By Chitan Girish Modi
Poet-seeker Arundhathi Subramaniam muses on her mutually enriching relationship with feminism, spirituality and poetry.
Arundhathi Subramaniam is ‘cobbling together stuff’ for a new anthology of writing on sacred journeys. And it’s proving a challenge ‘to find writers who are willing to talk about their engagement with the sacred realm without sounding cynical or embarrassed’. She feels that we have been besieged by such a spurt of both right-wing fundamentalism and sentimental religiosity, that ‘many intellectuals have understandably felt the need to distance themselves from all of that’. Her strategy for inhabiting a more nuanced spiritual position is to examine ideas at greater depth.
Take her understanding of Shakti, for instance. Arundhathi’s poetry offers glimpses of Shakti in diverse situations, each negotiating the powers that legislate upon the beleaguered self. We meet her in the school bus, struggling to understand why clothes are worn ‘except as a matter of seasonal cover'; in the thickening midriff of her 30s that remind of ‘babies never brought to fruition'; in the unusual sisterly community of the local train compartment; in the silent strength of a mother who tames ‘torrents/ of pounding anarchy/ into ebb tides that swim'; in the fables of a grandmother who crawled under the bed to hide from her suitor at the age of eight’.
Self-admittedly, Arundhathi’s journey of exploration has been aided by a fair amount of feminist literature, mainly by Adrienne Rich and Mary Grey. Her engagement with spirituality, therefore, is influenced by her feminism. ‘The predicament of the seeker is not so very different from that of the woman. In a lot of mystical poetry, the seeker is the feminised individual soul yearning for communion with the masculinised Divine,’ she says.
Her own journey as a seeker started as a child bursting with existential questions. However, it was ‘a visceral sort of experience of death’ at the age of 29 that substantially altered her self-definition from poet, to that of the seeker. Interestingly, there was no external stimulus for the experience, except Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which she was reading at that time. As she now recalls, ‘ I felt I should devote the rest of my life to coming to terms with this primal fear of death. And if I was able to figure out how to die, I would know how to live; and then, I would also know how to write, but that seemed almost incidental!’
There has been a great fascination with advaita and vedanta. Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi, J Krishnamurti, Shirdi Sai Baba, Basho, St John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart and even Arun Kolatkar – she counts all these as significant influences along her spiritual journey. Arundhathi used to attend morning meetings at the place of Ramesh Balsekar, a disciple of beedi merchant-cum-mystic Nisargadatta Maharaj. Among contemporary mystics, she has found Eckhart Tolle and Jaggi Vasudev enormously helpful. Both her books of poetry – On Cleaning Bookshelves and Where I Live – are intimately linked with her own progression along the path, towards ‘lands vast and unchoreographed’.
Excerpts from an interview:
Much of your poetry attempts to render the precise shade of meaning, but there are moments when it circles round the realm of the wordless…
Yes, this is a constant preoccupation. I think it is in the arts, particularly in poetry, that one comes closest to addressing questions about life, death, quest, love and desolation – questions that all of us ask as children. Poetry is the most concentrated, simultaneous engagement with self and language that one can find. It compels you to inhabit the present moment more fully than you otherwise would.
Your poem Tree speaks of ‘so many ways of being ancillary to the self’. Could you dwell on that?
It’s about understanding what it means to decenter the self. Un-selfing the self is an integral part of leading a sane life. But it’s a tortuous process. The branches of that tree represent multiple, tertiary ways of existing. In this poem, and the whole of Where I Live, I have tried to explore the gap between where I live, and where I belong. Many of these were written at the University of Stirling, where I was more alone and silent than ever before. It was like a three-month Vipassana course! Though the initial feeling was of terror, I began enjoying it and found myself writing in a very different way. I began to believe that the creative process necessitated a certain amount of neurosis, and that I could write out of a sense of expansiveness and freedom.
