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A.K. Ramanujan’s travels in mind and body

  • A former student of A.K. Ramanujan tries to find her beloved teacher in his newly published diaries
  • A deeply private man, Ramanujan’s diaries reveal the making of a poet and scholar

Ramanujan was a deeply private man. ©Estate of AK Ramanujan
Ramanujan was a deeply private man. ©Estate of AK Ramanujan

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How do we approach the diaries of someone we know? What do we expect the diaries to reveal—will they confirm something we had suspected all along, like a love affair, or a fear of the dark? Will we find ourselves in there via a clever remark that might have been recorded and sparked a thought, or as a footnote to some greater and more profound conversation? Will we learn the truth about a bitter rivalry that we knew existed but that was always brushed under the rug?

A.K. Ramanujan was my teacher at the University of Chicago between 1984-89 and we met on his yearly trips to India until his death in 1993. And so I looked for all these things in his newly published (and heavily edited) diaries. I looked for whether he had made an entry on the day I was born, when he would have been in his 30s and on the verge of coming to the US, where he did almost all his significant work across the fields of translation, South Asian Studies and literature. He hadn’t. I also looked for thoughts and ideas and insights I was already familiar with, that he had shared in the classroom with me and so many other students and colleagues. In short, I was looking for the Ramanujan I knew—out of affection and respect, out of a debt of gratitude for a teacher who had laid the foundation of my intellectual life, and to reassure myself that I had, indeed, shared some kind of intimacy with one of the greatest minds of our times.

Having finally put my ego aside, I did find in Journeys the Ramanujan I knew —the curious mind, the probing intellect, the sharp insight, and, as always, the powerfully persuasive and gently seductive words.

Ramanujan had the capacity to see through language, to the structures of texts that lay beneath, to the mutability of poetics, to the description of a person that could be a meditation on the world. His sweetly worded phrase about himself, as the hyphen in Indian-American, is testament to his eloquence as a poet, as a scholar of linguistics and as a philosopher of the human condition at the end of the 20th century. All this and more is brought to us in this volume.

Journeys is edited by Ramanujan’s son Krishna and Guillermo Rodriguez, a recent Ramanujan scholar (his study, When Mirrors Are Windows, was published by the Oxford University Press in 2016)—a perfect combination, as Girish Karnad says in his Foreword, of insider and outsider, of the subjective and the objective seeker.

Ramanujan started keeping a diary in his late teenage years because he felt that’s what poets did. Later, this documentation of the inner self became a “journal of ideas”, less personal, more cerebral, more directed towards recording what might become useful in his work, rather than a portrait of the inner self. With this switch, we lose access to much of the vulnerability and self-doubt that Ramanujan displays when he was thinking about who he wanted to be.

Krishna and Rodriguez have worked hard to match early thoughts and images with later poems which would spin the mundane and the nascent into the gold of poetry. There are unpublished poems in English, and there is a short story, obviously written by a very young man in thrall of the idea of being a writer. This story and some of the early poems are a faint whisper of the assured, though never loud, voice that was still years away. Journeys also contains the account of Ramanujan’s much-publicized and greedily-read mescaline experience, with all its self-consciousness and attendant preciousness. In the early part of his trip, he listens to music (Brahms) and tries to write down what he can see and feel. It is reassuring that Ramanujan behaves exactly like the rest of us who have tried to watch the self during an altered state, and, to my mind, he is just as earnestly unsuccessful. Of course, it is true that the poetry produced even by a somewhat debilitated Ramanujan is infinitely superior to that produced by lesser mortals in any state of consciousness.

Journeys is at its most charming in Ramanujan’s early years, in Mysuru as a student and then in various southern universities as a young professor. Here, we see a young man, not ambitious, but determined to break out of the small world into which he has been born. As we delight in the picnics he goes off on with his male friends and in the stilted flirtations with women he feels attracted to on a trip to the Himalayas, we are also seeing a young nation reaching for something more, seeking validation in the tentative steps it’s taking towards a larger world of potential and promise.

It is no surprise that so much of Ramanujan’s poetry comes back to these early years, with either a startling image or a sweet nostalgia, for, despite his extensive travels in mind and body, it is this past that is the emotional, cultural and linguistic place that is the wellspring of all his work—the translations of the Kannada vachanas (Bhakti verses) which he began so early, his own Kannada poetry, the exquisitely structured and delicate translations of Tamil Sangam poems, the collections of predominantly south Indian folk tales. Even in his essays, he often returns to his parents, who become metaphors for a culture in transition.

The Ramanujan I knew in real life was a deeply private man, even though he insisted, after a period of sustained contact, that some of his students call him Raman. Raman hid behind his grey suit, his oversize spectacles that magnified his already large eyes, his enormous erudition, his soft voice, the polished gems of his words, both spoken and written. Despite the eager and determined honesty of the early diaries, Raman remains hidden in these accounts of himself. Yes, we do become more familiar with the intellectual and the poet, but these are both personae that Raman carefully cultivated and constructed in word and deed. This volume of delicately balanced entries faithfully endorses those personae and adds resonances to all of Ramanujan’s works in English.

I refuse to be disappointed by the fact that we never reach the “real” Ramanujan in Journeys. This is the way he wanted us all to know him, in his life and after his death. However incomplete, everything that Raman has given us is immeasurably precious. Our best thanks to him would be to embrace his legacy of a resonant chorus of voices that speak to us about who we were and who we might be.

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