Arundhathi Subramaniam’s words linger. As a poet, an author, a seeker and a disciple, one of her greatest talents is language, through which she is in constant dialogue with herself, her guru, and the rest of us. Reading about her progress, her questions and her epiphanies, the words feel effortless and resonant. So, it is not surprising that a sentence she wrote 10 years ago has become the title of her latest book. In her introduction to Pilgrim’s India, a 2011 anthology about different people’s experiences with pilgrimage, she posits that “…sacred journeys – those disruptive excursions – are for those who want to cross thresholds.”
A decade later, Subramaniam has published her latest work, Women Who Wear Only Themselves, about some of those threshold crossers and their “sacred journeys.” Using a mix of biography and memoir, interview and revelation, poetry and prose, she describes her interactions with four women who can be described as pilgrims, mystics, gurus, mothers. Her chosen word for them is “travellers”, which is another Subramaniam-ism; her 2014 poetry collection is titled When God is a Traveller.
Thresholds, journeys, travellers: Subramaniam seems to be on a lifelong quest, and her prolific writing reflects this restlessness. Women Who Wear Only Themselves makes sense as her next study of the sacred journey. Like her previous books, it examines both tradition and transcendence. It wanders deep into the self, while also entering celestial territory. It spotlights incredible personalities while simultaneously revealing more of the author. What is new in this book is evident in the title, the preface, and every subsequent page: “Contemporary women. Women who improvise their way through their lives even as we speak. Women walking the spiritual path right now…” In her latest work, Subramaniam has chosen to speak with four women – a minority in India’s spiritual lineage, but not a diminutive one. There are the more prominent women, like Akka Mahadevi, Andal, Lal Ded, Meerabai. And there are the more recent ones, such as Anandamayi Ma and The Mother of Pondicherry (now Puducherry). In contrast, Subramaniam goes in search of “the quiet women”, and discovers in them “a contraband of radiance that I wanted in some way to smuggle into the printed page.”
Subramaniam’s four characters are mysterious, unpredictable, and assured. Up first, Sri Annapurani Amma is candid and brazen, “her hair a rainforest of matted wilderness.” She is also completely naked; in Subramaniam words, she is clad in “nothing but herself.” Her guru is a saint who lived 300 years before her, and her other confidante is Shiva, as in, from the Trinity. She speaks to both regularly. After her, readers hear from Balarishi Vishwashirasini, who follows the “mystic science of sound,” known as Nada yoga. When she was just 10 years old, she began to hear things she could not explain; “like I was eavesdropping on sages talking to each other.” As this deepens into a clear spiritual channel, Balarishi gains disciples – as a mere teenager – and a nickname, “KitKat Swami” because they would bring her chocolates. Third is Lata Mani, a wide-ranging academic who transforms both externally and internally after surviving a major accident. She writes a book about “spiritual teachings received from five disembodied sources: Devi, Shiva, Jesus, Mary and Moon” and dialogues with Subramaniam on social movements, trauma, and mysticism. Fourth and finally, readers meet Maa Karpoori, a monk named thus by her guru. Directed by him to endure three years in silence at one point in her journey, she remembers feeling abandoned. She questions her convictions, and her guru’s vision. But time changes that. “So, I waited. As a woman I knew something about waiting. I knew about simply hanging on, not letting go. It was a trial by fire… Today my fire is very much alive, but it is no longer destructive.”
The book is not structured as formal interviews, but rather, a composite of conversations and reflections, arranged in four chapters. Sometimes, she recorded these discussions and other times she did not. But her deft prose and poetry convey her attentiveness, curiosity and admiration. Reflecting on this in the Afterword, she says, “Rather than paraphrase or decode them, it is enough, I believe, to look where they point.”
Subramaniam’s writing is a response to her self-described “thirst” for conversations which prod, provoke and pry. And these four women are her latest attempts at a quench. A must-read, whether or not you are parched; you will find yourself asking for a refill.