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I’m grateful to feminism: Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s latest work

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s latest work  

A peep into the thought process of Arundhathi Subramaniam:

A word that recurs in your vocabulary is ‘democracy.’ Elaborate

Well, the word occurs twice in this book — ‘the democracy of tongues’ and ‘the body’s gentle democracy.’ In ‘Mitti,’ it becomes a way to talk about the equality of languages — ‘none superior, none untranslatable.’ It’s a gentle dig at all forms of language chauvinism. In the second poem, ‘Finding Dad,’ it’s about death as leveller: death as a process of dismantling us into the elements that constitute us. In both cases, the word is used to strip away an assumed ‘specialness,’ and to uncover a genuine uniqueness. And yet, in stripping away the sentimental cliches, the poems seek to celebrate something more primal. That celebration is evident in phrases like ‘the anthem of muck of which we are made’ in ‘Mitti.’ Or in ‘divested, fallible, whole’ in ‘Finding Dad.’ In the latter, I’m interested in the wholeness of utter vulnerability, the wholeness of stripping away, not of acquisition. I suppose that is the aspiration of poetry: to offer an insight into life, not by sugar-coating or whitewashing or decorating it, but by distilling it; by seeing it deeply and attentively as it is.

Poetry puts off when one, especially a young student, is asked to dissect, analyse. Agreed. But is there a language issue here? Is it considered something elite? Because the same set of people revel in Tamil poetry or whatever their mother tongue. Tomes have been written on Tirukkural, Bharatiar, Bharatidasan. Rural milieu is replete with poetry and song. There is a whole tribe of New Age poets. Elementary school education starts with rhyme and rhythm

That’s several questions in one! Let me address this step by step.


First, I wouldn’t want to endorse the tired argument about English being elitist and regional languages being more authentic. This has led to all sorts of parochialism that I don’t think we need to reinforce. Tomes have been written not just on the Tirukkural and Bharatiar, but also on Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot. So, I would leave language politics out of this.

There is certainly a distinction between poetry as an academic discipline and popular poetry. Popular poetry includes many forms, from Instagram poetry to Bollywood songs, from songs of national independence movements to folk song and protest literature. There’s nothing wrong with this. Diversity is wonderful! And I love humming a good movie song as much as the next person. Each genre has its own craft, its own magic. But rather than hailing one as superior or inferior, it’s important to acknowledge the differences in genre. Not a difference in quality, but in genre. To apply the yardsticks of popular street theatre to discuss classical theatre like Noh would be unfair. And to apply the yardsticks of Bharatanatyam to discuss Bollywood dance would be equally unfair. The premise, the context, the parameters are different.

So, what I was discussing the other day is how poetry as an academic subject is taught; not what is being taught. Yes, it is important to keep working on making a syllabus relevant and alive. It’s unfortunate that earlier generations of Indians ended up studying only dead white male poets. It’s important to correct that. But I don’t want to endorse a reverse snobbery either. My point is that a good teacher should be able to inculcate a love of poetry that makes a student a lifelong rasika — capable of appreciating Blake and Bharatiar, Sappho and Soyarabai, not simply one or the other. We need teachers who know how to awaken students to the aliveness of poetry, not turn it into a jaded, mechanical dissection exercise.

There’s nothing wrong with analysis. It’s vitally important. But what we need is a joyful critical climate that combines excitement and exactitude, passion and precision. The best teacher of poetry hones the capacity to analyse without sacrificing the capacity for wonder.

How would you describe your evolution? Have some thoughts stayed while others changed, as perceptions might, over the years?

I feel I’ve been gnawing at some basic preoccupations for years — loss, love, quest, time, home, belonging, the sacred... I see them in their nascent form in my very first book. But some strands have intensified. Journeys — real and mythic — have grown more important. My fascination with archetypes — the Questor and the Crone — has deepened. I’m no longer a closet seeker. The quest has taken on a much greater urgency. Also, I know that my poems breathe differently now. They’re more ridden with holes. The fabric is thinner, subtler. But the voltage, I believe, has increased. They’re more alive.

Have you felt limitations as a female? For instance, in the choice of words and subjects, does gender play a role? Or even outlook?

Gender certainly shapes our lives, and, therefore, our outlook, even our language. But not in a gloomy, deterministic way. After all, we shape our lives too. And as gender becomes less rooted in rigid binaries, many earlier differences are blurring and vanishing.

Besides, all differences needn’t be seen as limitations. Does a poet, who write about life in the trenches, have a wider canvas than one who writes about the nuances of a relationship? I don’t think so. Both perspectives are important; neither is limited or less universal.

Have I personally seen femaleness as a weakness? Not in the least! I’m grateful to feminism as a tool that allowed me to explore the ways in which gender is constructed. That’s helped me to wear gender more lightly — as a more fluid mantle rather than an armour. As I say in my poem, ‘Home,’ I find most identities ‘alien, when I try to belong,’ but quite ‘hospitable, when I decide I’m just visiting’!

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 1:02:22 PM |

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