At Home in the Several Worlds

The Oxford India Ramanujan, edited by Molly Daniels-Ramanujan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004)

As Reviewed By: Preston Merchant

It was a singular moment in the history of Indian letters when A. K. Ramanujan walked into the University of Chicago library one Saturday in 1962 and leafed through a box of musty, uncatalogued books, recently acquired from a noted South Asian historian. Ramanujan, a native of Mysore in the Indian state of Karnataka, had come to the United States to do a PhD in linguistics at Indiana University in Bloomington. After completing the degree, he was teaching at the University of Chicago in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. On one of his first weekends in residence, Ramanujan went into the old Harper Library looking for a grammar of Old Tamil. He came upon an anthology of Tamil poetry edited in 1937. The poems themselves, however, dated from the first three centuries of the common era, the work of a Sangam, or academy, of some 500 poets under the patronage of the Pandyan dynasty that ruled much of South India. Far from dusty historical relics, these poems were a revelation for Ramanujan. He wrote:

In their antiquity and their contemporaneity, there is not much else in any Indian literature equal to these quiet and dramatic Tamil poems. In their values and stances, they represent a mature classical poetry: passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, leanness of line by richness of implication. These poems are not just the earliest examples of Tamil genius. The Tamils, in all their 2,000 years of literary effort, wrote nothing better.

The young Ramanujan’s discovery in the library was an event like Ezra Pound’s discovery of the Chinese poems of Li Po, whose work similarly relied on suggestion and nuance, as the keys to an entire world encapsulated in only a few lines. Compare one of Pound’s translations and subsequent gloss of Li Po with Ramanujan’s similar exercise with the Tamil poet Kapilar:[private]

Pound provides the following footnote:

Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of the weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.

Here is the work of Ramanujan:

Ramanujan comments:

The speaker in the poem begins with a greeting to her girlfriend, talks about the familiar and safe childhood drink of milk and garden honey, and moves delightedly to her lover’s wilder, dirtier, animal-ridden waterholes. It is a poem about her first sexual experience, her growing up, her discovery that leaf-covered waterholes are more fascinating than domestic milk and honey.

While Pound provided poetic renderings of translations by Orientalist scholar Ernest Fenollossa (the original 1915 subtitle of Pound’s celebrated Cathay is “For the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga”), Ramanujan was a one-man show—translator, scholar, and poet—and the volumes he published were meant to serve the general reader as much as the specialist.

Ramanujan’s first set of translations, The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology, appeared in 1967. He went on to publish five more books of translations, including more from the Sangam anthologies and the work of two other ancient South Indian poets.

Those three volumes, along with four complete books of Ramanujan’s own poems (one published posthumously), a selection of uncollected poems, and an interview have been assembled in The Oxford India Ramanujan. When Ramanujan died in Chicago in 1993, he was a towering figure—poet, translator, linguist, folklorist, critic, essayist. The shadow he cast on Indian letters was long, and the influence he exerted on generations of Indian poets shone in their admiration and deep affection for him. He was one of India’s best known poets, on the subcontinent and abroad. Ramanujan was something of an explorer, venturing—almost effortlessly, it seems—among the several worlds in which he lived and those accessed by his fertile imagination and prodigious scholarship. He spent the bulk of his career at the University of Chicago, staying fully immersed in teaching Tamil and completing his translations from several Indian languages and, in his own verse, easily weaving Indian cultural motifs and history into a contemporary American milieu. The discovery of the Tamil volumes showed Ramanujan how to be modern, just as Pound’s Chinese investigations provided a methodology for Imagism and the other aesthetic formulations that defined early Modernism.

Ramanujan’s own poems are similarly evocative, usually simply rendered with a minimum of artifice. He was a cataloguer of experience and reference, mining the cultures and histories he knew. In “On Memory” from The Striders, his first book, published in 1966, he begins:

and concludes, “Memory, / in a crowd of memories, seems / to have no place / at all for unforgettable things.” His task as a poet was to provide the medium where all those worlds—the real and imagined, the historical and the fanciful, East and West—could meet. In poems mercifully free of footnotes and explanatory material, Ramanujan assumed a literate and generous reader, willing to follow him through his strange array of signposts. Happy to let a reader do some research if he cared to (Tipu Sultan was an 18th century Mughal ruler from Ramanujan’s home state and, more obliquely in another poem, the compound in “KMnO4 in Grandfather’s Shaving Glass” is potassium permanganate, which kills water-borne parasites), Ramanujan thought it prudent to note that, in the volume’s title piece, “‘Strider’ is the New England name for the water insect in this poem.” Apart from that tidbit, few of Ramanujan’s poems hang on the reader’s reference or an editor’s gloss. His gesture here was either a bit of fun (surely a strider is more commonly known than potassium permanganate) or evidence of his desire to write modern, learned, allusive poetry that did not insist on its modernity, erudition, and allusion. Indeed, if you want to know something, Ramanujan says, “Ask me.”

