Arundhathi Subramaniam’s lyrical poems on the body and the spirit work themselves tenuously through modernist tradition; emerging translucent in stunningly new incarnations. The poetic renderings eschew easy binaries and capture the fluidity and unhousedness of the post-modern condition. The poems deal with ‘unsettlement, finiteness and fallibility’. They are delicate artefacts of ‘wonder and precarious elation’, ‘spots of time’ experiences that capture moments of epiphany.
The dominant female voice disfavours the politically correct. The persona breaks through the sanctified boundaries of the sacred and the secular. The ‘standpoint feminism’ it cherishes and upholds forges an agency radically different from the dominant sisterhood of the urban metropolis. The poems record ‘situational conversations’ often in an irreverent and self-deprecatory tone, always with insights and illuminations. The poetic narrative foregoes a ‘bogus omniscience’, and lays bare the fragility and vulnerability of the self as it deals with life’s myriad experiences. Above all, the collection unveils a series of unusual ‘spiritual poems’ that result from the collision of multiple worlds, often contradictory in nature.
‘I had read enough to know all that stuff about masters appearing when students are ready,’ remarks Arundhathi in the introduction of the bestselling biography of Sadhguru. ‘But what are the chances anyway of a master appearing on a peak-hour Bombay local? Or at a poetry-reading? Or a city book shop or theatre or café?’
The persona in these poems devises ingenious subterfuge to ‘step in and out of stores and cycles and frames’ in two sets of poems, ‘Deeper in Transit’ and ‘When God is a Traveller’.
The poems themselves carry varied moods, spectacles, cameos and vignettes of day-today life. ‘Laconic and passionate’, they straddle the world of desire and abnegation: The opening poem ‘Refaced’ captures the search for an alternative identity or a mask. ‘ Do I want another face? / sometimes I do ’. The drive for a fierce honesty acts as its own end, its answer to the existential angst. For the persona, passion can never be a transitional stage to the desired Moksha. For, there is the perennial longing for ‘ the gossamer flurry / of your breath, the wild nearness / of your heart beat’. And yet, we must remember the counterpoint that ‘there is more to desire than the tribal shudder / in the loins .’
The poems make multiple allusions to cultures and continents. A mélange of geographies and histories populate this poetic landscape: ‘ ancient Egypt ’, ‘ Jacques Cousteau’s empire of the Sea ’, ‘ kisses bluer than the Adriatic ’, ‘ Honey stain of sunlight ’, ‘ moon-lathered Parthenon ’, ‘ Bombay traffic jams ’, ‘ gut thump on FM Radio ’, and ‘ sign of Palmyra trees / in Tirunelveli plantations .’ Similarly, the poem ‘Lover Tongue’ dramatizes the battle of the sexes and upturns patriarchy by the appropriation of the subaltern idiom: ‘ Wish to turn sophomoric / as fuck you / say cope up / just to disrupt / your family symmetries / your patriarchal DNA ’.
Beyond the battle and struggle, there are moments of revelation and silence. The desire for intimacy goes beyond ‘ your bequest of semicolons ’ wilfully embracing the unfathomable mystery of love: ‘ Remember I am as / dog eared / soiled / puzzled / as you are / and as much in love .’
Similarly, the poem ‘Sharecropping’ depicts a bonding with one’s mother. There is a careful contrast between the mother and the daughter dramatised in the Mother’s saree, her osteoarthritic knee, rubber and betel palm of Myanmar vis a vis the daughter’s ‘ dark-service stairways / in Bombay buildings .’ These are common and yet dissimilar experiences, as the poet observes, ‘ sowing the same dream / in a different self ’.
Likewise, the poem ‘Learning to say yes’ is an interesting throw back to W.H. Auden’s memorable composition, ‘Questions’; it signals attention to minor vignettes of quotidian life : ‘ smell of a new wardrobe ’, ‘ eternal bus ticket in the bag’s second compartment ’ and the ‘ leer of the late shift security guard ’. On the other hand, the poem, ‘How some Hindus find their Personal Gods’ offers an arresting understanding of the Ishta Devta : The minor deity in ‘ blue, dark, coolness ’, becomes an alluring entity. For, he can understand ‘ errors in trance ’, ‘ blizzards on the screen ’ and ‘ gaps in memory ’. Likewise, ‘The way you arrive’ is a bird song for the beloved’s arrival: ‘ The way you enter / and the events scatter / like islands in the sea ’.
The epic is contemporanised in ‘Eight poems for Shakuntala’. In this feminist rendering of the mythic character of the Mahabharata, Shakuntala becomes a ‘ mixed up kid ’, ‘ daughter of a sage and celestial sex worker .’ It is not a story of ‘betrayal’ but one of emancipation; for, when the ceiling ‘crumbles’, ‘ you walk / into a night of stars ’.
The poem ‘Or take Mrs. Salim Shaikh’ is a humorous study of inter-religious marriage: ‘ I practice no religion / only homeopathy ’. Similarly, ‘Benaras’ is a clever parody of the craze for English in the Hindi heartland, typified in the epigraph to the poem, ‘Moon-Light English Coaching Centre’ (O Lebal to standard Lebal’ – sign on Kedar Ghat, August 2009). At times the poems take a curious surreal turn in ‘Dark Night of Kitchen Sinks’, we witness knives and spoons, ‘ scattered like mutilated limbs ’ whereas ‘ Huns of cutlery ’, ‘ jostle, raid, ravish [and] slump ’. There is the realisation that it is ‘ just another kitchen sink / dreaming / of foam and equanimity ’.
The poems in this collection are well crafted and innovative. At their best, the compositions strike us as meteors flashing through the night skies. Occasionally, the inspiration flags, and we have statements rather than what George Eliot calls the ‘picture’.
Arundhathi Subramaniam scores well in the latest collection. Her poems are for all, but especially meant for the modern woman in the metropolis. They discard the easy lure of the fractured ephemeral and await the return of the gods to our daily lives.
Sachidananda Mohanty is Professor of English at the University of Hyderabad.