book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

The Oxford India Ramanujan

A. K. Ramanujan

Ramanujan, A. K.;

The Oxford India Ramanujan

Oxford University Press, December 2003

ISBN 9780195664782

topics: |  poetry | india-south | bhakti | translation | single-author | anthology

This is an unwieldy compilation of some of the most elegant writings on Indian literature. Ramanujan (1929-1993) was the leading scholar of ancient Indian literature and society, and possibly India's leading English language poet.

Both Ramanujan's English poetry as well as his elegant translations deserve shelf space in any poetry lover's library, but this volume creates a juggernaut by juxtaposing all of his work into a over-bulky volume that includes all of Ramanujan's English poetry, as well as his beautiful translations. It is a veritable treasure trove; at the same time, one wishes that the integration were more coordinated. Each separate book has its own style - page layout, font, and even page numbering are not standardized. Thus visually, it is quite jarring, though the differences sometimes help you tell which part of the book you are in.

It seems as if after the death of Ramanujan, OUP felt compelled to quickly show off all the work of Ramanujan that it had published over the years, without putting in thorough editorial work in integrating these. In any event, the content is too disparate and hard to unify under any single over-arching theme.

I am sure an aesthete like Ramanujan would have disliked this
compilation, and it does not do justice to his memory.  I feel that OUP
was aware of this, and it's almost as if they wished to
compensate this lacuna, so the  Collected essays (2004)
is a competently edited volume with lots of prefatory material, and very
well organized.  Many of the afterwords and introductions from the
translations here also appear in that collection.

Yet, the book survives.  While I have an earlier edition, it has been
reprinted several times and remains in print in 2012.  Also, if you are
looking for all of Ramanujan's poetical works (in English - he also is a
renowned Kannada poet) - this may be more affordable than buying the
separate volumes.  


* Poems: The Striders, Relations, Second Sight, The Black Hen, as well as
	posthumous editions of his collected and uncollected poems.
	(see excerpts in Collected Poems, OUP 1997)

* Translations (ancient Tamil 1st 3c. AD): The Interior Landscape (love poems);
	     - Poems of Love and War
	     - Hymns for the Drowning by Nammalvar (9th c. saint-poet)
	     - Speaking of Siva (vacanas, bhakti movement 10th c.)
* Interview: Chirantan Kulshrestha; essay on translating Tamil poetry


(from the Interior Landscape and Poems of Love and War)

The first book of translations, the Interior Landscape, deals with
akam poetry, a class of sangam poetry tradition that largely deals
with poems of love.  In the afterword, Ramanujan explains the term
akam by distinguishing it from puRam or exterior poetry. ( reprinted
as Where mirrors are windows in Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan).

akam and puRam

a central pair of terms in 'Tamil poetry and poetics...  In the language
of the poems and the commentaries, akam and puRam signify generally
'interior' and 'exterior', as they denote a concentric series of paired
meanings according to context, each larger in scope than the other. Each
set is a 'responsive' correlate of the other.  Here is a set of such

	   akam		  puRam
	1. interior		  exterior
	2. heart, mind		  body surfaces and extremities,
				  	e.g. back, side, arms
	3. self			  others
	4. kin			  non-kin
	5. house, family	  houseyard, field
	6. inland settlement	  areas far from dense human habitation,
				  	e.g. jungle. desert
	7. earth		  farthest ocean
	8. love poems - no 	  poetry about war and other than
	   names of places 	  	[well-matched] love. a 'public'
	   or persons		  	poetry, with names of real
	      			  	people and places
	9. Codes of conduct 	  Codes of conduct appropriate to
	   appropriate to 	  puRam
				(Afterword, p.262)

here is a striking handwritten image of ramanujan's notes for a separate
book on folk tales, but some of these types of distinctions figure. 

this image is from an interesting article on ramanujan in by Nakul Krishna
in the Caravan magazine (Aug 2013). Go take a look!

Interior Landscape

My lover capable of terrible lies p.32

My lover capable of terrible lies
at night lay close to me
in a dream
that lied like truth.

I woke up, still deceived,
and caressed the bed
thinking it my lover.

It's terrible.  I grow lean
in loneliness,
like a water lily
gnawed by a beetle.
	 kachipeTTu naNNAkaiyAr (100-300AD) [kuruntokai 30]

What he said (Like madness in an elephant): 60

Love, love,
they say.  Yet love
is no new grief
nor sudden disease; nor something
that rages and cools.
       Like madness in an elephant,
       coming up when he eats
       certain leaves,

       love waits
       for you to find
       someone to look at.