In “Conventions of Despair,” also from The Striders, he writes, “Yes, I know all that. I should be modern. / Marry again. See strippers at the Tease. / Touch Africa. Go to the movies. / / Impale a six-inch spider / under a lens. Join the Test- / ban, or become The Outsider.” But he concludes, “I must seek and will find / my particular hell only in my hindu mind: / must translate and turn / till I blister and roast / for certain lives to come” (he does not capitalize the name of his faith). For Ramanujan, identity is a process, rooted in a certain reality but dependent upon one’s own capacity to synthesize information and experience pain. The poem ends, “It’s not obsolete yet to live / in this many-lived lair / of fears, this flesh.” Reincarnation, of course, is the process here—“many-lived” should be read as “having many lives,” not “lived many times,” which suggests a future open to possibility and not a predetermined fate. For Ramanujan, poetry is a process of reinvention made possible by a free and ranging mind.

He continued these explorations in subsequent books, picking up cultural artifacts and turning them over in his mind, seeking to discover the relationships among them. The third section of “Some Indian Uses of History on a Rainy Day,” from Relations (1971), is worth quoting in full:

The plight of the professor is that of any traveler in a foreign land and certainly that of Ramanujan—how does one find one’s way when the signs, when meaning itself, cannot be pinned down? For most travelers, the act of confronting these strange markers is the challenge of coming to terms with one’s self. The professor here is reduced entirely to his turban, which is his defining characteristic on the streets of Berlin. For the most part, his difficulties are innocuous, until the end when he discovers, in a rush, one sign that he finds familiar—the swastika, an Indian symbol for peace and prosperity. It’s as if the swastika were calling to the professor, as something unique to his own experience and concern. He recognizes the shape, of course, and knows the object’s name as a Sanskrit word that has entered English (the professor’s other language). He “assimilates” it—takes it in, digests it—but Ramanujan ends the poem there, without unpacking the heavy irony. The professor in 1935 could not foresee what the swastika would become. For now, it’s familiar and safe, a cultural guidepost.

Ramanujan’s poems frequently explore the ways in which safe, domestic spheres are shattered by violence and the images of it, which is often no less deadly. In “Fear,” from Second Sight (1986), he catalogues atrocities such as Hiroshima and, from Vietnam, “the well-known child / / in napalm flames / with X-ray bones” who appears in “everyone’s / Reuter eyes”—seen, safely, via a wire service photograph. In “The Watchers,” he notes how observers “impose nothing, take no positions.” They can watch “a Chinese wall / cemented with the bonemeal of friends / and enemies. Unwitting witnesses,”

Unlike the professor of Sanskrit, the watchers don’t assimilate images so much as simply encounter them, as if to deny them their power. But this is a position of fear. In “Middle Age,” he writes: “Vietnam eyes my children in the sandbox / as she splatters my neighbor’s tall blond son, / while Biafra gives me / / potbellied babies with copper-red / hungry hair, pellagra scales, and perpetual pink eyes.” The images all find a way home and are assimilated. Vietnam may claim the lives of the speaker’s children as it has killed the neighbor’s son. The speaker is also forced to compare the image of children in the sandbox to the starving victims of war-torn Biafra. He sees no escape from these terrors, only a retreat from reason into “the gypsy tents of witchcraft”—portable, irrational solutions.

Ramanujan’s poems rarely resolve but spin off into wilder realms, suggesting that the first place was never secure. In “Bosnia,” from The Black Hen (1995), published after his death, he imagines death waiting,

This is the position from which Ramanujan wrote, straddling multiple worlds, however he defined them in his poems. He wondered how to write about “Bosnia, / Biafra, Bangladesh, just to take / only the atrocities that begin with B.” The task of “alphabetiz[ing] cruelties, / eating persimmons and sleeping safe / in the arms of a lover” was, for him, the most human and natural of tasks, however at odds with reason or decorum it might seem. There was something to be said for always being “The Outsider,” the alien. Much South Asian poetry in recent years laments its post-colonial, immigrant challenges. Ramanujan relished the freedom of being ungrounded.


The Oxford India Ramanujan makes available all the poems of one of India’s greatest modern poets, but A. K. Ramanujan has not been well served by the press’ presentation of his work. The volume is ungainly, fatter than a Manhattan phonebook and only eight and half inches tall. Fumbling with it, I even killed the power switch on my laptop while writing this essay. All of the books it reprints have not been re-edited, so the page numbers and typefaces are unique to the individual volumes (except for the main section of original poems where they are continuous). There is an index of titles and first lines (good luck finding it) for the poems in Ramanujan’s four published volumes and a separate one for the uncollected poems. In the section of translations, The Interior Landscape (1967) and Poems of Love and War (1985) present much the same Tamil material with the same preface. Ramanujan’s fans and those who might be drawn to his work in the future deserve a new Ramanujan reader or generous selections of original poems and translations. There is something to be said for having the majority of his output in one place, but just finding your way through this book is a major challenge. It’s too big not at least to have been re-edited and re-set. On the page, Ramanujan was light on his feet, with an agile mind and wide-ranging imagination. Too bad his book is a doorstop.[/private]

About PMerchant

Preston Merchant has worked as a documentary photographer; he is at work on a project on the worldwide Indian diaspora. A preview, and other galleries, are available at his website. His poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Antioch Review, Sewanee Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, Tameme, and Verse. He also edited the special feature of Verse on poets from India. He lives in New York City.
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