In examining death, Ramanujan was as poetic as ever

In his poetry, the multifaceted personality perceives the phenomenon of passing away with wit, curiosity, and irony. A look at some of his odes, ahead of his birth anniversary on March 16 

“No death is easy, no death is acceptable, even to believers in immortal souls,” wrote Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan, two months before his death. On 13 July 1993, one of India’s finest poets, translators, essayists, and scholars, aged 64, could not survive an ostensibly minor surgery, due to anaesthesia-related complications. The Mysore-born Ramanujan had, by then, become a long-time resident of the US; and a familiar and much loved figure at the University of Chicago, where he taught for over three decades. When he breathed his last, the University reportedly flew its flag at half-mast; and at the funeral, an early poem of his, Prayers to Lord Murugan, was recited:

Lord of the headlines,
help us read the small print.
Lord of the sixth sense,
give us back our five senses.

Evocative metaphor
A prolific writer and committed researcher, Ramanujan made significant impact in the country of his birth as well as the English-speaking world. “Ramanujan's legacy as poet, scholar and essayist is a large one,” observed his obituary in The Independent (UK). “It is a legacy that will live not only in his books but in the lives he touched as a consummate teacher, as innovative and creative in the classroom as he was on the written page…Students of anthropology, history, and religion no less than those of language and literature were touched by his subtle and creative mind.”

Although his range of interests included teaching, writing, translating, reviewing and collecting Indian folk stories perpetuated by indigenous oral traditions, Ramanujan is principally remembered as a master of poetic genre. “To everyone who knew him and the passionate brilliance of his language, he and his poetry were rather a richly evocative metaphor for the human experience wherever it might be found.”

Ramanujan’s poetry took on many themes. Long-time observers have often recalled his keen, if detached, and objective reflection of human behaviour and condition; his ability to ingeniously combine lived experience with fertile imagination; and his enormous talent in shaping poetic outpourings through evocative forms, symbols and imagery.

"One of my oldest concerns is the form of poetry - not just the rhymes or count of syllables but the way it begins and ends and gathers a certain clarity. Content does not come independently of form. The meaning goes on changing with the form. In fact, there is a point where you begin to feel the form itself is the meaning of the poem."

Death and remembrances
Among others, Ramanujan’s poetry made frequent references to death, mortality and remembrances. Many of his protagonists were close family members.

Mother brings me tea again at 6 am
before she dies in another time zone
and the calendar.
(Eagle and Butterfly).

In one of his famous poems, Obituary, he describes a father and a plethora of surprising associations.

Father, when he passed on,
left dust
on a table of papers,
left debts and daughters,
a bedwetting grandson
named by the toss
of a coin after him,

a house that leaned
slowly through our growing
years on a bent coconut
tree in the yard.

And as the father’s body is put on pyre, he cannot but sharply observe:

Being the burning type,
he burned properly
at the cremation

as before, easily
and at both ends,
left his eye coins
in the ashes that didn't
look one bit different,
several spinal discs, rough,
some burned to coal, for sons

to pick gingerly
and throw as the priest
said, facing east
where three rivers met
near the railway station …

In a later line, the two ends of father’s life come together with lethal flourish:

his caesarian birth
in a brahmin ghetto
and his death by heart-
failure in the fruit market.

In yet another of his striking poems, Returning, it is the mother who takes the centre-stage. She is long gone, but the search / yearning continues unabated. Narrated in third person, it is an ode to the presence of her gaping ‘absence’ as it were.

Returning home one blazing afternoon, he looked for his mother everywhere. She wasn’t in the kitchen, she wasn’t in the backyard, she wasn’t anywhere… Where are you? I’m home! I’m hungry! But there was no answer … Suddenly he remembered he was now sixty-one and he hadn’t had a mother for forty years.

It is difficult to miss the essential elements of subtle wit, humour, irony and contradiction in Ramanujan’s poetry. Cracks in personal interactions and death of relationships come out through least expected expressions.

Really what keeps us apart
at the end of years is unshared
childhood. You cannot, for instance,
meet my father. He is some years
dead. Neither can I meet yours:
he has lately lost his temper
and mellowed.
(Love Poem for a Wife, 1)

Collage by Giridhar Khasnis

Many things die in Ramanujan’s work, including poems themselves!

Images consult
a conscience-
stricken jury
and come
to a sentence.
(On the death of a poem)

For Ramanujan, aspects of death (and after-death) could be reflected upon in first person as well.

Hidebound, even worms cannot
have me: they’ll cremate
me in Sanskrit and sandalwood,
have me sterilized
to a scatter of ash.
(Death and the Good Citizen)

Collage of everyday Indian life
Ramanujan wrote his poems in English and Kannada. "English and my disciplines (linguistics, anthropology) … give me my ‘outer’ forms—linguistic, metrical, logical and other such ways of shaping experience: and my first thirty years in India, my frequent visits and field trips, my personal and professional preoccupations with Kannada, Tamil, the classics and folklore give me my substance, my ‘inner’ forms, images and symbols. They are continuous with each other, and I can no longer tell what comes from where."

Ramanujan, as many critics and commentators allude, lived in two distinct cultural and linguistic worlds, and yet offered an elaborate collage of everyday Indian life. He embraced the complex mosaic of Indian myths, legends, rituals, and customs in his work; and revealed the changing shapes of emotional relationships, social contradictions and cultural compulsions entrenched in the labyrinths of Indian society. Vagaries, uncertainties, absurdities and mysteries of life seemed to hold a defining sway on the poet; birth, love, memory and death not excluded.

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