A Review of “When God Is A Traveller,” by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Cover

Following up on my review of Where I Live (2009) by Arundhathi Subramaniam, we will next look at her 2014 When God Is A Traveller (HarperCollins India). This book actually contains 22 poems from the “Deeper in Transit” section of Where I Live, thus there is substantial overlap in poems between books. Still, there are 29 new poems in this book, and it is a beautiful hardcover with very attractive cover art, making it a nice little book of poetry to carry around. The 22 duplicate poems are worth reading again, anyway. “Leapfrog” and “Catnap” were quoted in my review of Where I Live. Writing about gods, goddesses, and heroines as well as daily life, and a favourite topic of writing on writing, this little book is well worth reading and travelling along the various textual references which lead to empty space, which is the terrain of gods, goddesses, and heroines.

Arundhathi Subramaniam

In “How Some Hindus Find Their Personal Gods,” Subramaniam answers AS’s question about ishta devas. With so many gods and goddesses to choose from, how does one find one to have a personal relationship with? She advises:

               “It’s about learning to trust

               the tug

               that draws you to a shadowed alcove

               undisturbed by footfall

              and butter lamps

              …

             A god who looks

             like he could understand errors in translation,

            blizzards on the screen,

            gaps in memory,

            lapses in attention,

           who might even learn by rote

           …

          the awkward Remington stutter

          of your heart,

         who could make them his own.

        After that you can settle for none other.” (43-44)

Personal Gods

© D. Kopacz 2018

The book cover features a rich, blue, green, and gold peacock, feathers spread across about one-third of the cover, flowers blooming on a shrub in another corner, above darkness with the silhouette of a hunter shooting an arrow into a stag leaping in death throes. In “Eight Poems for Shakuntala,” Arundhathi Subramaniam pens some modern lines on Shakuntala whose story is told in the Mahabharata. One day King Dushyanta shot a stag with an arrow and pursued the wounded animal through the forest, when instead of his prey, he stumbled across Shakuntala and fell in love with her and married. Dushyanta gave her a ring, but left back to the palace, saying he would return later to fetch her. In the meantime, Shakuntala, pining for her absent love, accidently insulted a holy man who cursed her, that the man who gave her the ring would not remember her, unless she were to show him the ring he gave her. Time passed and Shakuntala lost the ring while crossing a river and when she arrived to court, Dushyanta did not recognize her. Heart-broken, she returned to the forest and gave birth the child she had conceived on Dushyanta’s first visit. A fisherman found the ring in the belly of a fish, presented it to the king, who then remembered his lost bride and searched for her, finding her again and meeting his son, and thus the family was reunited. Poems 3 and 5 in the series capture the longing of Shakuntala whilst waiting in the forest for Dushyanta’s return.

 

              “But all those nights

               when all you want

               is a lover’s breath,

                              regular,

                              regular,

 

               starlight through a diaphanous curtain,

               and a respite

               from too much wisdom?” (III, 50)

               …

               “Nothing original

               but the hope

               of something new

               between parted lips.

               A kiss—

               jasmine lapis moonshock.

               And around the corner

               with the old refrain,

               this chorus,

               (Sanskrit, Greek, whatever):

               It’s never close enough

               It’s never long enough

               It’s never enough

               It’s never” (V, 52).

357px-Raja_Ravi_Varma_-_Mahabharata_-_Shakuntala

“Shakuntala looking back to glimpse Dushyanta,” by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Subramaniam often writes about the mundane as well as the sublime in her poems, and often there ends up being a poem or two about a cat. In “I Knew a Cat” she writes of the pain of losing a beloved furry friend:

               “I knew a cat

               with a face like a star.

               I waited for her to die

               so my heart would hurt

               a little less.

               Now the nights are darker,

               my life a little easier.” (71)

 

Neo in closet (2)

Neo, d. 2010

In the poem which gives the book its title, “When God is a Traveller,” Subramaniam muses about Kartikeya/Murga/Subramania, my namesake.” Kartikeya/Murga/Subramania is known by all those names, as well as Skanda, and is the son of Śiva, in some legends of him alone, as Gaṇeśa is born of Pārvatī alone, but also often considered the son of both Śiva and Pārvatī. Subramania is the god of war who is also known as Guhā (cave, secret) or Guruguhā (cave-teacher) as he renounces war in some legends and retreats to the mountains. (For stories of Subramania, see Kartikeya as well as the Skanda Purāṇa and for comparison of various legends, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic). Arundhathi Subramaniam writes in this poem:

               “Trust the god

               back from his travels

               …

               Trust him

               who has seen enough—

               revolutions, promises…

               …

               Trust him

               who recognizes you—

               auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred,

                              alive—

               and knows from where you come.

               Trust the god

               ready to circle the world all over again

               this time for no reason at all

               other than to see it

               through your eyes.” (100-101)

Murugan_by_Raja_Ravi_Varma

Sri Shanmukha Subrahmanya Swami by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to writing about gods, goddesses, and heroines, in addition to writing about love, Arundhathi Subramaniam loves to write about writing. In “Six About Love Stories,” she writes:

               “Some stories have holes.

               Some don’t join the dots.

               Sometimes the only way from middle to end

                              Is the leap.

               …

               Some stories devour other stories.

               I recognize you.” (96)

And in the closing poem, “Poems Matter,” she again writes about writing and about what it is that gives poems their meaning – not so much because of their substance, but because of the space within them that allows for something more than what we can say:

               “It’s taken a long time

               to understand

               poems matter

               because they have holes.” (103).

Crow Flying Through Dark Matter.jpg

Crow Flying Through Dark Matter, © D. Kopacz 2017

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s