Reading the Small Print

The literary legacy of an Indian modernist

01 August 2013


IT SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT THE TIMES that it took a dreary battle in one of India’s interminable ‘culture wars’ to make AK Ramanujan’s name familiar to readers of the broadsheet newspapers. Someone decided that it was a bad idea for a scholarly essay of Ramanujan’s from 1991 about the many tellings of the Ramayana story in South and Southeast Asia to be on the undergraduate syllabus for history students at Delhi University. The essay was removed from the syllabus in October 2011, and sure enough, the usual round of angry protests and smug op-eds followed.

Now, it is easy enough to see why the essay, with its narratives of Ramayana traditions that show a striking irreverence for the figure of Rama, could prove a source of controversy. But it is a shame how little was made of the teachable moment even by Ramanujan’s academic defenders.

Shortly after the university decided to exclude the essay from its syllabus, the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express:

The exclusion of A.K. Ramanujan’s great essay from the syllabus of the Delhi University highlights the ways in which both the Left and the Right have reduced a great tradition to an impoverished political totem. In the process, both have elided larger questions. The deeper crisis is that our public culture no longer has even the minimal intellectual resources to engage in a serious debate over different “meanings” of Ramayana. The invocation by the Left of a diversity of traditions is technically correct. But in this invocation, diversity is merely a formal gesture. We like the fact that there are diverse Ramayanas. But we don’t want to have the space to discuss any one of them.

This was not the first time Ramanujan’s work, which spanned five decades, two countries, and at least three disciplines, had been reduced to its political significance. In July 1966, Ramanujan, then teaching at the University of Chicago and fresh from the excellent reviews of his first book of poems in English, wrote an excited letter to his friend and editor Bonnie Crown at the Asia Society in New York.

Ramanujan with UR Ananthamurthy in Minnesota, circa 1976. Ramanujan translated Ananthamurthy’s landmark novel, Samskara.

Last week I read a Kannada novel which moved me more than anything I have read in that language. It is by a young writer and was published a couple of months ago. It is about a sinful Brahman’s death in a Brahman colony, and the problem is who should perform the funeral rights [sic] of the sinner. This involves the entire Brahman community and raises all sorts of complex and ultimate questions. I would like to translate it, though it is going to be very difficult because of the interweaving of Brahmanical mythology and daily ritual in the telling of the story. But if this is translated I am sure it will be important as it is intense, complex, rich and absolutely authentic. I hope to write to the author who is a good friend of mine, now in England on a doctoral fellowship. Are you interested?

Crown was very interested in the novel—its Kannada title was Samskara—and Ramanujan wrote to its author, UR Ananthamurthy in Birmingham:

I have thought of writing to you many times, especially after reading your recent novel which moved me greatly … I would like to know whether you would permit me to translate your new novel into English? … I hope you have had an exciting and creative time in England. … With every good wish …

The translation was published in 1976, subtitled ‘A Rite for a Dead Man’, one of the many meanings of the Sanskrit word Ananthamurthy had chosen for a title, and followed by an afterword, one of Ramanujan’s shrewdest essays of criticism. He was enthralled by the predicament of the novel’s central character, Praneshacharya—a learned Brahmin thrown by a series of disquieting events into an unfamiliar form of self-reflection. As Ramanujan saw it, in the person of Praneshacharya, “brahminism questions itself in a modern existential mode (a mode rather alien to it, in fact); and the questioning leads him into new and ordinary worlds.” Having committed the ultimate infraction of sleeping with a lower-caste woman, he is forced to confront questions for which his learning provides no simple answers. “Will he, can he, ever integrate it with his old ways, his past samskara? We do not know.”

Ramanujan’s translation was serialised in the Illustrated Weekly of India, then edited by Khushwant Singh, and immediately misunderstood. One letter to the editor described the book as a “witch-hunt for the brahmin … written in supercilious, deprecating, ridiculing and pontificating style”. Of course, the book deserved none of these charges, the author’s qualified sympathy for his Brahmin characters and their world making it something quite different from a work of political satire. The letter-writer appeared unable to tell a novel from a polemic, to see that Ananthamurthy’s aims were not political but ethical. For his part, Ramanujan was indifferent to the novel’s politics. In his mind, Samskara was neither pro- nor anti-Brahmin: it was concerned with the fate of the self in the modern world. As Ramanujan’s afterword had it, we see Praneshacharya

mutating, changing from a fully evolved socialized brahmin at one with his tradition towards a new kind of person; choosing himself, individuating himself, and “alienating” himself. We are left “anxious, expectant”, like the Acharya himself at the end of the novel.

It was natural that Samskara would move Ramanujan. The world of the novel, too full of mythic symbolism to count as strictly realistic, was directly continuous with the world of Ramanujan’s early poetry. The narrator of ‘Still Another View of Grace’, the most resonant of the poems in his first collection The Striders (1966), is introduced as having been “Bred Brahmin among singers of shivering hymns” and “shudder[ing] to the bone at hungers that roam the street / beyond the constable’s beat.” The poem then trudges to its violent, brooding conclusion:

                                     But there She stood

… and gave me a look. Commandments crumbled

as 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.

Is this a political poem? An attack on Brahminism? The question is beside the point. The projects that dominated Ramanujan’s life—poetry in English and Kannada, translation from Tamil and Kannada, collecting the folklore of South India—were political only by their deliberate avoidance of politics.

