Not the same Ramanujan | Review of ‘Soma’, edited by Guillermo Rodriguez and Krishna Ramanujan

The poet’s collection of Soma poems may require a different orientation for understanding but they grow on the reader just as well as his other works

Published - November 17, 2023 10:06 am IST

Between the 1970s and the early 80s, poet A.K. Ramanujan was fascinated by the Soma plant, believed to have magical, consciousness-altering properties.

Between the 1970s and the early 80s, poet A.K. Ramanujan was fascinated by the Soma plant, believed to have magical, consciousness-altering properties. | Photo Credit: Wikipedia.com

For all those who love A.K. Ramanujan’s work, for all those who walk around with lines from his poems and translations in their heads, Soma is an invaluable resource and a delight.

Edited by scholar Guillermo Rodriguez and Ramanujan’s son and science writer Krishna Ramanujan, this book brings together the poet’s mostly unpublished ‘Soma’ poems, numbering 22. Drawn from the A.K. Ramanujan papers at the University of Chicago, the poems constitute rich archival material and offer the reader an opportunity to excavate from discarded poetry drafts, another Ramanujan altogether — one who between the 1970s and the early 80s was fascinated by the Soma plant. We might want to read Soma together with Journeys: A Poet’s Diary (2019), edited by the same duo, which describes the poet’s experiments with mescalin.

Believed to have magical, consciousness-altering properties, the elixir from the Soma plant was supposedly consumed by Hindu gods and by priests during rituals. The drink was also personified by a god of the same name. Contextualising Ramanujan’s ‘Soma’ poems are two essays. The first of these, by Krishna Ramanujan, titled ‘Hummel’s Miracle: The Search for Soma’ outlines the importance of the Soma drink for vedic priests and provides a history of the plant and its relationship to the poems.

The second essay, by Rodriguez, describes Ramanujan’s own approach to and understanding of Soma and how this feeds into his poetic process. The editors have also included, by way of additional material, a reprint of an essay by Wendy Doniger — ‘The Post-Vedic History of the Soma Plant’ — first published in 1968 as well as an interview with Ramanujan conducted by the poet and scholar Ayyappa Paniker in Chicago in 1982.

Critical contribution

Poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra says in his foreword: “To have left [the Soma poems] interred in boxes in a library would have meant, among other things, losing a critical moment of our literary history.” And indeed, that is the point of the book — to reclaim and record this particular version of Ramanujan for literary history. The book achieves this task remarkably well, and even though 22 poems (many of which were discarded drafts) may not seem like a lot, collectively they represent a moment in Ramanujan’s oeuvre. They also thread together his work as a translator of Nammalvar and as a poet writing in English.

As Rodriguez points out in his essay, Ramanujan, ever since his immersion in Virasaiva bhakti poetry, believed that grace was required for poetic inspiration. The ‘Soma’ poems, while not entirely unselfconscious, do sing to us from a different place than Ramanujan’s other poems. They also require of us a shift in how we read Ramanujan, demanding a different reader, one who is willing to be unsettled by the Ramanujan she encounters, willing to travel with him to another, unknowable place. The first of the poems opens with the lines:

Soma is restless.

Grab him, he breaks away.

When he moves through the world,

as a hand through the cloud,

the blind man sees, the lame step forth.

Soma is neither this nor that. Like the god Soma, the poems too are restless and won’t be contained:

Soma, Soma is no god.

cannot manage a goddess

has no lotus no water can wet,

no third eye, no Lakshmi,

more like you, or even me.

Soma has no similar/ grows ordinary as mystery. It is the same as you/ and you, and you/ when you make/ the right mistake/ fall to the ground/ and find your altitude.

The poems are an immersive experience and call out to you to enter and to participate, to find your “altitude” in and through Soma.

Familiar moments

In a poem titled ‘When Soma is Abroad’, Ramanujan invokes his fellow Indian poets — Kolatkar, Ezekiel and Mahapatra. Soma, blow again on the coal of Ezekiel’s lips, he writes, concluding with the lines: dawn again on the stones of Jejuri/ and circle the squares of Konarak.

In a throwback to the Ramanujan one is familiar with, the poem ‘Extended Family II’ adopts a deeply personal, ironic voice that probes the inter-generational, expatriate self and its complex histories. To me, this felt like déjà vu, a moment of return to the wry and bordering on the cynical poet I have come to love:

Yet like grandfather

I bathe before the village crow

the dry chlorine water

my only ganges

the naked Chicago bulb

a cousin of the Vedic sun

slap soap on my back

like father

and think

in proverbs

like me

Do I like this particular Ramanujan? On the whole, I think I do. He grew on me just as the other Ramanujans did but demanded of me a different interpretive tool kit.

Soma: Poems by A.K. Ramanujan
Ed. Guillermo Rodriguez and Krishna Ramanujan
Penguin
₹599

The reviewer’s anthology of poems ‘Three Women in a Single-Room House’ is forthcoming from Sahitya Akademi.

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