book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan

A. K. Ramanujan

Ramanujan, A. K.;

The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan

Oxford University Press 1997, 328 pages

ISBN 0195640683

topics: |  poetry | india | single-author

You flip this onto any page, and the poem that greets you seems worthy of

While a unfettered sensuousness permeates much of Ramanujan's translation
work (reflecting the spirit of the Tamil and Telugu originals), it is
largely absent in his own poetry.  Still another view of Grace (below) is a
rare instance; it's a popular poem, possibly anthologized first in Subhash Saha's
anthology of Indian love poetry (1976).

One of my favourites is A river, one of his many poems with a darker,
thoughtful side.

The introduction (by Vijay Dharwadker) is focused mostly on the poems which
collected after his death into the volume The Black Hen.

The poems are collected from the books:
     * The Striders. London: Oxford University Press, 1966
     * Relations. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971
     * Second Sight. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986
     * The Black Hen (1996, posthumous), ed. Molly Daniels.

from The Striders 1966

Snakes p.4

walking in museums of quartz
or the aisles of bookstacks
looking at their geometry
without curves
and the layers of transparency
that makes them opaque,
dwelling on the yellower vein
in the yellow amber
or touching a book that has gold
on its spine,
       I think of snakes.

A basketful or ritual cobras
comes into the tame little house,
their brown-wheat glisten ringed with ripples.
They lick the room with their bodies, curves
uncurling, writing a sibilant alphabet of panic
on my floor.  Mother gives them milk
in saucers.  She watches them suck
and bare the black-line design
etched on the brass of the saucer.

The snakeman wreathes their writhing
around his neck
for father's smiling
money.  But I scream.

The opposable thumb 6

'One two three four five
five fingers to a hand'
   said the blind boy counting
   but he found a sixth one
   waiting like a cousin for a coin;
   a budlike node complete with nail,
   phalanx and mole
under the usual casual opposable thumb.

Said my granny, rolling her elephant's leg
like a log in a ruined mill:
   'One two three four five
   five princes in a forest
   each one different like the fingers on a hand
   and we always looked to find on her paw
   just one finger left of five: a real thumb,
   no longer usual, casual, or opposable after her husband's knifing temper
      0ne sunday morning half a century ago.

Self-Portrait 23

	I resemble everyone
	but myself, and sometimes see
	in shop-windows,
	despite the well-known laws
	of optics,
	the portrait of a stranger,
	date unknown,
	often signed in a corner
	by my father.

A river p.38

	In Madurai,
		city of temples and poets,
	who sang of cities and temples,

	every summer
	a river dries to a trickle
	in the sand,
	baring the sand ribs,
	straw and women's hair
	clogging the watergates
	at the rusty bars
	under the bridges with patches
	of repair all over them
	the wet stones glistening like sleepy
	crocodiles, the dry ones
	shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun

	The poets only sang only of the floods.

	He was there for a day
	when they had the floods.
	People everywhere talked
	of the inches rising,
	of the precise number of cobbled steps
	run over by the water, rising
	on the bathing places,
	and the way it carried off three village houses,
	one pregnant woman
	and a couple of cows
	named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

	The new poets still quoted
	the old poets, but no one spoke
	in verse
	of the pregnant woman
	drowned, with perhaps twins in her,
	kicking at blank walls
	even before birth.

	He said:
	the river has water enough
	to be poetic
	about only once a year
	and then
	it carries away
	in the first half-hour
	three village houses,
	a couple of cows
	named Gopi and Brinda
	and one pregnant woman
	expecting identical twins
	with no moles on their bodies,
	with different coloured diapers
	to tell them apart.

Still another view of Grace 45

I burned and burned.  But one day I turned
and caught that thought
by the screams of her hair and said: "Beware,
Do not follow a gentleman's morals

with that absurd determined air.
Find a priest.  Find any beast in the wind
for a husband.  He will give a houseful
of legitimate sons.  It is too late for sin.

even for treason.  And I have no reason to know your kind.
Bred Brahmin among singers of shivering hymns
I shudder to the bone at hungers that roam the street
'beycnd the constables beat'.  But there she stood

upon that dusty road on a nightlit april mind
and gave me a look.  Commandments crumbled
in my father's past.  Her tumbled hair suddenly
known as silk in my angry hand.  I shook a little

and took her, behind the laws of my land.

from Second Sight (1986)

Astronomer 134

Sky-man in a manhole
with astronomy for dream,
astrology for nightmare;

fat man full of proverbs,
the language of lean years,
living in square after

almanac square
prefiguring the day
of windfall and landslide

through a calculus
of good hours,
clutching at the tear

in his birthday shirt
as at a hole
in his mildewed horoscope,

squinting at the parallax
of black planets,
his Tiger, his Hare

moving in Sanskrit zodiacs,
forever troubled
by the fractions, the kidneys

in his Tamil flesh,
his body the Great Bear
dipping for the honey,

the woman-smell
in the small curly hair
down there.

Ramanujan on Astronomer

Ramanujan has written about this poem in "Is there an Indian way of
thinking", an essay inspired by the contradictions embodied by his father:

    The problem [of the Indian way of thinking] was posed for me personally at
    the age of twenty in the image of my father. I had never taken a good look
    at him till then. Didn't Mark Twain say, 'At seventeen, I thought my
    father was ignorant; at twenty, I wondered how he learned so much in three
    years?' Indeed, this essay was inspired by contemplation of him over the
    years, and is dedicated to him.

