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Reading the works of the Ramanujans

CP Surendran

Though a much-rewarded scholar, translator, and an exceptionally gifted poet, Ramanujan was disposed to self doubt, anxiety, and depression till his death in 1993. His battle with himself began early. One of his first diary entries (19 March, 1951) when he had just set out as a lecturer in English in Quilon, Kerala, reads: ‘All my wavering and indecision are because I’m not prepared to give up anything… I achieve nothing, because no one alternative maddens me and enlists all my sympathies.’ His inability to break out of himself, to abandon himself to an impulse seems to have struck him as a failing.

Decades later, as a true and willing victim of the dysfunction — the writer’s obsessive compulsive verbalising; language is a virus from outer space, William Burroughs said — as his diaries prove, Ramanujan confesses that ‘wave after wave of discontent’ has made him ‘irritable.’ The discontent was largely with his guarded, gentrified self. His mood altering substance, besides poetry, was mostly milk, of which there are more mentions than alcohol. As late as 1989, when he had established himself as a professor and poet, he agonises: ‘Don’t feel I deserve to go to Jerusalem Poetry Festival where… Milosz and Brodsky (Nobel Prize winners) are coming. How can I represent India? I write poetry part time. I got invited because people in Jerusalem knew me…’ If only he knew, from Jaipur to Trivandrum, that is how it mostly works now, except for the humility.

I chanced upon Molly Daniels’s novel ‘The Salt Doll’ just before I began reading AK Ramanujan’s ‘Journeys; A Poet’s Diary’. The fictional autobiography of Mira Cheriyan, first published in 1978, is dedicated ‘To my husband, Attipat Krishnaswamy Ramanujan’. Molly was from Tiruvalla in central Kerala. Like her husband, Molly won a Fulbright scholarship in 1961. In 1962 they were married. Nine years later, they were divorced. In 1974, they were back together, in Chicago. In 1988, they were divorced again.

These points are mentioned in the concise notes introducing each of the five sections of Journeys, ending with 1993. One of the two editors is the poet’s son, Krishna Ramanujan. The other, Guillermo Rodriguez, is an authority on the subject. Journeys is meticulously put together to give you an insight into Ramanujan’s mind. But it is a perspective as Ramanujan intended: ‘I am publishing them now… so that the private may find a place in larger discussion, just as larger discussions entered my private journal.’ In the process, he may have too thoroughly cleansed his thoughts for public consumption.

Ramanujan seems to have found it hard to locate the centre of these — the poetic and the personal — convergences in his diary. This is not to say his background as a brahmin, his relationship with his mother, or his conventional upbringing did not influence his calling as a linguist and a poet. They did, and brilliantly; this one on Narasimha, for instance:

When the clever man asks the perfect boon:/not to be slain by demon, god, or by/beast, not day nor by night/… O midnight sun, eclipse at noon,/ net of loopholes, a house all threshold/ connoisseur of negatives and assassin /of certitudes, slay now my faith in doubt…/adjust my single eye, rainbow bubble,/ so I too may see all things double.//(Mythologies 2).

How well an alien culture is integrated into the English language.

The very personal Ramanujan is a shadow fading and fleeting on these pages for he was careful what he cast to the sun. The immortality stakes. Though one’s afterlife, with luck, boils down to an obit in The Economist or the NYT. Ramanujan earned his in the NYT; a cold, obligatory fact sheet. The man might have been a machine. At his most exposed in his entries, Ramanujan manages to remain clad to the naked eye. Perhaps that is why, his wife, snooping on his entries, called him a ‘liar’.

I wonder why what must have been one of the most formative and shattering relationships is mostly left out in terms of its impact on his poetry. Perhaps they await another volume. There are, we are informed, 71 boxes of papers on him with the University of Chicago. Molly, who lets Ramanujan know the reason the Ganga cures diseases is because it is 90 per cent urine, symbolises what Ramanujan wanted and lacked. There is a letter addressed to her, whose subject is himself. Then again on how he misses her in the hitherto unpublished ‘Mescalin Notes’, written in 1971: ‘Only Molly could have been here, all else I’d/have felt guilty – for no one else would have given me all of themselves…’ ‘The Notes’ were written on the strength of a mescaline tablet, a hallucinogenic drug extracted from cactus. Ramanujan did not pursue that all too short-lived abandon into a focused project as perhaps, the editors say, for fear of replicating impressions that in 1953 Aldous Huxley recorded as he ‘swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescalin dissolved in half a glass of water and sat down to wait for the results.’ Huxley’s sixth-sensory experience —‘Dharma-Body of the Buddha was the hedge at the bottom of the garden’ — and of his discovery of perfect order even in disintegration were the material for his essay, The Doors of Perception.

‘The Salt Doll’ is an exhilarating exercise in wit and verve, and whose echoes I hear in Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’. This is Mira Cheriyan, praying to Infant Jesus for having narrowly escaped punishment: ‘To placate my conscience, I tell the diaperless Infant: “Baby, I won’t talk in class again.’” The Salt Doll is comparable to Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, but Molly Daniels is yet to be discovered in India by woman-writing, which often is wary of a sister-talent that may turn in on itself as much as against men. And the culture of affirmative reading encourages mono dimensionality of the text. To a great extent Molly Daniels seems to exact a kind of cautious silence from Ramanujan. It is this liberation of spirit that a metaphorically mescalin-fed Molly represents; one that the poet finds elusive. Perhaps none of it matters. The conventions of his gentrified despair translate into poems that go up in your face like controlled explosions. There’s much to the milk he drank.

(HT Media)

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