Rituparna Mahapatra in conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam in the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature

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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).

51WNPe-6mpL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_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.

By Aminah Sheikh

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Growing up in a big family of book-lovers and where the head of the family was a distinguished author, it was inevitable that one got books as birthday gifts. Added to that was the daunting task of delivering an oral essay of every book read to a stern panel of adults! The love for words, consequently, was destined to bite very early. Although I trained for commercial art and worked as an illustrator-visualizer in my early years and aspired to paint in oils someday, the weight and thrust of words and story ideas was too great at one point and they threatened to erupt and take precedence over everything else, including my domestic life. I had no option but to sit down and put pen to paper. All of life’s experiences appeared to be translating into words somehow, and the need for self-expression took the form of writing (both fiction and non-fiction). Painterly aspirations went flying out of the window.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What are you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recently published book is a collection of short stories, Lamplight: Paranormal Stories from the Hinterlands. Some of the stories in this collection are loosely based on the ghost stories handed down from generation to generation in my father’s family. My grandparents lived in an old rambling house in Munger, Bihar, where all kinds of creepy things are supposed to have happened and I’ve taken inspiration from these.

I’m a huge admirer of the subtle form of story-telling, especially when it comes to the paranormal. Authors like Henry James, Stephen King and Ruskin Bond who create menacing atmospherics with the crafty use of language, where the reader’s mind can come unhinged with terror and imagination run rampant by the mere use of subtle suggestions, is the kind of craft I aspire to. Not for me the over-the-top spooking with blood, bones, screams and a whole lot of pyrotechnics. In Lamplight, I’ve taken an empathetic stance towards ghosts. Along with being chilling entities, I’ve tried to portray ghosts as piquant, funny, amorous, lovable and even gluttonous! I’ve allowed my ghosts to have the blast of their lives (or death, as the case may be!) in the stories.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I was barely nine when I read this magical novella called The Grass Harp by Truman Capote. The plot remains fuzzy in mind, it had something to do with an orphaned boy and two elderly ladies sitting on a branch of a tree and observing life. But till date I remember the vivid scene created by the author’s prose, that of a sea of emerald green grass waving in the breeze, bright golden sunshine, an idyllic summer’s day and a child with a head full of impossible longings. I love the auditory and visual qualities that certain writers conjure up by the magic of their prose. Some books titles are forgotten, one may even confuse plots but certain passages remain in the mind with their wonderful imagery. A rainy city at dusk, the lapping of waves against a boat on a starlit night and the silent aftermath of a riot-torn area are just some of the assorted bits that have stayed in memory after reading a couple of recent books. A book’s plot is of prime importance, for sure, but the rhythm of words, vibrant imagery and the ability to create a frequency that connects instantaneously with the reader is what I hope to achieve with every work of fiction I write. It is also immensely interesting to explore the secret worlds that people inhabit. There is a gray zone between what most people appear to be and what they truly are and it is an author’s privilege to explore this no-man’s land. Fictitious characters are almost always based on real life models, the twists and loops in their personalities, the angled perceptions of reality by different characters (reality, as it is, is a very subjective affair), mirages of the mind and the point where the real often blends into the surreal….. I try to explore these aspects in my writing.

Crime fiction writer Vish Dhamija speaks to Kitaab on the sidelines of the recently concluded Kumaon Literary Festival, where his latest book Nothing Else Matters was launched.

vishWhat are your early memories of writing, how did your interest grow?

My earliest memories are from school days. I used to pen small articles for the school bulletin, like everyone else. Then I took to blogging for some time, but the interest waned over time since it took a lot of my time. Nevertheless, it taught me how to write once again and rekindled my interest.

How did you narrow down to writing under the crime genre?

It wasn’t something I sat down and contemplated or made a conscious choice. I had never read anything else except crime fiction— so when the first story idea came to my mind, it had an element of crime. To date, I honestly do not plot a story planning which genre it will fall under; I plot a story and often it is cross-genre: Déjà Karma was part legal, part psychological, Bhendi Bazaar was noir, and both Nothing Lasts Forever and Nothing Else Matters have elements of romance in them.

Tell us about how your first book – Nothing Lasts Forever. How did it take shape?

The story idea had been in the back of my mind since the early nineties but the usual grind of life took priority and I eventually wrote the first draft in 2008. I have to admit that while the basic premise of the story remained true to the original idea, the final story didn’t have much resemblance to what I had carried in my mind for decades.

What are the challenges crime novelists face?

The first thing any writer needs to learn is discipline and that’s irrespective of the genre. I’ve come across so many people who say they want to write a book but they never get down to writing the first chapter.

Crime writing needs a tight plot: what is the crime? How is it going to occur? How will the story unfold, and how will the protagonist catch the criminal? Or if the protagonist is the doer how will she/he get away with it? The story should be believable — the author should keep the narrative real but interesting.