Arundhathi Subramaniam
Speaking Tiger Books LLP 2021
499 INR

Reader Response by
Shabnam Mirchandani

Woman as Medium and Message

Women Who Wear Only Themselves

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.

Broken becomes whole, and whole broken, as the stories pour out of Arundhathi’s uniquely honest surrender to helpless awe. The skeptic, writer, poet, translator, and seeker in her are awake, yet hushed, as she delves into deep listening. Letting go of herself, she lets the women in. A candid epistle to herself takes shape as Arundhathi documents her own transformation and turns it into a conversation with the heart of questing spirits who share her thirst. Pages fill with the tangy pickled wisdom of Indian women of different stripes, their flavors distinct. They dance into our sound palette like the bangle clink of kitchen hands, bringing with them the green truth of herbal thoughts, the fragrance of thirst-quenching rain, and the eloquence of silent darkness as it melts into the sun.  Fiercely female, they speak, unmindful of an audience, or a reaction. They have an authenticity that is its own life force.

Annapurani Amma, who as a child had the voice of an ancient goddess embedded deep in the grooves of her psyche, is now nakedly adult and still in communion with the long dead saint. She is powerfully graphic in her physicality. Paradoxically, this is what evaporates Arundhathi’s subjectivity as she witnesses transcendence in real time. It plays out in the mercurial language of Amma’s cosmic laughter. Balarishi’s abode of flowing mantras was once a rickety ride, where a young unsung heroine found release in song distilled from the gift of receptivity. She waded through the marshes of existential struggle, prejudice, stereotype, stifling norms, and a feuding family. Her devotees now sing their way home to her and dwell in her chanting. Their bliss has no name. Lata Mani’s injury-induced oblivion brings us void as vision. Lata’s long arduous process of becoming occurred after her body’s violent tryst with pain-ridden emptiness. Her aphorisms stem from simple yet “majestic” endeavors such as plucking faded flowers off a stem, a feat considered life-affirming in the invisible world of disability. She is holy in her quiet strength and her powerful vulnerability. Maa Karpoori’s ashram is in her personhood. An extremophile, she propels forces through intense awareness under the watchful guidance of her guru’s compassion. All paradigms are turned on their heads, as we see submission as strength, blue denim as ochre robe, student as teacher, silence as voice, calendar god as friend, urbane traveler as dervish.

Rumi once said, “What you seek is seeking you.” Four women sought and found Arundhathi’s consciousness. There they sing, frolic, mediate, marinate, emote, jest, and rest. We readers are  treated to a banquet as nourishing as mother’s milk, and an embrace as divinely feminine as mother earth’s. Our latent bhakti braces us for the rigorous freedom described in this book, as  its cover reveals to us with artistic splendor, the self settling luminously upon the self. Arundhathi seeks us, as we seek her.

Where does Arundhathi’s voice land in this magisterially disorienting time? Our world today has turned into a morphological opera. Suddenly, words have developed the creative potency of astral wings, releasing metaphysical essences that are ontological revolutions in themselves. Dystopian imaginations are in overdrive, their provenance being reality itself: a bitter concoction of hope and hopelessness. Yet, no linguistic repository exists that can possibly reduce what is happening around us to human signification. We have a massive cognitive blind spot where comprehension should be. This new matrix of being has shattered paradigms of individuation, prompting affective shifts towards an archetypal eye beyond language itself. A geometry of spirit which transcends the limits of anthropocentric thinking invites alignment with a refracting lens, a return to vintage cosmic couture, a reclamation of voice as clothing, an expression of intimacies and intimations, an embrace of fellow humans through the ethereal/authorial medium of gaze, gesture, word. That happened to me, friends, when I read Women Who Wear Only Themselves, a book that was cleansing rain to my parched senses, until they turned into a lake held within its shores. The words of this book transmute subjective discovery into celestial flutesong, inviting a soul dance into familiar spaces one has never visited.

Shabnam Mirchandani is a mosaic artist, music aficionado, and lover of poetry. She lives in Pittsburgh, USA. Shabnam embellishes repurposed objects, mostly pottery, as an expression of her spiritual and experiential engagement with places and friends. Music serves as an acoustical template for the sculptured shapes that emerge from her contemplative approach to her creations . She favors the artisanal mediums of stone, clay, glass, and metal in her practice. A former English teacher, she has an ever-renewing interest in the versatility of language as a portal into creative exploration and experimentation. She views it as a bridge to self-awareness, as well as a foundational tool for thriving cultural ecologies. Shabnam also has an avid interest in evolutionary cosmology. All these inclinations coalesce as a polyphony which finds its way into her writing life. Shabnam is fond of preserving the tradition of epistolary relationships, preferring the long-form letter to nurture her love of writing.

A review of “Women Who Wear Only Themselves” can be read here.