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Noted poet A.K. Ramanujan’s diaries are full of self-doubt and existential questions

Stairs make a recurring appearance in AKR’s diaries.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

It is easy to see why A.K. Ramanujan’s presence in Indian letters is canonical. Culturally sophisticated, intellectually exploratory, never doctrinaire, he is both pathfinder and trailblazer. Always a step ahead of his reader, his essays, translations and poems continue to point to a tantalising spectrum of traditions, approaches, possibilities. “Look,” his work seems to say, “There’s more. There’s more.”

But it was when revisiting his translations of the mystic, Nammalvar, that my admiration turned to awe. It takes an accomplished poet to make a long-dead poet relevant in translation. It takes an extraordinary poet to make a thousand years seem a mere heartbeat away. Ramanujan (AKR) infuses living sap into Nammalvar. Green, wetly alive, Hymns for the Drowning would probably rank among my top five volumes of mystical poetry in the world.

Although he died prematurely at the age of 64 in 1993, AKR’s work endures. And the work is plenty. Which made me approach his recently published diaries (Journeys: A Poet’s Diary) with some anxiety. Would this mean wading through reams of leaden prose — or what modern-day lingo so succinctly terms TMI?

Thankfully not. Jointly edited by AKR’s son, Krishna, and scholar, Guillermo Rodriguez, this compilation of diaries from over five decades will interest poets, researchers and AKR aficionados. Its greatest contribution is to reveal how Ramanujan’s impressive oeuvre was yoked to an unrelenting quest for self-discovery — indeed, for wholeness.

Why does this book tick? Several reasons. One is the simple consolation of knowing that corrosive self-doubt can assail even the most fêted writers. AKR is not merely candid and unsparing; he can be positively self-flagellating. In 1951, he rues: “I’m neither regular nor daring. I’m morally feckless too...” Ten years later, he describes himself “as serious, often humourless, intense, inept”. He writes: “There are hundreds of young men like me in India. We are futile. We have no purpose, no politics.” Or again: “Why am I not impressive, witty, handsome, skillful...? O to be ...self-certain in everything one does. To live at the core of oneself...”

He is acutely aware that his erudition runs the risk of turning into mere bookishness: “Ratna... said... that nothing to me is valid unless I can find a great writer to have said it earlier.” Or again: “GS Rao... tells me that I’ve read too much, asks me to think for myself. How to?”

A.K. Ramanujan.

A.K. Ramanujan.   | Photo Credit: T.A. Hafeez

The tension between ambition and idealism is a nagging one. In 1978, he berates himself for “serious self-doubt, passivity”. And in 1979 he declares: “As a writer or thinker, I’m quite an amateur. At fifty this is appalling, because I’m surrounded by professionals whom I envy, admire... Things I’ve talked about for years don’t get written — others discover the same things... and write them up rapidly and well... One of the first fears of ageing... of being unexpressed, of having missed the boat...” (Interestingly, this savage self-critique is written three years after he received the Padma Shri!)

The desire for self-improvement is unflagging. In 1951, he writes: “Learn two languages/ Read Indian history/ Build a firm physique, and good/ habits/ Cultivate an art.” And 32 years later, he is still at it: “1. Keep a journal handy 2. Work on poems every day 3. Cut down the chatter, reject most conferences, lectures, papers...” At age 60, we still find him ruefully reflecting on what has yet not been achieved: “writing a good novel, and becoming a Jungian therapist.”

Apart from the fastidious, almost nit-picking quest for authenticity, there is a gnawing sense of inadequacy about translating life into language. “...I look at things avidly, feel insensitive and rage at my insensitivity... The world looks like a woman, beautiful and inviting, but already someone else’s wife.” There is also a poignant note of regret about being celebrated more as scholar-translator than poet (despite the latter being his primary self-definition).

The diaries are also significant as a testament of an artist’s evolution. From the man who quotes others to validate his insights, we see him growing into the poet capable of dryly asserting: “I must seek and will find/ my own particular hell only in my Hindu mind”. From the young academic trying to reconcile a piecemeal inheritance, we see the confident translator capable of asserting that he is “an alternating multiple monolingual, rather than a multilingual.”

We also see the artist articulating complex stances: never narrowly parochial, and yet deeply concerned with belonging. Speaking of his ilk in 1960, he writes, “We dream of England, of meeting Albert Schweitzer and Aldous Huxley (to discuss Hindu thought and to ask whether he writes every morning before breakfast): we have hardly seen our own country... [The problem is] we have uprooted ourselves without the advantages of exile...”

