THE FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS
IN A.K. RAMANUJAN’S POETRY
A.K. Ramanujan, (1929-1993) was a great poet. Though he spent a considerable part of life in a foreign country, he did not sever his connections with his native Indian tradition, feelings and ethos. His expatriate sensibility provided him a chance to portray his experiences in India and America in an objective and accurate way. As E.N. Lal said “Ramanujan’s poems take their origin in a mind that is simultaneously Indian and Western - the Indian mode of experiencing an emotion, and the western mode of defining it”.
Most of his poems, though intensely personal, have a universal dimension of their own. The main themes of Ramanujan’s poetry are family, love, despair and death. They are full of irony, humour, paradox and sudden reversals.
However, the archetypal theme of Ramanujan’s poetry is family and its relationships viewed from different angles. In these relationships, we find nostalgia, pathos, irony, humour and sympathy. His poems reveal an assured identity of the poet with the family, which he very much needed after he settled down in Chicago. The linking of familial experience with history and tradition is a feature which runs through the poetry of Ramanujan.
The theme of love, an indispensable part of family relationship, in its various aspects ranging from frustration, infatuation, alienation to ultimate understanding, is daringly portrayed through effective imagery.
His Self-critical ironic approach made him juxtapose the Hindu orthodox world with the present day realities of modern life in his poems. Let us look at a few well-known poems and observe how he uses the theme of family for exploring and unraveling the values of Indian tradition, customs and attitudes.
“Still Another View of Grace” is regarded as one of the finest love poems, a passionate poem of intensity showing the poet caught between the clash of diverse traditions and back-grounds. Like metaphysical poets, he succeeds in combining emotion with reflection. The poet’s severe angry reprimand to his desire “do not follow a gentle man’s morals” at last ends up with surrender to love and crossing the barriers of his orthodox tradition.
The transformation of sensual passion into gentle love is beautifully suggested in the last lines.
------“I shook a little
and took her, behind the laws of my land”.
The drama of love takes place in thought and in action accompanying that thought simultaneously.
LOVE POEM FOR A WIFE - I
“Love Poem for a Wife - I” enacts the short anecdotes of domestic nature arranged in a criss cross order. The lack of emotional integration between the poet and his wife was traced back to lack of sharing each other’s child-hood experiences. Both of them were eager to know each other’s past. The poet gives details of two different family backgrounds juxtaposing one against the other. His wife is curious to know his past through family rumours and brother’s anecdotes and through albums showing the
“Picture of father in a turban
Mother standing on her bare
Splayed fee, silver rings
On her second toes;”
The poet feels a streak of jealousy for not sharing his wife’s part.
“I envy you your village dog-ride
and the mythology
of the seven crazy aunts,”
The poet’s father-in-law never cared to remember the past and never bothered to think about his young daughter’s wanderings.
The hiatus between the attitudes of the poet and his wife is shown even in the present when she started a heated argument with her brother James about the location of bathroom in her grand father’s house, even betting on her husband’s income ignoring her husband’s presence.
and I were blank cut-outs
fitted to our respective
slots in a room”.
Ironically the poet suggests that to solve this problem of alienation, one may follow the Egyptian custom of brother marrying his own sister or the Hindu custom of arranged child marriages. In other words, for a happy married life, mutual understanding and sharing of each others experiences are indirectly suggested.
This love-hate-relationship is briefly shown in “Routine Day Sonnet” where the poet says:
“I wake with a start
To hear my wife cry her heart
Out as if from a crater
In hell; she hates me, I hate her
I am filthy rat and a satyr.”
LOVE POEM FOR A WIFE – 2
Love poem for a wife-2, on the other hand, shows the mature aspect of love with a compromising approach. The family relationship is explored upto the root level tracing back his wife’s Keralite origin to dense green forest habitation filled with rubber plants, pepper vines, and her granny wearing white in a rural dwelling – “full of the colour schemes of Keralites and garter snakes.” The scene shifts to crater-township Aden, where her ancestors and spent precarious days among stabbing Arabs “betrayed and whipped yet happy”.
The poet employs dream technique in which he identifies himself with his wife physically
“I dreamed one day
that face my own, yet hers
with my own nowhere
to be found; lost; cut
loose like my dragnet
He thinks of his situation like that of androgynous God Nataraja (“half woman half man contained in a common body”) balancing stillness in the middle of dynamic dance (a duel as the poet calls). The poet finds himself in a similar state balancing himself between diverse backgrounds of his own and his wife, the present and the past (“still there a drying net on the mountain.”).
Coming back to reality and world of wakefulness he finds his wife sleeping calmly undisturbed by her past.
“My wife’s face still fast
asleep, blessed as by
butterfly, snake, shiprope
and grandmother’s other
by my only love’s only
A blessing indeed indicating a similar approach for the poet also to follow. Real love transcends differences and affords calm composure.
“OF MOTHERS, AMONG OTHER THINGS”
“Of Mothers, among other things” is one of the most touching poems bringing out the poet’s enduring relationship with his mother. The pitiable condition of an aged mother is impressively presented with the deft touch of an imagistic painter.
“Her hands are a wet eagle’s
two black pink-crinkled feat,
one talon crippled in a garden-
trap set for a mouse. Her sarees
do not cling; they hang, loose
feather of a one time wing.”
The poet’s nostalgic memory, dried up like a “twisted blackbone tree” recalls the rosy picture of his mother in her youth, active and caring for her children.”
“From her earnings three diamonds
splash a handful of needles
and I see my mother run back
from rain to the crying cradles.”
The rain broke the tree-tasselled light into rays. The rain may suggest the changing fortunes of life. The effect of age enfeebled his mother who looked like a lean wet eagle. Her fingers became disabled and too weak to pick up a grain of rice from the kitchen floor. This pitiable condition affected the poet so much that he felt his tongue dried up like a parchment tasting of bark in his mouth.
In the poem “Obituary” the poet presents in an ironical vein the tragic effect on the family due to sudden death of his father, causing repercussions on or affecting the whole family set-up.
“The tone is flippant, mock-ironic, but it is merely a cover to hide his essential seriousness and the poignancy of his grief” –Dr. Raghukul Tilak.
“New Indian English poets and Poetry.”
The father bequeathed to his son
“dust on a table full of papers”
left debts and daughters,
a bedwetting grand son
named by the toss
of a coin after him a house that leaned
slowly through (our) growing
years on a bent coconut
tree in the yard.”
The poet’s play of words in the lines
“Being the burning type
he burned properly
at the cremation
as before, easily
and at both ends.”
It evokes sarcastic tone mixed with tears and helper’s smiles. The ritualistic ceremonies and mixing of the dead person’s ashes in holy river etc. seemed meaningless to the poet who experienced a void that nothing can fill in. His father’s hopes and aspirations too died. No memorial was set up to record his achievements which are almost insignificant. Yet the poet anxiously tried to find out the two lines written about his father in the obituary column in scraps of news paper.
This shows his unbroken blood relationship or the last thread of attachment in spite of his ironic digs at the negative achievements of his father. The changed mother, a relic of his father’s death is indeed a sad remembrance of this tragic event that upset the whole family.
Generally poems written on death end with a philosophical resignation. But Ramanujan just presented the situation as it is, affecting the relationships in a realistic manner. There is a poignant undertone suggesting his father’s miserable position who left nothing to his son except debts, responsibilities and expenses for performing annual ceremonies.
Thus Ramanujan, in his quest for culture, tradition and Indian sensibility explored the theme of family relationships in multifarious ways, which gave him a base for creative use of English as well as for study of human psyche in various contexts.