Krishna Ramanujan and Guillermo Rodriguez offer us another volume about A.K. Ramanujan—poet, translator, scholar—that draws from his papers, which were bequeathed to the University of Chicago, where he spent most of his teaching life. Those years were undoubtedly the most productive in terms of his output and the most significant in terms of his legacy. Ramanujan’s death was untimely and unexpected: there can be no doubt that he still had much to say, much was left incomplete, much had barely begun. We will always wonder what other pathways his probing intelligence and adventurous imagination would have opened up for us all.
Soma: Poems by A.K. Ramanujan
So, it is good that we have two individuals dedicated to the excavation of what he left behind—Krishna is Ramanujan’s son and Guillermo is a scholar who came to Ramanujan’s work after the poet had died. This is the second volume from the two working together (they previously published Journeys: A Poet’s Diary, 2019), sorting through his notes, diaries, and unpublished works and putting them together along with commentatorial materials to give us a fuller understanding of Ramanujan’s splendid oeuvre. The combination of the critical-scholarly and intimate-personal perspectives works well, placing the poems as a jeweller would gems, in a setting that ensures they sparkle to their best.
This volume contains 22 “Soma” poems that Ramanujan wrote in the 1970s and early 1980s, between the publication of his two other poetry collections, Relations (1971) and Second Sight (1986), and around the same time as his great flowering as a translator. “Speaking of Siva” and “Hymns for the Drowning”, from Kannada and Tamil respectively, exploded on to the scene, changing not only the trajectory of Ramanujan’s academic (and perhaps poetic) life but also challenging established modes of study in contemporary Indology.
“Among the many mysteries and experiences that these poems present, the most alluring is the mystery of the soma, which seems to have been a plant that opened up the mind to new ways of seeing and thinking.”
Ramanujan was born in 1929, so the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s would have been what one considers the middle of life. Perhaps, during this time, Ramanujan was also tentatively inhabiting the existential middle he had assigned to himself, the hyphen in the descriptor “Indian-American”. Either way, the context of the Soma poems suggests that he was exploring two times and two spaces, two types of mental and emotional landscapes, letting them speak to each other through “permeable membranes”, an eloquent phrase he used elsewhere to talk about how gently and constantly and imperceptibly things influence each other to affect a synthesis.
Ramanujan’s diaries tell us that he, like many others of his generation, especially poets and writers, experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. He writes pages through a mescaline trip, some of it coherent, some of it fragmentary, all of it sensory and curious and trying to comprehend what his simultaneously racing and still mind was experiencing. This book tells us that he was also, at the time, reading the Rig Veda, that vast compendium of poems that are the first literary expressions we have from the subcontinent.
Ecstasy and wonder
Among the many mysteries and experiences that these poems present, the most alluring is the mystery of the soma, which seems to have been a plant that opened up the mind to new ways of seeing and thinking—warriors used it to feel heroic, seers used it to penetrate layers of reality, it was the secret of shamans, it produced waves of ecstasy and wonder. What poet would not want to seek out that experience.
“Cannot stand nor sit/ for the returning stillness/ of my walking,/ the fury of my sitting quiet./ Nor sleep nor wake/ from the one-legged sleep/ on this frozen Chicago lake/ of yachts in full sail,/ herons/ playing at sages” (“Soma: He cannot sit nor go”, p. 71).
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The poems we read in the book are, apparently, drafts; it is not clear whether Ramanujan was ready to publish them as they were and whether or not they were intended to form a stand-alone collection. But we can see from the short poem above how he was refracting (as he himself might have said) his mind-altering moments and his own poetic vision. The winter landscape of northern America is followed immediately by the heron who inhabits the desolate marutam landscape of classical Tamil poetics and also evokes a common Indian idiom of the false ascetic (the heron who stands on one leg to fool the fish is like the charlatan who pretends asceticism by standing on one leg). All of these elements, their interior and exterior landscapes, combine to bring us closer to the restless lover, separated from their beloved who might have deceived them with another.
The Soma poems are embedded, in this book, among critical essays with copious notes and annotations, producing a text that might be considered heavy-handed in terms of interpretation. You might feel that you do not have the pleasure of reading the poems for yourself, of seeking out their subtle meanings and insights, of savouring their images, imagining what the poet was thinking or whence he might have drawn his inspirations. If you have that problem, there is a very simple solution: just read the poems, do not read the “stuff” that you think is getting in your way. But do read the poems—they speak with anguish, compassion, humour, doubt, certainty, love, melancholy.
Ramanujan’s voice has a gentle, persuasive appeal: how do we find meaning in the absence of god, is there a way to inhabit a coherent and complete self, why are we here, and if there is a here, what else is there? The Soma poems seem to have compacted these questions and generated an urgency for them to be voiced, if not answered. Despite the feeling that some of the poems were not polished to the gleaming perfection Ramanujan typically sought for his all his writing, these poems, these uncut gems, are also his. We are all the richer for having them.
Arshia Sattar is a scholar, writer, and translator who works with the myths and storytelling traditions of South Asia.