When Ramanujan died, 20 years ago, the result of an adverse reaction to being under anaesthesia for a minor surgical operation, the flag in the main quadrangle of the University of Chicago, where he had taught and worked for the previous 30 years, flew at half-mast—a recognition by his Chicago colleagues of the magnitude of their loss. At the funeral, an early poem, ‘Prayers to Lord Murugan’, was read out:

Lord of the headlines,

help us read

the small print.

Lord of the sixth sense,

give us back

our five senses.

Ramanujan’s was not a system of thought—he mostly abhorred the systematic—but a way of being, and a way of seeing. There was no philosophy separate from what is expressed in the poems he wrote and the life he lived. And ‘Prayers to Lord Murugan’ came closer than most of his poetry to expressing, if not quite his philosophy, what we might call his sensibility.

By sensibility he was inclined to stick up for the ‘small print’ over the ‘headlines’, what the anthropologists call the ‘Little Tradition’ over the ‘Great’. It was this sensibility that dictated his choice of what to translate—poems from classical and mediaeval Tamil and Kannada rather than the Sanskrit epics, anonymous bards and alienated mystics rather than the Vedic sages. The sensibility was also at the centre of his poetics: to favour the particular image over the universal principle, the simple act of apprehending the visible world with “our five senses” over any attempt to transcend it through some act of abstraction, some “sixth sense”.

A sensibility is not an ideology, and Ramanujan’s life and work resist any attempt to claim him for one of the desiccated labels of Indian political life—‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘communal’ and ‘secular’. One might call him a modernist, perhaps the greatest of Indian modernists. But he would have approved of neither the superlative nor the reductive label. There is no need to deify him, but he does deserve to be understood, and we are yet a long way off from an adequate understanding of his life and thought.

This should not surprise us; India’s modern literary history has not been well served by its historians. The poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has often complained of the “great betrayal of our literature … by those who teach in the country’s English departments, the academic community whose job it was to green the hillsides by planting them with biographies, scholarly editions, selections…”

Ramanujan with his wife Molly Daniels-Ramanujan and writer Chard Powers Smith in Vermont, USA, in 1972.

Ramanujan has been singularly fortunate in his posthumous minders—his wife Molly Daniels-Ramanujan and his student and friend Vinay Dharwadker, to name two among many—who have been as sedulous after his death as his publishers and academic champions were in his lifetime. The larger part of his work remains in print in a variety of well-curated editions. However, his extensive letters and other papers, meticulously preserved and catalogued at Chicago’s Regenstein Library, cry out for an editor or biographer who can bring them to a wider readership. To read the letter to Ananthamurthy quoted earlier, for example, is to have a glimpse of a literary friendship of many decades. But it is also to watch an unfolding episode in literary history. Perhaps Ramanujan’s papers will be the focus of a new history of modern Indian literature, and the writings, concerns, and friendships of which that literature was made.

| II |

AMONG THE DOZENS OF BOXES of AK Ramanujan’s papers is a yellowed sheet from the late 1950s on which a 30-year-old Ramanujan has scribbled out a brief autobiography to include with his application to do a PhD in Linguistics in America. Its first paragraph reads:

I was born in 1929 (Mysore), the second of six children. My father, who introduced me early to the delights of intellectual life … was a University Professor of Mathematics and Statistics. (My mother, who is not college-educated, is widely read in Kannada and Tamil.) Though they were orthodox, unconsciously they educated me away from rigid religious belief and ritual. I was sent to the only Kindergarten in Mysore, and later to a Christian Mission School. In both, I learnt English earlier and better than anything else. By 10, I had read most of the stories and Golden Deeds in the Children’s Encyclopaedia.

The familiar elements of his biography are all here: the three languages of his childhood, not to mention Sanskrit, the unnamed language of orthodoxy, and a thoroughgoing lack of religious belief. His mother has her due place in the story, albeit in parentheses, but it is his father who seems the dominant influence.

A poem (‘Self-portrait’) in AK Ramanujan’s first collection, The Striders, ends on this image:

I resemble everyone

but myself, and sometimes see

in shop-windows …

the portrait of a stranger,

date unknown,

often signed, in a corner

by my father.

The patrimony is evident in Ramanujan’s name. A Tamil Brahmin of the Sri Vaishnava caste, Ramanujan’s name follows the conventional pattern—ancestral village, father’s name, given name. The A in Ramanujan’s name is Attipat (as he preferred to spell it), a small town now a suburb of Chennai. K is for Krishnaswami, the given name of Ramanujan’s father, AA Krishnaswami. Krishnaswami was a professor of mathematics at the University of Mysore, the much larger town where Ramanujan was born and grew up. Our most vivid sense of Krishnaswami comes from an essay Ramanujan wrote in the 1980s titled ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?’

He wore neat white turbans, a … 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 we wore draped in traditional Brahmin style. He often wore tartan-patterned socks and silent well-polished leather shoes when he went to the university, but he carefully took them off before he entered the inner quarters of the house.

The essay goes on to describe an inconsistency within his father’s thought and practice that never ceased to puzzle the young Ramanujan.

Ramanujan speaking at Delhi University in 1983. He was more interested in the Indian mother tongues than in Sanskrit because he felt that they “represent a democratic, anti-hierarchic, from-the-ground-up view of India.”

He was a mathematician, an astronomer. But he was also a Sanskrit scholar, an expert astrologer. … 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.