 			Milaipperunkantan, 1st-3d c. AD
			Kuruntokai 136

	Kuruntokai, is a collection in the akam (interior) genre, and
	the brief poems are dramatic monologues about love, spoken by a
	lover or a friend.

What she said p.67

The rains, already old,
have brought new leaf upon the fields.
The grass spears are trimmed and blunted by the deer.

The jasmine creeper is showing its buds through their delicate calyx
like the laugh of a wildcat.

In jasmine country, it is evening
for the hovering bees,
but look, he hasn't come back.

He left me and went in search
of wealth.
	[okkUr mAchAtti (woman poet) Kuruntokai 220]

What He said

	to his charioteer, on his way back

Rains in season,
forests grow beautiful.
Black pregnant clouds
bring the monsoon, and stay.
Between flower and blue-gem
flower on the bilberry tree
the red-backed moths multiply
and fallen jasmines
cover the ground.

	It looks like
a skilled man's work of art,
this jasmine country.

Friend, drive softly here.
Put aside the whip for now.
Slow down
these leaping pair of legs.
these majestic horses
galloping in style
as if to music.

Think of the stag, his twisted antlers
	like banana stems
	after the clustering bud
	and the one big blossom
	have dropped.

think of the lovely bamboo-legged doe
reay in desire:

if they hear the clatter
of horse and chariot,
how can they mate
at their usual dead of night?

		[Cittalai CattanAr,  akanANuru 134]

What Her Girl-Friend Said to Her p.82

Come, let's go climb on that jasmine-mantled rock
   and look

	if it is only the evening cowbells
	of the grass-fed contented herds
	returning with the bulls

	or the bells of his chariot
	driving back through the wet sand 4231of the forest ways,
	his heart full of the triumph of a job well done
	with young archers driving by his side.

		[okkUr mAchAtti Kuruntokai 275]

What She Said to Her Girl-Friend p.91

On beaches washed by seas
older than the earth,
in the groves filled with bird-cries,
on the banks shaded by a punnai
clustered with flowers,
	  when we made love
my eyes saw him
and my ears heard him;
my arms grow beautiful
in the coupling
and grow lean
as they come away.
   	What shall I make of this?
		[Venmanipputi, (woman poet) Kuṟuntokai 299]


The afterword discusses ancient Tamil, the poetic tradition, and deals at
length with the classical metaphors - the five landscapes of Sangam poetry,
p. 103-107.   These are elaborated next in the Poems of Love and War, with
separate sections for each of the five landscapes.

THE SANGAM LANDSCAPE [w] (Tamil: அகத்திணை "inner classification") is the name
given to a poetic device that was characteristic of love poetry in classical
Tamil Sangam literature. The core of the device was the categorisation of
poems into different thinais or modes, depending on the nature, location,
mood and type of relationship represented by the poem. Each thinai was
closely associated with a particular landscape, and imagery associated with
that landscape - its flowers, trees, wildlife, people, climate and geography
- was woven into the poem in such a way as to convey a mood, associated with
one aspect of a romantic relationship.

Geographical landscapes:

kurinji (குறிஞ்சி) - mountainous regions, associated with union
	Union of lovers
	Kurinchi flower
	Winter/Cool and moist
mullai (முல்லை) - forests, associated with waiting,
	Forest, pasture
	Heroine expresses patient waiting over separation
	Mullai flower (Jasmine)
	Late Summer/Cloudy
marutham (மருதம்) - cropland, associated with quarreling, and
	Agricultural areas, plain or valley
	Lovers' quarrels, wife's irritability (husband accused of
	visiting a courtesan)
	Marutam flower
	Shortly before sunrise
	No specific season
neithal (நெய்தல்) - seashore, associated with pining.
	Heroine expresses grief over separation
	Water lily
	No specific season
paalai (பாலை), or wasteland, associated with separation
       	Parched wasteland, Desert
	Elopment, Longest separation, dangerous journey by the hero
	Paalai flower

Poems of Love and War

Sun goes down p.67

	தலைவி கூற்று சுடர்செல் வானஞ் சேப்பப் படர்கூர்ந்
	தெல்லறு பொழுதின் முல்லை மலரும்
	மாலை என்மனார் மயங்கி யோரே
	குடுமிக் கோழி நெடுநக ரியம்பும்
	பெரும்புலர் விடியலு மாலை
	பகலும் மாலை துணையி லோர்க்கே. -மிளைப்பெருங் கந்தனார்

Only the dim-witted say it's evening
     when the sun goes down
     and the sky reddens,
     when misery deepens
     and the mullai begins to bloom
     in the dusk.

