The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 7, 2001

Unknown facet of A.K. Ramanujan
Review by Akshaya Kumar

A.K. Ramanujan: Uncollected Poems and Prose
Edited by Molly Daniels-Ramanujan and Keith Harrison: Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Pages 107. Rs 325.

A.K. Ramanujan: Uncollected Poems and ProsePOET, translator and folklorist, A.K. Ramanujan was a multi-faceted genius. At a moment when he was emerging as a major voice of South-Asian culture and language, his death in 1993 was all too sudden to afford him time enough to put together his creative and critical output in a coherent form. His wife and friends published his "The Collected Poems" in 1995. This was followed by the publication of "The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan" in 1999. But there was so much left unpublished that forced his editors to bring out yet another anthology of critical essays, interviews and poems under a very unusual and somewhat enigmatic title "Uncollected Poems and Prose: A.K. Ramanujan".

Thanks to these efforts of his friends and colleagues, almost after a decade of his death, he as a writer remains very much contemporary and a "living" voice in Indian poetry. The anthology contains about 30 "uncollected" poems of the poet. These poems, some of them perhaps still needing further editing, even in their unfinished form show rare poetic brilliance ó a brilliance which no contemporary poet of Indian English can match in terms of range and depth. As is characteristic of the poet, the metaphors in the "uncollected" poems remain unconventional and eclectic. The poetic arguments are naughty and mischievous. Nothing is sacrosanct or unquestionably reverential in Ramanujanís universe.


The poet is known for his rather atavistic poetic arguments ó arguments which disrupt common expectations. Ramanujan is not a poet of easy moral expectations. Where conventional morality collapses, poetry takes off. In Ramanujanís quirky universe, excellence in human affairs is more a product of oneís compulsions or handicaps rather than oneís innate genius.

In his poem "Figures of disfigurement" he reveals how some underlying handicaps, physical or mental, bring grace to the so-called graceful. This is how he accounts for the graceful movements of a traffic constable: "Sick, disabled, twisting/through the bright days/the constable/of the market traffic/moves only his left hand/in sheer agony/Men in cars, women on bikes/Admire the grace of his movements." Grace is an outcome of some internal sickness.

Creativity is attributed to physical disorder that an artist suffers from: "Arthritic, the painter/Makes new kinds of strokes/From his shoulder/Keeping wrist and elbow rigid:/The exhibit of his latest pictures/Opened yesterday./The critics raved/About his technique."

Sickness is the mother of invention. Disease is strength. Those who suffer from epilepsy undergo moments of ecstasy: "Amensia may/open memories of the past"; "The dyslexic suddenly makes a reputation/deciphering a medieval dairy."

In the nihilistic vision of the poet, future belongs either to the diseased or to the deceased: "Timely death/may give away a heart/or an eye." Metaphysics is one casualty of post-modern playfulness. The high ideal of "being" is shunned in favour of more pragmatic "becoming", even this becoming is highly topsy-turvy. Ramanujan questions the humanly plausible enterprise of "becoming". Becoming is not an upward movement of self-realisation, it is more a movement of self-caricaturisation. The contemporary forces of commercialisation have reduced man to a commodity. "... Men and women run/races in faraway places like Seoul/and Munich, make four-minute miles/beat their own records, to become videos/and photographs that sell shoes."

In the same poem, the poet invokes a series of images that show how premature and catastrophic the end is: "On the grass of sloping hills/a scatter of white sheep,/unravelling already like the balls/of wool they are going to be." "Balls of wool" is what the project of becoming ultimately culminates into. This sudden transformation of a living being into a commercial product constitutes one of the major strategies of parody in Ramanujanís poetry.

There are a number of other poems, which through a series of playful juxtapositions bring forth the ambivalences, the duplicities and the paradoxes of average human existence. In such poems Ramanujan does not employ any sustained metaphor to expose the hypocrisies of ordinary living, the parody itself becomes a metaphor. The poet-persona lives by contraries. Lies assure us more than truths. Parody is as much truth of the lie as it is lie of the truth.

In a poem entitled "Lying", Ramanujan juxtaposes truth with lie to underline how in desperate situations deliberate lying redeems us from the starkness of reality: "When the patient has cancer,/they tell him: Patience/is the answer, itís a boil/that will heal." Lying is etiquette: "The newborn was ugly, moist,/Hairy all over like a wet rat:/Every visitor said/She was a beauty, Had her motherís eyes."

