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Under the Ramanujan tree

Stark and beautiful: The artist S.G. Vasudev’s sketches made for Ramanujan’s poems   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

This year marks the 25th anniversary of A.K. Ramanujan’s passing away. I am thinking of the scores of scholars, translators, poets who have enriched themselves and benefited from his prodigious and scintillating work. He not only put the literatures of South India on the world map, but South India itself.

Groping backwards through memory murk, I recall that on at least two occasions that I was with Raja Rao or A.K. Ramanujan, Sharada Prasad, Information Adviser to Indira Gandhi, had either barged in or was already there at the venue. But in July 1992, a year before he tragically died, I got Ramanujan to myself for an entire afternoon at the IIC lounge. It was an informal interview: I, unprepared as ever, took notes on a paper napkin.

He was complaining about the pain in his thigh which would go, he hoped, after his spinal operation. (He died on the operation table before the operation had started.) He said that when he left for Chicago in 1958 he had already with him some 25 poems in English published later in his first two volumes, The Striders and Relations. He said had he not been given the choice to research in Kannada and Tamil, he would not have hung on in America. “I have lived with three languages all my life, and with folklore, which I imbibed from cooks and grandmothers.”

Then he said something personally poignant. “The break in personal continuity was more difficult than physical displacement. The divorces made me feel more exiled than my going there.” When asked about Western influence on his poetry, he said, “If I didn’t know Pound or Donne or Shakespeare’s sonnets, I would not have picked up the pieces I did.” (The Tamil and Kannada poems he chose to translate.) He added that Ezra Pound “made me look at Tamil poetry differently.”

Never exiled

His was too well-rounded a personality for physical displacement to bother him, and he never fell for the exile’s trap and exploited it, as, say, G.S. Sharat Chandra, a very fine poet himself, did. He never bemoaned the fact of exile. Like all good poets he kept changing and the last poem, The Black Hen, was darker and contained shorter poems.

His ‘Of Mother, among other things’ is an anthology piece:

I smell upon this twisted

blackbone tree the silk and white

petal of my mother’s youth.

From her ear-rings’ three


splashed a handful of needles.

But my favourite poem is the one where he shares “a language, a fire” and eats “on an ancient sandalwood door.”

It is a pity that the future may gloss over his superb, passionate and complex English poetry and he may be remembered more as a sort of a Max Muller of South Indian languages, for his ‘philosophic restlessness’ and his translations of Nammalvar and other ancient Tamil poets. Didn’t he say this in ‘Death and the Good Citizen’? “They’ll cremate/ me in Sanskrit and sandalwood,/ have me sterilised/ to a scatter of ash.

Then, the others

If you talk of Indian poetry in English, you can’t avoid Nissim Ezekiel. He is not just historic for ushering Indian poetry into modernism, but also for the quality of his poetry. Arguably the finest lines in our English poetry could well be

I think

Of each historic passion as a


That happened to the sad eye of


Many of his poems are anthology pieces. He symbolised the culture scene in his heyday, editing the journals, Imprint and Quest, delivering fine lectures on art on TV. He fought for the right political causes and was a public intellectual we are proud of.

Why have poets from Bombay headed the poetry pack? Because of the city, its culture, its cosmopolitan outlook, the lack of absurd taboos. And Nissim Ezekiel.

He became a mentor to a whole crowd of young poets, placed their verse in magazines and later in the poetry page which he edited for The Illustrated Weekly. He mentored Dom Moraes as well, which the young poet acknowledged initially, but later he changed.

I heard a supercilious talk by him in Delhi, where he came flanked by the loyalists of Frank Moraes, picked out one line from the poem ‘Enterprise’ by Nissim, “Some were broken, some merely bent”. He waxed eloquent on how the meaning of the word ‘bent’ has changed over the years, implying we hadn’t kept up with the language. Nissim told me later as we discussed this comment, “but the primary meaning stays.”

Dom changed over the years, took over from Nissim, and mentored the present pack, which possibly imbibed his Scotch more than his advice on the iambic pentameter and terza rima. Dom was irresponsible and batty, but very talented, and wrote his verse impeccably. The silk of his poetry is unrivalled.

Poet’s poet

He was quintessentially the true poet. Most of his prose columns, unless he was recounting his past and writing about cronies like George Barker, were useless. (I read with Barker once in London, he was half drunk, and his son in the audience was so drunk they threw him out of the hall.) Since Jeet Thayil, himself a powerhouse in both fiction and poetry, has published that brilliant novel cum roman-a-clef on him, I don’t wish to say more.