There is, in Ramanujan’s poetry, a constant attempt to make something of the multitudes he had inherited—that went beyond his father’s ability to live with his cognitive dissonance. In later years, he would write in reply to an academic curious about his religious views:

In my adolescence I rejected “religion, caste, community.” I think I learned effectively to live without them as well as anyone can—but I’m aware they are very much the “language of the self” … They are of interest to me because I know them in my bones—though I’ve no religion, I can’t resist temples, religious customs, their music and poetry. I sometimes even talk of “grace,” with a small g.

A fascination with religion and a lack of religious faith, a life of scholarship in classical literature and a love of literary modernism, forever haunted by the reverberations of ritual Sanskrit yet hankering after what he liked to call, borrowing a phrase from Milton, the “native woodnotes” of the mother tongues: Ramanujan’s life and work present us with tensions galore. His response, however, was not to sequester the two sides of the contradiction, as his father had done, but to sustain an intelligent ambivalence.

Consider, to pick one of many things he was ambivalent about, his attitude to family. Ramanujan’s second collection of English poems, Relations (1971), opens with the arresting, unsettling imagery of its epigraph—a poem he had translated from an ancient Tamil anthology.

Like a hunted deer

on the wide white

salt land,

a flayed hide

turned inside out,

one may run,


But living

among relations

binds the feet.

Ramanujan’s poetry was, to the end, dominated by images of (blood) relations, an ambivalence about roots. Characteristically, his canny choice of epigraph traces the ambivalence to a source neither modern nor American, but from India’s antiquity. One of his letters speaks of his “sense of family, its place in all my understandings of things Indian, its being the source of much that is good and evil, decent and savage, creative and stifling”, followed by the wry understatement: “Some of this shows up in my verse.” It does indeed.

The making of AK Ramanujan as a poet, scholar and translator was his discovery of a poetic voice that allowed him to express the precise quality of his ambivalence, a voice oblique, ironic, and full of the echoes of forms and languages not English. As the poet and critic R Parthasarathy put it in his apologia for Ramanujan’s English poetry, it was “the heir of an anterior tradition, a tradition very much of this subcontinent, the deposits of which are in Kannada and Tamil, and which have been assimilated into English.”

Ramanujan would write in later years of his interest in these languages and their traditions “stirred by the (what seems now) extraordinary place Mysore was in the late ’40s and early ’50s”. Sent by his father to that iconic Mysore institution, the Maharaja’s College, to study English Literature, he would encounter some of the best minds of the age among his teachers and student contemporaries.

At the Maharaja’s College, there was the Cambridge-educated WG Eagleton, who introduced the young Ramanujan to the serious study of English poetry—from the Renaissance and the Metaphysicals to Thomas Hardy and WB Yeats. But Ramanujan was also studying Kannada literature with V Sitaramayya, whom he would later call “one of the finest and most wide-ranging of teachers” who “talked of everything from Sanskrit epics to Keynes to Auden. … I admired his range, his deep knowledge of two cultures and literatures. Now that I think of it, he was a fine representative of a special Kannada tradition, which began with his teachers—of being bi-literary in Kannada and English.”

Ramanujan went on to do an MA in English, then took on a series of college teaching positions in Quilon, Madurai, and for five years, Belgaum, that occupied him through his twenties. It was when accompanying his students at Lingaraj College, Belgaum, to an inter-collegiate debate that Ramanujan first befriended a young Girish Karnad, a few years his junior, still a decade away from becoming one of the most influential of modern Kannada playwrights. Karnad recalls those encounters in an interview with the academic Anjali Nerlekar:

Ramanujan … loved to hold forth—on any subject. For him there was no boundary between the classroom and the world outside. We used to discuss Eliot, Huxley, Yeats and Pound, and he talked about these writers as though they were contemporaries, not gods sitting out there. That was very exciting. … He was the only man I knew who had actually immersed himself in Pound and the later poetry of Yeats. He knew those poems backwards. The other professors of English … loved Shelley [but] were put off by what they saw as sexual obsession in the later Yeats and preferred his early Romantic poems. And wrote very bad poetry in English themselves … There was a real breach in the sensibility there; for them, modernist writing was something that was happening in England.

The rare confidence of the young Ramanujan lay in how he saw no reason modernist writing could not as well happen in Belgaum as in Bloomsbury. Yet, he longed, like many Indians of his generation, to go abroad. Karnad says this had to do with the fact that Ramanujan “believed that unless you are open to the ‘inwardness’ of a language … as it is spoken in a mother-tongue situation, the writing would congeal, that it would become archaic and irrelevant to the living tradition.”

A page from Ramanujan’s notes for his anthology A Flowering Tree and Other Folk Tales From India, published posthumously in 1997.

Things were beginning to happen in Indian literature: the embarrassing imitations of Victorian mediocrities that had characterised previous Indian attempts at English poetry were giving way to the fresher, more assured, experiments of Nissim Ezekiel in Bombay, and a 19-year-old Dom Moraes had just had his first collection, A Beginning (1958), published in England. Ramanujan managed to get hold of a copy, and read out the poems to Karnad, “careful to point out phrases and idioms that he said no Indian poet would have used: ‘This is genuine mother-tongue vocabulary,’ he said.”

