Title: When Mirrors are Windows: A View of AK Ramanujan’s Poetics
Author: Guillermo Rodriguez
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: Rs 1195
I am always wary of being told how to read a poet. When it is a poet whose work I care for, my resistance increases. And so, it was somewhat guardedly that I picked up this book on AK Ramanujan, a writer towards whom I feel not mere admiration, but gratitude and a very real kinship.
Every writer creates his own precursors, wrote the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. For me, AKR is a precursor for several reasons. I have long enjoyed the philosophical restlessness, the quiet self-deprecating irony, the unobtrusive rigour of his poetry. I recently revisited his translations of Nammalvar and was struck all over again by his alchemic ability to transform a 1,000-year-old poet into our contemporary — urgent, fearless, hoarse with longing and naked greed. AKR, at such times, becomes a precursor because, as translator, he uncovers for us an entire literary genealogy to which we can now claim allegiance.
More recently, on re-reading poems like ‘Fear No Fall’, that moving evocation of the Tamil saint poet Arunagiri, I have felt a growing curiosity about the intersections between AKR as poet-intellectual and as a translator of ecstatic mystical verse. These later poems seem to offer glimpses of the poet as pilgrim, one who values literary poise and precision, but yearns also for the inspired self-forgetfulness of ‘possession’.
What makes Rodriguez’s volume rewarding is the fact that he shares the wonder of discovering AKR. Drawing on scholarly essays as well as AKR’s own private journals and unpublished work, it adopts an approach that is ‘both context sensitive and reflexive’, formal and biographical, academic and introspective, allowing each category to interrogate and nourish the other. And, underlying this whole exercise, is a passionate curiosity about AKR. Through this multifocal lens, we are offered fascinating access to the mind of the poet — chronically incapable of rigidity or narrowness, hungry for places where beauty meets truth, often fractured by self-doubt, reluctant to rest content with easy victories, and always deeply, instinctively exploratory.
There is nothing schematic or critically legislative about this volume. It constantly invites the reader to look beyond pat binaries: east-west, akam-puram, interior-exterior, emotional-intellectual, insider-outsider, private-public, mother tongue-father tongue, little tradition-big tradition. Nuancing each category, it cautions us from reading AKR’s journey as that of the homesick exile, rediscovering his Indian roots in a foreign land. Instead, it reminds us of the complexity and variety of his inheritance in India, his ability to draw upon his Tamil and Kannada literary background without resorting to a chauvinist discourse, and his stout refusal to see either the Western or the Indian as monolithic categories.
‘Between’ becomes the operative word here. It signifies an awareness of the hyphen as a tremendous possibility that allows for a condition of multiple citizenship. Indeed, Ramanujan wryly described himself as “the hyphen in Indo-American studies”.
The book is liberally peppered with interesting quotes. In one, Ramanujan calls himself “a multiple monolingual”. In another: “It looks as if I live between things all the time — two (or more) languages, two countries, two disciplines.” Or, yet again: “The whole question of roots is not relevant to me… India is me and with me…” And again, ‘It takes some time before you realise that there are limits your culture has placed on you. Only they are not just limits. They are also resources.’
AKR’s image of his childhood home as a multi-tiered cultural abode (he imbibed Tamil from his mother, Sanskrit and English from his father) is significant in its refusal to posit an immutable divide between inside and outside, mother and father tongue: “[There was] a downstairs for the Tamil world, an upstairs for the English and the Sanskrit, and a terrace on top that was open to the sky… Each had a literature that was unlike the others…and it became the business of a lifetime for some of us to keep the dialogues and quarrels alive and to make something of them.”
There is no cultural machismo here — no impulse to celebrate akam over puram, foundation over terrace. Indeed, how can there be when the terrace is always open to the wilderness of sky — always challenging any snug, self-serving, static identity, aware of the tensions and ambiguities within each tradition, forever inviting us to discovery?
The ideal book on AKR, says Rodriguez, would ‘have to be written by a multidisciplinary team comprising a cultural anthropologist, a literary critic and theorist, a specialist in modern Indian poetry in English and Kannada, a Sanskritist, a Dravidian literature expert, a folklorist, a linguist, a translator and a poet’. Or, he adds, all of the above! One sees his point. It is a tall order. And yet, I suspect a vital key to understanding Ramanujan lies in seeing him foremost as a poet. It is the poet’s capacity to revel in metaphor and slippage, to distrust the rigidly ideological and doctrinaire, to doubt deeply and yet stay open to mystery, that, I imagine, made Ramanujan the inspired translator and scholar he was.
This, then, is the enduring contribution of this volume: the insight that it offers into inner workings of the mind of a remarkable writer-scholar, his capacity to remain poised between identities, to see their ruptures and continuities, without giving in to the extremes of foaming parochialism or glib internationalism. We rediscover Ramanujan as our culturally sophisticated contemporary — more fascinating and more urgently relevant to our lives than ever before. Arundhathi Subramaniam is an award-winning poet and author.