Rituparna Mahapatra in conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam in the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature
The brochure at the prestigious Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature held in Dubai from 4th -9th february described Arundhathi Subramaniam as one of the finest poets writing in India today. She was one amongst many internationally acclaimed authors invited to the festival such as Mitch Albom, Jo Nesbo, Markus Zusak, Jokha Alharthi (Man International Booker winner 2019).
Widely translated and anthologized, Subramaniam’s collection When God is a traveller was shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize. Popularly known as the biographer of the mystic Sadhguru, her book on him, Sadhguru: More than a life, went on to be a bestseller. Her other bestselling books include The Book of Buddha and Adiyogi: The Source of Yoga (co-authored with Sadhguru).
She recently edited the acclaimed Penguin anthology of sacred poetry, Eating God. Recipient of many awards and fellowships, she has donned many creative roles as poet, critic, editor, and curator.
In an exclusive interview, the very eloquent Subramaniam spoke about her personal spiritual quest, her passion for literature around the sacred; her love for poetry, performing arts, God and what does Bhakti* poetry explore.
You are one of India’s finest poets. When did you start writing poetry?
I have been writing poetry if we may call it that, from a very young age, maybe since I was six or seven years. As a child, I loved the music, the rhythm in poetry. My earliest encounters being nursery rhymes and I got hooked to it. I grew up in Bombay where I did my BA in English Literature at St Xavier’s college, and subsequently my MA at the University of Mumbai. Those years were important learning years for me since I learnt about the craft from gifted teachers. After that came my years of association with the Poetry Circle of Bombay, which gave me an opportunity to be with people who were equally smitten with poetry and learn from them. It was there I understood that writing poetry as a craft required rigorous discipline. It was here that I met fellow poets like Menka Shivdasani, Jerry Pinto, Ranjit Hoskote and many others, who kept my inquisitiveness alive and nurtured it. The first poem which may be called a poem was titled ‘Amoeba’, which I wrote when I was around 19. It went into my first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001).
Though poetry is your forte, it’s your prose, the book on Sadhguru, More than a Life, published by Penguin, which was widely acclaimed, and it went on to be a bestseller. Jerry Pinto said of that book, “Nothing less than a thriller. After the first page, I couldn’t put it down“. Tell us, what made you choose to write this book? How did it happen, Did it come naturally to you or was it a conscious effort?
Thank you for asking this question. It was in 2004 May, that I first heard Sadhguru speak in a Mumbai auditorium. I had gone there with many misgivings. I had many years of active spiritual quest and one part of me was actively seeking guidance and another part of me was resisting it, all the time. I have a kind of love-hate relationship with the notion of a ‘Guide’, I have a problem with hierarchies. So, I went to it with curiosity and resistance, but the talk itself was the turning point.
It was not just what he said, but how he said it. It seemed to me to come from one, a place of great authenticity that was perhaps more important, and the other is that he spoke in a language, I could relate to. It was modern, it was unsentimental, it felt like it came from someone of my generation, who was talking to me. So, that was in 2004 I met him and said maybe we could meet over coffee, and he said, “Come meet me in the ashram**.”
I did meet him in the ashram, and a conversation began, and that conversation deepened, and I would say deepening of that conversation over many years is the biography. I did all the programmes soon after that first meeting, and in 2006 I was on a walk with him through the ashram and I remember telling him that there are books that have transcripts of your talks, but there needs to be some chronicle of this absolutely extraordinary life story; a story that stretches limits of your credulity all the time, but it needs to be told. And in his very typically casual way, he said, “Why don’t you do it?” I said “Oh, okay”. It sounded interesting at that point.
