LITERARY REVIEW

Play of shadows

TRANSLATION

SUBASH JEYAN

Play of shadows

TO start with, the play of parallels across life, fiction and autobiography. A.K. Ramanujan, in an interview to Chirantan Kulshrestha (In The Oxford India Ramanujan, 2004), said, "By a curious perversity I read Tamil constantly in the Kannada area, Kannada in the Tamil area, studied and taught English in India, and India and Indian languages in the U.S." And here is the narrator of Someone Else's Autobiography, K.K. Ramanujan, an Indian with an American wife teaching history in a small Iowa college, looking back on his childhood: "In my early years, I spoke Madras Tamil to Amma...I switched to Mysore Tamil with our Iyengar housemaids who cooked; outside the house, I spoke Kannada with friends. Upstairs in his office Appa conversed in English...Thus, upstairs-downstairs, inside-outside, I grew accustomed to three languages" (p.247).

So is the narrator of Someone Else's Autobiography, a thinly disguised Ramanujan himself, especially as his name is K.K. Ramanujan? May be, may be not. A.K. Ramanujan himself is a character in the novel, with uncanny resemblances to the narrator, his double, so to speak. Poems and a Novella, the latest collection of poems and fiction from the A.K. Ramanujan-OUP combine, is intensely concerned with identity — directly in the novel (for it is a novel which uses the form of autobiography; or, as the character A.K. Ramanujan says in the novel, there is only one story we know and keep repeating, so it could as well be autobiography which uses the form of fiction) and indirectly in as much as they are written in Kannada.

The attempt to write in Kannada is an important aspect of identity for Ramanujan who is primarily known as an English poet and a translator (into English). As he says in the above-mentioned interview, "When one writes in a second language not learned in childhood, superimposed on a first, one may effectively cut oneself off from one's childhood. A great deal of what we are in life and in writing goes back to that period when language was being formed inside, forming us, forming the world of concepts, the style of our perceptions. No man can deny or insulate that source of his sensibility without peril."

So it is something of an irony that we should be reading his poems in an English translation. Yet, it does give us an idea of the range of his talents and concerns as he is able to tackle complex structures of thought and language with as much ease in Kannada (as far as we can see it in the English translation) as he is able to in English. The hard and glittering imagist quality of his English poems is not there to the same degree in the translated Kannada poems though there is a much more sense of belonging in the easy and unselfconscious references he makes to a living tradition of narrative, mythology and a cultural ecosystem. Still, the ironic Ramanujan that we know in his English poems, can be glimpsed in poems such as "Haiku, Zen-2":

The river of life flows full

On the shore; the store

sells the water.

And there is a lot more experimentation with the visible structure of the poems. Here's an example, the poem "A Standing Meditation":

a spinning top

motionless and still

spinning on one leg

at top speed like

a crane at rest

awake now

and then

likely to

topple

if

t

o

u

c

h

e

d

.

Someone Else's Autobiography is primarily concerned with the nature of identity and with what happens in the process of its formulation to ourselves in words. K.K. Ramanujan, a history teacher in the U.S., feeling nostalgic for his life in India, decides to put it into words, write it down so that he can get it out of his system. As he says, "Only the unwritten stories haunt us; they talk to us and stay with us. Once it is written, it is laid to rest". The process of writing it down, is also a quest for a sense of the self, to nail it down and define it to oneself.

But, as KKR finds out, nothing exists in isolation; there are unexpected parallels, links to other things and persons, doubles, multitudes: "The mind is a hotchpotch of things heard or read or learned. Inside us we hoard gestures and images from persons unknown, and when we look into the medley, we realise that we are not ourselves" (p.285). A.K. Ramanujan, the poet as a character in the novel as a double of KKR the narrator is but a tongue in cheek manifestation of this multiplicity, of identity stretched beyond the self to become an evolving carrier of stories, culture and tradition. The narrator's father embodies an identity that has no illusions about itself and which is in harmony with its environment and culture, however right or wrong that culture itself is. One can only wonder what form these meditations and conclusions would have taken if A.K. Ramanujan had attempted something similar in English.

Finally, a word about the editorial content. It is a pity that these translations have been let loose on the reader without a proper introduction or background material. There is nothing to indicate when these stories where written in the original Kannada or and where they were first published. As with The Oxford India Ramanujan, an informative introduction will be sorely missed.