There’s an intense preoccupation with ‘home’ in many of the poems. And it’s more than a concern with ideological or geographical location…
Yes, this theme works at various levels. At the level of physical displacement, one is faced with the reality of living in a metropolis that impinges on you with its moral dilemmas and ethical affronts. Then there’s the level of cultural or political estrangement – what it means to live in a climate where voices are continuously legislating on how to belong, on how to be a Hindu, a woman, a post-colonial, a poet even. We live in times that are out to turn sadhaks into sainiks. Being a defender of a faith, ideology or party line, is not very conducive to exploration. And there’s another more endemic sense of exile: the sense of never being at home, never being where one is meant to be.
That reminds me of some lines from Arunachala, which you wrote after a visit to Ramana Maharishi’s ashram: ‘For somewhere here, I know, / is something black, / something large, / something limpid, / something like home.’
I first went to the Ramana ashrama in Tiruvannamalai in 2001. There’s a little meditation room with a window from which one can see Arunachala, the mountain that’s believed to be Shiva himself. As I sat there, I experienced a growing sense of stillness without fear. And I felt I couldn’t ask for any more. We all want to travel light, but find it difficult to shed the baggage we carry around because so much of our identity derives from it. But for those few minutes, it actually felt like that ‘lightness of being’ wasn’t so ‘unbearable’!
Do you consider the process of poetic creation itself, as a form of sadhana?
Working on one’s craft is definitely a sadhana. Sometimes, it is tapas, pure penance!
Do you follow a disciplined form of adhana, on a regular basis?
I did Sudarshan kriya for a few years. After having attended some Isha Yoga programmes with Jaggi Vasudev, I practise a combination of pranayama and meditation. I also do hatha yoga, when I am inspired enough to be disciplined! A regular sadhana is important because it gives you a matrix within which you can be with yourself. Earlier it was hard to sit with myself, but structured meditation usually allows me to spend time with myself, without getting frustrated or terrified. I recently did an eight-day silence course. It was really useful. It’s easy for writers to start fetishising the word, to forget that making poems is also ‘about that terrifying surrender to absence’. The poem, Words says it well: ‘… artisans must build/ only to blast/ vast ziggurats of thought/ into silence.’
Your notion of satsang is quite different from the usual bhajan gathering…
Yes, it mainly refers to a sense of community – friends who have been particularly vital. Seeing a relationship as primarily a friendship rids it of a lot of oppressive baggage. It implies moving away from heavy and cumbersome notions of duty and obligation towards greater discovery and serendipity. Another attempt to travel light!
I find it significant that you refer to Vikram (husband, theater director, Vikram Kapadia) as friend, ally, beloved; in that order
I believe that his being my friend and ally is more important than his being my husband. The word ‘husband’ is so fraught with expectations. Likewise, ‘wife’. I’d hate to put that kind of pressure on a relationship. This isn’t a repudiation of marriage, but I think it’s necessary for individuals to negotiate and reinvent these tags.
Was your Book of Buddha born out of a personal engagement with Buddhism?
I was five and in my uncle’s house when the image of the Buddha first registered – that now-familiar Gandhara image of a face of remarkable tranquility. He seemed so unlike the gods I knew in my mother’s puja room. I remember mulling over the image in the vague inchoate way five-year-olds mull over things: What was he thinking about? Was he never angry? Never sad? Above all, never bored? In my adolescence, I revisited the Buddha because he seemed to be the solitary seeker – the kind of figure young people everywhere identify with. He wasn’t patronizing. He didn’t ask for veneration and obedience and all the self-abnegation one has come to associate with the guru-shishya relationship. And he asked the questions we all seemed to be asking – about suffering, impermanence and meaninglessness.
Today, I approach him with a seeker’s mix of curiosity and desperation. And he doesn’t let me down. As I say in the preface to the book, ‘Few seem to have articulated the human predicament with quite the same degree of lucidity, psychological acuity and unsentimental precision’. What makes him appeal so much to the contemporary seeker is that he offers a way open to all, and to a truth that is never exclusive or doctrinaire.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer based in Mumbai.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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