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“Despite Attempts to Erase Them, Female Mystics’ Voices Have Endured” — Arundhathi Subramaniam

One of India’s greatest living poetesses, Arundhathi Subramaniam brings together a writer’s mastery and a mystic’s inspiration to her art.

Photography by Anagram Studio

There is an addictive quality to Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poetry. When she begins to narrate tales in verse – as she does with Avvaiyar in her latest anthology Love Without a Story (Westland, 2019) – one is spellbound, holding on to each word and stanza like a sip of exotic wine, moving forward and staying still at the same time.

One of India’s greatest living poetesses, Arundhathi’s art is more than a seductive play with semantics. The winner of several prestigious awards, including the the Zee Women’s Award for Literature and the International Piero Bigongiari Prize in Italy, and fellowships such as Charles Wallace, Visiting Arts and Homi Bhabha, Arundhathi uses both the writer’s mastery and the mystic’s inspiration in her work.

Author of 11 books, both poetry and prose, she has penned the bestselling autobiography of the spiritual teacher Sadhguru and has worked over the years as poetry editor, cultural curator and literary critic.

A Mumbai-kar for most of her life, Arundhathi graduated in English literature from St Xavier’s College and did her Master’s at the University of Bombay. After trying her hand at college teaching, she took up curatorial work at the National Centre for the Performing Arts where she ran a well-known inter-arts forum called Chauraha for 15 years.

For several years, she was also editor of the India domain of the Poetry International Web. As a freelancer, she has continued writing on culture and literature for journals. “That suits my temperament perfectly. I never made great money, but I valued something much more than that: my freedom. And that was never in short supply,” she shares.

She published her first book of poems, On Cleaning Bookshelves, in 2001. Then came Where I Live (2005), New and Selected Poems (2009), When God is a Traveller (2014), which was highly acclaimed, and Love Without a Story this year.

Along the way, she met theatre director Vikram Kapadia when she interviewed him about one of his plays for a newspaper story. They married in 1994, and were together until 2009. He remains a friend even today.

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Arundhathi’s books: (L-R) When God Is a Traveller, Adiyogi: The Source of Yoga and Love Without a Story

In the meantime, Arundhathi also went on a spiritual journey along the poetic one. Her anthology, Eating God, was published in 2014, and she has curated several festivals around Bhakti poetry: ‘Stark Raving Mad’ at the NCPA in 2014; ‘Mystic Kalinga’ in Bhubaneswar in January 2019, the most recent ‘Wild Women’ on women mystics at NCPA this April.

Last May, Arundhathi married Raghu Sundaram, an economist who teaches finance at the Stern School of Business in New York.

“I’m fiercely independent in many ways, and I still see myself as something of a vagabond. But I guess a committed relationship doesn’t have to be antithetical to a life of freedom. I’m also poet enough to never quite lose faith in romance! And I’ve married a man who felt instantly like a friend. Happily, he still feels like one. He’s a very special combination of intelligence and kindness – and that mix of head and heart appealed,” she shares of her marriage.

Arundhathi now spends her time between US and India. We spoke to her about her life, poetry and bhakti.

What were your first experiences as a poet?

I’ve been writing poetry for as long as I can remember. But I’m not sure it would be entirely accurate to use the word ‘poetry’. I thought I was writing poems – from my clunky six-year-old efforts at rhyme to angst-ridden self-expression as a 16-year-old. But, of course, they weren’t poems at all! Just clumsy efforts at verse.

What were your ambitions as a child? What did you want to be ‘when you grew up’?

After a brief five-year-old fantasy of joining the army (I called myself Second Lieutenant for a time!), I think it’s always been ‘poet’.

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Did the atmosphere at home serve as fodder for your literary pursuits?

I grew up in a book-infested home – thanks to Dad who was an avid reader of all manner of literature, from history to fiction and philosophy. My mother taught kindergarten for many years, and her wonderful blend of patience and gentle intelligence made her a gifted teacher. She is also practitioner of classical music, and used to sing for classical dance performances. Additionally, I had an elder sister who was a voracious reader.

I was also lucky to have a few teachers in school who encouraged my writing. They understood my somewhat quirky reading habits, encouraged my writing, and pretty much left me to my own devices.

Did any event in college and university shape your later life as a writer and poet?

