Last week, while making a circuitous journey from Sweden to Italy, I read the poems of Arundhathi Subramaniam. Her new collection, When God is a Traveller (HarperCollins), was an ideal companion, both for its unceasing spirit of seeking, and for the many gods that inhabit her poems, circling the world and eavesdropping on our conversations. Subramaniam works the delicate balance between restlessness and stillness—a predicament all travellers understand; moves us from the hermitage out onto “alien shores” and “half-dreamed cities” in a grand “carnival of unmooring,” and then brings us quietly, forcefully home.
Subramaniam is primarily a poet, but she has also written books about the Buddha and her spiritual guide, Sadhguru, so it’s no surprise that an element of spirituality forms the core of her work. What is surprising is that this spirituality is matched by an equally effervescent sensuality reminiscent of the Bhakti poets. This breaking of walls between the psychological, existential, sensual and spiritual is best described in her poem Confession, where she writes, “I erupt from pillars/ half-lion half-woman….When I open the coffee percolator/ the roof flies off.” This blasting away of boundaries and refusal to compartmentalise is evident throughout the book–a pattern of coming apart at the seams accompanied by a longing for something whole, leading ultimately to an acceptance of the duality of these desires.
“My primary self-definition now is probably seeker, not poet,” Subramaniam tells me. But for all the perforations and ponderings over Advaita, she says that a “certain moltenness of language” is still the most important thing for her in a poem. And this much is evident when you scan the pages and stumble across “honeystains of light,” “tourist brochures detonating with butterflies,” middle-aged women who “pull in their limbs like ancient drawbridges.” There is much richness and celebration of words—playfulness too, and there is always the reiteration that the “miraculous algae” of language will encircle us, enrich us, leak into us, see us through.
“I’ve always wanted the poetry to reflect my unease at certain forms of literary brahminism, and yet retain a certain epicurean love of language,” she says. “But I treat language with more respect now, because I’ve also experienced it as a feral animal, not easily domesticated…I think I’m more willing now to listen to it, to allow it to lead me to the nerve centre of a poem, rather than be in a hurry to impose my agenda on it.”
For the travellers among you, for those of you beguiled by the “great craters in the middle of love,” and for those of you for whom poetry lives in a continent far away—When God is a Traveller is a book that could open the gates and guide you in. As Subramaniam rightly says, the terrain of poetry belongs to wonder, mystery and clarity, and in this utilitarian universe, it is a political decision to reinstate the right to wonder. “I don’t think poetry needs to do what the News at Nine does. It needn’t have all the answers. It needn’t bristle with opinion. It can also remind us of the importance of questions. It can help us confront the terrors of hyphens, commas, question marks, not settle for easy full stops. That can be quite a radical choice in fundamentalist times.”