“Be as irreverent as you like”: 33 questions with poet Arundhathi Subramaniam

For when artistic equilibrium looks like
“a hammock suspended between Corfu and the Maldives”.


List three words that you love to taste.
Currently, it would be emollient, amaretto, agape.

List three words that make you flinch with their violence.
Slaughter, eviscerate, bludgeon. A fourth: asphyxiate.

Describe a recurring daydream.
When I was in school, I had a recurrent daydream about slipping out through the side-gate of the playground during lunch break. It later became a poem:

How easy to slip out
between the bars of school’s mildewed side-gate

in the middle of recess
zigzagging between games of kho-kho

and steaming lunch-boxes,
squeezing out when everyone sees

but no one notices,
darting across the lane past the ENT hospital,

then down the broad sweep
of arterial road, pelting southward

towards a sea as Arabian as the spirit
where it is possible to become what one has always been –

snorting steed with cumulous mane
pounding into the tides

foaming galaxies of unbottled fiction
deferred coastlines

endless nights

(‘Side Gate’)

Describe a precise moment in your life for which you have ceaseless nostalgia.
One would be a trip to Positano and Ravello, those breathtakingly beautiful towns on the Amalfi coast of Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. I went there in the year 2002, thanks to a poetry festival in Salerno and Vietri. I was with my Italian translator and we had a wonderful time. But I have wanted to return to that strip of coast since then. Today, I think of what fun it would be to do it with a gaggle of old friends from college.

Imagine that you were to adapt a poem for the stage as a scenographer. What articles would be onstage?
If it were ‘Where I Live’, my poem on Mumbai, I’d say some of Sudhir Patwardhan’s wonderful gritty paintings on the city would help – a wild mosaic of dish antennae, scaffoldings, aluminium roofs, blue tarpaulin, and buildings stacked on top of each other. Articles? Is there a way to evoke ‘septic magenta hairclips’, ‘garrulous sewers and tight-lipped taps’ without getting terribly literal? I don’t know. An auto rickshaw, maybe?

Name a novel whose protagonist you identify with at this phase of your life. Use three adjectives to describe that protagonist.
No novel that I can think of. But myths, yes. I’d say the Shakuntala story from the Mahabharata. In a cycle of poems from my recent book, ‘Eight Poems for Shakuntala’, I see her as a female questor archetype, one who discovers the freedom and exhilaration of multiple citizenships. That’s a trope I identify with. Three adjectives? I see her as exploratory, integrated, wise. Those are aspirations, mind you. I’m not quite there yet!

Describe one of the more memorable conversations you’ve had.
I’m not one for lengthy descriptions – I write lyric poems, remember? I’d say several conversations I’ve had with my spiritual guide, Sadhguru – largely because of his ability to be playful and profound all at once.

I also remember a five hour walk and conversation with an old college friend, Rahul, years ago. It was winter in Delhi and we must have talked about everything under the sun, from unreasonable professors to politics and religion. We ended up at the gates of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, which we both agreed was significant.

Do you keep a notebook?
I have a few in which I scribble every now and then – largely fragments of poems and guilt-inducing checklists. I usually read them on flights and forget about them afterwards.

What about “other people’s stories” do you find most attractive?
That’s a line from my poem, ‘Epigrams for Life after Forty’, isn’t it?

I suppose I think of myself primarily as a listener. I’m a reasonably good one, I think – attentive and largely non-judgmental. But I like listening to stories in which people are willing to present themselves as vulnerable. I’m not interested in hearing people brag about what they consider to be their achievements or simply air their opinions on various subjects. I’ve found myself hugely enriched by meeting people at interesting junctures in their lives, when they’re at crossroads in some way or the other. It’s the ‘gap moment’ which is always the most fascinating. It’s a time of flux, of uncertainty, of great possibility. That’s the kind of story I find attractive.

There is a phrase that goes – “You must love what you cannot like.” What do you love in that way?
I don’t think I will never make my peace with a certain kind of human being one encounters increasingly at lit fests and (alarmingly!) nowadays, even in one’s inbox – pushy, pugnacious, self-absorbed, careerist, interested in you only insofar as you can further her/ his literary aspirations. This kind of person fills me with such alarm that I want to run a mile in the other direction. But I do know the fear, the insecurity, the sense of inner bankruptcy, the lack of self-love that fuels such a persona. So I try to make sure I keep a window open just a notch because even this kind of person can sometimes surprise you. I’m not sure it’s love – a theoretical love perhaps!

Name some fictional characters who have made you laugh.
Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Professor Lockhart in the Harry Potter books. I’m sure there are heaps of others. (My friend, the novelist Jerry Pinto; I include him because he makes fact seem crazier than fiction.)

When did you last dance?
That’s actually easy to answer. The last time was last December in Panjim with a bunch of delegates after the Goa Literary Festival.

Name the people who you have adopted as your literary ancestors.
The list might be as varied as Nammalvar, Annamacharya, Akka Mahadevi, Tukaram, Basho, Oscar Wilde, Wallace Stevens, TS Eliot, Rilke and AK Ramanujan. And many others too varied to name. My literary family tree is old, gnarled, decidedly non-nuclear and multicultural.

