3 years


The Poet in Search of the Self

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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How spirituality and poetry mix in the peripatetic world of Arundhathi Subramaniam
And I know what it is to live
in a place where the mind’s ink
has many tributaries, fermented
to make all songs
seem just a little

In 1997, Arundhathi Subramaniam had just had a very happy holiday in Nepal. From there she came to Delhi for a week before getting on the Rajdhani Express to return to Mumbai, where she lived. In the train she was reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying with what she describes as a certain focus that happens when there is just you and a book. Then she started dying.

“That is the way it felt. It wasn’t an emotional experience. I couldn’t think of it as a psychological experience. Nor was it like I was physically ill. The body just seemed like it was turning into a carcass. I could look and see it for what it is. But I could equally see it stiffening, hardening, darkening into a corpse,” she says. She arrived in Mumbai in that state but thought a good meal and a night’s sleep would turn things normal. It didn’t. She would wake up and again be confronted with that quality of darkness. She calls it a time of great terror. “Because I had no way to understand this. It was also a realisation that all the things that I believed counted—love, books, travel, poetry, I couldn’t clutch any of them. I couldn’t even pick up a phone or meet a friend and talk about what is going on inside because it was not a place that one could describe,” she says.

The experience began to taper away after a week and it was accompanied by a great sense of freedom, buoyancy and lightness. “It was fabulous coming out of it. But I also knew that it had been preceded by terror and emptiness. I knew that I had to make my peace with that emptiness because it seemed very clear to me that fundamentally this is what my life had to be about; what life is. And if you don’t make your peace with that emptiness, you haven’t understood life at all.”

She had always been spiritually bent, but from then on the quest became less intellectual. “I was willing to try whatever it takes because I had known that terror,” she says. Arundhathi speaks about that experience as falling into a crater on a page of poetry and suddenly realising what those huge gaps in a poem actually mean. “We think we are manipulating language. Anyone who deals with language with a certain measure of intensity discovers at some point that you can tumble into places that are completely unmapped by language. Where you are no longer playing grand manipulator. It is no longer you calling the shots,” she says.

Trust him,
whose race is run,
whose journey remains,
who stands fluid-stemmed
knowing he is the tree
that bears fruit, festive
with sun

In when God is a traveller (HarperCollins India, 116 pages, Rs 399) Arundhathi’s latest collection of poems, spirituality is an underlying thread, but it is subtle. Her poetry is broad spectrum. There is Bones, about listening to the language of the body; Sharecropping, about growing into the image of parents and coming to terms with age without turning old; there is the slightly erotic Black Oestrus; poems on linen, high heels, wry crumbly gods in little anonymous shrines doling out deep communions, shoeboxes, cats and epigrams for life after 40. They jump from the existential to the spiritual to the material to the mundane to how- ever else you want to relate to them.

The main preoccupations of her poetry deal with relationships, place— the external landscape impinging on the self, love, life, time and quest. Her first collection, On Cleaning Bookshelves, was published in 2001, representing a decade of work that had preceded it. “There was a kind of exuberance and variety of themes and preoccupation in them,” she says. The second book, Where I Live, came out in 2004 and addressed a gap between where she lived and where she belonged—“not knowing where I belong and not being entirely satisfied with where I live”.

Now with When God Is a Traveller, she says she has absolutely no clue where she lives. She leads a peripatetic existence, spending time between Mumbai, an ashram in Coimbatore, her parents’ home in Madras and travelling for poetry-related events. But, paradoxically, she also feels less nomadic within. “I can’t tell you where I am most of the time but there is a much deeper sense of belonging than ever before; a much deeper anchorage in your self. I wouldn’t trade this for any of the more comfortable moments of my life in the past,” she says.

The transformation has much to do with her finding a guru. After that near death experience, Arundhathi had wanted someone to help her not just to understand that experience but guide her back into it, who would take her “into places within myself that would help me make my peace with these areas that I had not dreamt even existed; someone who knew what life was and what death was.”

In 2004, completely by chance, she walked into a talk by Jaggi Vasudev, the founder of the Isha Foundation whose yoga programmes have a wide following. “I remember that first encounter. I was hearing him and being just so convinced that I was in the presence of someone of clarity. But a clarity that was not just certainty, which I think is a distinction between the mystic and the fundamentalist. He wasn’t giving certitudes or feel good tips for life. It was an invitation to deeper experiences. I was drawn but the process happened over a period of time.”

What you might say to the sage:
It only makes sense
if you are looking for me too—
but never despairing
I’ll get through eventually

Poems don’t happen to Arundhathi at one go. The only poem that did was one called 5.46 Andheri Local. “I wrote and put it away and many months later looked at it again and said it holds and I don’t want to do anything to it. Most of the time the way I would work is: a poem often starts with an image, or it might start with some kind of idea that is churning on a level when it is not just an idea or emotion and is finding its way in some deeper part of yourself. I’d write something, put it away, deliberately not look at it for a while. And then when it is sort of erased, pick it up again and look at it to find out whether it touches a chord. Is it sounding fraudulent? Is it working? You return to it, circle around it, again put it away. It is many moments of putting it away and returning to it. Which explains why I haven’t written that much poetry,” she says.