But things were not easy for him: his father had died in 1953, leaving “debts and daughters” (as a poem, ‘Obituary’ has it) for Ramanujan and his brothers to take care of. It was only a fortuitous Fulbright Grant for Linguistics that took Ramanujan abroad in 1959, not to England—still the destination of choice for Indians hankering for Abroad—but to America.

| III |

RAMANUJAN’S PHD THESIS at Indiana University, published as a monograph in 1963, was called ‘A Generative Grammar of Kannada’. Shortly after getting his PhD, he found a position at the University of Chicago where the study of South Asia was, under the pioneering scholars Edward C Dimock and Milton Singer, just beginning to take off. Despite its arctic winters and the gang violence around its campus, and though other American departments tried more than once to tempt him away, the University of Chicago was where Ramanujan remained for more or less the rest of his life.

Through his early years there, Ramanujan was reading widely in modern American poetry, in particular that of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. He had accumulated a substantial body of poems to add to the writings of his twenties, publishing them every now and then in minor American journals. In the mid-1960s, Girish Karnad, who had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and was now working at Oxford University Press’s office in Madras, wondered if the Press might consider Ramanujan’s work for the new ‘Oxford Poets’ series edited by the poet Jon Stallworthy. Karnad could not persuade the aesthetically conservative Roy Hawkins, OUP’s general manager in India, to give the typescript his official endorsement (“I don’t know why you call this poetry. Looks like prose cut up and pasted to look like verse to me”) and had to send them to London as a personal recommendation. To his delight, Stallworthy liked the poems. On the 5th of August 1964, Karnad wrote to Ramanujan in Chicago:

Dear Ramanujan

A hurried note before I get down to the work for the day. I’m sorry I can’t give you more definite news but things—so far as ‘The Striders’ is concerned—are warming up.

The report from our London office says:

“We are distinctly interested by these. Ramanujan is already a good poet, and potentially a very good one. … His rhythms are sure but relaxed in the approved American style of the moment: his voice, however, is his own and India’s. …”

Stallworthy himself wrote shortly after, praising the poems’ “rare blend of energy and accuracy”, and also expressing a few reservations and requesting changes. Ramanujan was receptive to Stallworthy’s criticism, seeing him immediately for an astute critic after his own heart; after all, Karnad recalls, Ramanujan “insisted on being rational and insisted that one should accept criticism of one’s own work dispassionately. … He insisted on rigour in poetry: ‘… The first draft is a point of departure—you have to get away from it.’” He and Stallworthy maintained a friendly correspondence for many years afterwards.

The Striders was published in 1966, and contains many of Ramanujan’s most anthologised poems, among them the title poem with its strange, memorable in medias res opening—

And search

for certain thin-

stemmed, bubble-eyed water bugs.

See them perch

on dry capillary legs


on the ripple skin

of a stream.

The assured rhythms of the adjectives (“thin-/stemmed, bubble-eyed”), the well-judged precision of the images (“dry capillary legs”)—this was evidently not apprentice work. In another poem, ‘Conventions of Despair’, the detachment of the narrative voice achieves a quite different effect. It starts wryly enough—“Yes, I know all that. I should be modern”—but wryness is transformed slowly into a vehicle of self-knowledge:

But, sorry, I cannot unlearn

conventions of despair.

They have their pride.

I must seek and will find

my particular hell only in my hindu mind

The New York Times Book Review remarked how “thoroughly assimilated into Western life” Ramanujan appeared to be, and on the evident influence of “methods derived from Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and other American masters.” It praised the poems’ “fluidly imagistic” quality, “at once exquisitely fresh, concrete, precise, playful and serious … revealing perspectives of a mind partly expatriated but nevertheless very much involved in Indian life and its meanings”.

The review concluded with this insightful judgment: “East may be East and West may be West, but it is clear that the twain have not only met but become united in consciousness and feeling in [Ramanujan]”. This was not the dissonant dualism of Ramanujan’s father—Bertrand Russell in one hand, the Gita in the other—but something altogether different. (In later years, Ramanujan would come to be fond of describing himself as “the hyphen in Indo-American”.)

As more reviews appeared, a critical consensus emerged, one that would dog him throughout his poetic life. No reviewer was unimpressed by the crisp precision of Ramanujan’s language and imagery, but some observed that the detached, mordant ironies of the poems came at a price. As one American critic, Burton Raffel, put it, “there is not much to move one … and a poet cannot fail much more basically than that”. Yet, Raffel noted, his weaknesses were not those of such contemporaries as P Lal or Dom Moraes whose vices were those of the British models they sought to emulate.

Ramanujan at home in Mysore, listening to the family radio. He wrote radio plays during his early career in India.

Ramanujan has been to school to a different spoken climate: he has a good ear (not too surprising for a professional linguist), and if he has the courage, if he can break through to what is honestly going on within himself, he has, as no other Indian poet I know, a chance to write first- rather than second-rate poetry in English.

| IV |

IN FACT, Ramanujan’s poetic schooling went well beyond the American modernists he was reading in Chicago. Early in his academic career, he was asked if he could teach Tamil; he protested that he knew Tamil only as a mother tongue, but agreed in the end. Uncomfortable with his lack of facility in classical Tamil, he descended into the basement stacks of Chicago’s Harper Library “in search of an elementary grammar of Old Tamil”. In his narration, the story of what happened next acquires all the qualities of a religious experience:

The University had just acquired a large collection of books from a famous South Indian historian. It was still uncatalogued, even undusted. As I searched, hoping to find a school grammar, I came upon an early anthology of classical poems … I sat down on the floor between the stacks and began to browse. To my amazement, I found the prose commentary transparent; it soon unlocked the old poems for me. As I began to read on, I was enthralled by the beauty and subtlety of what I could read. Here was a world, a part of my language and culture, to which I had been an ignorant heir. Until then, I had only heard of the idiot in the Bible who had gone looking for a donkey and had happened upon a kingdom.

