Arundhathi Subramaniam



I was neither born nor bred here. But I know this city of casuarina and tart mango slices, gritty with salt and chilli and the truant sands of the Marina, the powdered grey jowls of film heroes, my mother’s sari, hectic with moonlight, still crackling with the voltage of an MD Ramanathan concert, the flickering spice route of tamarind and onion from Mylapore homes on summer evenings, the vast opera of the Bay of Bengal, flambéed with sun, and a language as intimate as the taste of sarsaparilla pickle, the recipe lost, the sour cadences as comforting as home. It’s no use. Cities ratify their connections with you when you’re looking the other way, annexing you through summer holidays, through osmotic memories of your father’s glib lie to a kindergarten teacher (“My mother is the fair one”), and the taste of coffee one day in Lucca suddenly awakening an old prescription – Peabury, Plantation A and fifty grams of chicory from the fragrant shop near the Kapaleeshwara temple. City that creeps up on me just when I’m about to affirm world citizenship.


Give me a home that isn’t mine, where I can slip in and out of rooms without a trace, never worrying about the plumbing, the colour of the curtains, the cacophony of books by the bedside. A home that I can wear lightly, where the rooms aren’t clogged with yesterday’s conversations, where the self doesn’t bloat to fill in the crevices. A home, like this body, so alien when I try to belong, so hospitable when I decide I’m just visiting. From Where I Live, Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2005

Winter, Delhi, 1997

My grandparents in January on a garden swing discuss old friends from Rangoon, the parliamentary session, chrysanthemums, an electricity bill. In the shadows, I eavesdrop, eighth grandchild, peripheral, half-forgotten, enveloped carelessly by the great winter shawl of their affection. Our dissensions are ceremonial. I growl obligingly when he speaks of a Hindu nation, he waves a dismissive hand when I threaten romance with a Pakistani cricketer. But there is more that connects us than speech spiked with the tartness of old curd that links me fleetingly to her, and a blurry outline of nose that links me to him, and there is more that connects us than their daughter who birthed me. I ask for no more. Irreplaceable, I belong here like I never will again, my credentials never in question, my tertiary nook in a gnarled family tree non-negotiable. And we both know they will never need me as much as I, them. The inequality is comforting. From On Cleaning Bookshelves, Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2001


It takes a certain cussedness to be a tree in this city, a certain inflexible woodenness to dig in your heels and hold your own amid lamp-posts sleek as mannequins and buildings that hold sun and glass together with more will-power than cement, to continue that dated ritual, re-issuing a tireless maze of phalange and webbing, perpetuating that third world profusion of outstretched hand, each with its blaze of finger and more finger - so many ways of tasting neon, so many ways of latticing a wind, so many ways of being ancillary to the self without resenting it. From Where I Live, Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2005


After so long you will be here again and I will have to relearn how it works this dreaming playhouse of possibilities choreographed by another accent of weight and limb clusters of clothes and paper morphed into new jigsaws of habitation and those startled collisions of memory and reality at the sounds of a running tap, a muffled yawn, the clink and stumble of presence in another room and then the nights when, turning over on the side, the arm reaches out and finds with some primal riverine instinct a familiar lost tributary of self. From Where I Live, Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2005

Another Way

To swing yourself from moment to moment, weave a clause that leaves room for reminiscence and surprise, that breathes, welcomes commas, dips and soars through air-pockets of vowel, lingers over the granularity of consonant, never racing to the full-stop, content sometimes with the question mark, even if it’s the oldest one in the book. To stand in the vast howling rain-gouged openness of a page asking the question that has been asked before, knowing the gale of a thousand libraries will whip it into the dark. To leave no footprints in the warm alluvium, no Dolby echoes to reverberate through prayer halls, no epitaphs, no saffron flags. This was also a way of keeping the faith. From Where I Live, Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2005