller, brought out by HarperCollins India last month, will be published by Bloodaxe Books in the UK in November. The book includes poems from her previous collection, Where I Live: New And Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2009), as well as some uncollected work.
Subramaniam continues to contemplate the perennial tension between eros and emptiness, and the pull of elusive homelands. “Home seems to be a place where innocence and experience—nirvana and samsara, longing and nostalgia, Eden and the fallen world, if you will—are no longer oppositional,” she says. In an interview she speaks about her poetry, and her new book in particular. Edited excerpts:
Tell us something about the travelling god of your collection. Is his a perpetual exile or a home-bound odyssey?
I think he’ll get home, eventually. But he’ll be different at the end of it, and consequently, so will be home!
The travelling god in the title poem is Kartikeya, who journeys the world to claim the fruit of knowledge. Unfortunately, his cannier brother, Ganesha, simply circles his parents and claims it first. Kartikeya is slower, more literal, but he needs to make that journey, and I think is wiser at the end of it. So, home does exist—at least, as a promise—in these poems. But some period of exile seems necessary to recognize that home for what it is. At the same time, it isn’t a simple journey from exile to sanctuary. Because home itself is transfigured on one’s return.
There is an instinctive charge to your verses: primal, “feral”, and potent desire, the one that seeks to “devour” the beloved, but also strives for transcendence. How do you reconcile the Dionysian and the Apollonian, in life and poetry?
Let me answer in terms of my own understanding of jnana and bhakti—the paths of knowledge and devotion. I’ve always considered myself more of a jnana margi, a person inclined towards the more cerebral path of self-enquiry.
But there came a time in my life when my life was derailed—first by a near-death experience in 1997 and seven years later by a meeting with a spiritual guide. The second time was just as momentous, just as seismic. It was a time of discovery, elation, bewilderment. A line in the poem, Confession, sums it up: “When I open the coffee percolator/the roof flies off.”
Many things changed after 2004. My understanding of myself, for one. I saw myself as a more porous being, more acutely aware of uncertainty, but less inclined to camouflage it. I was suddenly more of a bhakta: more aware of the passion and terror, the carnal need to devour and be devoured that fuelled my existential journey, more aware of the heart as an address—risky but authentic—and more aware of devotion as an ancient technology of the heart.
In terms of the poetry, I think this has meant trusting the poem’s journey without being in a hurry to impose an agenda on it. It’s been about learning to see that craft and creativity, precision and passion, riyaz and rasa, are deeply linked.
So, how do I reconcile heart and mind, the Dionysian and the Apollonian? Perhaps by learning to accept that we aren’t called upon to disown or amputate either; the challenge is to embrace the two.
Your relationship to the city or body (as the “uncensored wilderness of greed”) is conflicting—at times friendly, but always intimate, visceral, skintight. Is it one and the same relationship?
But there’s a difference, I think. Where I Live was about the gap between where I live and where I belong. At that time, I didn’t know where I belonged, but I did know where I lived—physically, geographically, historically, ethically. Now, with When God Is A Traveller, I realize I don’t quite know where I live, but, oddly, I do have a hunch about where I belong! My life is more unsettled than ever, but there is a deeper sense of anchorage than before.
The liminality, transit-ness of being human—the improvisation of it, and its fallibility. In what ways are these conducive to poetry?
Personally, I find myself responding to the theme of uncertainty with a wider spectrum of tonal possibilities than before. There’s irony, but also wonder, bewilderment, terror, faith, elation. I also believe the poems are more riddled with holes than before, more open to surprise. Perhaps because I’m more aware of the blank spaces on a page as the source of a poem’s octane, I treat them with more respect than I did earlier.
In some of your poems, you use the classical grammar and vocabulary of love—frogs, ponds, moon, and so on. How does that work relate to Tamil Sangam poetry or the Kannada ‘vachanas’, for example?
Yes, these are used quite consciously in the poem, Six About Love Stories. The poem starts with the image from the Ramayan of the two mating birds severed by the hunter’s arrow—the birth of duality with all its pain and beauty. Later, other traditional images seep into the work as well—from classical Sanskrit love poetry and Zen poetry. Since these are poems about stepping in and out of mythic frameworks, the archetypal images seemed to belong. But if I felt they were just being employed to prettify the poem, I’d have dropped them.
Is poetry wrestling with vacancy? Would you say defeat is inherent and inevitable in that case?
I see poetry more and more as a verbal art that has to befriend pauses, not evade them. And that’s been a hard-won realization. If you want to shut the holes, gaps, and silences out of your life, it’s a doomed project. They win the day finally, anyway. But once you learn to consciously invite those holes into your life, things start looking up. Poetry, like bread, can, if you’re lucky, start rising!
Could (human) love suffice—the forgoing of emptiness as the final and definite category, both assuaging and terrifying?
Love is wonderful, of course. And yes, I have a poem in the book that says “It could be enough”. But I don’t know. It looks like life allows us to treasure love, but not cling to it. And I think the poems eventually acknowledge that love can be as mysterious as that emptiness.
What are you currently reading?
Abhirami Bhattar, Janabai, and a whole galaxy of medieval mystic poets. This is for a book of Bhakti poems that I’m currently editing for Penguin. It should be out later this year. It’s called Eating God—a line from a poem by Nammalvar, the Tamil Vaishnava poet, one of my favourites.
I could lie against you,
mouth on forehead, limbs
into a knot too dense
for yearning, hearing the gossamer flurry
of your breath, the wild nearness
of your heartbeat, and it still won’t be
I could swallow you,
feel the slurry of you
against palate —and throat,
with the rip, snarl
and grind of canine
and molar, taste the ancestral graper
that mothered you, your purpleness
swirling down my gullet,
and it would be a kind
but you still won’t be
I’m learning, love,
that there’s more to desire
than this tribal shudder
in the loins.
But I’m not sure
for it yet—
in your daily kabuki
of shape and event.
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.
Lora Tomas is a Croatian indologist, translator and editor who regularly contributes to Asian and Indian publications.
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