THE EXPATRIATE SENSIBILITY OF A.K.RAMANUJAN
DR. V. Ayothi
While talking about the Indian expatriate poets, Bruce king aptly remarks
Indian expatriate poets do not write from the position of a distinct foreign community, such as the exiled black or West Indian novelists, but their writing reflects the perspective of someone between two cultures. They may look back on India with nostalgia, satirically celebrating their liberation or asserting their biculturalism, but they also look skeptically and wryly on their new home land as outsiders, with a feeling of something having been lost in the process of growth. The ability to tolerate, accommodate and absorb other cultures without losing the consciousness of being Indian marks the expatriate poets. (209 - 10)
Bruce King refers to Ramanujan’s ability to live peacefully in two different worlds-- the world of his self and memory which is ‘within’ him and the world of the present which is ‘without’ and explains that the core of the essential self remains as an inner world, but this is modified by changed circumstances and decisions (215).
A. K. Ramanujan himself endorses this view when he says, you can not entirely live in the past, neither can you entirely live in the present, because we are not like that. We are both these things. The past never passes. Either the individual past or historical past or cultural past. It is with us, it is what gives us the richness of -- what you call it -- the richness of understanding. And the richness of expression. (Jha 5)
To express it in the words of E. N. Lall Ramanujan’s poems take their origin in a mind that is simultaneously Indian and Western -- Indian mode of experiencing an emotion and the western mode of defining it (44).
As a third world expatriate poet, Ramanujan, unlike his western counterparts who are keen to escape the society which has lost its’ values, hails from a social background noted for its familial bonds, communal and religious harmony--a rich tradition in fact. He has also carried with him his cultural roots from India and therefore his works do not contain, elements of existential rootlessness, which is a predominant factor in the works of the unity of his migration.
As Ramunajan was alive to the sharp difference between the enriching culture and tradition of India and the west, his sense of nostalgia got intensified with passing years. The readers are driven to juxtapose the “Spiritual community-oriented, tolerant value system of India and the materialistic, individualistic, racist, power-hungry exploitative system of the west (Kirpa15),” The myth of the white man’s superiority probably becomes meaningless. And hence, the poet goes back with renewed spirit and vigour to his people and his country. Therefore, a major theme of Ramanujan’s poetry has been his obsession with the familial and racial past and memory always plays a vital and creative role.
The formative influence of religion which provided him a system to know the meaning of life is rich in him because he grew up in a traditional middle class Southern Hindu Brahmin family. He retained his faith in the Hindu philosophy of the Unity Consciousness. His acceptance of the oneness of all life is evident from his poem “Christmas”:
For a moment, I no
Leaf from parrot
Or branch from root
nor, for that matter
from you or me. (S 30-31)
The man, the tree the parrot possess identical creative impulses and therefore they must be considered as expressions of the same erective force. Though the western tradition also accepts God as the creator of the universe, it seems to maintain the dichotomy between Man and Nature and Man and lower creations like animals and birds. Though Wordsworth could, for instance, find a “Lurking soul” within the “meanest flower”, he could not equate it with the human soul. To him and to poets like Robert Frost, the objects of nature, however closer they may be to the life of man, cannot become ‘the man’.
This kind of difference between the oriental and occidental traditions is also emphasized further through the tree image in the same poem. The bare leafless tree standing outside his window in the USA and the lively tree seen out of his window in India which is more than a mere “stiff geometrical shape” are images that bring to his mind the two different cultures. After his death the poet desires to “rise in the sap of trees” and “feel the weight / of honey - hives in my branching / and the burlap weave of weaver - birds in my hair.” (“A Hindu to his Body” R 9). The oneness of life could be illustrated through the example of the sap. Though the sap itself is a colourless pigment, it creates all colours and all colours converge into one creative source.
Ramanujan is not blind to certain superstitious aspects of his religion. The Hindu principle of non-violence sometimes reminds of cowardice to the poet who has lived in a country known for rationality, dynamism, fast scientific and technological growth and violence. There is the danger of the principle degenerating into callousness and indifference in actual practice. As the Hindu is not expected to hurt a fly or a spider, his great grandfather remained a helpless victim of and silent spectator to the adultery of his wife. (“The Hindu: He Doesn’t Hurt a fly or a Spider either”). In his poem “Obituary” (R) he recalls his father’s death, and comments ironically on rituals and ceremonies associated with the cremation of the dead.
