In the realm of Arundhathi Subramaniam's poetry nothing is as it seems; everything is conjoined, paired, stippled; mask and face are one, and mask meets metaphor at the poem's end. Handloom and heart will be paired as she moves from 'secular pastels' to 'wear- and- tear polytheism' in the very first poem "Textile." The poem revels in 'the whoosh/ of textile, versatile, / block-printed by sun'. But then comes winter and she digs 'through the stretch and seam and protest of tattered muscle deeper into the world's oldest fabric.'
When god is a traveller
Harper Collins India
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You suddenly realise she is not talking of wool, but of old age. And sure enough the poem ends with 'the/darkening/meritocracy/of the heart.'
One will look in vain for a pole star in many of her poems, drawing her north along some hidden longitudinal line. The temptresses who lead her to right and left are words like 'guile and gristle', 'stretch and seam,' and in another poem, 'Pali and pidgin'. You can almost hear her rolling the alliterations on her tongue.
Arundhathi is a poet and a seeker. She divides her time between Bombay and an ashram in Coimbatore. She has written a fine book on her Guru Sadguru: More than a Life, has compiled an anthology Pilgrim's India detailing 'journeys impelled by the idea of the sacred.'
And she has just come out with an anthology of Bhakti Poetry (Penguin) oddly entitled Eating God. (My advice: eat veggies, don't eat gods). She also has a wallet-sized book on the Buddha. One would have expected a larger dose of religious poetry. Yet her poems are secular enough to please the most diehard in that tattered party called the Congress. When she allows a semblance of spirituality to flicker, it is in homage to some minor, almost human god, a guy who looks like 'he could understand errors in translation, blizzards on the screen, gaps in memory, lapses in attention.'
He can even tolerate 'the fury/the wheeze,/the Pali,/the pidgin/the gnashing of the mixer-grinder..' Tolerant divinity, not the Old Testament kind. She ends by saying 'After that you can settle for no other.'
From the gristle of reality, Arundhathi glides effortlessly into metaphor, and like very good poets, she can drape it in a thin veil of ambiguity. In "My Friends" she is seemingly talking of a leafy tree, though you are on your guard when you find it is 'mottled with history/dark with grime.' You proceed further and you find things turning 'suddenly tuberous'.
How come? Is the woman talking of tubers going down or a tree coming up, fighting its way through the forest underbrush till it reaches the benediction of light? Neither. She is hinting at a poem fighting its way through the thickets of language. This is black magic, jadu tona! Get thee behind me Satan.
Again, as in the case of many good poets, her love for language comes through, the indulgence, the act of luxuriating in it. A poet who is not in love with language is like a painter who has a distaste for paint and canvas. She is a poet playing in the first snowfall of words. In 'The Way You Arrive', the way he unclogs the streets, god or lover, 'so I can surge/through sunshine and aqueduct,/the luminous canals of the world/ turned Venetian.' And the way he enters, 'the day's events scatter/like islands in the sea.' Is this a poem in the Bhakti mode?
While writing this, news comes through that When God is a Traveller (Bloodaxe) has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. This, in poetry, is the equivalent of the Booker in fiction. There could be no better news for Indian poetry.
It would have been inconceivable to think that Arundhathi Subramaniam would not dabble in Indian legend. Of course she would, as "the Eight Poems for Shakuntala" would prove. She plays around with the myth, calls her 'just another mixed-up kid', 'clueless/like the rest of us/ about her address...' She advises her not to see it as betrayal. There are some striking lines in the poem - 'the tidal gasp/ of recollection'. Dushyant's smile 'is an abstraction.', and when he sees the ring, his sudden call through the 'curdled fog' "Come back Shakuntala." The only snag I found in the poem was the intrusion of a tourist brochure somewhere and a magnet on a refrigerator door. Why?
There is also a well-disguised hard edge to her poems. On the surface, a poem like 'Or Take Mrs Salim Shaikh' seems harmless, spiked with gentle humour. Mrs Shaikh's ancestors supplied butter to Queen Victoria. But she wants to be buried in a kabristan, because it is nearer home than the crematorium. Those who rant on love jihad should read the poem.
After the horror of 26/11 the poet returns to Bombay. "This time we didn't circle each other/ the city and I,/hackles raised'. The bonds with the city where you live become stronger. 'This time /the city surged,/ towards me,/mangy, /bruised- eyed, /non-vaccinated,/suddenly,/mine.'
Despite the gentle humour sprayed over a large part of her work, a seam of -whatever you call it - melancholy, rationality, defeatism (Aren't they all the same thing?) is discernable in the later poems. Mortar will harden its resolve and lead to opacity, as the poem on the Builder's mafia in Bombay shows. Language may leak while pretending to be shared. 'But the Billboards, they remain.'
Metaphysics gets decanted almost unnoticeably in her work. A better reviewer (god fearing) should look for that vein. She lets down her guard and attributes authorship to Shiva in a poem. One needs to emphasise the way she brings together disparate realities and fuses them. In the end, she leaves us with not just unfinished business with earth and sky, but also with a statement that poems matter.
Keki N Daruwalla writes poetry and fiction. His latest book of short stories is Islands.