For a while, death has been on my mind. What does it mean to die? Do we enter another dimension, where all those we regrettably or gladly let go are waiting for us, saying, “See, it’s not goodbye after all!” Or do we join one of those long, never-ending lines of people waiting to board a bus to Hell or Heaven? And never realise which is which? And what if what we thought was the ultimate solution to all problems was just the beginning of a whole new set of unimaginable conundrums? Sometimes I feel death must be like slipping into a sensory deprivation tank. A black sea of silence where stillness prevails. A detached body floating in a sea that becomes its whole existence, till slowly, slowly, dissolving, the body becomes the ocean. Perhaps, death is being forgotten and forgetting. All those rituals and prayers for the departed performed by the descendants who in turn teach their offspring are the promise to remember the dead year after year. All of this stems from the fear and the hope of the living- the fear that they might one day be forgotten and the hope that they won’t be forgotten. I suppose it is a tad difficult for humans to believe that after all the things they have accomplished on Earth, they just end up evaporating. No. I suppose for life to have meaning, death must have significance, gravity, sorrow. Why else the mourning? The guard of honour, the flags at half-mast? Children too are our guard-rails against being forgotten. People we see ourselves in, our quirks, our habits- they who shall inherit our name, our assets/liabilities and the task of remembering us.
Women Who Wear Only Themselves
Arundhathi Subramaniam, Speaking Tiger Books LLP, 2021, 499 INR
As I read the introduction to Women Who Wear Only Themselves, I was reminded of a book by yet another Arundhathi- Arundhathi Roy and the iconic title of her debut book, The God of Small Things. The God of small things- the one who watches over the ants, the beetles and other little creatures- does not get massive temples or frenzied, opulent rituals. That god exists in relative anonymity and in the truncated lives of his devotees. But it’s a reassuring god. A comfortable god.
This is the sort of divinity that Arundhathi Subramaniam brings her readers. Published in 2021, the full title of the book is, Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys. As the title promises, the book contains Subramaniam’s engagement with four female mystics. These engagements are at times chance encounters that evolve into deep spiritual relationships and lead to engrossing introspections on the ways that people can exist.
Shabnam Mirchandani writes a response piece that can be found here-
Women Who Wear Only Themselves
Speaking Tiger Books LLP, 2021
Reader Response by
Woman as Medium and Message
Arundhathi Subramaniam is an experience: a sun-washed vision of graceful beauty, with a sensuously timbral poetic voice that is artfully spare, yet cerebrally alluring. The sartorial trope she uses in her latest book is a draw precisely because Arundhathi wears herself so beautifully. Ecstatic rumination drapes this book like her silk saris, and her kohl-lined eyes lead us to gaze deep into the echoes of ancient well-springs. Her sojourns lead into other women’s journeys: mystic spaces that open up a field of answers to questions we have not yet learned to ask. These do not comprise the wordy emptiness that spiritual discourse sometimes descends into, nor are they mere aesthetic condensations of esoteric conversations. They cannot be fitted into a page or even a zoom session. Not really. They are expansive vibrations of auditory, olfactory, tactile, corporeal, and numinous events that flow out of encounters with four remarkable women who inhabit themselves with awareness honed from trauma, vacillation, struggle, visions, and ultimately an evolution into purpose, presence, and improvisatory freedom.
Women Who Wear Only Themselves offers words as psychic entities, compelling a neurological odyssey, a shift at a cellular level. The narration is a palimpsestic gesture as Arundhathi weaves her own feelings and asides into the telling. She makes concerted efforts at direct communication with certain enigmatic women who serendipitously show up at different points in her life, but they are is not exercises in deconstruction or even investigation. They are grounded in a quest for respite from questions, and the women provide a way. They are connoisseurs of transparency: shedding garbs of language, perception, and convention, they appear to spill out of their skin, charging the very air surrounding them. Their spirit journeys happen in villages, ashrams, highways, and cities. Arundhathi’s dialogic unfolding of their animated inwardness is interspersed with her own resonant poems. The sentences surge and ebb like a river, sinking into listening ears with an intimacy of tone that is somatic in its vitality.