The sensitive Adil Jussawalla mentored many a poet at Chauraha, on the NCPA grounds.

Kamala Das, equally batty, deserves applause for some lovely poems, and as a pathbreaker for women’s poetry. But her

Stark and beautiful: The artist S.G. Vasudev’s sketches made for Ramanujan’s poems.

Stark and beautiful: The artist S.G. Vasudev’s sketches made for Ramanujan’s poems.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

attitudinising is off-putting, starting with My Story. A fairly straightlaced woman pretending in public to be promiscuous is an embarrassing sight. Some of her poetry was one-track — unrequited love. Yet, one could be wrong.

Marcel Proust in an essay, ‘Against Sainte Beuve’, wrote, “A book is a product of a different self than the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.” But one is not talking of François Villon here, one is hinting at the written word manoeuvred to please the mass. Kamala also came out with a novel on a child prostitute. Why?

Good years

The last two or three years have been exceptional for Indian poetry. One can look at the laurels: take Vijay Seshadri, whom we consider Indian, just as we appropriate V.S. Naipaul, or as the BJP has appropriated Gandhi. Seshadri won the Pulitzer Prize, Arundhathi Subramaniam was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize, Imtiaz Dharker got the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry. There is no Booker Prize in Poetry. We should be content with these.

If we hark back, the lone example we can think of is Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate becoming the rage of America. The poets today, cocksure yet grounded, are extremely talented, more than poets of my generation. The best foreign literary agents have flocked to some of them.

Many of the poems from the 60s to the 80s were statements, starting from a given point and ending on a pre-arranged finishing line. The current poets wouldn’t be caught dead doing that. Their poems flow, they couldn’t care about the hiccups.

Their confidence, justified in most cases, is enviable. Tone and tenor have changed. They write sometimes “in order to singe your lungs,” they “fade backwards into the future” (whatever that may mean); their poems surge “like horsemen blistering/ through a century of hibernation” — all quotes from Tishani Doshi’s Girls are Coming out of the Woods. They are good at pairing opposites, disparate scraps gelled into a whole.

In ‘And this is about pain too’, Arundhathi Subramaniam talks of a woman’s pain, her insides ‘pure slush’ and then the quiet:

Is this what they call dum pukht,

a slow cunning Awadhi simmer

of hormone and nostalgia

and recycled need,

a deep churning

of juices

in the clay innards

of a sealed vessel

plotting mutiny

one day

but not yet.

A Kamala Das or a Gauri Deshpande would not have paired a woman’s restless, self-stifled anger with dum pukht. Tishani Doshi says when she was 16, “I wanted to sue my breasts/ for not living up to potential.” I can’t imagine my contemporaries hiring a lawyer to sue their breasts. Forget the distasteful facetious comment by me, the lines show the changed and the much more original manner of putting a thought across.

Sridala Swami, an exceptional poet, has a poem on the same subject as Gieve Patel has. Space does not permit me to elaborate here. But the direction Swami chose was both exceptional and bizarre. Her poem turned out great. C.P. Surendran and Bibhu Padhi tackle subjects like depression fearlessly. “You sleep… under a sky of convulsions…between the wings/ of crematorium crows.” A poem of his ends with anti-depressants: “Mirtaz, Daxid, Zapiz.”

Both generations avoid rhyme, with the exception of Dom Moraes and Ezekiel. Rhyme came effortlessly to them, a gift from the muse. The long poem is missing, unless we take volumes targeting a particular subject like Imtiaz Dharker’s Purdah or Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s Ayodhya Cantos.

Formerly the diaspora could boast only of Meena Alexander. Now there is a host of fine poets — Ravi Shankar, Michelle Cahill, Karthika Nair, Usha Akella and others — with Ravi Shankar being exceptional.

Poets like Jayanta Mahapatra and Ranjit Hoskote need a paper, if not a volume on their work. Odisha poets, with the exception of Shanta Acharya, seem to be under the banyan shadow of Jayanta, his poems a circular meditation on Odisha.

But the real banyan tree was A.K. Ramanujan. As Dom Moraes said of him: “He fulfilled perhaps in these poems, a mission which had earlier been carried out by R.K.Narayan in prose fiction: the transmutation of the south Indian ethos into English literature.”

The writer is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2020 8:27:58 PM |

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