The poems to which he refers were composed almost two thousand years ago in a language recognisable as an ancestor of modern Tamil. They were compiled in eight anthologies and produced in three ‘Sangams’, or literary academies, in Madurai from the 1st to the 4th century AD. They were not, or not primarily, religious in character—there are few references to mythology, and even fewer to any esoteric philosophy. Historians even today know little about the people who wrote them except what the poems themselves allow us to infer: a sense of the landscapes they inhabited and associated with a rich pattern of symbols—the hills, the coasts, the forests, the fields, the desert—and of the details of their everyday lives—romantic love, gossip and war.

The corpus of ‘Sangam’ poetry had not always been well known, even to Tamils in India. “They were,” Ramanujan wrote, “dramatically rediscovered in the later decades of the nineteenth century … Eighteenth-century Hindu scholars, devout worshipers of Siva or Visnu, had tabooed as irreligious all secular and non-Hindu texts, which included the classical Tamil anthologies.” The rediscovery was owed to the efforts of a zealous generation of Tamil scholars—Swaminatha Aiyar, Damodaram Pillai and others—who spent years “roaming the villages, rummaging in private attics and the storerooms of monasteries” to unearth, edit, and print these classical Tamil texts. It was another stroke of good fortune in the precarious history of the poems, having escaped the wrath of sectarians, termites and the elements, to find in Ramanujan the perfect champion.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of The Interior Landscape (1966), a collection of Ramanujan’s translations from the Kuruntokai, one of the Sangam anthologies. Ramanujan’s influential afterword made his claim for them with a persuasive elegance:

In their antiquity and in their contemporaneity, there is not much else in any Indian literature equal to these quiet and dramatic Tamil poems. In their values and stances, they represent a mature classical poetry: passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, leanness of line by richness of implication. These poems are not just the earliest evidence of Tamil genius. The Tamils, in their 2,000 years of literary effort, wrote nothing better.

One does well to give the passage a second reading: the adjectives carefully judged, the critical pronouncements restrained yet confident, and the conclusion ultimately, if subtly, damning of every previous critical orthodoxy. Perhaps the best known of Ramanujan’s translations from this volume—it was featured in 2001 on the walls of a London tube train as a ‘Poem on the Underground’—is Kuruntokai 40, titled according to commentarial convention with the colophon ‘What He Said’:

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 have mingled

like red earth and pouring rain.

The poem speaks for itself, freed to do so by the exquisite restraint of Ramanujan’s translation. It illustrates what he called the “characteristic genius” of the Sangam corpus, “its lack of metaphysical abstraction; even at its most complex thinking is done in terms of physical detail.” And yet how it moves one. Perhaps Ramanujan was freest from detachment and irony when he played spokesman to the emotion of others.

Reviewers in both America and India, lay readers and Tamil scholars, were enthusiastic about how Ramanujan had managed to balance the demands of accuracy with the need for the translation to be an English poem in its own right, and one that might convey to the monolingual reader something of the effect of the Tamil original. They noted his ease with modern English (and American) idiom in his renderings of the classical Tamil, and the ingenuity with which he drew on a wide range of modern poetic techniques—the use of spacing, punctuation and stanzaic structure—to evoke the untranslatable elements of the original.

The Interior Landscape had permanently raised the standards for literary translation from Indian languages; it asked its readers, as an early review of the collection put it, to “settle for nothing less than poetry in the receiving language.” It required the translator to know not just two languages, but something about poetry, and something about poetic technique. It widened the range of what devices could be used to mediate the distance between such grammatically and aurally dissimilar languages as English and Tamil. As his colleague Paula Richman put it, Ramanujan had “created, ex nihilo, a set of poetic strategies to respond to the complexities of rendering Tamil into unstilted English”. It showed that translation called for as much in the way of creativity as it did in the way of scholarship; even fidelity needed imagination.

The next years saw Ramanujan return to the interests, language, and imaginative landscape of his twenties: the mediaeval world of the radically egalitarian Virashaiva movement of the 11th and 12th century and its stark, haunting poetry in Kannada. He had studied these poets with the redoubtable V Sitaramayya in Mysore, and had been translating them through his twenties, and he returned to them now. His interest in the poetry of these Shaivite saints had something in it of rebellion from the deeply hierarchical Vaishnavite orthodoxy in which he had been brought up. As he would put it in later years, “I had to do the poetry of Siva before I could even think of studying the poetry of Visnu—the god of my parents’ subcaste. ... A form of reverse prejudice, prejudice nevertheless.”

His interest in the movement had been regarded, even in India, as mildly eccentric. As Girish Karnad puts it in his interview with Anjali Nerlekar, “No one except devout Lingayats [contemporary Virashaivas] paid much attention to them in those days. Even Kannada professors were interested only in the epics, in identifying the ‘Kannada Milton,’ or the ‘Kannada Homer,’ if you see what I mean. But he loved the vacanas, as poetry…”

The vacanas, literally ‘sayings’ or ‘utterances’, were part of a remarkable corpus of writings in which there had previously been little non-sectarian interest. But it was clear what Ramanujan saw in them. As he would put it in the selection of translations from the corpus that Penguin published in 1971, titled, with deliberate informality, Speaking of Siva,

In these Virasaiva saint-poets, experience spoke in a mother tongue. Pan-Indian Sanskrit, the second language of cultured Indians for centuries, gave way to colloquial Kannada. The strictness of traditional metres, the formality of literary genres, divisions of prose and verse, gave way to the innovations and spontaneity of free verse …

Take the withering scorn of Basavanna, the founder of the Virashaiva movement.

