In his foreword to A.K. Ramanujan’s just published Journeys: A Poet’s Diary, playwright Girish Karnad recalls how much he borrowed from the intellectual explorations of his lifelong friend.
Ramanujan was the archetypal teacher and I met him at the right age. I was 17 and a student of mathematics in Dharwar while he was 10 years older, a junior lecturer in English in Belgaum, nearly 40 miles away. That was an enormous distance in those days and we met infrequently, usually at the inter-collegiate events in which our colleges participated. But from our first meeting I was intrigued by this small, delicate man with a high-pitched voice, and a slender sensitive forefinger with which he punched or underlined the important points he wished to drive home. He was almost too eager to express his opinion on any subject, however unfashionable his view. But he was never unreasonable, or merely argumentative. What was fascinating was the number of subjects on which he could hold forth with insight and scintillating wit: proverbs, riddles, conjuring tricks, mathematical puzzles, folktales. (“I don’t read newspapers,” he would say, “because I am tempted to take down notes.”)
But since I was aspiring to be a poet in English at that time and was impressed that his poems were published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, the discussion centred on literature. In those days when our teachers approached English writers with excessive reverence, he treated them all as if they were there laid out for our re-evaluation. He thought most of Shelley’s work feeble; he dismissed the fashionable belief that Aldous Huxley was averse to sex as bogus; and he found Henry Miller genuinely hilarious.
He was often inclined to illustrate a literary principle by quoting himself. “Look at this line,” he once said quoting his own verse, “‘The shadow shapes and nightmare apes caper.’ The word ‘shadow’ is later taken up and extended in ‘night’, while ‘shapes’ prepares you for the animal imagery in ‘mare’ and ‘apes’. And ‘caper’ is from ‘capriole’ (in latin caprioli, goats) . . .” I listened hypnotised as this went on while we waited for transport at bus stops, bid goodbye on railway platforms, gossiped in college canteens (he never let us pick up the bill), or took what he loved most, long walks in the evenings. He insisted on the writer’s objectivity towards his work, “You cannot develop if you can’t stand criticism,” he urged, a principle he often contradicted in
While I was a student at Oxford, he received a Fulbright to study linguistics in the US, and it was extraordinary how he flowered as a poet and thinker in the free academic atmosphere of the American university. The discovery of ancient Sangam poetry in the vaults of the Harper Library at the University of Chicago stunned him: The sensibility that shaped those spare, intense single-image poems jelled not only with his own poetics but with the breathless one-line poems of the later W.B. Yeats, a poet he adored.
Just when I completed my education at Oxford and joined Oxford University Press in Bombay, the London office of the OUP began to publish the Oxford Poets series edited by Jon Stallworthy. I asked Roy Hawkins, the general manager of the India branch, if I could submit Raman’s work for consideration and he looked at the poems, wrinkled up his nose and said: “Why do you call this poetry? Seems like prose chopped up to look like verse to me.” When I insisted it was good poetry, I was told: “Send them as your own personal recommendation and not from the branch office. And send them by sea-mail.” When I told Raman, he grumbled, “I would have paid the airmail postage.” But the response from Stallworthy was positive. “Ramanujan is already a good poet,” he said, “and potentially a very good one.” When London agreed to publish The Striders, Raman wrote to me: “This is one of the very few personally happy things that have happened to me.”
When The Striders was given the Poetry Book recommendation, I asked Hawkins if we shouldn’t publicise the honour, and Hawkins said, “I don’t think so. If the press is interested, they should find out for themselves,” without explaining how they should go about it. So despite the accolade, Raman remained unknown in India. It was only when Penguin India published his Speaking of Śiva that fame came to him—as a translator.
It’s not known that for some time the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations of the University of Chicago, impressed by his work, had been urging Raman to publish some academic papers so they could give him tenure. When he failed to do so, in 1966, they took The Striders as good enough and gave him tenure.
I saw that as my gurudakshina to him. But ironically the enormous amount I have borrowed from his intellectual explorations was accessed only after this gurudakshina was rendered. When C.M. Naim insisted I write a fresh play as a visiting Fulbright Playwright in Chicago, I borrowed a tale from his collection. Commissioned to make a documentary film on the saint poets Kanakadasa and Purandaradasa, I only had to turn to his essays on Bhakti for an analysis of the whole movement. An order for a film on environment sent me to his version of A Flowering Tree. When I was provoked by the Mandal-Masjid conflict and turned to 11th-century Karnataka for a template, there was his work on the vacanas. He first told me about Tipu Sultan’s secret diaries on which I later wrote a play. Whenever I needed a subject, he already seemed to be there, ready to hint, guide, analyse.
What was amazing was his capacity to see connections and patterns between unrelated phenomena. He had noted how in tales told by old women in Karnataka the tales lacked names and descriptions when narrated in the kitchen, but emerged fully decked with details when they became the basis for ballads or ritual tales in public places. He was startled and delighted to discover the same pattern in the domestic akam and the public puram works in the Tamil Sangam oeuvre.
Let me end by expressing my own delight to find a similar pattern repeated in the two editors of Journeys. One is a member of Raman’s domestic world, his own son, while the other is a stranger he had never met, from Spain, a country across the seas he had probably never visited. Or is it another proof of how Ramanujan’s structuralism has influenced my vision?
Excerpted with permission from ‘Journeys: A Poet’s Diary’, by A.K. Ramanujan, published by Penguin Random House