When I was a teenager, my mother overheard my friend discussing someone she was dating. Ma wasn’t interested in the news of the relationship, but commented later on the words my friend had used: I’m seeing him. She found ‘seeing’ too casual a verb for a significant other; after all we ‘see’ everyone, don’t we? But before Ma could finish, she changed her mind. So many families stop seeing each other eventually, she said. Perhaps we kids had got it right; to love is to see. Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poems transported me to an offhand conversation whose significance I hadn’t registered then. These poems dwell on the act of looking and its transformative power. On the wondrous, even sacred possibilities that open up when we truly see.
To read these poems is to re-see the familiar. I was struck by how phrases are plucked from different conventions, and arranged in easy relationships. She begins with the fairytale-like ‘Once upon a time’ but before we can settle into the expectation of the genre, Subramaniam calls upon desi mythology: ‘a mother / looked into her little son’s mouth / and saw the universe.’ If in one poem god can take the form of a little boy, in another, we’re reminded how even ancestors played this ‘game of double agents / disguises, Berettas, Russian spies’. A certain kind of veiled existence seems to be coded into us, Subramaniam suggests. How then do we break this impulse, how do we live ‘Masks Off’? Reading this selection might be a first step.
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The Great Mother
Once upon a time a mother looked into her little son’s mouth and saw the universe -- moons, suns, asteroids, and all. He was a boy god. He could be big and small as he chose. But when my friend saw her mother laugh, she didn’t see the universe or the eighty years, or the dementia. She saw that the barbed wire fences of broken nations, the desert years of aloneness, the corrugated edges of love, the forgotten meals, the distractions of caregivers had all whooshed down her gullet. What was left was the Great Mother, laughing, toothless -- the goddess that dawns only before oblivion.
When you’re smiling in all the photographs and don’t know why remember your ancestors did it too, exploding generationally into a riot of selfies, aliases, impersonations. It’s intoxicating this game of double agents, disguises, Berettas, Russian spies, but it could be time to see faces again-- the wet shock of the undefended gaze, the delicate audacity of mandible, the slow caravan route of the smile. Time to see faces without badges, barricades, billboards. Time to be faces again.
Song for a Key
Do you really want to stuff the world through this door, have it swear by the same password, chant the same name, memorize the same form, learn the same litany by rote? Do you really want to tell the world there is only one key? Begin by touching your key, feeling the cold metal at your fingertips, the beginnings of rust at the edges, the niftiness, the wonder. Sing of your key, love it. Press it under your tongue in a seizure, but after you let yourself in, for god’s sake, drop it.
Arundhathi Subramaniam is a leading Indian poet and prose writer on the sacred. She is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including the volume of poems, When God is a Traveller; a recent book of essays on female sacred travellers, Women Who Wear Only Themselves; and the sacred poetry anthology, Eating God. Shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, she is the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020, the inaugural Khushwant Singh Prize, the Raza Award for Poetry, the Il Ceppo Award in Italy, among others. She has worked over the years as performing arts curator, poetry editor and critic.