But even the tufted cock
     calls in the long city
     and the long night
     breaks into dawn
     it is evening:
     	            even noon
     is evening,
     to one who has no one.

   		Milaipperun Kantan
		Kuruntokai 234

--- alternate translation:

The sun goes down and the sky reddens, pain grows sharp,
light dwindles. Then is evening
when jasmine flowers open, the deluded say.
But evening is the great brightening dawn
when crested cocks crow all through the tall city
and evening is the whole day
for those without their lovers.
    		tr. George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz

Note: the two translations are substantially different, and both work well
	as poems in English, but I think Hart's works better for me; it
	brings out the pathos more powerfully.  one point of difference is
	how the cock's cry is interpreted by Hart as a sign of dawn; this
	allusion, perhaps a hint only in the original, is not as clear in
	Ramanujan.  For me, it helps make the point more clearly.

	The line "Evening is the whole day" from this poem is the title of a
	novel on coming of age in riot-torn Malaysia by Preeta Samarasan.

Cempulappeyanirar: : What He Said (red earth and pouring rain) 116

  		    Kurunthokai 40

What could my mother be
to yours?  What kin is my father
to yours anyway?  And how
did you and I meet ever?
		But in love our hearts are as red
earth and pouring rain:
beyond parting.

	Cempulappeyanirar also transcribed as Sembula Peyaneerar (1st-3d c.)
	tr. AK Ramanujan (from Tamil)

--- original:
	குறிஞ்சி - தலைவன் கூற்று
	யாயும் ஞாயும் யாரா கியரோ,
	எந்தையும் நுந்தையும் எம்முறைக் கேளிர்,
	யானும் நீயும் எவ்வழி யறிதும்,
	செம்புலப் பெயனீர் போல,
	அன்புடை நெஞ்சம் தாங்கலந் தனவே.

		-செம்புலப் பெயனீரார்.

---  Alternate translation, George L. Hart:

My mother and yours,
what were they to each other?
My father and yours,
how were they kin?
I and you,
how do we know each other?
and yet
like water that has rained on red fields,
our hearts in their love
have mixed together.

note: The poet's name, Sembula Peyaneerar, also written
	Cempulappeyanirar means "he of water that has rained on red
	fields.", and is clearly a post-construction from the poem itself,
	and we do not really have the poets real name.
	      (see Ramanujan's Interior landscape p. 99, or

What she said p.74

In the tiny village
on the hillside
where rainclouds play,

the grazing milch cows
remember their young
and return.

In the forest,
the white flowers
of the green-leaved jasmine
redden with evening,

and, friend,
I cannot bear it.

        Vayilanrevan, Kuruntokai 108

Marutam landscape: infidelity after marriage

What she said

In his country,

spotted crabs
born in their mother's death
grow up with crocodiles
that devour their young.

Why is he here now?

And why does he
take those women,

       a jangle of gold bangles
       as they make love,

only to leave them?

	     Ainkurunuru 24

Five on the crabs: 2 (What she said) p.98

In his place, mother,

field-crabs cut into the pink
purslane creeper,

hung with green pods,
reared with care in the house yard.

O he roves,

      and women grieve
      over his chest
      till ornaments come loose on their limbs.

		OrampOkiyAr aiNkuRunURu 24

[ornaments coming loose: conventional allusion,
 common also in Sanskrit poetry, to a
 woman growing thin when the lover is away. ]

What she said: after meeting his concubine


His palms spotless
as the petal
at the pollen center
of lotuses
that grow in old waters
where otters play.

His mouth lovely as coral
making sweet baby talk
not yet uttered by tongue
he makes everyone laugh.

Enchanting everyone,
he was playing alone in the street
with his toy chariot,
our son wearing gold ornaments --

when that woman of yours,
	burdened with gold,
	teeth sharp and lovely,
seeing your likeness in him,
thinking there was no one watching,
bent down happily
and called out to him,
"Come here, my love!"
and clasped him to her young breasts
borne down with necklaces.

Seeing her,
I couldn't move
but when she turned to me,
I held her close and said,
"You young innocent,
don't be shy.
You too are a mother to him."

Her face fell
as one confessing a theft;
she stood scratching the ground
with her toenails.

     		   Looking at her state,
didn't I love her too then,

"She's like the powerful goddess in the sky,
goddess of chaste wives,
and fit to be mother to your son?"

		Akananuru 16

Harvest of War


Great king
you shield your men from ruin,
so your victories, your greatness
are bywords.