I had already written a book on the Buddha for Penguin, and it was in a whole area of preoccupation for me in any case, the spiritual, the literature around the sacred, so I agreed with some alacrity and perhaps some foolishness since I didn’t realise what it entailed. Over the next four years, from 2006 to 2010, I began active work on it and it was a tumultuous time, a time for great inner upheaval, and I think perhaps it is foolish to expect it to be otherwise because you are writing about a subject where, you are undergoing a series of changes; your own transformations, your inward journey. I had much crisis of faith along the way wondering how am I going to do this and I still remember, him sending me an email four years later, in beginning of 2010 saying, “Is this going be a posthumous biography?” I finished the book that year and it was eventually published by Penguin at the end of that year.
What were the challenges you faced while writing that book?
I think the most difficult thing, the challenge that I faced during that journey as a writer was to find a ‘tone’ for that book. it was because I knew that there would be many readers like me who would approach it with a sense of skepticism, maybe some resistance and I wanted to address the reader who was in a sense a version of myself.
I wanted a tone that was capable of enquiry and also capable of wonder. I didn’t want it to be a hagiography, I wanted it to be seen as a work of great respect and at the same time as a work of great questioning; I wanted the two to go together. And I think, eventually, I am pleased with the tone of that book, though it took a long time to achieve. I feel it was in that sense an honest book. Because the questions were real and at the same time the sense of wonder at this utterly incredible life journey, I think comes through.
Yes, I agree, it is an honest, exhilarating tale of an extraordinary human. According to me the beauty of that book is in the fact that it does not preach about any person, any sect, religion or God; maybe that was the reason why a book of that kind was so widely read. You must have received many fan mails. So, what was the most gratifying mail that you got from the readers of that book?
Oh yes, loads of them. Perhaps the most gratifying ones are from the readers that say, “Oh my God, those were my questions!” Somewhere you feel, okay this is a shared journey, it becomes a project that has a certain meaning, and there are those from readers who have found themselves doing a programme after reading the book, so that was fine.
Much as we loved your prose, a meaningful conversation with you cannot happen without not talking about your poetry. You have been a pioneer of Bhakti poetry, trying to shift our attention towards this legacy that we may call as ‘sacred literature’. Tell us more about Bhakti poetry, why do we need to read it and how did you get drawn towards it?
That is a very good question. I think my understanding of Bhakti, of what it is definitely deepened after I had my own spiritual practice, and after I found a spiritual guide, that for me is ‘Sadhguru’. And that was when I realised Bhakti is not what I had thought it was earlier, as I was growing up during my formative years. I looked at it as pious goody-goody literature. it was all about being servile and hierarchical, it was, unfortunately, all things that I disliked.
As my own spiritual journey deepened and as I started reading more and more, I felt drawn towards this literature and what I saw was staggering. The range of tones possible in this legacy that we call sacred literature in our subcontinent is extraordinary. This is not about just a reverential worshipful attitude to the Divine, it is an attitude that can vary from rage towards God, you can throw a tantrum in verse and call it a prayer; there was lust towards God, the need to make love to God and there is of course longing, there is liberation and ecstasy; so there is this entire gamut of tones where nothing is taboo. Everything is permissible.
So, you don’t have a relationship with God that is about one little sanitised part of the self, this is a great scorching legacy of literature that allows you to access every toxic little crevice in your consciousness, and say even this can be transformed by the fire of Bhakti.
I think it was this absolute audacity that drew me. This is the kind of sacred literature that for me makes sense, which doesn’t ask you to become some kind of goody two shoes, instead, it allows you to acknowledge yourself in your entirety.
So, can we say Bhakti poetry is liberating?
I would say really for me, as my own journey deepened, I see Bhakti as what I call ‘the science of intimacy’. It is a technology consciously chosen to dismantle the self; the limited self. And the Bhaktas*** are fully aware of the game they are playing – it’s a dangerous game, and in fact, at the beginning of the book I have them the Bhaktas speaking, I have a whole bunch of them, talking about the dangers of Bhakti, they say don’t take it on, its inflammable stuff unless you are ready for it. Because it is in fact about the dissolution but is an ecstatic, sensuous, pleasurable dissolution.
