The Interview : Arundhathi Subramaniam
(Rachna Singh talks to Arundhathi Subramaniam)
The Wise Owl interviews Arundhathi Subramaniam, a celebrated and world-renowned poet, prose writer, arts critic and anthologist. She has been honoured with innumerable awards like the Sahitya Akademi Award, the inaugural Khushwant Singh Prize, the Raza Award for Poetry, the Zee Women’s Award for Literature, the International Piero Bigongiari Prize and many others. Her volume of poetry, When God is a Traveller (2014) was the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. She has also authored the bestselling biography of a mystic, Sadhguru: More Than a Life.
In all our interactions with Ms Subramaniam, we found her affable, gracious, down to earth and with none of the intellectual arrogance one normally associates with well-established and celebrated writers.
Thank you so much Ms Subramaniam for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.
Q. The first book you authored was a book of poetry (On Cleaning Bookshelves). Why did you adopt the medium of poetry to express your feelings, thoughts and emotions? What was it about the medium that attracted you to it?
I was drawn to poetry as a child, and I guess the fascination never really went away. I was excited by it because it seemed to be a dangerous, unpredictable language. A kind of kinetic language. It was capable of leaping and diving, tripping and racing and pausing in all kinds of exciting ways. Later I found that poetry was also the most direct verbal route to myself that I knew. It still is. It is always much wiser than I am.
These were the two primary aspects of poetry – its formal exuberance and the way it led me to places of complex, multi-dimensional truth -- that fascinated me.
I believe many young people are drawn to the form. I merely happened to be one of those who didn’t give up. I studied literature, kept reading, writing, working on my craft, and it was after almost a decade of working and reworking a manuscript that my first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves, was published in 2001.
Q. During the course of your creative journey, you have moved between prose and poetry mediums. Does the subject of your book decide the medium of your choice or is it a spontaneous choice without conscious thought?
The difference is simple, actually. In the case of poetry, I never sit down to write a book; I merely write poems. One day, after four or five years of scribbling verse fragments, if I discover that the bits and pieces hang together, then I decide to turn it into a manuscript. There are invariably some recurrent preoccupations that makes it cohere in some way.
In the case of prose, each of my books has been more consciously embarked upon. I knew, for instance, that I was going to write a book on the Buddha, or on Sadhguru, or on contemporary women on sacred journeys. What I didn’t know, of course, was the exact shape or texture or feel of the book. That is something I discovered as the journey was underway.
Q. Your initial books of poetry are about growing up, about childhood as well as teenage reminiscences. They are thoughtful, sensitive but some are also unabashedly sensual. However, in your later works you have veered towards spirituality. What made you walk the spiritual path?
I don’t think it was ever a linear journey from sensual to spiritual, Rachna. Existential questions are actually evident in my very first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves. You'll find poems about love, families, friends, places, travel, gender politics in there, but the sense of wonder about the sacred was very present too.
In fact, the paradox is that the unabashedly sensual element you speak of became much stronger once I was consciously on a spiritual journey. That is why I have loved the Bhakti poets: they celebrate the erotic as an integral part of the spiritual journey, and that is something I recognize to be deeply true.
Why was I drawn to the spiritual? I don’t know if there was ever a choice. I had questions about living and dying, impermanence, death and loss, at an early age, and those have simply remained. School and university gave me plenty of other distractions, but these questions never went away. So, I’ve been a reader of all manner of spiritual literature since I was young. From Zen and Advaita to mystics ranging from J Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharishi to St John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart – I’ve devoured mystical literature for as long as I can remember.
Q. In your book ‘Pilgrim’s India’ you talk about the spiritual journey as a ‘disruptive excursion of existential backpackers’. Why do you consider the spiritual search disruptive?
For a long time, I believed that being on a spiritual journey entailed turning calm and peaceful. And yes, some measure of peace and calm are definite by-products of any kind of inner work. But what I did not anticipate was that there is no way to access your inner life without acknowledging all the unhealed crevices of the human heart. There is no shortcut to peace. You cannot do it without addressing the experience of body, heart and mind. Consciously “falling into yourself” as an emotional, affective, visceral, instinctual being can feel strange and disruptive -- at least for a while, until you're a slightly more seasoned mariner of your interiority.