The pot is a god. The winnowing

fan is a god. The stone in the

street is a god. The comb is a

god. The bowstring is also a

god. The bushel is a god and the

spouted cup is a god.

Gods, gods, there are so many

there’s no place left

for a foot.

                     There is only

one god. He is our Lord

of the Meeting Rivers.

As Ramanujan’s introduction had it, “Some of the incandescence of Virasaiva poetry is the white heat of truth-seeing and truth-saying in a dark deluded world; their monotheism lashes out in an atmosphere of animism and polytheism.” Ramanujan was attracted to neither the monotheism nor the iconoclastic impulse but to what is captured by that expressive, sensuous phrase “the white heat of truth-seeing”.

Speaking of Siva found an unexpected admirer in Ted Hughes, who recommended the book enthusiastically to his friends and filled a notebook with vacanas of his own, imitations of and variations on Basavanna’s. Every now and then, Ramanujan would hear from Kannadigas who had grown up with the poems but found in his translations a fresh way of looking at them. Chandrashekhar Patil, later to be a distinguished playwright and critic in Karnataka, wrote to Ramanujan from Leeds in England where he was studying for a postgraduate degree in Linguistics:

Dear Ramanujan,

It was just by luck—by God’s grace, I must say—that I picked up your book in the stall the other day. I kept reading it the whole night. It was such a revelation—the vacanas opening themselves up in an alien language. Being a jangama [i.e. a Virashaiva] myself … I could respond to those lines almost unconsciously. I know some vacanas by heart, but I was never taken to the heart of the matter. I thank you, the re-creator, for this unexpected native pleasure under the English sky.

He continued, more ambivalently:

Your translations, Ramanujan, are marvellous. No wonder your writing … is so naked, stripped of all linguistic redundancies … You have the precision of the vacanakaras who built temples of poetry around the bones of words. What most of us, however, lack is the genuine passion, the life-force, of those poets whose deep involvement in life filled the space between their lines. Most of us are wellpaid, wellfed, armchaired, harmless university teachers to whom life is promotion and death (salvation!) is retirement.

Many years later, Ramanujan would make an unsettling discovery while translating the poems of the poet SK Madhusudan, who wrote in Tamil under the penname ‘Atmanam’. Atmanam had attempted and then successfully committed suicide in the 1980s. Ramanujan turned, while translating the poems, to “the biographical note at the end of the book. To my shock, I read there that he was reading night and day my Speaking of Siva just before he attempted suicide.” The idea of being read, as he would put it in a late poem, by a “young man / in Madras”, of whom he had known nothing when translating the vacanas struck him as a strange parallel to “the saints who sang / ten centuries ago about Siva / without any thought of me”. “I had some connection with him”, he said, “that I couldn’t quite define.” The poem’s title, ‘He to Me or Me to Him’ evokes the questions of Kuruntokai 40, quoted earlier; but the mysterious, uncanny connection here is not between romantic lovers, but between reader and writer.

Ramanujan with friends, in a photograph taken by his elder brother AK Shrinivasan around 1945.

No subsequent translator from any Indian language has been free of Ramanujan’s influence, and it is tempting to think of this influence as consisting in a ‘theory’ of translation. But Ramanujan had no more a theory of translation than he had a theory of politics; rather, he had principles to respond with when faced with the everyday problems of the translator. The phrase that comes closest to capturing what unified these principles is, in the words of Ramanujan’s student and later colleague David Shulman, an “intensified literalism”. “In the act of translating,” Ramanujan had said, “‘the Spirit killeth and the Letter giveth Life’. Any direct attack on the ‘spirit of the work’ is foredoomed to fuzziness. Only the literal text, the word made flesh, can take us to the word behind the words.”

Ramanujan’s literalism has won him detractors, those puzzled at his insistence on translating even such proper names as Basavanna’s ‘Kudalasangamadeva’, his name for Shiva referring to a specific place of riverine confluence in North Karnataka. In Ramanujan’s rendering, this is the generic “Lord of the Meeting Rivers”. He had his reasons for the choice. To leave the phrase untranslated, he said, would prevent it and its water-imagery from participating in the poems, with their “themes of merging social differences”. Further, one of Ramanujan’s hopes in translating the vacanas was to set them loose from their sectarian context, to make them the property of anyone who brought to the poems if not an attitude of devoutness, then the right quality of attention. If Kudalasangamadeva was a god for Lingayats alone, the Lord of Meeting Rivers was a god for everyone.

A different, and contradictory, line of criticism concerns not Ramanujan’s literalism, but his frequent departures from his own ideal. The scholar and translator Martha Selby, also a student and friend of his, puts the point judiciously.

Ramanujan’s translations are true to the spirit of the poems and are accurate in the ways in which they convey the sometimes shocking beauty of the originals, but he made these Tamil poems into entities quite apart from translations. They work as poems in English quite well, and though they are exquisite, they are not true enough to the originals to be termed accurate in letter. Ramanujan took shortcuts—sometimes leaving out entire clauses that I would wager he found clumsy—in order to impose his own minimalist aesthetic on them.

