The Maharashtra Mitra Mandal Library in Bandra, colloquially known as MCubed, has a welcoming air. Colourful and cosy, it’s a space that poet Arundhathi Subramaniam loves. She sits against a backdrop of neatly aligned books, with her latest collection of poems, When God is a Traveller, in her hand. “This is a space that allows for intimacy,” she says to the audience seated cross-legged before her.
“Intimacy when listening to poetry is important because it allows you to reclaim the art of listening. That’s an art which is fast vanishing.
The capacity to tune into nuance and inflection, and listen to deeper and many-sided truths only happens in conditions of intimacy.”
As part of the Tapestry Workshop, held by community organisation Junoon, to explore new ways of engaging through performance, Subramaniam read out a few of her poems from her three collections: On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001), Where I Live (2005) and When God is a Traveller (2014). These works won the 49-year-old the Charles Wallace Fellowship in 2003, Raza Award for Poetry in 2009, Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 2012, International Piero Bigongiari Prize 2015, and the inaugural Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for Poetry in 2015.
The idea of “unbelonging” is one that pervades Subramaniam’s works, although from her earlier works, When God is a Traveller is a clear progression. In the former, she struggles with her inability to feel like she belongs where she lives, as she constantly searches for a place she can call her own. In her poem, Home, which was penned in 2002, Subramaniam writes: “A home, like this body/ so alien when I try to belong/ so hospitable/ when I decide I’m just visiting”. In When God Is A Traveller, she seems to have reconciled to never being able to truly belong anywhere.
“Through the years, the only thing that helped me with my feeling of constant unsettlement is a growing sense of deep, inner anchorage. I’ve relaxed into myself,” says Subramaniam. “With When God is a Traveller, I realised that I myself could be the bridge between the gaps in my life. Instead of a zone of conflict where I choose between disparate parts, I now see a zone of possibility where I embrace all of them.”
Her journey to “relax into herself” began in 1997, after a period of deep isolation and despair. “Poetry, which I had thought of in some romantic way as my home, failed me. It almost seemed to be a near-death experience. I couldn’t write no matter how much I tried. It was a terrifying and visceral experience of silence,” she says. “After that, my spiritual journey took on a certain urgency, and in 2004, I met my guru. I left Mumbai to stay at an ashram in Coimbatore. That gave me some clarity.”
The uncertainty Subramaniam has struggled with has not been totally debilitating; in some way, it has even been a necessity for her creative process. “I write best when I’m in between places. Some measure of discomfort is vital for writing. There needs to be enough unfamiliarity to be extremely alert, but enough familiarity to be relaxed. That’s true of most learning situations.”
Having released two anthologies over the last two years — Eating God, A Book of Bhakti Poetry and When God is a Traveller — Subramaniam has been travelling to festivals, both within and outside India, reciting excerpts from her books. While she says “poems are happening”, another anthology cannot be expected soon.