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 

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 
her gullet.

What was left
was the Great Mother,

laughing, toothless --

       the goddess 
       that dawns only

before oblivion.


Masks Off

When you’re smiling in all the photographs
and don’t know why

your ancestors did it too,


into a riot
of selfies,


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

the delicate
     of mandible,

the slow 


to see faces
without badges, barricades, billboards.

to be faces



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. 


Photo Credit : Meetesh Taneja

Arundhathi Subramaniam

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.

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