Q. In ‘The Book of Buddha’ you say that you were drawn to Buddha and his teachings as he was one ‘who spoke my language’ and asked the ‘questions that we do’. In the poem ‘Mitti’ (Love Without a story) like Buddha, you seem to be referring to the inevitability of death when you say ‘Just that. Nothing else will do’. Have you been able to find some answers to questions about the inevitability of ‘Dukh’ and death?
Well, what fascinated me about the Buddha, as you point out, is the fact that he asked the same questions that we’ve all asked – about the meaning of life, about loss and grief and perishability. The only difference is that he devoted his life to those questions, while most others get side-tracked somewhere along the way.
About my own spiritual journey, it is still very much underway. But I will say this: I don’t think one ever finds verbal answers to the questions of ‘why death’, ‘why suffering’, or ‘why life’. But with any committed spiritual practice, you begin to find the space around those questions grows wider, emptier, more silent. That is the whole point of any meditative discipline: it is about consciously inhabiting yourself and discovering that you can befriend some of those silences. You grow more at ease with those blank spaces, less frantic about filling it in with words.
The poem, ‘Mitti’, however, is more a reflection on language than the Buddhist idea of dukkha. It invokes the many words for ‘mud’ in languages around the world, and asserts that none are ‘superior, none untranslatable’. But it finally acknowledges that for that very singular fragrance of wet earth in Bombay, in anticipation of a south-western monsoon, there is only one word that works, at least for me: "mitti". And hence the line: “Just that. Nothing else will do.”
Q. You are also drawn by bhakti poets and their poetry which is obvious from your book ‘Eating God: A Book of Bhakti poetry’. If you were to pinpoint 2 characteristics of Bhakti movement that made you empathize with Bhakti poets, what would those be?
I have loved the Bhakti poets for many years. And they have rescued me more often than I can recount. Two reasons why I love them? One, the directness and intimacy with which they address the divine (which allows them to flirt, argue and banter with their gods in a wonderfully irreverent and spirited way, reminding us that there’s nothing goody-goody or docile about an authentic spirituality). Second, the fact that they are capable of raging at their gods, but without ceasing to love them. The second characteristic is inspirational, particularly in a world that tells us we must hate what we disagree with. The Bhakti poets may rail at their gods, ridicule them, even dismiss them, but they never stop loving them. It helps to be reminded that we can be critical without being contemptuous.
Q. Your book ‘Women Who Only Wear Themselves’ has explored contemporary women mystics or spiritualists who wear or seek to wear only themselves. You say that they offer you a ‘contraband of radiance’. This term really intrigued me as it seems to be indicative of the fact that the women spiritualists offer the radiance of spirituality. But at the same time the term ‘Contraband’ seems to suggest that something beyond social norms is also on offer. Why do you think spirituality is beyond societal norms?
Well, the spiritual paths charted by any of the four women in the book aren’t orthodox in any way, are they? Each of them charts her journey in her own way: one is a woman mystic who chooses to live naked; the other heeds her own inner guidance as she walks the path of nada yoga; a third was plunged into a spiritual journey as a result of a car crash and brain injury: and a fourth is a woman who leapt from marriage to modern-day monkhood, even while retaining a sense of humour and an appetite for life through it all. All of them extend and even challenge conventional ideas of spirituality in their own ways.
A conventional view of the spiritual path would see it as one of blind faith, passive worship and uncritical obedience. These women flout each one of these ideas. There is nothing meek or submissive about any of them. They are dynamic collaborators with their traditions; improvisers and co-creators of their own journeys. The phrase ‘contraband of radiance’ was intended to suggest the breath-taking audacity and unconventionality of their journeys.
Q. Also, at one point in your Preface of this book you say ‘I had known them. I had been them.’ What is this commonality you are referring to?