So that’s what excites me enormously about this poetry, the finest poets are telling you that this is the technology to dismantle yourself, and eventually it can be a technology to dismantle God as well. Eventually, when this dance of duality ends, it doesn’t matter if you are dismantled or God is dismantled, it is irrelevant.
So, the book ‘Eating God’ starts with a yearning for God, but it concludes with a poem by Tukaram who says for me God is dead. Hence, this entire gamut is possible.
Why did you choose to name the book Eating God?
Ha-ha. You know, my publisher wanted initially to call it ‘Pining for God ‘ or ‘Yearning for God’ but I said, I don’t want it to be a ‘pretty’ book. It is not pretty. We are talking about poets, how many of them from the North, South, East and West. There’s Kabir who talks about cannibalizing the divine; there is Nammalwar the Tamil poet who says, “I eat God and he eats me”; there is Ramprasad Sen from Bengal who tells his mother Kali, “I eat you or you eat me”; and in the West, you have a similar voice in Janabai, who says, “I eat God, drink God and sleep on God” casually. And while reading all this I am thinking, what is this? Absolute gumption. Where are these people coming from? What are they saying? And that IS when I realized that this the poetry that acknowledges every appetite, it is not telling you anything is profane, it’s telling you everything is a part of the journey. It is not asking you to amputate the body, it’s asking you to completely acknowledge it. There is nothing sanctimonious about this poetry, this poetry is about ‘tough love’.
Tell us what is the scope for this kind of poetry? Did you face criticism, flak for championing this kind of literature? To interpret it in this way?
Well yeah. I have not faced much criticism, and the very few times that I did I always point back to the poets and said: “They said it before I did.”
I think we need to be reminded of these poets more than ever before.
So, I am actually going around many parts of the world talking about these poets, and sometimes I feel I will be the happiest doing this for the rest of my days. Because even if you can remind one person of this, it’s also a way back to yourself, that’s what the poets offer you.
I think we need this now more than before because we live in such a conceptually fragmented world, which tells you that spiritual stuff is some little bubble onto itself, the matter is different, the body is different, the spirit is different, beyond is different. These are poets who tell you that the sensual and the sacred are just part of the same continuum, and I think there is a deep hunger in almost every human being to be reminded of this; that there is nothing intrinsically unclean about this strange body which we find ourselves in. There is Soyrabai, 14th-century Dalit woman mystic from Maharashtra who says, “If menstrual blood makes me impure, show me who wasn’t born of that.” I think we need all these voices, there are many others talking about the body; to remind us that this body is a part of the journey. The body is not an obstacle, the body is the basis of this journey.
What were your trials on this journey?
If I talk about trials, I will say this, when I am actually at a presentation talking about this poetry — I find people listening to me. So, that’s not where I face the issue, but I think generally being a spiritual seeker in the world today, especially if you are urban, not with any of the pertinence of monkhood; if you walk the spiritual path and you talk about it openly, not in closets I think the primary travail is that there is no ecosystem to support you. You are not all the time in an ashram which offers you that; I do spend time in an ashram, for me it’s the Isha ashram, but that’s not my full-time life, I am also all over the world travelling, reading doing my own poetry and I often find no spiritual ecosystem to support it. The other trial would be that there is this very strong binary in the world that we live in between the material and the spiritual. These binaries are very simplistic, juvenile and at the same time very dangerous. It’s because we perpetuate all kinds of clichés as a result.
So, I would say at times the challenge lies in trying to find your point of anchorage wherever you are, at any place that you are. Since I travel a lot; that’s an ongoing challenge. You have to keep reminding yourself that this is who I am, this is what I represent, and this is where I am anchored, and it has to eventually be an anchorage in yourself. But it’s not cultural anchorage, but I do feel very privileged to be able to talk about a legacy of sacred literature from this part of the world, my part of the world that is as inclusive, as subversive, as radical, as alive as this, as Bhakti Literature.
