Arundhathi Subramaniam talks to Jules Mann about poetry, habitat, threshold politics, grace and a city that’s a part of her DNA.
JM: The PI Festival carries the theme “City and Country”, noting that for the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. As a poet, anthologist and cultural journalist based in Mumbai but travelling regularly outside that city, I’m curious whether you have witnessed any significant changes in subject matter towards a more urban preoccupation?
AS: Since I was born and brought up in Mumbai, the city is a part of me now – part of my karmic baggage, and an inescapable part of my poetry. It percolates even into poems that aren’t overtly city-centred. And there are times when it muscles its way in and turns protagonist of the poem.
To live in an Indian city is, I think, to live in a complicated space, one where the rural and the urban can’t be kept rigidly apart. Nothing can be kept apart here, actually – not the rich and the poor, the global and the local, the sacred and the profane, nothing.
I grew up, for instance, in a complex of highrise buildings that sat cheek-by-jowl with a bustling fishing village. Mumbai may dream of being a Shanghai, but we all know it’s an insane dream. It’s a crazy, impossible city – one that aims to be First World with Third World infrastructure, grapples with housing and transport problems of unimaginable proportions, and seems utterly unable to reconcile the demands of its poor and its affluent. The other Indian cities, despite their own unique variations, are also dealing with similar issues.
I think the complexity of this urban experience is evident in the work of many Indian poets. You have Hindi poet Kunwar Narain’s poem about paying the neighbouring shopkeeper “hundred rupees a month/ for not playing the loudspeaker/ two hours before sunrise”, while Tamil poet Manushya Puthiran records the deafening silence of middle-class urban homes in Chennai. Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems evokes this richness and mayhem wonderfully. He locates the lyrical in a chaotic Mumbai street scene without ever striking a sentimental or didactic note.
What’s interesting about some of the best Indian poetry about contemporary cities is that it doesn’t allow you to rest with any set of clichés. It punctures easy stereotypes, forces you to re-examine your assumptions. Yes, the city in these poems can be a vast totalizing entity, simmering in a perpetual state of crisis. Yes, it can induce alienation and recoil. But it can also be liberating and intoxicating. It can also be a crucible of the cutting-edge, the cosmopolitan and the hybrid. (Take the case of a young group of nineties’ Marathi poets, whom we’ve featured on the India domain, as an example.)
The finest poetry is able to capture this sense of “not quite” and “somewhere in between”. It captures the inconsistency of our inheritance and our equally inconsistent dreams for our future. It can offer critique. It can offer celebration. Or it can simply mirror our confusions. That mess — that unease — is the source of its strength.
JM: Picking up on several points you made not long ago in a festival talk in Italy, you describe your poems as “articulat[ing] a yearning for some sense of home, sanctuary, habitat, locality, community. But there is also a constant awareness that there can be no definitive formula, no facile recipe for belonging.” In your poetry, where would you say is the closest you get to feeling that sense of habitat?
AS: I think I’ve been ambivalent about Mumbai for a long time, Jules. I find it oppressive and liberating. I find its posturing absurd, its hypocrisies insufferable. But when I’m away for a while, some of those can even begin to seem endearing! And I doubt there’s any other Indian city I could live in.
To be fair, I think some of this sense of unbelonging is existential. It’s partly the old unoriginal story about the human condition. Nothing new about it. But perhaps cities like Mumbai compel you to face up to the old Buddhist insight about life being ‘dukkha’ sooner than others! That may even be their contribution – the fact that they make you ask some hard questions about the meaning of life. That’s why in my poem, ‘Where I Live’, I say that this is a city “where it is perfectly historical” to be “searching for God”. I guess I was staking my own claim to the city, carving out my own place in its history, at that moment.
But in the last couple of years, I have spent increasing spells of time at an ashram in Coimbatore, in southern India. It’s on the foothills of the Velliangiri hills, very tranquil, very un-Mumbai-like. But that’s not home either.
I think I find this state of being between places, exhilarating. In a column, I once said mine was a case of “threshold politics, a condition of chosen liminality, of multiple citizenship”. It has its uses. “It allows for mystique,” I said. “Also for sanity. It gives you room for negotiation, critique, leverage. Above all, for breath.”
Habitat for me – like for most of us – happens in moments. It’s a matter of time (or is timelessness more accurate?), rather than place. There are flashes of alignment, when you know you are exactly where, and how, you’re meant to be. It could happen when you’re in love, writing a poem, or just contemplating your toenails. Whatever the occasion, when it happens, it’s a moment of sheer grace.
JM: When you declare, elsewhere in your talk, that “The embattled physical space is accompanied by a sense of cultural and moral dislocation.” – do you feel a sense of obligation to write your way back to some sort of cultural and moral location, almost as a matter of principle?
AS: That’s an interesting question. Perhaps. It’s less a matter of principle, more a matter of need, I think. You try to “write your way back” because there’s a deep need to find an alternative. Trite solutions won’t do. But the search for that alternative – morally, spiritually – keeps you writing. It keeps me writing, anyway. And it’s not a conceptual blueprint for new life that I’m looking for. It’s a moment of resolution – provisional, tentative – that comes in and through the writing itself. It doesn’t last. And maybe it’s better that way. If it did, it could turn into a new terrorism. But its fragility, and the fact that it is found, rather than premeditated, makes it precious to me. And hopefully, to a few readers as well.
JM: In 20 years time, where do you think your poetry will sit between city and country sources of inspiration?
AS: I wish I could answer that one. Even if I were to move to some pristine, morally uncontaminated, green spot in some other country (if such a place exists!), I doubt I could ever erase the imprint of Mumbai from my spirit, from my consciousness. It’s too late for that. It’s a part of my DNA by now.
Where I Live, Allied, Mumbai, 2005; ISBN: 81-7764-738-5
On Cleaning Bookshelves, Allied, Mumbai, 2001; ISBN: 81-7764-176-X
(Co-editor) Confronting Love, Penguin India, Delhi, 2005, ISBN: 0-14-303264-X, an anthology of contemporary Indian love poetry in English.
The Book of Buddha, Penguin India (Viking), Delhi, 2005, ISBN: 9780670058358
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