Well, discovering Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri in the Xavier’s library one afternoon was a quietly significant moment. Even as a 17-year-old, I realised that this was some pretty remarkable poetry I was holding in my hands. The imagistic precision and tonal ease of it struck me right away. I realised later that this is the hallmark of real poetry: it wears its virtuosity lightly. There is nothing self-conscious about it.

Soon after my Master’s, I remember discovering this line by the American poet Randall Jarrell: “Read at whim, read at whim”. After years of structured education, this line was suddenly liberating. I allowed myself the license to gravitate from the literature section to other unexplored regions of bookstores.

Not surprisingly, I often found myself at the philosophy and spirituality sections!

How did your spiritual journey impact your literary life?

Another parallel strain of writing began to intensify: my prose writing on spirituality. I wrote a short book on the Buddha for Penguin in 2005; a biography of Sadhguru in 2010; a book on Adiyogi that I co-authored with Sadhguru in 2017.

There have also been various Penguin anthologies I’ve edited: an acclaimed book of Bhakti poetry, Eating God, and an anthology on sacred journeys, Pilgrim’s India.

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What are the hazards of being a poet – someone who feels deeply and sees what others can’t or won’t?

What an interesting question! Poetry is inflammable stuff, so yes, it is hazardous. It is language cooked under conditions of great heat and pressure. It is also the only verbal art that works consciously with the pause.

Pauses are dangerous potholes in language, and poetry is about befriending those potholes. This is what makes it the oldest form of literary sorcery on the planet.

Or to put it another way, poetry is not about paddling in the shallows but about learning to become a deep-sea diver. There are dangers in those depths. But the adventure and the discovery are intoxicating. They make the journey worth it.

Or to answer your question even more directly, I’d say, yes, being a poet is about a certain condition of ‘skinlessness’. It takes vulnerability, it takes a level of receptivity that can sometimes turn painful, or self-lacerating.

But poetry is also about the ability to listen to what the poet Rilke called “the news that is always arriving out of silence”. That news – subtle and muted, though it is – is its own reward.

What happened in 1997 that changed you, as you’ve mentioned in your interviews?

March 1997 was a turning point. Everything was all right externally: I wasn’t ill, physically or psychologically. I was returning from a particularly relaxed holiday in Nepal. I don’t know what triggered it but I was gradually plunged into an experience of such wordlessness, such emptiness, that it felt like death.

The world darkened, people turned to shadow, everything seemed unreal. And it filled me with terror. The experience lasted a week.

And as I emerged from it, I realised that my passion for poetry and love of philosophy were of no use in helping me understand this experience. The only people who seemed to talk of similar experiences were the mystics.

And so, I turned from philosophy and literature to mysticism, devouring Saint John of the Cross, Ramana Maharishi, Ramakrishna, Rumi, Meister Eckhart, and more, with a new thirst and desperation. And while that helped, it still wasn’t enough.

Seven long years of quest followed. I was leading a perfectly normal, productive life on one level, but I was searching feverishly for some kind of spiritual guidance, on another.

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Arundhathi receiving the International Piero Bigongiari Award in Italy in Spring 2015

And then you met Sadhguru…

When I first heard Sadhguru at a talk in May 2004, it felt like I had been holding my breath for years, and could now finally exhale. It felt like this was a person who understood the brass tacks, the nuts and bolts of the business of living and dying. He spoke a language that was modern, secular, accessible. His humour was infectious. And although all my doubts didn’t fall away instantly, there was a deepening journey that turned me gradually from a seeker at large to a committed seeker.

Do you follow Isha yoga as a daily spiritual practice?

Yes, the kriyas and meditations I learnt at Isha are part of my life today. I’m not the world’s greatest sadhaka! But I have found a daily spiritual practice to be of tremendous value. It becomes a point of anchorage, an invaluable way of being with myself. It has cleared inner bottlenecks I wasn’t aware of. It feels like there’s more breathing space now inside of me. There’s more clarity.

Please share the process of unpeeling and revealing that a guru can bring to your existence.

I guess the guru could be seen as a key. And it is because that key opens up so many spaces within you that you never knew existed, your gratitude towards him is immense. Or you could see the guru as a doorway. You end up unraveling more of yourself!

