A Home Away from Home

Uncollected Poems and Prose by A. K. Ramanujan. Edited by Molly Daniels-Ramanujan and Keith Harrison. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.

As Reviewed By: Rabindra K. Swain

A. K. Ramanujan passed away in 1993, at the age of 64, in Chicago, where he had served at the university as William E. Colvin Professor. He had been in Chicago for the last thirty years of his life, yet all along he was a living presence in the world of Indian poetry. This sense of belonging to India is reflected in one of his interviews–which is included in this book–where one finds him talking in the plural: “In India today we do share, entirely unawares, a great stock of symbolism and mythology”. It is because of his involvement in Indian culture and literature, because of his engagement in the translation of classical Tamil and medieval Kannada poetry–which he did extensively, as well as collecting folktales which he brought out in a book, titled The Folktales of India–that Ramanujan matters.

His constant preoccupation with Indian literature, both written and oral, has also been a guiding factor in determining the course of his own poetry. As his working place was the United States, his poetry has the tension of a poet who belonged to two hemispheres. Therefore, the predominant role the critic can play is to see how the poet resolves this tension.

Any poet writing from his native place would not have to be vociferous about his notions of–and attitude towards–his place. Although Ramanujan stayed away from his land, in a sense he carried it with him. His rootedness in Hindu culture, supplied by his research work in the field, shaped his sensibility tremendously. He is one of those rare breeds in whom scholarship and creativity have dovetailed wonderfully. With the digestive power of an ostrich, Ramanujan blended different sources of his poetry so well that his poems hardly sound ostentatious. In poems like “Farewell” and “Lying” the two opposite worlds are held in contrast and contest, but at the end his ancestral world triumphs. It is ultimately, as Philip Larkin put it, love that is going to survive us and this spirit we find in “Farewells,” where an enduring filial relationship wins out against a world of lies. The poet’s sarcasm has no veil:

Yet this beauty throws pots and pans
Whenever she is in a rage

Doesn’t wake up till noon, does not
Wash between her legs and her ruby lips

Open only

To speak unspeakable obscenities

(“On Julia”)

or in this:

She told the man in her bed
He was the best lover she’d ever had
And he told her she was beautiful.
All his life her bastard son wet his bed.

Ramanujan’s Hindu world is a world of clairvoyance, of oracular insight, of reaching out to the stage of conception where “fingers and toes (are) not formed.” In “Twenty-four Senses” we have “Hindus speak of twenty-four senses. / We have eyes and eyes behind eyes / …ovaries moving / in whalesongs in the middle of the Atlantic.” One is not sure if Ramanujan is being ironic here in his observation of the extra-sensory perception of the Hindus, yet this mode of relying on the inconceivable to conceive is evident in “Figures of Disfigurement”:

Epilepsy may confer
Powers of ecstasy
Sometimes; amnesia may
Open memories of past

Some kind of resolution of the conflict between these worlds occurs very often in this posthumous collection. A strong metaphor of this is drawn between the world of a snake and that of the poet in “1951.” The poet had seen “a snake” crossing “a village road in Dharwar.” That sight later strikes the imagination of the poet when he suddenly realizes that his world is no safer than that of the snake who “moves in no hurry from safety to danger / to safety / from the camouflage of the green tree / to the dangers of being seen”. The poet takes a lesson from it:

Maybe a lesson there, but
I don’t learn it as I scurry
from safety to safety, camouflage
to camouflage in sun, shades, curtains
of rain, newspaper
silence, traffic….

That’s the poet’s world! No more safe than a snake’s, and no more dangerous. But a poet is not confined to any single world. To go back to the metaphor of the snake, the poet soon leaves the skin of his Hindu world to enter a wider world where his worries multiply.

Ramanujan was very fond of “Oranges”. In this poem, an orange is left on a fridge acquiring bacteria which, as the poet says, “thrives in the kissing mouth, / the dying brain”. These disturbing insights sometimes put one off. It leaves us in a world of sadness, however inevitable it may be in one’s life. And this collection contains one of the most disturbing poems I have ever read. Ramanujan discovers that, before attempting to commit suicide, a fellow writer had been reading one of Ramanujan’s books. The poem begins “He to me or me to Him” and has a note appended to it:

When I was translating
Twenty years ago
the saints who sang
ten centuries ago about Siva
without any thought of me

I didn’t have any
thought of young man
in Madras ten years ago
who would read them

through my words
night and day
his hand toying with pills
his eyes with colours
turning on a wheel

Swallowing them
With the poems
That had no thought
Of him or me who had
no thought of him
gasping in the mist
between day and the needles
in the wrist between
to be or not to be

And this is Ramanujan’s note:

I was translating last week the Tamil poems of Atmanam. He had attempted suicide in 1983. I thought he had the best of the poems in Tamil. While I was translating, it occurred to me to read the biographical note at the end of the book. To my shock, I read there that he was reading night and day my Speaking of Siva just before he attempted suicide. I had some connection with him that I couldn’t quite define.

Along with thirty-one poems, there are two interviews and two prose pieces in this collection. In the interviews–which could be taken as the poet’s prose since it has been put so finely–Ramanujan speaks of his reasons for writing in English, his constant preoccupations, and his world view. He defends the oral tradition as being equally authentic as the written one in India; he also discusses the tradition of languages used other than Sanskrit. Here is a classic example of Ramanujan’s penchant for the elemental India which has been upheld by common people, and which forms the oral tradition. The world of the common people is a world of intimate relationships, which excludes the big games of the rulers–like war and expansion:

ALB: It seems very complementary to the poetry that you translate.
AKR: Yes. In the classical Tamil texts, the household world and the outside world are distinguished. War is a part of the outside world. The language of the household poetry is the language of love, the language of intimate relationship. All the problems between a man and a woman are part of this, the interior poetry. In terms of genres, the folktales live out of the interior language. Mythologies are part of the outer world. They have to do with wars. All the gods have a great many wars. They construct cosmologies and deal with social issues. In the folktales, everything is interiorized. You don’t see the big social issues except through the detail of intimate relationships.

The editors are to be complemented for having taken the pains to put together these rare materials of a great Indian mind. It is a fine gift, indeed, to have these final and as yet unexplored texts that shall only add to the history of Indian literature.

About RKSwain

Rabindra K. Swain was born in 1960. He gained an M.A. in English Literature in 1983 and a Ph.D. on the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra in 1995 from Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India. He has published three books of poetry, Once Back Home (Har-Ananda, New Delhi, 1996), A Tapestry of Steps (Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1999), and Severed Cord (Indialog, 2002). He has also published a book of translations from Oriya, Bahubreehi, and a critical work, The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Critical Study (Prestige Books, New Delhi, 2000). His poetry has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Verse, New Letters, and Quarterly West, among others.
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