    My father's clothes represented his inner life very well. He was a south
    Indian brahman gentleman. He wore neat white turbans, a Shri vaiShNava
    caste mark (in his earlier pictures, a diamond earring), yet wore Tootal
    ties, Kromentz buttons and collar studs, and donned English serge jackets
    over his muslin dhotis which he wore draped in traditional brahman
    style. He often wore tartan-patterned socks and silent wellpolished
    leather shoes when he went to the university, but he carefullq took them
    off before he entered the inner quarters of the house.

    He was a matheniatician, an astronomer. But he was also a Sanskrit,
    scholar, an expert astrologer. He had two kinds of exotic visitors:
    American and English mathematicians who called on him when they
    were on a visit to India, and local astrologers, orthodox pundits who
    wore splendid gold-embroidered shawls dowered by the Maharajah.  I
    had just been converted by Russell to the 'scientific attitude'.  I (and my
    generation) was troubled by his holding together in one brain both
    astronomy and astrology; I looked for consistency in him, a consistency
    he didn't seem to care about, or even think about. When I asked him what
    the discovery of Pluto and Neptune did to his archaic nine-planet astrology,
    he said, 'You make the necessary corrections, that's all.'  Or, in
    answer to how he could read the Gita religiously having bathed and
    painted on his forehead the red and white feet of Visnu, and later talk
    appreciatively about Bertrand Russell and even Ingersoll, he said, 'The
    Gita is part of one's hygiene. Besides, don't you know, the brain has two

[and then he cites the full poem above, saying: the following poem says
something about the way he and his friends appeared to me.  read more of this
essay at Collected essays p. 37-38). 

Death and the Good citizen 135

I know, you told me,
   your nightsoil and all
your city's, goes still
   warm every morning
in a government
   lorry, drippy (you said)
but punctual, by special
   arrangement to the municipal
gardnes to make the grass
   grow tall for the cows
in the village, the rhino
   in the zoo, and the oranges
plump and glow, till
   they are a preternatural

Good animal yet perfect
   citizen, you, you are
biodegradable, you do
   return to nature: you will
your body to the nearest
   hospital, changing death into small
change and spare parts;
   dismantling, not de-
composing like the rest
   of us.  Eyes in an eye bank
to blink some day for a stranger's
   brain, wait like mummy wheat
in the singular company
   of single eyes, pickled,

But you know my tribe, incarnate
   unbelievers in bodies, ... they'll cremate
me in Sanskrit and sandalwood,
   have me sterilized
to a scatter of ash.

Pleasure 139

A naked Jaina monk
ravaged by spring
fever, the vigor

of long celibacy
lusting now as never before
for the reek and sight

of mango bud, now tight, now

loosening into petal,
stamen, and butterfly,
his several mouths

thirsting for breast,
buttock, smells of finger,
long hair, short hair,

the wet places never dry,

skin roused even by
whips, self touching self,
all philosophy slimed

by its own saliva,
cool Ganges turning
sensual on him

smeared by his own private

untouchable Jaina
body with honey
thick and slow as pitch

and stood continent
at last on an anthill
of red fire ants, crying

his old formulaic cry;

at every twinge,
"Pleasure, pleasure,
Great Pleasure!" --

no longer a formula
in the million mouths
of pleasure-in-pain

as the ants climb, tattooing

him, limb by limb
and cover his body,
once naked, once even intangible.

Extended Family 169

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
I wipe myself dry

with an unwashed
Sears turkish towel

like mother
I hear faint morning song

(though here it sounds

and three clear strings

through kitchen

like my little daughter
I play shy

hand over crotch
my body not yet full

of thoughts novels
and children

I hold my peepee
like my little son

play garden hose
in and out
the bathtub

like my grandson
I look up

at myself

like my great

I am not yet
may never be

my future

on several

to come

from The black hen (1995)

from A meditation 240

... as I write

I know I'm writing now on my head,
now on my torso, my living
hands moving

on a dead one, a firm imagined body
working with the transience
of breathless

real bodies.


A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993) was, arguably, modern Indias finest
English-language poet. At the time of his death he was Professor of
Linguistics at the University of Chicago, and recognized as the worlds most
profound scholar of South Indian language and culture. During his lifetime he
published three volumes of verse in English -- The Striders (1966), Relations
(1971), and Second Sight (1986) -- and had completed work on a fourth volume,
The Black Hen, which is published here for the first time. Ramanujan is best
known for his pioneering translations of ancient Tamil poetry into modern
English. These translations permanently altered the perceptions of the Indian
literary map in the West. Before him, ancient Indian literature was thought
to be mainly Sanskritic. After he published The Interior Landscape: Poems of
Love and War, and other volumes between the sixties and eighties it became
apparent to modern poets and scholars that there was a wealth of poetry in
other Indic traditions.Reflecting his lifelong interests in folklore,
anthropology, structuralism, and biculturalism, this volume of his collected
poems represents the complex distillation of a lifetime of unusual thought
and feeling. It will be welcomed by all lovers of contemporary poetry.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2012 Dec 01