Poetry, A.K. Ramanujan used to say, can never be heard, only overheard. His own poems were often like eavesdropping on a rich, frequently sad, very private conversation, with several disparate and incongruous voices. And while Ramanujan honed his poems to something approaching perfection, with each syllable accounted for, in some sense they are like his diary notes to himself, light with ellipses, thus not quite finished. In one such note, he writes on November 9, 1979: “Maybe publish a journal of ideas, a writer’s notebook with no pretensions.” This thought is embedded in a candid paragraph filled with self-doubt and self-laceration:
As a writer or thinker, I’m quite an amateur. At fifty this is appalling, because I’m surrounded by professionals whom I envy, admire…. One of the first fears of ageing, I’m sure, of being unexpressed, of having missed the boat, therefore of not belonging, and so of not wanting to belong, to withdraw and hide, to struggle with disappointment in oneself, or do small things that one guards and resents.
This from one of the strongest, most original South Asian minds of the twentieth century.
I first met Raman (as he was usually called by friends) in 1980 in Mysore. We were at a conference of folklorists, linguists, and philologists convened by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, which housed the participants in the old hunting lodge of the Mysore rajahs, deep in the Karnataka countryside. When we were introduced, I had trouble connecting this soft-spoken, shy man with the great linguist, translator, poet, and scholar whom I knew from his books. He was physically slight, on the edge of invisibility except for burning black eyes.
He was, however, on home ground: he had grown up in a Tamil-speaking Brahmin family in Mysore, and Kannada, the language of Karnataka, was one of his three languages—he wrote poems in Kannada and English but never, I think, in Tamil, his mother tongue, or mother’s tongue. His father was a famous mathematician (not Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was “discovered” and brought to Cambridge by G.H. Hardy) and also an expert Sanskritist and astrologer. I was struck that summer by an air of mild, ironic melancholy that seemed to envelop Raman, though he told me that he was always a little more at ease (even almost happy) in India than in Chicago, where he had been living and teaching since 1961. Along with the melancholy came a paradox, the first of many, for though he was one of the finest folklorists of his generation, a collector and luminous interpreter of exquisite oral texts, he often told me that he had no faith in the study of folklore as an academic discipline; he felt its corpus was amorphous, even unreal, and in any case not…
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