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A Hindu, On the Hindoos

Brooding and innocent wordplay, pregnant with presentiments

AT the time of his death in 1993, A.K. Ramanujan left behind 148 poems on three computer disks. Many of these were finished poems, some were fragments, exercises. According to his daughter Krittika, the earliest were written in 1989, in Michigan, and the latest in March or April 1993, just weeks before his death. This by any standards is a lot of poetry over a relatively short period. ‘Birth takes a long time’, Ramanujan says in one of these late poems, ‘though death can be sudden,/and multiple, like pregnant deer/shot on the run.’ Ramanujan’s death was sudden, multiple. He was, among other things, putting the finishing touches to a new collection of poems when it happened. This new collection, The Black Hen, was never published as an independent volume but appeared as part of Collected Poems in 1995. There are 60 poems in The Black Hen and the selection was made by an eight-member committee, two of whom are the editors of the present volume. Uncollected Poems and Prose adds a further 32 poems to the corpus.

Does this mean that we now have all of Ramanujan’s poems, everything that he wished to preserve? I am not so sure. There is at least one poem I am aware of, Stranger, published in the Winter 1990/91 issue of the Poetry Review (London), which doesn’t find a place in either The Black Hen or Uncollected Poems and Prose. It must have slipped through the net, as poems tend to do. The poem is about a man who returns home every evening punctually at ‘five fifteen’. One day, as he routinely slides the brass key in a keyhole, he discovers he has been transformed into another person, into someone who has a falcon tattoo on his right hand, whose left hand middle finger is missing, and who swears in Spanish. The poem is about the many nasty selves we carry inside us and which seize us when we least expect them to. It’s a subject Ramanujan wrote about often, but each time coming at it with undiminished keenness and from a new direction.

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Apart from 32 poems, many of them, like Invisible Bodies, Lying, Becoming, and Oranges as good as any he wrote, Uncollected Poems and Prose also contains an essay, The Ring of Memory, a eulogy to the Sanskritist Barbara Stoler Miller, and two interviews. The first is by Chirantan Kulshrestha and was done in 1970; the second is by A.L. Becker and Keith Taylor and was done in 1989. They are not the least of the book’s surprises, though not if one has read Ramanujan carefully before.

Ramanujan’s father was a mathematician, but he knew Sanskrit well and, though not very religious, recited the Gita and read the Ramayana in the morning. He was also an astrologer. “Which part of this life did you share? Was it the religion? The prayers? The astrology?” Becker asks him. And the reply is: “No, I was very much against astrology. I said astronomy was good, but astrology—throw it away.” Ramanujan then describes the arguments they would have. Asked if his reaction was “a reaction against India”, he says: “Against Hinduism. And, of course, I had the notion that only a kind of modern rationalism was the answer to all the problems that we had.”

“My unconscious agenda,” he says in answer to another question, “has been to diversify our notions of Indian civilisation.... If you look at something like Speaking of Siva, you find it more democratic. It is fiercely critical of Hindu positions of ritual and priests, the privilege of temples, and the rich men who support the temples—of the whole caste system.”

This outspokenness is to be found also in the early poems, where it is hidden behind what looks like innocent wordplay. In them, Ramanujan makes a distinction between a Hindu like himself, and he was perhaps the greatest 20th century interpreter of Hinduism to the world, and the ‘Hindoo’. The ‘Hindoos’ are one of us, except that the colonial spelling signifies that they are not quite. Long before it happened, Ramanujan saw them dancing on top of mosques with iron implements, like savages. This is how The Hindoo: The Only Risk, published in Relations (1971), ends: ‘At the bottom of all this bottomless/enterprise to keep simple the heart’s given beat,/the only risk is heartlessness.’

Uncollected Poems and Prose
By Molly Daniels By Keith Harrison (Ed.)
OUP Pages: 109; Rs 325
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SECTION: Books
SUBSECTION: Reviews
OUTLOOK: 19 March, 2001
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