Do you think that the optimal career for a poet would involve no work besides writing and reading?
I’m not sure about that. I do believe my life has been nourished by my work as arts journalist, poetry editor and curator of Chauraha and later classical dance at the NCPA. There was a time I knew I had to stop all that in order to allow for writing of greater immersion. But it’s a fine balance ‘between tox and detox’ that fuels the creative juices. One has to keep working out that balance for oneself. It’s different at different stages of one’s life.

You dedicated your poem ‘Where I Live’ to “Anders who wants to know”. Whose door would you want to knock on and demand a new poem?
I’d knock on the door of several mystic poets, I think, and ask for more on their enlightenment experiences – from Akka Mahadevi to St John of the Cross. And how wonderful it would be if the Buddha had written verse!

Name some of the things you have fallen into.
Puddles (as a child). Love (as an adult).

If you were to build a community where none existed, what rules would it follow?
Since my community would presumably include people I like a great deal, I think perhaps my only rule would be that we all find ways to spend time together a few evenings in the week. That’s the equivalent of hanging around a campfire, which makes great sense to me. Warmth, friendship, laughter, music – those matter. But of course, as soon as it’s a rule, the magic of the campfire might vanish!

What items can there be no recipe for?
Love. Poetry. Masala chai – when I make it.

What does your writing desk look like?
Right now, it has several large unopened envelopes that contain books I have no time to read. These make me guilty. The wonderful Staying Alive poetry trilogy, edited by Neil Astley, currently dominates the shelf above it. That makes me happy.

What do the words “cultural copyright” make you think about?
Unintelligible contracts. My lawyer’s telephone number.

Describe the sights and smells of your favourite library. Did you have a favourite librarian?
No favourite librarian. But a favourite teacher in school, Anahita De Vitre, who later became a close friend. I will never forget the gentle way in which she’d talk to me about books of poetry she’d enjoyed. There was no attempt to proselytize. And that worked wonderfully. If she’d tried too hard, I’d have probably been allergic to poetry today.

The library at the University of Stirling is a special favourite, because I spent hours there, as a writer in residence in 2003. As a child, I remember the lending library, Warden Bookhouse in Mumbai, which my family went to every Saturday. It was a small, dark, somewhat stuffy place on Warden Road at the time, but for a child, rich with wonder and discovery!

Have you ever had your palms read?
I have. And the versions never tallied.

What is the most outrageous thing you have ever heard?
Tough one.

What is the most outrageous thing you have ever said?
Tougher still.

What does your brand of curiosity smell of?
Parsnips. (Do parsnips smell?) And Persian tuberoses. (It’s late now, and you can see I’m losing it.)

What is more artistically rewarding for you– anonymity or fame?
Both in judicious doses. More anonymity because the real work is done quietly, behind the scenes. But a little acknowledgement definitely helps every now and then to keep going.

What does artistic equilibrium look like?
A hammock suspended between Corfu and the Maldives.

What does artistic disequilibrium look like?
A room I was recently in at the Mumbai University Guest House about which the less I say the better.

Worlds that do exist v/s world that don’t – which do you prefer writing about? Why?
It’s the places where one meets the other – a kind of magic here-and-now-ness or else a familiar elsewhereness. Why? Because I guess I want both in poetry – the familiar and the unfamiliar, ‘anchorage and adventure’.

What seven pieces of artistic solace – music, paintings, recordings etc. – would you anonymously bestow on an island castaway?
A whole bushel of books: the poetry of Neruda, the Bhakti poets, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, Mystic’s Musings by Sadhguru, the complete works of Austen, a seasoning of PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Richmal Crompton for mirth and comfort, maybe Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, definitely the Mahabharata. That’s more than seven, isn’t it? So for the rest an internet connection that enables them to access all the music and art they desire.

The word ‘enthusiasm’ is derived from the Greek adjective ‘entheos’ meaning ‘having a god within’. Are there any etymological origins of words that you enjoy?
Recently, I’ve been thinking about ‘bhakti’ which comes from the word ‘bhaj’, literally sharing or possessing or partaking of. The link between bhakti and food interests me, because it suggests that the desire for the sacred is born of a passionate appetite, a famished longing, not pious sentimentality. (Hence the title of the Bhakti poetry anthology I edited recently, Eating God’.) I’m also interested in the link between bhakti and the bacchanal, the bhakta and the bacchant — they point to a similar spiritual path, across cultures, of ecstatic abandon, wild self-annihilation.

What – in your eyes – is the antidote to cynicism?
Walking in the hills or the beach, or even watching National Geographic, if you can’t be bothered to budge from bed – basically, anything that puts you back in touch with awe and enchantment. And even if culture sometimes erodes that sense of wonder, nature never does.

Are you a wartime soldier or a peace time soldier?
A soldier? Not me. Writing poems is an attempt to melt borders, not guard them.

Interviewed by Tanvi Shah.

Award-winning poet Arundhathi Subramaniam will be conducting a session called ‘When God is a Traveller: Of Journeys Personal and Poetic’ at Bandra’s MCubed Library on Nov 5 (Saturday) at 5 pm. For Arundhathi, journeys are not just geographical. Her poetry traverses with abandon the diverse landscapes of the mythic, the contemporary urban and the existential. Through excerpts from her highly-lauded When God is a Traveller, she will talk of her travels through language, and the fraught, exhilarating and perennial journey of growing into oneself.

This session is part of Junoon’s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.


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