Book: When God is a Traveller
Author: Arundhathi Subramaniam
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 399
By: Sumana Roy
As someone who has always been curious about the relation between gods and shoes, I came to Arundhathi Subramaniam’s new collection of poems with a signboard display in my mind: ‘Wearing shoes inside the temple is strictly prohibited’. If God was a traveller, did he not need appropriate footwear?
“Trust the god
back from his travels,
his voice wholegrain
his wisdom neem,
his peacock, sweaty-plumed,
drowsing in the shadows.”
That is from the titular poem, When God is a Traveller, and as I saw God sitting “wordless on park benches/listening to the cries of children”, as one “who has seen enough”, someone who knows “he is the tree/that bears fruit, festive/with sun”, I grew fidgety in my curiosity about God’s soiled feet. No, it wasn’t there. How does God travel then?
Arundhathi Subramaniam, it must be remembered, is the editor of Pilgrim’s India, an anthology of writing devoted to “journeys impelled by the idea of the sacred”, and more recently, of Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry. She has also authored the Book of Buddha and Sadhguru. The knowledge of these signposts is necessary to understand the personality of the “God” in the title of her collection of poems as well as the poems through which “God” travels.
As a traveller with flat feet who wonders incessantly about footwear and the length of journeys, I found myself reading her poems about shoes. Wearing High Heels, for instance, begins with the recollection of wearing heels “to the Class Eight jam session”, and ends with this near matter-of-fact realisation: “I have grown/too tall for heels”. In the space of that time, travel is the history of changed classmates and a changed self. It is almost as if the shoes, their height, if not their size, have remained the same, like god or his likeness, but all else have changed. In this, the shoes become a transferred epithet for travel. It is a pattern that runs through her poems — the everyday object is moved from its familiar position, and the poem, almost like an epiphany, places it on an altar.
Do pilgrims and worshippers take off their shoes in places of worship because God doesn’t wear shoes? (Behind this recurrent question in my mind is a classmate singing ‘Put on the dancing shoe’ every time our Bangla teacher explained Shiva’s tandava nritya to us.) And if gods wear shoes, what might those shoe boxes look like? Here is A Shoebox Reminisces: “I renounced shape/a long time ago,/chose/bagginess,/endless/recess—/ivity,/but there are days/when the longing/returns/and I cannot abide/the sterile cynicism/of the Anti Couples Club,/the smug peddlers/of Uni-sole Advaita./I know it means/the saga of/two old shoes/all over again,/their grubby leather unions,/tales of childhood,/prejudice, toe jam, politics,/laces in a perpetual snarl/of knots,/footprints,/footprints. …” Note how the word “footprint” occurs twice, like footprints actually do, and you are suddenly made aware, again, of Subramaniam’s faith in language as a loyal mirror of experience.
The poems that will continue to walk with me are those about middle age, not as ailment as it is represented in contemporary discourse, but age as scripture:
“When yesterday’s scripts
clingfilm the body.
When you spring up again,
temple builder, house builder, empire builder,
thickly spreading the pores of that old need …
belong, be loved.” (And Here’s Middle Age Again)
This relation between the accumulations of years that might aid and abet religion’s travel itinerary marks Subramaniam’s new poems. In them, wisdom comes as it must — without knocking or intimation of its travel plans. “There are fewer capital letters/than we supposed” (Epigrams of Life after Forty).
What gives Subramaniam’s poems their surplus, therefore, is their parallel lives — how the poems are different things on different levels, taut like starched cotton and also with “holes” (for holes are also “matter”, as the last poem in this collection will tell us). Soul and sole, union and unions, spirit and spirits — everydayness turned into a religion, the best there is. In a television interview, when asked why she turned to the spiritual, Subramaniam said that she needed “something deeper than poetry”. This is a rich record of those experiments and accidents, one we are grateful to her for making public.
Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal