A.K. Ramanujan, 1972

LaVerne Harrell Clark/University of Arizona Poetry Center/Arizona Board of Regents

A.K. Ramanujan, Tucson, Arizona, 1972

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 amenable to the kind of systematic analysis that was possible in linguistics, for example.

We became close friends, and there was a third, also present in Mysore at that moment—Velcheru Narayana Rao, the most penetrating scholar of Telugu culture in modern times. Much later, in 1989, the three of us began work on a book of translations of Telugu courtesan songs by the seventeenth-century poet Kshetrayya.1 It turned out to be Raman’s last book; he died in July 1993, aged sixty-four, months before it was published. He was poised to begin serious work on classical Telugu, a sister language of Kannada and Tamil; he had fallen under its mellifluous spell. Kshetrayya’s poems are boldly erotic, mostly spoken by courtesans who boasted that they had God himself (here called Muvva Gopala) in their sway:

How soon it’s morning already!
There’s something new in my
              Muvva Gopala.

Listening to my moans as you
touch certain spots,
the pet parrot mimics me, and O
how we laugh in bed!

You say, “Come close, my girl,”
and make love to me like a wild
                  man, Muvva Gopala,
and as I get ready to move on top,

            it’s morning already!

Both Raman and Narayana Rao were in Jerusalem in the spring of 1989 as fellows at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies. We would work late at night in one of our apartments. Raman would listen carefully as Narayana Rao recited a poem, maybe two or three times; then, together—but often following Raman’s lead, with his perfect pitch in English—we would begin to produce a first draft of the translation. Some weeks into this regimen, Raman confessed to me that he couldn’t sleep after our work sessions. Yes, of course, I said, jumping, like a fool, to the predictable conclusion. No, not that, he said—it’s the words, the words.

That was how he lived, listening moment by moment for the one exact, irreplaceable, musical phrase. Eventually he would find it, and he had the gift of waiting for it to come, along with a haunting anxiety that it would not—not to him, because he wasn’t really the right person to hear it or recognize it, because he didn’t know enough or was too distracted, or just because he was who he was. The poet’s agony, his “unkissed alien mind,” as he called it in a famous poem—yet everyone around him was continually astonished by his ear for words. He embodied the motto of the Sanskrit grammarians: if they could cut even half a syllable, they would celebrate as if at the birth of a son. That spring of 1989 was the only time I saw him happy in a more or less sustained, continuous way.


Journeys: A Poet’s Diary has been compiled and edited by Raman’s son, Krishna Ramanujan, and a scholar of his work, Guillermo Rodríguez, drawn from seventy-one boxes, containing hundreds of files, housed in the Special Collections Research Center at the Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. They have made a selection, chronologically ordered, of Raman’s diary entries, unpublished drafts of poems and essays (some of them now classics in their final forms), detailed descriptions of his dreams, wry notes on everyday happenings and interpersonal relations, introspective self-admonitions, memories, translations, scholarly insights, travel journals, confessions, and quotations from what he was reading. Interspersed with these texts are unnerving, almost too palpable black-and-white photographs of the hypersensitive South Indian boy turning into a man and the man slowly turning into Ramanujan. It makes for absorbing reading.

Yet these jottings and drafts are also bewildering, teasing, unsatisfying. Sometimes they strike home:

Cars laden with snow—boys looking like amateur actors with powder on their hair…. And a silence, as if the mouths of the world have been muffled. Only yesterday—I felt in the cold, Autumn was over—heaps and heaps of dry leaves, leaves flying driven by the currents of wind…it seemed like children noisily preparing to go to bed, washing their faces, competing to comb their hair, and tucked in, whispering to each other till at long last they are drowsy and dead asleep.

Mostly, however, Raman eludes me in these pages, where his voice is, in the phrase of the Hebrew Psalmist, “staggered like a lengthening shadow” (ketsel bintoto nehelachti, a Ramanujanian formulation if ever there was one, 109:23). The passive voice suits him; he writes about it, about “serious self-doubt and passivity” as forces that might move him to write or act:

It’s the same with conversation; someone else has to start it; I make only polite and uneasy noises. Comes from a theory (where did the theory come from?) of will-less-ness—that nothing can be willed into being, only waited on, for, or waited out.

But then comes an even more revealing sentence: “Also not to have a second consciousness, only the first, direct one (as I see in my Kannada poems).”

Turning the pages of these notebooks, wondering if Raman would have wanted them to be published, becoming more and more desperate to find some trace of the living person I knew in this surfeit of self-abrasion, I suddenly thought that maybe his perfect English was an obstacle—and that his more resonant and musical voice came through in his poems in Kannada. He liked to describe himself as the hyphen in “Indo-American,” but he also used to deny that true bilingualism exists; always, he said, one of the languages is predominant, subtler, more on target, and closer to the heart or mind. So I tried to read a few of the Kannada poems with the help of a friend, Naresh Keerthi, who is teaching me Kannada. And though I am still a rank beginner, I felt the immediacy, warmth, intimacy, and above all the mischievous musicality of Raman’s Kannada voice. It doesn’t come through very well in translation:

This little chick
for seeds
in the dung…
got it!

Even the ellipses have a gentle tone, until the final, breathtaking word sikkitu. The Kannada lines are full of k’s, enacting the chick’s pecking. One might read this slight poem together with Raman’s diary entry of December 29, 1979:

Remembering the day I heard from KB, who was then reading Plato, that the three basic values were Truth, Beauty and Goodness. It was a revelation, a clarity, a settling. A temporary end to groping. I didn’t know then that I’d have to choose even between these three, and that I’d have to unlearn all my capital letters and singulars…. Soon after that, I read and re-read the Diotima passage in Plato’s Symposium, where he talked about the small and beautiful things and persons of this world and how one goes up a ladder of abstractions from them to Beauty, singular, capital, out of this world. I could never find that ladder.

Maybe it was a Kannada ladder that he needed most, one leading to that first, direct consciousness and not, after all, to abstraction. It’s as if English, which he loved, was nonetheless a language of exile, too seductive for his cool, analytical self. Strict intellection can exact a price: the anthropologist Don Handelman, another close friend of Raman’s, has said it was his precision that killed him (far too soon). His personal life was chaotic, though (or perhaps because) he was a deeply lovable person, as well as restless, quizzical, unsatisfied. I have a note from him in his strangely minute, careful hand from about a year before he died. He writes, as a kind of afterthought:


For the umpteenth time, I’ve begun Sanskrit, this time with [the great epic] Ramayana (my father’s 6 volumes with Tamil glosses, that I’ve carried around in the hope of reading it). It says in the Preface it’s meant for “Brahmin boys ignorant of Sanskrit”—in search of father-surrogates.

Then he recalls reading some verses from the text with me in Jerusalem and ironically salutes me as his guru.

But of course he already knew Sanskrit; only, like many others, he didn’t know that he knew it, never having been trained in the rigors of its grammar by a traditional scholar. So Sanskrit is not included in his triad of languages to be negotiated at any given moment:

Three languages: to use and reconcile these three has been my full-time occupation: write in English, and some in Kannada; translate from both Kannada and Tamil into English; and to write in such a way that my English or Kannada or Tamil are not sealed from each other. Yet the language of writing, not a matter of choice…. A poem doesn’t come in the abstract to ask you, “You know three languages, in which will you write me?” Like a village goddess appearing in people’s dreams, they appear fully clothed and screaming in your and her mother tongue, or whatever tongue brings her into being. Then you have to coax and bargain and wait and work hard, even kill a goat or two, to make her present, not only to yourself but to others in the village.

That village goddess was essential; and she apparently demanded not only new poems but translations, which Raman sometimes described as his preferred mode. He said that he liked having the older brother—the original poem—there to keep him company; even his name, he would say, defined him as a younger brother (anuja in Sanskrit: Ramanuja is thus named for Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana, again in the epic). So translation could momentarily temper his loneliness—and he knew, always, just how to do it, where to take an imaginative leap that brought the poem to life without departing from its literal phrasing.

There was, of course, much more to the man than this constant inner chorus of complementary and competing languages. He was a true scholar, though he would have denied it. I think the mathematics he inherited from his father and the physics he studied in college were still alive in his mature work on Kannada folktales, in his studies of Tamil dialects, and in the structuralist-semiotic readings (natural to his generation in America, now a little dated) of classical South Indian texts. He gave South Asianists conceptual tools that we now take for granted: the broad application of linguistic distinctions to cultural domains, for example; or the drive to explore women’s sensibilities in narratives, poems, and in life, in and out of the home; or the deeply insightful readings of the great South Indian stories as paradigms of psychic maturation, always culminating in the moment when a traumatized heroine is able to recount her experience to a character capable of hearing it. He formulated questions of far-reaching consequence, as in his famous essay “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” (the answer he gives, subtly inflected in relation to a wealth of material, is yes).

And along with all of this, there was his impish and impulsive side that so often triumphed over darker modes of feeling and self-awareness. Those who knew him well knew that side, too. These aspects of his nature came together in whatever he wrote and, in particular, I think, in his miraculous translations.

Ramanujan’s great masterpiece of translation, The Interior Landscape, was first published in 1967. It offers a selection of seventy-six love poems from ancient Tamil—specifically from the anthology Kuruntokai, which has four hundred short, hard-hitting verses. Raman was, without question, the one who made this literature known to the wider world after he discovered its riches by chance, while browsing one weekend in the Harper Library at the University of Chicago. Here is one poem from it, no. 222, to show something of the translator’s method:

What He Said about her and her friend

If her girl-friend should take the head of the raft
my girl will also take the head.
If the rear
my girl will take the rear.
And if her friend should let go
and go with the stream,
it looks as if
she will go too.

    Her eyes are cool, full-bodied
   buds of the dewy rain flower
   streaked with red,
   and she is the new leaf
   in the rain.

The poet is Ciraikkutiyantaiyar (one of those endless Tamil names). He may have lived in one of the early centuries AD; we can’t say for sure. This poem belongs to what is called akam, the category of innerness or “in-ness,” which mostly means love, in distinction from the class of heroic war poems known as puram, “outer-ness.” Both akam and puram come with a poetic grammar that signals to the reader who knows it various suggestive possibilities hidden, like hints in a treasure hunt, in the individual poem.

A.K. Ramanujan, 1980

Estate of A.K. Ramanujan

A.K. Ramanujan, Chicago, late 1980s

For example, this poem, deceptively simple, clearly belongs to the rainy season, when the rain flower, pittakam, a kind of jasmine, blossoms in the hills of the Tamil land. Both the season and the hilly landscape (called mullai, another variety of jasmine) tell us that the mood of the poem is one of “patient waiting.” There are two lovers, a young man and a girl, who have met and, at least according to that ancient grammar, already consummated their “stolen love” (kalavu). But now what happens? There is no question, as yet, of proceeding toward a marriage. In fact, there is good reason to think that the boy will disappear, perhaps go off to seek his fortune in some distant place. Most Tamil love poems are about separation and the longing it inspires, in varying intensities.

In this poem, the young man is speaking. He has seen his girl playing in the water with her girlfriend. They are, he says to himself, very much alike; his beloved constantly imitates her friend’s actions. Observing this, the young man thinks to himself that this girlfriend might be the perfect go-between or love messenger, helpful, for example, in setting up a nocturnal tryst (the relationship has to be kept secret from the girl’s family). Such, in any case, is how the old colophon appended to this poem deciphers its place in the standardized sequence of lovers’ meeting followed by patient waiting, which is followed by impatient waiting and then by more extreme forms of loss and loneliness.

But this information, while not entirely irrelevant, misses the main point of the poem. The male lover has been secretly observing his beloved. Maybe he’s a bit confused, frustrated, or scared. He’s noticed something important. The girl seems restrained, even docile; she is waiting for him, and she’ll go on waiting—probably good news for him, in his indecisive state. But he’s also seen that, given the chance, she’ll “let go/and go with the stream.” He may be wondering if he can do that. The whole poem, with this observation at its heart, is about not holding back in love. Raman’s translation captures this with the two lines I’ve just cited. “Let go” is one of those irreplaceable phrases, totally expressive in everyday English and occupying a space near the center point of the verse as he has parsed and mapped it spatially.

And what about the girl? The last three lines of the Tamil show her to us clearly, at the start of the rainy season. First, we get a lingering glimpse of her eyes, which are streaked with red, a sign of beauty in a Tamil woman; but maybe they’re also red from swimming, or from crying. Actually, they are said to be raining, mazhaikkan (hence “cool,” usually a good thing in South India). They’re also full-bodied, or maybe long, their edges dripping (kozhun katai in the Tamil). Raman has carefully preserved the sense in the original that the eyes are not like jasmine buds, they are those buds, which also means that they carry that jasmine-based overtone of patient longing and anticipation.

But I think the translator’s genius comes through most clearly in his last two lines in English, which reproduce the final—untranslatable—line of the Tamil: tulitalait talaiiya talir annole. You should be able to hear, in the sequence of t’s, the raindrops falling sadly one by one. They are falling on her. We can see her, as the lover or the poet does, in her unique loveliness. Something about those last two lines in the English is intensely moving. I think it has to do with the definite article “the”: “and she is the new leaf/in the rain.”

Tamil has no definite article. Raman has added one. Maybe no one else would have thought to do it. That simple “the” carries the whole weight of this woman’s singularity. Every new leaf is unique, like every love. That’s why one has to let go, and why it’s a sin not to. That is the level of hearing that Raman was capable of and that none of us has been able to approach. I am reminded of Isaac Babel’s sentence, in his remarkable story “Guy de Maupassant,” an essay in its own right on translation: “No iron can penetrate the human heart to such icy effect as a period placed at the right moment.”

Raman brought this gift even to ordinary conversations, usually riddled with startling, quick-witted bon mots. Once he was standing in line for food at one of the MacArthur meetings (he won a MacArthur fellowship in 1983). The person standing in front of him in the line turned around and introduced himself, as happens in those circumstances: “I’m an astro-physicist working on particles.” To which Raman replied, “I’m an astro-Tamilist working on participles.” “Astro-Tamilist” is a good self-definition for this man who inhabited the vast, scary spaces of sounds and syllables, who mastered the magic of combining those intimate quivers into lines so sharp it hurts to hear them:

With a whole temple
in this body,
where’s the need
for another?

No one asked
             for two.

O Lord of the Caves,
if you are stone,
what am I?

  1. 1

    When God Is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others, edited and translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao, and David Shulman (University of California Press, 1994). 

  2. 2

    Allama Prabhu 213, in Speaking of Siva, translated by A.K. Ramanujan (Penguin, 1973).