It isn’t always an easy journey, of course: it entails uncomfortable phases of peeling the self, periods of impasse, of fear, of doubt about the process, even the guru. But the one catchword to hold on to, I realise, is ‘responsibility’. The spiritual journey is not about making you dependent on someone else; it is about taking increasing responsibility for yourself and your inner world.

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Arundhathi receiving the Zee Media Indian Woman Award for Literature in January 2016

How do women poets and mystics add to the human experience through their unique perspectives?

The festival of mystic women poets I curated at the NCPA this April all began with my immersive reading of the Bhakti poets – many of whom came to my rescue during difficult moments on my spiritual journey. And as I marinated in those mystic poets, the voices of women – as well as the voices of the men who adopt female voices – began to intrigue me.

Despite all the attempts to sideline, or prettify, or trivialise, or erase them, these voices have endured. And these are audacious voices – passionate, sensual, often unabashedly erotic. These are also dangerous, anti-status quoist voices, asking some very inconvenient questions.

They interest me because they are voices that don’t set up a divide between the material and the spiritual, the earthy and the existential. They don’t endorse the old civil war between samsara and nirvana, flesh and spirit. Instead, they see them as part of a seamless a continuum. That fascinates me.

There are many female voices whose work was explored at the Wild Women festival – Meerabai, Lal Ded, Andal, Janabai, Soyarabai, Muktabai, Akka Mahadevi, as well as male voices that adopt the female voice, ranging from Kabir and Shah Latif to Salabega and Annamacharya. It is interesting – the kind of freedom and abandon that enters the poetry of the male mystics when they adopt the female voice.

You use both mythological (chronicled) and modern (self-experienced) references in your poetry. Which is a more enriching experience as a creator?

That is an interesting question. I don’t see them as separate. As Jung pointed out, mythic archetypes are embedded deeply within our psyches and have the power to speak to us all, and even heal us, very deeply. I see myth as medicine. When I allude to mythic characters, I am actually invoking figures that speak to a very real place within me.

Avvaiyar reflects my deepening fascination with the old woman. Her strength and wisdom remind me that it is possible for women to age without turning powerless and irrelevant. Equally, Shakuntala (in my earlier book) interests me because I see her as a bridge between diverse worlds.

Similarly, what you call my ‘modern’ or ‘self-experienced’ poems are no different. They may seem to be tethered to the plot of my life, but that narrative is deeply linked to the wider plot. so, you will find the images lurching between the personal and the archetypal, the contemporary and the mythic. It allows me to invoke Sudoku and Shiva, the mackerel and the moon, all in the same breath!

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You once said you shifted from the jnana marg to the bhakti marg. Is that the natural progression for all seekers?

Everyone’s path is unique, and I wouldn’t presume to generalise. I can only speak from my own personal experience, as a seeker.

At the start of my quest, I was drawn to philosophy – a path of intellectual enquiry – as well as the more contemplative traditions, such as the Buddhist and the Advaitin. It was only as my spiritual journey began to unfold in earnest that I realised that many of my assumptions about myself were false. I found, for one, that the spiritual wasn’t just about that old cliché – ‘peace of mind’. The journey was actually about moving towards an intense and heightened aliveness.

And so, it implicated all of me – head, heart, body, and everything between and beyond. With a daily practice, as seemingly frozen parts of me began to ‘defrost’, I also realised that I wasn’t just a person with thoughts and ideas and opinions; I was also a somatic creature, a person of intense emotion and physicality. I began to discover other residences within myself, as it were. I had by-passed those parts of myself earlier, or given them short shrift.

I’m by no means anti-intellectual, or anti-jnana. I’ve always enjoyed the life of the mind, and still do. It’s just that as my path unfolded, the emotional aspect of my life came to the fore much more powerfully. We often see bhakti as a path of blind adoration. Of groveling servility. It is not that at all. It is a very wise path that helps you realise that intimacy and spaciousness can coexist. That love and freedom aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s an extraordinarily profound science of the heart.

First published as the cover story of eShe’s July 2019 issue

Syndicated to CNBCTV18

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1 comment on ““Despite Attempts to Erase Them, Female Mystics’ Voices Have Endured” — Arundhathi Subramaniam

  1. “Poetry is inflammable stuff, so yes, it is hazardous. It is language cooked under conditions of great heat and pressure.”

    Well said. Wonder whether the same can be said about the work of mystics.

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