Arundhathi Subramaniam (2002-03)

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi is the author of four books of poetry, most recently When God is a Traveller (HarperCollins India, New Delhi, 2014  and Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle, 2014). Her prose works include the bestselling biography of a contemporary mystic (Sadhguru: More Than a Life, Penguin) and a book on the Buddha (The Book of Buddha, Penguin, reprinted several times). As editor, she has worked on a Penguin anthology of essays on sacred journeys in the country (Pilgrim’s India),  co-edited a Penguin anthology of contemporary Indian love poems in English (Confronting Love) and edited an anthology of post-Independence poetry for Sahitya Akademi (Another Country).

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As a poet, Arundhathi has been invited to literary conferences and festivals in various parts of India, as well as in the UK, Italy, Spain, Holland, Turkey, China, West Africa and Israel, and her work has been translated into several languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Italian and Spanish. 

She has received the Raza Award for Poetry (2009), as well as the Charles Wallace Fellowship (for a 3-month writing residency at the University of Stirling) in 2003; the Visiting Arts Fellowship for a poetry tour of the UK (organized by the Poetry Society) in 2006; and the Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 2012. Her recent book, When God is a Traveller (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), is a Poetry Book Society Choice shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.

In 2004, she was invited to edit the India domain of the Poetry International Web which grew into a significant web journal of contemporary Indian poetry. 

Her poetry has been published in various international journals and anthologies, including Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Poets (Penguin India); Sixty Indian Poets (Penguin India), Both Sides of the Sky (National Book Trust, India), We Speak in Changing Languages (Sahitya Akademi), Fulcrum No 4: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics (Fulcrum Poetry Press, US) The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe, UK) and Atlas: New Writing (Crossword/ Aark Arts). 

Arundhathi has worked at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, for several years, leading a discussion-based inter-arts forum named Chauraha. She has also been Head of Indian Classical Dance at the NCPA. She has written on literature, classical dance, theatre and culture for various newspapers (including The Times of India, The Hindu, The Indian Express, among others) since 1989. She has also been columnist on culture and literature for Time Out, Mumbai, The Indian Express and New Woman.

Time at Stirling

When I applied for a Charles Wallace writing residency at the University of Stirling, I was looking primarily for a little quiet time to spend with poetry. Those three months in the spring of 2003 proved to be much more than that. It was a quiet time all right. But it was also a period that was significantly transitional, initiating changes on levels much deeper than i had anticipated.

My initial impression of the place – with its misty loch and mountain and lush swathe of green campus -- was one of serenity and beauty. That impression persisted and deepened. But that serenity also proved to be a terrifying one. It meant coming to terms with solitude, with silence, with the troughs and gaps in one’s inner life in a way that I had never imagined.

The warmth of several members of the faculty – Michelle Keown (who has stayed a good friend), Angela Smith and John Drakakis in particular – helped enormously. (I still remember a trek up Ben Lomond that I agreed to in a weak moment; Michelle and John were part of that expedition, and I remember them as doughty allies on a daunting but exhilarating journey.) The library offered its consolations (I recall reading the medieval women mystics of Europe, for some reason, with a deep fascination) and the great natural beauty of the place worked its own deep magic. But the challenges of being away from the triggers and irritants of a familiar cultural context remained.

The period was, however, was one of self-discovery in many ways. For one, the actual physical silence of the place permeated my poetry in a way that i had never expected. The poetry grew not just quieter, but subtler, stiller. I realized I could write from an inner space that was expansive, non-reactive, less fraught, that i did not have to be in a besieged metropolis in order to make poems. The subconscious belief that I needed to live in a perpetual state of reactive discontent -- in short, that I had to suffer in order to write -- was challenged. I began to realize that one could grow subtle without losing voltage, that one could allow one's work to grow quiet without giving up vitality, that intensity was a kind of octane that did not have to mean rage.

An entire collection of poems entitled Where I Live emerged from this experience. The book was published in India by Allied Publishers in 2005, and it became the title of a New and Selected volume by Bloodaxe Books in the UK in 2009.

It was also in Stirling that I first encountered the work of John Burnside, the Scottish poet who is, to my mind, to be the finest poet writing in the UK at present. He was invited to Stirling do a reading from his book, The Light Trap, and that evening proved to be one of the most memorable poetry readings of my life. It was yet another affirmation of the fact that the finest poetry can murmur and still make its point, that it does not have to emanate from an embattled space in order to have value. 

Perhaps it would be fitting to conclude with two poems from Where I Live that I associate in different but very distinct ways with my Stirling experience.

Creative writing extracts


Driving through the Trossachs I see
the picture I drew as a five-year-old
in Bombay - a rectangle
with two square windows, 
isosceles roof, smoking chimney, 
and girl with yellow hair 
standing in the driveway,
flanked by two flower pots.
And there is comfort in knowing 
what we are so often told, 
that fancy has wings
and dreams come true,
even if it takes years 
for them to take root 
in some corner 
of a foreign land
that is forever India.

Living Alone

is about learning 
to believe
things are as they appear,
that every day has no
ulterior motive,
that every flicker of air against neck
does not spell a spectral presence, 
about learning not to ask for more
than those long afternoons
gliding through rooms 
and rooms 
of vacant mind,
recovered after years of subletting.