In “Love Poem for a Wife I” Ramanujan, in a mock - serious tone pulls up the Hindus who
betroth us before birth,
forestalling separate horoscopes
and mother’s first periods,
and wed us in the oral cradle
and carry marriage into
the namelessness of childhoods .
Incidentally he also refers to the Egyptians who
……….had it right:
their kings had sisters for queens
to continue the incests
of childhood into marriage.
As an expatriate writer, Ramanujan is a ‘teacher’ and he does not revolt against his society like the western counterpart.
The revolutionary zeal which permeates the poetry of the West like those of Shelley and Byron for instance, and the humanistic vision or the social concern and commitment found in their poetry is totally missing in him.
Expatriation has not caused any setback in his growth as an artist because he has not lost touch with his mother country. The mother figure also remains a dominant figure. In “Of
Mothers, among other things” (R) he depicts the bond between his mother and himself, which is prevalent in all traditional societies. The poet “Smell (s) upon this twisted / back bone tree silk and white / petal of my mother’s youth.” Suddenly, he realizes that “the silk and white petal” of her youth has changed and now she has become old and “her sarees / do not cling: they hang, loose / feather of a one - time wing.” Viney Kirpal (78), while writing about Third World expatriate fiction says that Oedipal, incestuous impulses are implicit in the tug that the son feels towards his mother and motherland. He has the usual love - hate relationship with his motherland which characterizes intense relationships. Some times, she is a figure of awe and authority; at other times she is the mother, the only home and only companion as in the case of A. K. Ramanujan. The journey motive that is predominant in Third World expatriate writings could be perceived here at the level of the mind. The poet’s mind often undertaking a ‘pilgrimage’ to the mother or motherland. And the constant movement represents transition from one mode of being to another.
Ramanujan’s expatriate sensibility includes an objective and accurate portrayal of both countries - particularly the native country. In his poem “A River” he gives minute details about the nature of the river and the condition of the bridge across it and so on. While many poets of the past and present sang only about the floods and presented a romantic and idealistic picture and called it a creative force initiating life on earth, Ramanujan offers information about the other side of the picture by explaining the destructive nature. While admitting that the river in Madurai “has water enough / to be poetic / about only once a year”, he is alive to the fact that
it carries away
in the first half - hour
three village houses
a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda
and one pregnant woman
expecting identical twins
with no mole on their bodies
with different - coloured diapers
to tell them apart.
By showing the river as a preserver and destroyer, the poet gives a complete picture. The havoc caused by floods and drought suggested by the “sand - ribs”, runs contrary to the poetic myth - making tendency of Tamil poets who ignored reality and the poem itself, as Bruce remarks, is an attempt to debunk the romanticization of traditional Tamil culture. (210)
In the poetic sensibility of A. K. Ramanujan, we find a coalesces of the East and the West - the inner world of his Indian heritage and experience and the objectivity and accuracy of the Western poetic tradition. Though his memory is sharp and his vision of Indian society is comprehensive he cannot be called a nostalgic traditionalist. Though he was alive to western modes of expression, changes and attitudes, we cannot conclude that he accepted them fully and advocated modernisation and westernization. As in the case of several expatriates, Ramanujan’s works include nostalgia, inwardness, documentary realism; but there is no idealization and the vision does not become dark inspite of the ironic and satiric tone.
Textual Note: References to the source appear in parenthesis within the text. The following editions of A. K. Ramanujan’s works have been used for the present study:
The Striders London: OUP, 1966.
The Relations London: OUP, 1971.
The abbreviations of titles are used as noted below:
The Striders (S)
The Relations (R)
Works Cited Jha, Rama , “A Conversation with A.K. Ramanujan”, The Humanities Review. Vol. 3, No. 1, January - June 1981, pp 5 - 13
King, Bruce . Modern Indian Poetry in English. Delhi: OUP, 1987.
Kirpal, Viney. The Third World Novel of Expatriation, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1989.
Lall, E. N. “Beyond Poetry as Family History”, The Poetry of Encounter. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1983. PP. 42 - 64
‘No endeavour is in vain
Its reward is in the doing
And the rapture of pursuing
Is the prize the vanquished gain’
–H. W. LONGFELLOW
‘Every character is a synthetic product. I took Sophia, ground her up with Tania, and what emerged was Natash’.