I refer to the women I discuss in the paragraph previous to these lines – women who have known their moments of crippling self-doubt; women who have outsourced their self-definition; women who frittered away power because of their dependence on others for their identity. I think many of us have known such moments or phases in our lives. I certainly have.
The feminist theologian Valerie Saiving Goldstein puts her finger on it when she says that for men, the frequent obstacle on a spiritual journey is ego, but often for women, it is the very absence of ego! What is the point of surrender, when you don’t value what you surrender? What is the value of trust and faith when there is little or no experience of autonomy, responsibility, agency?
The spiritual journey, we often forget, is not just about receptivity and trust; it is also, vitally, about dynamism and responsibility. The women in this book are women of independence, women of pluck and resourcefulness. That is what interests me about them.
Q. You have also written a memoir on Sadhguru (Sadhguru: More Than a Life). What is it about his teachings and philosophy that you consider elevating?
It is Sadhguru’s ability to combine clarity and common sense with mysticism that drew me, initially. There is no philosophy or teaching that he offers. Like so many mystics, he reiterates time and again that he is not offering a theory; he is offering a path. Not a teaching, but a way. Almost two decades since I met him, I can say that the path he offered me has helped me tremendously. And that is what every guru offers, really: a consecrated daily practice that you can make your own. That becomes your personal key to your inner life.
But the book I wrote about him is not really about me or my experience. It is, essentially, a chronicle of his life – the unlikely journey of a sceptic to a mystic. It combines wonder with enquiry, and, looking back, I believe it is its tone – neither blindly adoring nor scornfully dismissive -- that makes it distinctive.
Q. In ‘And where it might end’ (Love Without A Story) you say that it is not the mind, it is the body that grows parochial, that hungers or turns peevish’. You seem to suggest that the mind is unsullied and chaste. On the other hand, John Milton says, ‘mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.’ Would you like to comment on that?
Of course, the mind can make a heaven of hell and vice versa. That is the tremendous power of the mind. It is only when the mind doesn’t do what we want it to do that we talk of the ‘monkey mind’, isn’t it? There are times we’d like it to be less cacophonous, less frenzied, less negative, less uncontrolled. Only then does it become a problem.
In the poem you mention, I wasn’t suggesting that the mind is unsullied and chaste. I was merely talking of a moment when the body, for a change, is the one that says, ‘Let me just be here, soak in this place, put down roots.’ Usually, parochialism would be considered psychological. In this very specific moment implicated in this poem, I wanted to suggest that it is physical -- that it is the body that recognizes its own earth.
The line anticipates the later poem, 'Mitti', where you might remember that I speak of ‘the anthem of muck/ of which we are made’. I guess what I’m suggesting is muck recognizes muck; earth recognizes earth. Perhaps there is even a sense of relief, of homecoming, in the return of ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’?
Q. I know I have taken a lot of your time with my questions but before I wrap up the interview, one last question. Our readers would like to know what book you are working on now and how soon we will see it in the bookshops?
It will be a while before anything new from my end is in the bookshops, Rachna. I’m still doing online sessions around my recent book and haven’t had a chance to think of my next. But may I suggest to your readers that they pick up Women Who Wear Only Themselves when they can? And if they happen to enjoy it, I’d request them to gift a copy to at least one person they know. As you know, it's a book of essays on four contemporary women on sacred journeys, and I am keen that the book enter the lives of as many seekers as possible.
Thank you so much Ms Subramaniam for taking precious time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We at The Wise Owl wish you the best in your literary journey and also your spiritual quest. Hope your writings will continue to raise questions that will lead the readers to introspect about life and face uncomfortable but inevitable truths.
Some of the Books Published by Arundhathi Subramaiam
1. On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001)
2. Love Without a Story (2019)
3. Where I live (2005)
4. When God is A Traveller (2014)
1. Women Who Wear Only Themselves (2021)
2. The Book of Buddha (2005)
3. Sadhguru: More Than a Life (2010)
1. Eating God: A Book of Bhakti poetry (2014)
2. Pilgrim’s India: An Anthology of Essays and Poems on Sacred Journeys (2011)