Others among Ramanujan’s colleagues were troubled by the intercession of his tastes into his choices about how to render the Tamil or Kannada, but the accusation rarely troubled Ramanujan, whose confidence came neither from any disrespectful or iconoclastic impulse nor from some sense of the prerogative of a native speaker. It came, rather, from a sense of the prerogative of a poet translating fellow poets. As he wrote in his translator’s note to Speaking of Siva:

A translation has to be true to the translator no less than to the originals. He cannot jump off his own shadow. Translation is choice, interpretation, an assertion of taste, a betrayal of what answers to one’s needs, one’s envies.

The minimalism of Ramanujan’s translations was an outgrowth of the minimalism of his own poems, it is true, but this was no mere imposition. Ramanujan learnt his minimalism from the poems he translated. His own aesthetics were formed as much out of his encounters with the Kannada and Tamil poetry he translated as the English poets he admired, from George Herbert to Ezra Pound.

Late in his life, Ramanujan would write a poem (‘Mythologies 3’) about the most extraordinary of the Virashaiva poets, the woman saint Akka Mahadevi, and her violent response to being touched by her earthly husband.

…he hovered and touched her, her body death-

ly cold to mortal touch but hot for God’s

first move, a caress like nothing on earth.

She fled his hand as she would a spider,

threw away her modesty, as the rods

and cones of her eyes gave the world a new birth:

She saw Him then, unborn, form of forms, the Rider,

His white Bull chewing cud in her backyard.

The unexpected, almost disruptive, reference to “the rods / and cones of her eyes” are the key to the poem, as much about her act of seeing as the content of her vision. That vision unites the abstract “form of forms”, the solemn “the Rider”, and the homely “his white Bull chewing cud”. The American critic Stephen Burt puts the point sharply: “Ramanujan does not celebrate exactly what Akka celebrates. She cherishes the experience of the god; he, the human imaginative powers that (from a more or less secular point of view) allow her to see what she sees and to feel as she feels.”

Ramanujan’s attitude to the saints had nothing in it of traditional devoutness, but when he writes of how a “mystical opportunist can only wait for it, be prepared to catch It as It passes. The grace of the Lord is nothing he can invoke or wheedle by prayer, rule, ritual, magical word or sacrificial offering”, one is reminded by the capitalised “It” that the modern(ist) poet may be no believer in gods, but he cannot but be a believer in grace, if only of the lower-case variety. It is not given to him to have the other-worldly visions of the mediaeval mystic, but it is given to him to see this world.

| V |

RAMANUJAN’S STUDENT and later colleague Norman Cutler would credit him with being the first to make the culture of the classical Tamil world “accessible, bringing Tamil into the mainstream of Indian studies” in America. But his interest in the Tamil poems had little in it of tokenism; he did not invoke the classical literature of the Tamils as part of some larger political strategy in the manner of the Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu in the 1960s. Still less did he take any interest in the politics of modern Lingayats.

The worldview of the Sangam and vacana literature, as they come across in his translations, had nothing of the shallow mysticism shrouded in cannabis smoke, set to a tawdry sitar soundtrack, that was coming to be America’s primary sense of India’s past. For all the elaborateness of the Tamil and Kannada poems’ symbolic vocabulary, the poems could be read without a glossary to explain the more recondite allusions. Their worldview was intelligible in a secular world. The achievement of the poets was to have looked at, and really seen, the world around them.

If there was politics in all this, it was a long way under the surface. As he once told an interviewer, “I have never translated the Vedas. My interest has always been in the mother tongues, not Sanskrit, because I have always felt that the mother tongues represent a democratic, anti-hierarchic, from-the-ground-up view of India.” Ramanujan comes close to articulating a political philosophy, then avoids it with that ambiguous word “view”: not a philosophy of India, whatever that would be, but an image.

The implicit politics of Ramanujan’s scholarship bore in a different way on the politics of post-war America. Chicago, let us recall, was the site of many of the fiercest ‘culture wars’ in modern American history, with much ink and ire expended on questions about the idea of a literary canon: could there be such a thing, and if so, what should be on it? The literatures of the non-Western world were a constant bone of contention. Was there reason to include them in the canon beyond the demands of that much maligned notion, ‘political correctness’? It was Ramanujan’s translations that first made it possible for the non-Sanskrit literatures of India to stake their claim at the canonical altar. Ramanujan’s reluctance to intervene in these debates, except obliquely, worked to his advantage. The novelist and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, patronising as always, found himself impressed with Ramanujan’s ease with the canonical poets of the Western tradition: “He really gets inside those poets,” he said. “Maybe it helps to have an exotic background to teach someone like Ezra Pound who is always bumming around world literature.”

Ramanujan maintained a cordial relationship even with Allan Bloom, another influential figure at Chicago given to pronouncements about the obvious superiority of the Western intellectual tradition. In an interview late in his life, Ramanujan would put his disagreement gently.

The only thing that I would disagree with Bloom about, which is a central thing, is the notion that the liberal traditions of the world can be found only in the West. Bloom is not alone with this attitude. You find it in the work of [Naipaul]. You find it in earlier people, like Hegel, and others who have written on democracies. The notion that traditional cultures like the Chinese, or the Indian, or the African, are not capable of thinking through a rational, liberal, democratic way of politics or philosophy. That notion is at the back of their thinking. Someone like Bloom will say … that the kind of rational inquiry you find in Plato, you cannot find outside the West. Of course, he’s wrong. He just doesn’t know enough about India or China. … [Still, w]e have to examine these ideas, not simply dismiss them.