Eyes hold a strange fascination for me. The way the pupils expand and contract, the million messages the eyes convey through the play of shadow and light and the beauty of the flare of the irises. Over time, I have studied the eyes of willing subjects- seen the way the browns carry flecks of gold, the blacks absorb light, the greens with a coppery timbre. I have seen faint rings of white- crusts of sugar- building a moat- one that will one day need to be broken down. I have seen bright, perceptive eyes acquire the stillness that age brings. The confusion that ageing parents have while facing a biometric, PIN-encoded, app- governed world, begins in the eyes.
It is also in the eyes that intentions lurk. The sudden shift of the pupils, the slow crafty veil that descends, the gleam of smug satisfaction, smiles that don’t reach the eyes- shallow eyes that give nothing away.
Aaliya Mushtaq Baba
After a very, very long time, I decided to set out on a journey. Last month. I have been in the habit of going on long drives these few months, but that is always with someone. Those are journeys I might evoke on another day. Today is about the sort of journeys I rarely make.
I had no idea where exactly I was headed towards, how long it would take and if my route map was even right. All I knew was that I setting off. A friend of mine was staying at a place of healing that was nearly 70 kms away. And this visit was to spend the day with her. I checked the map on my phone and set off just when the crisp morning air was beginning to warm at the edges. The sun was just right and the roads were reasonably empty- the world had not yet made up its mind about what to do for the day. It seemed that for a few kilometres at least, I was on my own.
Highways are strange places. The architecture of a highway as well as those of its peripherals- such as shops and roadside eateries always seems to encourage you to drive on. There are invariably a number of workshops offering you tyre changes, car showrooms – in case you decide to change your car midway, tender coconut stalls for a quick pit stop, eateries that serve real good food at blink speed, set up such that you eat in your car, watching others go by in a manic gust of speed, supermarkets that facilitate a quick getaway once you have bought those obligatory water bottles, chips, chocolates- and magazines for the co-passengers. Everything suggests movement. The hoardings along the highways advertising wedding sarees, jewelry, cars, hotels, resorts ask you to keep moving- to get to another life- one that involves tangibility of a different sort.
I Will Not Bear You Sons
Usha Akella, Spinifex Press
Reading Usha Akella’s I Will Not Bear you Sons is like walking into the middle of a conversation. A conversation that seems to have been going on for a while, and yet is also one that seems to be waiting for you join so it could finally begin. One of the main reasons for this could be the thematic focus of the book, which is to articulate the feminist concerns with space, cultural legacies, patriarchies, religion, political redactions and the very complicated histories that women share amongst themselves.
I Will… is a collection of poems that has a rather urgent, demanding tone. It does not narrate daisies or lilies nor does it have the wistful fragrance of lost loves. The staccato tone that most of the poems engage with are in keeping with the emergent voices of the women who are speaking around the globe. Akella hacks through the undergrowth of patriarchal white noise with a machete, trying to find the roots that connect women all over the globe.
Sing of Life
156pp, ₹499, Context (Westland), 2021
Since its publication in 1913 and the subsequent award of the Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (1913) has remained alive and relevant in the collective consciousness of Indians as a text that, apart from defining Gurudev, as Tagore is popularly known, symbolized the validation of the cultural and intellectual wealth of the subcontinent. In the West, Gitanjali, captured the attention of W.B Yeats, Thomas Sturge Moore and William Rothenstein, among others, creating an aura around Tagore, the glow of which refuses to fade to this day.
The resultant dominant image of the mystic-philosopher that surrounds Tagore often obscures the lasting concerns he had about Nation, nationalism, Art and the role of the Artist. The soul search that is the hallmark of the artist and the quest for an elusive beauty that appears only through art has been a pivotal point in informing Tagore’s enunciation of the Divine. It is this quest that poet and novelist Priya Sarukkai Chabria joins as she attempts a revision of the Gitanjali.