No easy labels

AKR described himself pithily as “the hyphen in Indo-American studies”. This meant a lifetime of intellectual negotiation, as he sought to maintain a creative tension between rootedness and cosmopolitanism. He refused to fall into the easy categories of alienated Indian artist or cultural chauvinist. “It’s RK Narayan... who writes the best fiction in English, not any of the better-read Oxford-accented, foreign-returned, allusive young men,” he asserts at one point. And yet, he refuses to settle for any simple-minded notion of Indianness. “This is no reversion to patriotism; patriotism is a primitive evil.”

The diaries also offer the intermittent pleasure of anecdote. AKR’s ambivalent reflections on spiritual writer Eknath Easwaran in 1959 are particularly enjoyable. There is admiration, but AKR is honest enough to admit to possible envy: “[Easwaran] craves for nothing, isn’t nervy, does everything he wants — he says it’s because of his mystic prayers, I think it’s because of his financial security.”

Particularly valuable are the flashes of insight into the creative process. Poem fragments surface in their nascent avatars. Certain tropes surface recurrently too — grace; the hyphen; houses; ladders; stairs. There are persistent preoccupations as well, particularly the need for self-discovery through dream journal and introspection. Is there only “a shared waking”? Can there also be “a shared dreaming”? These are the existential questions that churn at the heart of his meticulously-recorded mescaline experiences in 1971 (undeniably one of the book’s high points).

More personally, reading these diaries meant uncovering unexpected symmetries. When I met the poet Gieve Patel in May this year, he happened to mention AKR’s dream journals. Reading the diaries that night, I discovered that AKR had met Patel in May exactly 21 years ago! They had discussed dream journals then too. It felt like an inter-generational poets’ conversation was under way. The synchronicity was oddly pleasing.

Journeys: A Poet’s Diaries; A.K. Ramanujan, ed Krishna Ramanujan & Guillermo Rodriguez

Journeys: A Poet’s Diaries; A.K. Ramanujan, ed Krishna Ramanujan & Guillermo Rodriguez  

The recurrent image of stairs intrigued me. Recording a dream in 1971, AKR writes “... A great mansion... a narrow spiral staircase on which I go higher and higher, fearful of the height... Supposed to be going for a poetry reading of my own poetry..., and never seem to get [there]...” In 1979, the image recurs. He recalls reading the Symposium where Plato speaks of “how one goes up a ladder of abstractions... to Beauty, singular, capital, out of this world. I could never find that ladder.”

The fear of never finding the ladder is enduring. It is banished to some degree under the experience of mescaline. But the drug also seems to deepen the existential quest. AKR’s dogged commitment to self-improvement is now accompanied by a growing curiosity about self-transformation. His poetry recognises (even before his prose) that this radical shift cannot be achieved in incremental steps, but only in the leap. And so, in ‘Chicago Zen’, there is a glimpse of a new possibility: a stair that never was, and never needed to be. “Watch your step,” the poet says, “watch it, I say,... watch/ for the last/ step that’s never there.”

Girish Karnad’s blurb draws attention to AKR’s intellectual versatility, which is in abundant evidence. But the deeper legacy of the diaries is the insight into an artist in search of the deeper mainsprings of the creative enterprise. When AKR speaks in the Mescaline Notes of the “final dissolution and ecstasy —/ so much longed-for,” he seems to channel the mystic poets who fascinated him, including the god-crazed Manikkavachakar (whom he translated so memorably in Speaking of Siva): “unswerving, I lost my cleverness/ in the bewilderment of ecstasy.” It is here that one finds AKR’s deepest level of quest: how to deepen passion into “possession”. How to integrate the contemplative with the ecstatic, the Apollonian with the Dionysian, without giving way to “irony or melodrama”. How to yoke self-possession with self-forgetfulness.

Between the horizontal hyphen and the vertical ladder, AKR’s diaries retrace a deeply human journey where balance and aspiration are not frozen ideals but dynamic states that have to be worked out every single day. They are testimony to an artist who knew that without obsession, possession is an impossibility. Who knew that you have to keep looking for ladders until one day, if you are lucky, in a flash of unbidden grace, they find you.

And then comes the ‘aha’ — the moment when the traveller realises, however fleetingly, that journeys never end; that “the speed, the slowness, the interval” remain. It is the moment that makes AKR exclaim in a soaring octave of discovery and homecoming in one of his startling ‘Soma’ poems: “The great ladder now has rungs.”

The author is a poet and writer.

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