For an illustration into the process, take the longest poem in When God Is a Traveller. It is called Eight Poems For Shakuntala and according to Arundhathi is the very heart of the collection. The poem’s journey began in 2003 when she was in a hotel room in Guwahati while attending a Sahitya Akademi seminar. She was lying in bed staring at the ceiling when Shakuntala’s story started running in her mind and there came an image of leave-taking— a pregnant Shakuntala leaving the forest and the hermitage of her father, the ascetic Kanva, to go to her husband Dushyanta who (she doesn’t know it yet) has forgotten her because of a curse. “And for some reason I found I was crying. I don’t usually have this kind of response to a story,” she says.

Seven years later, in 2010, when Arundhathi found that the story was still persisting in her, she decided to begin writing. “My starting point of the poem was just this: as someone who is the daughter of a rishi and an apsara, Shakuntala is a recipe for disaster, a genetic calamity who is never going to be one thing or the other. Suddenly I discovered that it was a familiar human scenario. I started with that but by the end of the cycle of poems I actually began to see her as a tremendous possibility. As someone who is citizen of more than one world and therefore gifted with the kind of vantage point that is unique. How often do you have someone who can tell what it is to be both apsara and rishi; who knows the experience of matter and mind, who knows the experience of human and the divine all at once? I saw her location as a great gift.”

And it feels like I too could
wait for you,
while I perform
the erotic liturgies of another world,
wait for you,
who understands like none other
the prosody of my breath

Another art that influences her poetry is dance. Arundhathi has trained in Bharatanatyam but, in her teens, felt she had to choose between poetry and dance. She chose poetry but dance kept resurfacing in her life in some form or other. Initially she wrote on it. Then there was curatorial work at the National Centre for Performing Arts. “I know my poetry draws from understanding of movement, particularly of the spine, by yoga as well as dance. I am going to sound horribly pretentious if I say how. I am not going to say how but it is important,” she says.

Alarmel Valli, the celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer, has known Arundhathi for more than 25 years when she used to write on dance. She remembers that in interviews Arundhathi was able to get the essence of what Valli was conveying and express it with great clarity and feeling. “It was the poet in Arundhathi even in those days when I didn’t know her as one,” says Valli. Valli was present in Chennai for a reading when Arundhathi’s first collection of poems had come out. “I was deeply stirred by what I was hearing. Her poems have many layers. Each time I read them, I discover new dimensions, new meaning. Even with poems I don’t fully understand at first, I am moved. Arundhathi’s poetry speaks directly to you, makes you see things afresh and sometimes you learn something new about yourself. That, for me, is the mark of true art,” she says.

As a dancer, some aspects that strike her about Arundhathi’s poetry are the vivid visual quality of her metaphors and the music of her language. It led to an interesting collaboration in 2010 between the two—Only until the Light Fades, a production of love poems through the ages, in which Valli choreographed Arundhathi’s poem Vigil. “I selected it for the same reason I would have chosen a Sangam poem. There was a deep response to it and I wanted to express it in dance. Arundhathi had actually written the poem with Indian dance and dancers in mind. I wanted to interpret it as I would, a song in Bharatanatyam—not as an abstraction of the theme, but using sancharis and embroidering around the poem.” Only until the Light Fades received very warm responses in all the major metropolises.

Valli finds Arundhathi’s spiritual core reflected in her poems. “Everything that she says is completely from the very core of her being. Not one thing is said for effect or merely to impress,” she says.

This time we didn’t circle each
the city and I,
hackles raised,
fur bristling

It has only been a couple of months since Arundhathi has decided not to have a fixed address in Mumbai anymore. It is a severing that she is anxious about but getting used to. It is a city where she always felt a sense of siege; a place she both hated and loved. In When God Is a Traveller, there is a poem The City and I in which she speaks about one brief moment when she connected with Mumbai as a fellow fugitive. That was when she returned after the 26/11 attacks had just happened. The poem ends with the city becoming ‘suddenly mine’.

Mumbai was where she was born, studied and began writing poetry even as a student. Her relationship with poetry changed after chancing upon a book of TS Eliot’s poems and reading The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and Wasteland. Even though she didn’t understand what they were about, she felt the presence of poetry. “It was an important realisation that poetry can be about mystery; that it doesn’t have to be about what I call ‘100 watt illumination’. It can be about areas that are shadowed, that it is part of the experience of its beauty.”

Later, when in college, she became part of the Poetry Circle, a group that met in south Mumbai. It was a time when the novel was becoming the most fashionable genre with writers who saw the success of icons like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. But the novel has never been a temptation for Arundhathi. “For whatever strange reason, at least some of us felt like it was poetry we wanted to be around. It was an odd thing to be doing, it was unfashionable and it wasn’t easy at all at the time to be published. But you felt a strange obstinate need to be doing it,” she says.

Poetry does not believe in simplification or making it easy on the reader, but, like all art, it craves an audience. The poet has to decide how to walk that line. Arundhathi makes a distinction between being understood and connecting. “Even when I am reading out poetry, I am making a very real effort to connect. Because I want to be able to share this experience. As to how you receive it, even what sense you make of it, that to my mind is not really a concern. A certain emotional access in a poem is very important. I’d like to believe that a reader or listener tunes into that even before they fully understand a poem,” she says.