Power perpetuates itself through lies. Religion is lying about god: "turning around, he prayed to his god,/Saying heíd like to see him:/All he wanted was to be able to say/To everyone heís seen Him,/So he could start an ashram."

Institutionalised religion with all its promises of formulaic salvation is nothing but a grand scandal which parody as the poetís chosen strategy of subversion threatens to expose. Ramanujanís poetic landscape is crowded with family members, including dead and "unborn". All members are caricaturised except his mother. The poetís otherwise rather unceremonious attitude is somehow checkmated by the presence of his mother. In "Returning", the poet away from his motherland, in some moments of nostalgia looks for his mother who had died years ago. The ending of the poem is really poignant: "Where are you? Iím home! Iím hungry! But there was no answer, not even an echo/ In the deserted street blazing with sunshine/Suddenly he remembered he was now sixty-one/And he hadnít had a mother for forty years."

Such moments of poignancy are rare in Ramanujanís weird universe. Maybe towards the last phase of his life, Ramanujan turns more subdued and sombre. In "Farewells", the motherís rather tacit and well-meaning farewell to his departing son has been juxtaposed with formulaic and verbose farewells of colleagues and friends: "Motherís farewell/Had no words,/No tears, only a long look/That moved on your body/From top to toe/With the advice that you should/Not forget your oil bath/Every Tuesday/When you go to America."

Ramanujan has a special penchant for the non-serious which he employs rather well in the serious to generate a double-edged poetic discourse. The comic is more serious than the serious in the poetic world of Ramanujan.

Ramanujan, who had a special fascination for romantic sonnets of Shakespeare, suddenly realises in the 10th sonnet on love that love is an exhausted sentiment. Love poems can no longer be written as all metaphors of love have lost their urgency: "Words play dead. The seasons are trite." His "Love 10" is more a dirge on love than its celebration: "Love poems are not easy to write/for the dead: after the sting of sorrow,/ironies of relief, oneís stricken with blight".

The anthology carries two interviews of Ramanujan ó one with a young Indian scholar Chirantan Kulshreshtha and other with two American anthropologists, A.L. Becker and Keith Taylor. In these interviews, Ramanujan addresses to a wide range of issues such as identity, nationalism, nativism, translation, culture, etc. His answers to tricky problems are terse and witty. When asked about the choice of medium in poetry, he answers: "The language of a poem is not a matter of conscious problem solving and New Yearresolutions." When he is asked to express his "opinions", on his dual identity of a native Indian and expatriate American, he takes the interviewer to task on the very use of word opinion thus: "Opinions are only a small expression of oneís attitudes. They are an uncertain, often rigid, expression. One is more, and often less, than oneís opinions. And they donít often match other things in oneself. So please read them as gestures."

Ramanujan employes interesting coinages/metaphors to account for his relationship with English, on the one hand, and native Tamil and Kannada, on the other. He describes English as "father-tongue", an "upstairs language", the native tongues are termed as mother-tongues and "downstairs languages". The interviews carry many loaded statements such as, "The folktales are a counter system to the ideology of epics."; "In the mythologies, one hears the official views."; "It (translation) is the art of the imperfect."

The only essay included in the anthology derives its title "The ring of memory" from Kalidasaís famous play Shakuntalam. In this essay Ramanujan dwells on a host of philosophical positions within the Indian tradition on the twin themes of memory and forgetting. He explains how in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist conceptions of karma, unacknowledged past actions have a way of imposing their structure on the present. The process is spelt out thus: "Deeds leave behind traces called samskaras, which persist in future lives, and vasanas or smells of the past".

A number of poems from Tamil classics and folk tales have been deployed to underline the significance of the trope of memory in Indian literature. The essay evinces Ramanujanís strong foregrounding in Indian thought, both in its marga and desi traditions.

The book is not just a supplementary addition to the already published collected prose and poetry anthologies of Ramanujan; it, in fact, brings to light some of the unseen aspects of Ramanujanís creative and critical acumen. Ramanujanís rejection of Sanskritic tradition in favour of his native Tamil and Kannada cultures is a revelation for those who have misread him so far as a Brahmin poet of the deep South without much critical suspicion.

The poems are more American in terms of their imagery and tone than the poems published earlier. Chicago as a cultural influence seems to make inroads into the native consciousness of the poet. In this anthology, Ramanujan emerges more as a hyphenated Indo-American, than as a chaste insular native Indian.