His Chicago colleagues Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, writing in the Times of India after his death, said that “Raman infiltrated from within. Persistently but unobtrusively he enticed his colleagues and students to savor a bit, and then a bit more. He was himself, in his low key civility and vitality, a form of praxis for his colleagues, stretching the syllabus inter alia by his brilliant translations and interpretations.” What mattered to Ramanujan was not that Bloom’s views were racist, but that they were false, and untenable in the face of an encounter with the texts. Who, for example, could maintain a view of Indians as fundamentally irrational in the knowledge that 2,000 or so years ago, they were able to write such a poem as this (the translation appeared in Ramanujan’s 1985 collection of translations Poems of Love and War):

Every town a home town,

every man a kinsman.

Good and evil do not come from others.

Pain and relief of pain

come of themselves.

Dying is nothing new.

We do not rejoice that life is sweet

nor in anger

call it bitter.

Our lives, however dear,

follow their own course,

rafts drifting

in the rapids of a great river

sounding and dashing over the rocks

after a downpour

from skies slashed by lightnings—

we know this

from the vision

of men who see.


we are not amazed by the great,

and we do not scorn the little.

The poem, from the Purananuru, another one of the classical Sangam anthologies, is best known for its first line, which has achieved the status of a proverb in modern Tamil. But it is also the statement of a worldview, and a collective aspiration, a universalism and forbearance that the Allan Blooms of this world think the invention of European Stoicism. And in Ramanujan’s sly rendering, we owe these insights about life and living to “the vision / of men who see” —not the sage, but the see-er, not theology, but poetry.

| VI |

THE LAST TWO DECADES OF RAMANUJAN’S LIFE would bring other triumphs—the Indian government awarded him a Padma Shri, he received a MacArthur (“Genius”) Grant—and other books: two volumes of original poetry in Kannada, translations of Tamil war poems from the Sangam era, mediaeval Tamil religious verse from the saint-poet Nammalvar, and collections of folktales from South India. At the time of his death, he was, as the poet Gieve Patel put it in the Times of India obituary for Ramanujan, “in the full bloom of his powers”, scholarly and poetic. The dark, contemplative poems of the posthumously published The Black Hen (whence ‘Mythologies 3’, quoted above) are among the finest things he ever wrote, and he was in the middle of several academic projects on folklore and translation.

Ramanujan’s struggles were not only his own. Other Indian writers too have had to seek a voice that carried within it some trace of the multitudes they contained—multiple languages, multiple civilisations. They too had to find an attitude towards their inherited religion, its orthodoxy sometimes stifling, but sometimes containing within it the seeds of its own rejection. It should not surprise us how many poets of Ramanujan’s generation and since—Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote—have been drawn to the mediaeval ‘bhakti’ saint-poets, revolutionaries as much with regard to poetic form as theology, modernists avant la lettre.

“Yes, I know all that. I should be modern”—begins Ramanujan’s ‘Conventions of Despair’. Others in India have felt this impulse, and it has pulled them in different directions. In politics, it has drawn them towards those distinctively modern ideologies—nationalism, socialism and fascism. In religion, it has had similarly contradictory effects: either towards a radical secularism or a more rational, more philosophical religion. The impulse took Ramanujan neither to politics nor religion, but to poetry, which embraced and transcended both.

Ramanujan’s poetic sensibility was about seeing the world in all its shades, detached, ironic and undeceived. But he was conscious of the dangers in the politics of irony, and its continuity with an element of his inherited religion. The narrator of his poem ‘THE HINDOO: the only risk’ aspires to be the ‘sthitaprajna’ of the ancient ideal—tranquil, stoical, and without desire—but is aware that “At the bottom of all this bottomless / enterprise to keep simple the heart’s given beat, / the only risk is heartlessness.”

"I was born in 1929 (Mysore), the second of six children," began a short autobiographical sketch Ramanujan wrote in his early thirties.

Unlike others of his cast of mind, Ramanujan was capable of being ironic even about irony, of taking a detached view even of detachment, of being ambivalent even about ambivalence. This ability gains its clearest expression in a late poem (‘Mythologies 2’) that gives an unexpected gloss to the old story about the demon Hiranyakashipu who sought, and was granted, what he thought was “the perfect boon”, not to be killed by god, man or beast, in the day or at night, indoors nor outdoors, and so on. Ramanujan takes on the voice of the boy-devotee Prahlad:

       come now come soon,

Vishnu, man, lion, neither and both, to hold

him in your lap to disembowel his pride

with the steel glint of bare claws at twilight.

So far, we are still in the territory of the Vaishnavite piety of his childhood. But the last stanza effects a characteristically modernist inversion:

O midnight sun, eclipse at noon


connoisseur of negatives and assassin

of certitudes, slay now my faith in doubt.

End my commerce with bat and night-

owl. Adjust my single eye, rainbow bubble,

so I too may see all things double.

This is Ramanujan’s legacy: how to “see all things double”, how not to “scorn the little”, and how to “read the small print”.

The author thanks the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, for its assistance.

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Keywords: tradition Tamil literature Indian English writing Hinduism modernism AK Ramanujan Indian Literature