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Inspirational Women: Arundhathi Subramaniam | Poet and Writer

arundhathi headshot

Arundhathi Subramaniam is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, ‘When God is a Traveller’. Widely translated and anthologised, her new book is the Winter Choice of the Poetry Book Society, UK, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Poetry Prize and the winner of the Khushwant Singh Poetry Prize. She has worked over the years as an arts journalist, curator and poetry editor. Her prose works include the bestselling biography of a contemporary mystic, Sadhguru, ‘More Than A Life’ and ‘The Book of Buddha’. As editor, her most recent book is ‘Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry’. Her other editorial works include ‘Another Country’, ‘Pilgrim’s India’ and ‘Confronting Love’. Arundhati is also the Head of Indian Dance and Head of Chauraha. She is Editor of the India domain of the Poetry International Web since its inception

Tell us about yourself

arundhathi headshotIn my hierarchy of self-definition, I’m a poet first and foremost. But I’m also a writer of prose, and I’ve worked over the years as poetry editor, curator and journalist on literature and the performing arts. I now divide my time between Bombay and a yoga centre in Coimbatore.

Tell us about any current projects you are working on

I’ve just had a book of poems out, called, ‘When God is a Traveller’ (published by HarperCollins in India and Bloodaxe Books in the UK). It recently won the Khushwant Singh Poetry Prize. It was also the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society in the UK, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize – which was a personal high point. It’s been good to see this book journey into the lives of diverse people, and I hope that continues.

The other book that came to fruition last year, which was the product of four years of work, was an anthology I edited, entitled, ‘Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry. Published by Penguin India, it’s a rich compilation of mystic verse in English translation, by poets across the subcontinent – from Kabir to Nammalvar, Tukaram to Chandidas. It’s a juicy book, intended for seekers and poetry lovers! I hope it travels into more people’s lives too.

What has been your biggest challenge in achieving your success?

Self-doubt was certainly one. While some measure of it is a good thing, when it turns corrosive, it can be paralysing, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

The other challenge, that women artists sometimes face more than others, is trivialisation. It’s insidious, but it’s something one often has to contend with, particularly in the earlier stages of one’s life as a writer. Naysayers come in various guises. There are those who are plain nasty, but there are others who damn with faint praise and these are particularly odious!

Then there’s the challenge of practicing a particularly low-key form – decidedly non-glamorous in the age of the novel. But I’ve begun to see that as a strength. The relative invisibility of poetry allows one the freedom of working without bothering too much about the hype and hoopla of marketing, sales, and the like.

The other challenge, I suppose, is the fact that publishers of poetry are few and far between. They were particularly scarce when I was starting out. But in hindsight, that wasn’t such a bad thing either. I’m glad I waited as long as I did before I published my first book. It was good for me and it was good for the book.

What has been your greatest achievement personally?

There have been several moments that have meant a great deal in their own ways. My first book of poems, ‘On Cleaning Bookshelves’, published in 2001, was a personal milestone. Later, when the founder-editor of a leading international poetry publishing house, Bloodaxe Books, came up to me after a poetry reading in 2006 and offered to publish my book of
poems – this was another significant moment. Being shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize this year was certainly another!

But a book that has meant more to me than I can possibly describe, for very many reasons, is the biography I wrote of the contemporary mystic and yogi, also my spiritual guide, Sadhguru: ‘More Than a Life’. It’s a book that was four years in the making – and it transformed my life in many ways.

If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing?

What a wonderful question. And what a difficult one! If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a reader, I suppose! I already am a fairly die-hard reader of poetry and spiritual literature, but I guess I’d be doing much more of it than I manage to currently.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

Difficult one again! There have been different people at different times: poets, writers, artists, mystics, a whole pantheon of people I’ve read or whose work I’ve enjoyed. Then, there have been a few teachers and friends. But in an abiding way, among the people I know, I’d count my mother and my spiritual guide, Sadhguru.

What does the future hold for you?

I have no clue. Hopefully, long walks, deepening self-discovery, more writing…

Find out more about arundhathi here

This article was submitted by WATC Committee Member Ashish Bhardwaj.

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