Loose chariot wheels
lie about the battleground
with the long white tusks
of bull-elephants.

Flocks of male eagles
eat carrion
with their mates.

Headless bodies
dance about
before they fall
to the ground.

Blood glows,
like the sky before nightfall,
in the red center
of the battlefield.

Demons dance there.

And your kingdom
is an unfailing harvest
of victorious wars.

	on Kalankaykkanni Narmuticceral
	Patirruppattu 35

[Narmudi Ceral: early Chera prince and hero, c. 100BCE.
Kappiyarruk Kappiyanar was his court poet]

A Parade


Like a long line of high-flying herons
roused and disturbed
by the raincloud,
your armies move

	murderous bull-elephants,
	rows of shields,
	of white flags waving
	on chariots,

and the parade
is a great pleasure
to onlookers.
But as it overruns
and destroys enemy lands
to bring back a booty of ornaments,

it spells evil
to men in the camps
of those kinds

who cross you
and clash
with your rage.

		Perunkunrur Kilar:
		on Kutakko Ilanceral Irumporai
		Patirruppattu 83

[King Illam Cheral Irumporai, c. 200AD, of the late Chera dynasty ruling
Kerala and western Tamil regions.  Defeated the Pandyas and the Cholas and
brought immense wealth to his capital at a city called Vanchi. He was also
a big patron of the Sangam poets.

A Young Chieftain


The young bull
does not feel the yoke,
though the cart is loaded
with salt and things.
But who can
foresee the damages
when it dips into creeks
and climbs the hills?

So the salt merchants keep
a second safety axle
under the axeltree.

	You are such,
	lofty one with bright umbrellas of fame:

	whoever lives in your shade,
	living as under the fullest moon,

	has any fear
	of night?

		[Auvaiyar: on Pokuttelini]
		Purananuru 102

[Auvaiyar is one of the 10-15 women poets among the composers of these
poems.  Her work also appears in several other anthologies]

Alternate translation by George Hart and Hank Heifetz

	Those who sell salt carry a spare axle with them lashed
	to the wood underneath because they think about oxen
	who are young and unacquainted with the yoke, about a heavy load
	in the wagon which must pass over heights and travel low ground
	and who knows what may happen? You, so bright with glory are like
	that axle, your hand a cup for giving to others! Greatness!
	You are like the moon at the time when it is full!
	How can there be darkness for those living under its radiance.
			from The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom p. 71

A mother's list of duties p.185

To bring forth and rear a son is my duty
to make him noble is the father's
To make spears for him is the blacksmith's
To show him good ways is the king's.

And to bear
a bright sword and do battle,
to butcher enemy elephants,
and come back:

    that is the young man's duty.

	ponmuTiyAr (puRanANURu 312)

A Woman and her dying Warrior


I cannot cry out,
I’m afraid of tigers.
I cannot hold you,
your chest is too wide
for my lifting.

has no codes
and has dealt you wrong,
may he
shiver as I do!

Hold my wrist
of bangles,
let's get to the shade
of that hill.
Just try and walk a little.

		Purananuru 255

Peace poem p.187

Waist thin as the purslane creeper
gait heavy as with grief,

the young brahman came at night
and entered the fortress quickly.

The words he spoke
were few,

and the ladders, the wooden bolts,
came dowsn.

and the war bells
were loosened

from the flanks
of the veteran elephants.

	maturai velAcAn [puRanANURu 305]

Said by the Foster-Mother

Embracing the young mother from behind, 
as she hugged her little son,
the way
her husband lay:

	it was like music
	from the strings
	of a minstrel,

at thing of quality. 

			(#2 of seven said by Foster-Mother)

What Her Girl Friend Asked

	and what she replied regarding his return

"From the long fronds 
of a deserted talipot tree 
with clusters thick and hard 
like an old date-palm's
a male bird calls to its mate, 
and the listening tiger 
roars in echo

on those difficult roads 
where hot winds blow --

	but then your lover who went there 
	has returned, 
	has hugged you sweetly ever since 
	and you've lain together 
	in one place.
	and yet 
	why do you look like a ruin, 
	why do you grieve, my girl?" 

So you ask, friend. 
It could look like that to someone 
who doesn't know. 
                            What's the use 
of longing faithfully 
for his strong chest 
	that's now like the cold beaches 
	of Tonti city 
	famous in the mouths of many?

When love is gone, 
What's copulation worth? 
			Narrinai 174

More poems from this book at this separate page for 
Poems of Love and War

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2013 Sep 12