I do feel very privileged; the challenges notwithstanding.
You are a dancer as well, a curator of performing arts. Tell us about it.
Well, I learnt dance for many years, and I wrote about dance extensively. though I made sure I never performed, writing always mattered to me. I wrote a great deal on dance through the 1980s to 2000, I made a living out of writing about the performing arts. I would say my conversations with dancers have nourished my poetry more than my conversations with poets. You know I have always been deeply drawn to the performing arts, theatre and dance, and I always thought though I loved to dance and practiced it and had given it up, it has always returned to me in some form or other.
I was the curator for classical dance in the National Centre for Performing arts Bombay, which was again an opportunity to work closely with dancers. I have curated festivals of Bhakti poetry and dance, so that was yet another dimension to my creativity. Actually, when I was a young writer writing about dance, I was always impatient with the content. I found this whole idea of ‘nayikas‘ pining for some absent God, who is always unpunctual and unfaithful, very boring and annoying as a woman. This was until I re-discovered Bhakti differently as a seeker and I reclaimed it for myself in a new light. I think dance has constantly nourished me. Recently. I collaborated with Allarmel Valli, a Padma Bhushan Bharatnatyam dancer and friend, perhaps the only artist I could collaborate with. We have done a lot of poetry and dance productions together, which give me a lot of joy and fulfillment.
What would your message be to writers who would want to pursue writing poetry and explore the many facets of this form; and also, to readers who would want to read and know more about this?
Hmmm, that’s a good question. you know I would like to say it’s amazing how every one of us has written a poem by the time we reach the age of sixteen, there is not a single human being who has almost not wrote a single poem in his lifetime.
This is a wonderful insight gained now!
Well its true really. Not everyone has written a story, but each one of us has written poems secretly (sometimes in blood), to be stashed away in a drawer somewhere and never to be looked at again. Yet oddly enough we believe that poetry is the genre of adolescence and by the time we reach adulthood we must graduate to the novel or non-fiction. I always say, there is such a deep instinctive love of patterned kinetic language, which is poetry; we all have it, we have known it. Yet, at some point have many of us have grown so afraid of the form. My message would be to go back reclaim that primal capacity to love kinetic language. There is absolutely no reason to be intimidated by poetry, it is the only form where you recognise it even before you understand it. So, enjoy it and do not be in a hurry to decode it.
Since we are running out of time, the last question, tell us about your favourite author & favourite book?
Gosh, that’s a hard one. Amongst poets my favourites are multiple, there are far too many but since we have talked so much about Bhakti poetry, I would like to acknowledge A k Ramanujan, who was a poet and one of the greatest translators of Twentieth Century, who brought so much Bhakti poetry to light in Kannada as well as in Tamil. Really an extraordinary writer. And for a favourite book, I would like to mention a book which not many would have read, its called Hymns for the Drowning poems by Nammalwar, major Tamil Vaishnava**** mystic, and A K Ramanujan has translated it. I would recommend it for a molten, sensuous, passionate relationship with the divine. Reminds you how absolutely delirious, erotic, honest and vulnerable such a relationship can be.
Any contemporary writers you would like to mention?
Oh, there are far too many, but since I have just finished writing a long introduction to the collected poems of Keki Daruwalla, so I am going to mention him. I would say he is one of our seniors, a wonderful poet. And there are many others, I am sure going to think about this later but by the time I decide on names it would be late and you would be gone.
As there were other interviews lined up for Arundhathi, I had to leave though I could have waited all day to listen to more from this wonderful erudite poet. As I walked towards my car, my brain soaking in all that it had heard, like a sponge, I mentally made a reading list of books for myself and Eating God was on the top.
Rituparna Mahapatra is a writer, based in Dubai. She teaches creative writing in English and is Kitaab’s Editor-at -large, UAE.
** Hermitage ****Devotees of Vishnu, Hindu God of Preservation
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