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A Stranger to Himself - A.K.Ramanujan

Indian English poetry has come a long way since the 50s though few have found a place in the accepted pantheon so far.   The pantheon is something akin to the famed English counterpart which included in itself some of the tallest and celebrated poets from William Shakespeare onwards.   I hope no one picks up an abnormal strand here by saying that there were quite a few great names before the era of Shakespeare.  Doubtless there were as are some remarkable poets in the Indian sky as well.  But that is not my purview here as I am picking on just one among the pantheon who dominated the poetic skyline till his last day  -   A.K.Ramanujan.  He stands out in his realm as much as his brother A.K.Srinivasan did in Mathematics. 

Ramanujan lived a major part of his life in the U.S. as in India and so could write about the cultural milieus of both with a sense of detachment.   His poetry is known for his estrangement from the cultural milieu and he chose poetry as a medium of striking his identity.  His critical eye saw the irony in many things and dealt with it with biting sarcasm.  Many poems come to one’s attention in his collection but I confine myself to four which have left their bearing. 

‘River’ has always been the poem much talked about, being the preeminent  piece in his collection.  Flood and pain of misery that goes with it has been the riveting theme of literature and poetry in many languages but Ramanujan looked with a bit of skepticism at the extent and veracity of concern the poet felt for the victims.   Flood might have featured in Tamil literature extensively and Ramanujan was a known scholar and translator.  River almost indulgently doubts the genuineness of the poet’s empathy through some vivacious and striking images bringing out the sarcasm in its full power.   Vaigai, the river on view, was a dismal, sandy terrain during summer but when monsoon came it threatened to inundate the temple town often.  So menacing it would appear when in full flow.  These lines outline how the locals, who knew the river well, would talk of the steady rising of the river, the havoc it would cause though the poet saw it only that day.  

He was there for a day
when they had the floods.
People everywhere talked
of the inches rising,
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising
on the bathing places,
and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

The bottomline is that poet’s empathy did little to alleviate the post-flood misery or the possible twins dying inside the womb, nipping life in the bud.   Ramanujan does not belittle the humanity and compassion of the poet here but sees it as inconsequential against the magnitude of the suffering.

The dichotomy shown in the River comes out equally pronounced in another poem ‘Astronomer’.  His father , who was fond of maths and science, was always engrossed with the Cosmos as much as the constellations in astrology.  Ramanujan was unable to reconcile these two opposites in his father and his amusement at the duality runs like a scar in this poem.  

Sky-man in a manhole
with astronomy for dream,
astrology for nightmare;

Better not to add to this for these three lines put it in a nutshell.   His poems ‘Extended family’ and Self-portrait’ essentially typifies a distended mind, unable to be on terms with its identity or still looking for it.  Ramanujan was known for his concept of context-sensitive reactions in India and also the colonial mentality whose vestiges are still around, albeit modified.  

He has his assured place in Indian English poetry though it has travelled a long way from his times.  His poem Self- portrait somehow makes one feel that he remained a stranger to himself till the last day.


More by :  K.S. Subramanian

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